Bolivian coca leaf growers storm market after week-long dispute

La Paz (AFP) –

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Thousands of Bolivian coca leaf growers on Monday stormed the country's main coca market in La Paz following violent clashes with security forces.

The Adepcoca market has been the center of a dispute between two groups of coca growers -- one loyal to the government, the other opponents -- since last week.

Some 90 percent of Bolivia's legal coca leaf business worth $173 million a year passes through the Adepcoca market, according to UN figures.

The dispute centers around who should control the market.

Last week, the group loyal to and supported by the government ousted an opposition figure to take control of the premises.

Several thousand anti-government coca growers from Bolivia's Yungas region seized control of the market
Several thousand anti-government coca growers from Bolivia's Yungas region seized control of the market LUIS GANDARILLAS AFP

Armin Lluta claimed he was held hostage for hours and beaten up by the government-backed group before they took control of the market.

Clashes between coca leaf growers and security forces began at midday on Monday, AFP reporters said.

Dozens of riot police were stationed in front of the market but despite firing off numerous rounds of tear gas, they were forced to retreat by protesters, who threw stones, posts and fireworks at officers.

Two protesters and two members of the security forces were injured in the clashes.

"Yungas together, we'll never be defeated," chanted the coca leaf growers as they took control of the market.

The Las Yungas region has been a major coca leaf producer since before the region was ruled by the Inca Empire in the 15th century.

It's people have a long-standing gripe with the governing Movement for Socialism (MAS) party that commands much of its support amongst other indigenous people.

Las Yungas enjoyed a monopoly on legal coca leaf growing until 2017 when then-president Evo Morales of MAS legalized coca production in his home Cochabamba region.

Dozens of police were stationed in front of the market but, despite firing off numerous rounds of tear gas, were forced to retreat
Dozens of police were stationed in front of the market but, despite firing off numerous rounds of tear gas, were forced to retreat LUIS GANDARILLAS AFP

Coca leaf is the main ingredient used to produce cocaine but it has been used for other purposes -- such as in religious practices, to make a herbal infusion, or to chew -- for hundreds of years.