May 5, 2002
Can't Take It With You...
Narco-Dictator Hugo Banzer of Bolivia
May 10, 1926 -
May 5, 2002
Narco News '02
The Narco News
with Father Gregorio
II of a Series
By Luis A. Gómez
Andean Bureau Chief
The Narco News Andean
Bureau recently interviewed Catholic Priest Gregorio Iriarte
in Cochabamba, Bolivia during the discussions by representatives
of Civil Society to forge a new path in the war on drugs. Iriarte
is the man the bishop put in charge of studying narco-trafficking
issues years ago and one of the most informed experts on the
Narco News: Father, could you give us a wider explanation
of what you call the coca-cocaine circuit?
Gregorio Iriarte: All the pressure that the United States Embassy,
above all, makes is against this view. However, we must distinguish,
because within this circuit there are debatable aspects, legal
aspects and frankly illegal aspects. Thus, not all of it can
be condemned. In the first place, there is the cultivation of
coca leaf, that has always been legal in Bolivia. In second place,
comes the sulfate, that is to say, generally in Bolivia what
is done is that holes are dug in the ground, ditches about one
meter deep, lined with plastic. There, the coca leaf is mixed
with the chemical precursors, that generally include kerosene
or ether, and they mix it, making a species of whitish paste;
this is the sulfate. But in the international nomenclature this
is also called cocaine, but it is not cocaine. The cocaine is
a hydrochloride. The level of illegality and the level of damage
caused to people by the sulfate are minimum by comparison.
Many times it is said, for example, "they've
seized 20 kilos of cocaine." No, it's not cocaine, I insist,
it is sulfate, the first step in the process. And the second
step is the production of cocaine, but this requires a true chemical
factory. And Bolivia has never controlled this step in the process.
The Colombians have controlled it: the Ochoa family, the Escobars,
and others connected with narco-trafficking.
They have to get this powder to the market
in the United States and Europe, which is where it really happens.
Well, the Colombians are also the ones who do this. In Bolivia,
I have not seen practically any who have put sent the drug to
the market there. If something like that happened it would be
through working with the Colombians. Bolivia produces the raw
material, but in sum I think it is important to distinguish between
sulfate and cocaine because the sulfate doesn't have the negative
effects that cocaine has. It doesn't bring the same profit. And
it is not defined as an illegal substance in this country, although
the U.S. Embassy places it in the same suit.
Narco News: During your presentation in the seminary, you
spoke of the compensation that Bolivia has received for the economic
losses caused by the eradication of coca...
Gregorio Iriarte: This is the second aspect. In recent years more
than 30,000 hectares of coca crops have been eradicated, and
we would have had, directly or indirectly, more than 200,000
people who made their living off of that, with the profits well
distributed. A few years ago, the income from this activity represented
8.5 percent of the Gross National Product of Bolivia. Now it
represents approximately 0.6 percent. That is to say, it's very
connected to the economic crisis in the country right now and
has had en enormous impact on society. One thing that calls our
attention is that the government has accepted this loss without
asking for any truly balanced compensation
aspect is that for seven years the United States has put a lot
of pressure on Bolivia to accept a Draconian law known as Law
This is what has provoked many people to go to jail,
many times for crimes that are not proved, where instead of the
State having to prove their guilt, they have to prove their innocence
And this is what that law says. It's against not only the Constitution
but against the most fundamental basis of law.
Narco News: And how is this reflected in the current policies
of the government?
Gregorio Iriarte: Well, for example, the government contracted 500
mercenaries to fight against narco-trafficking, against the blockades
by the coca growers. The mercenaries committed many abuses. The
government calls them "reservists," but they are mercenaries.
A species of psychosis-of-war has been created
Narco News: And in this society, how are the economic effects
of narco-trafficking perceived?
Gregorio Iriarte: What the farmer receives for the coca leaf, although
it is more than he's going to receive from alternative development
products (like banana or pineapple) does not make him rich. It's
at a level in which the poverty is obvious. The people are very
malnourished. That is to say, others have made the money. There
has never been a study of which families or groups have been
the beneficiaries of narco-trafficking. There is a connection
with the police, yes, a lot of corruption also, and many of the
politicians are narco-connected too, but it is very difficult
to detect them. I think that the government of Banzer was very
connected, beginning with his wife
The case of the Italian,
Marino Diodato, is often spoken about; he is married to Banzer's
niece and linked to the Italian mafias, but there was no investigation
and nobody was convicted for it. But Banzer had already had an
intimate friend who he named prefect of the state of Santa Cruz
during the dictatorship and he was very connected to narco-trafficking.
Later he was killed over fights between narcos and nothing more
was known about the case
This should have been investigated,
but all the journalists have been, I think, very afraid to look
into that world.
Narco News: And what about legalization?
Gregorio Iriarte: Well, yes. But we must take into account the effects
of the drugs. For example, the effects of cocaine sulfate have
not been studied. I think that the world will have evolve in
It's about, in reality, an economic and commercial
question, not one of health in the world.
Narco News: Thank you, Father, go with God. Next in the series,
we will speak a while with a colleague from Perú
Next in Part III:
The Narco News Interview
with Journalist Roger
more Narco News, click
Truth vs. a Fundamentalist Drug War