Argentine judiciary criminalizes an age-old custom

A federal court ruled for pre-trial detention in the case of a young Bolivian who was buying coca leaves for a festival. He has been held in a maximum-security federal prison for a month.

José Luís Zurita was arrested in August of this year while purchasing coca leaves for a Bolivian community celebration. Federal Judge Marcelo Martinez de Giorgi charged him with alleged “possession of raw material intended for production of narcotics” and ordered pre-trial detention in the case.

CELS presented a brief before Federal Criminal and Correctional Court No. 5, indicating that the case must be approached with respect for cultural diversity and human rights. In the brief, we explained that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the narcotics law itself, since 1989, provides that “the possession and consumption of coca leaves in their natural state intended for chewing or use as an infusion shall not be deemed possession or consumption of narcotics.”

The judiciary has criminalized the age-old practice of chewing coca, a custom deeply rooted in Andean cultures for the leaves’ medicinal and energizing properties, which the World Health Organization has recognized. Nor was the court able to prove that the purpose of the leaves in this case was for cocaine production, which could not have been possible given the small quantity. Furthermore, the City Police searched a car and private residence without a court order, in violation of constitutional guarantees.

The young man has been unjustifiably held in detention for over a month. The courts must put an end to the criminal pursuit of Zurita.

*Note: On October 3, Chamber II of the Federal Criminal and Correctional Court sustained in a resolution that the alleged crime could not be proven. It furthermore ruled a lack of merit in the Zurita case and called for his release.