|English | Español||March 24, 2018 | Issue #34|
Monitoring the Drug War in Bolivia
An Interview with Kathryn Ledebur
By Baylen Linnekin
Photo: Baylen Linnekin D.R. 2004
Before her time at AIN, Ledebur studied Andean History at La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Quito, Ecuador. She has collaborated with many human-rights and drug-policy organizations in the United States, including the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS); and here in Latin America, including the Bolivian human rights ombudsman, coca-growers´ unions, and the Catholic Church.
Ledebur, a US citizen, lives in Cochabamba with her family. I sat down with her in the AIN offices in Cochabamba to ask her about coca, indigenous people, the drug war, Plan Dignidad, alternative development, human rights, and a host of other issues.
Narco News: Can you give a few examples of the type of work you have done in Bolivia?
Kathryn Ledebur: I originally came to Bolivia to do my thesis. Since then, I have worked at American schools, as a translator, and as a consultant for several drug-policy projects before working at AIN.
Narco News: As an American, have you found it difficult to gain the trust of the local population?
Kathryn Ledebur: When I arrived, AIN had a solid reputation and a good rapport with people before I even got here. Also, within the Chapare, people have, after years and years of anti-drug efforts, come to understand the value of connecting with other people and to explain what is going on. There´s a lot of openness – people aren´t frightened. And I´ve had no problems with people on either side.
Narco News: Why is coca grown?
Kathryn Ledebur: Coca, which has a great amount of legal and traditional uses, provides energy, represses appetite, and helps workers deal with the high altitude here in Bolivia. It´s a lie that none of the coca in the Chapare is used for traditional reasons.
Coca farmers grow coca in order to be able to feed their kids. They´re not poisoning the youth of America, and that´s something that is missed by the great majority of people in the US and the by the great majority of politicians who are voting for rotten drug-war policies that put the blame here. I think it´s very soothing, but it doesn’t work and it´s not helping.
Narco News: Could you please explain any differences between the war against coca farmers and the greater war on drugs?
Kathryn Ledebur: The war on drugs in Bolivia has largely focused on the coca farmer for at least the last eight years. Interdiction has also focused on low-income people transporting or making cocaine paste, rather than on large-scale traffickers.
Narco News: Why does the Bolivian government cooperate with the US in the war on drugs?
Kathryn Ledebur: The Bolivian government cooperates with the US war on drugs because they have no choice. As the poorest country in South America, they rely heavily on US and other aid. The (US government) certification process – in spite of modifications – ties US funding, and that of organizations that work with the US, to compliance with American anti-drug objectives.
Narco News: Please tell me about some of the effects of the drug war on democracy at the federal, regional, and local levels.
Kathryn Ledebur: The Chapare coca-growing region is used as a testing ground for harmful policies or practices that then spread to the rest of the country. Of course the economic impact of accelerating forced eradication has been tremendous in the Chapare coca-growing region, and alternative development projects have not provided subsistence for families who have lost their main source of income.
This economic impact has affected the rest of the country as well. The Banzer administration hoped that eliminating the majority of the coca crop within two years would gain Bolivia increased economic benefits from the US. But this reward was too little, too late.
Narco News: What sorts of human rights abuses have you seen as a result of the drug war in Bolivia?
Kathryn Ledebur: The insertion of the Bolivian armed forces into an anti-drug, law-enforcement role (something the Bolivian Constitution does not authorize them to do) has put the military into direct conflict with the population. They felt that they would gain prestige and reduce the stigma from past participation in coups and drug trafficking, but instead they are under the control of US policymakers, rather than their commanders or Bolivian civilian authorities.
Human-rights violations in the Chapare began to occur in other areas as the armed forces were called out to confront protests and blockades throughout Bolivia. They also began to carry out daily law-enforcement activities in Bolivia’s cities.
Since the creation of a permanent role for the Bolivian armed forces in anti-drug efforts in 1998, the most common human rights violations have been security forces killing coca growers during blockades or attempts to impede eradication; beatings and injury of coca growers; arbitrary detentions; forced entries; violation of property rights; and more recently in some narcoterrorism cases, torture.
The overlapping roles and mandates with those of the Bolivian police force has also exacerbated historical tensions between the police and the army, and the US funding and training of both forces has generated further animosity. These tensions came to a head on February 12, 2003, when the police and military clashed in front of the government palace, leaving 33 dead.
Total impunity for human-rights violations committed initially within the framework of US funded anti-drug programs has spread to the rest of the nation. Trials of soldiers in military (rather than civilian) courts have further guaranteed impunity.
Narco News: I just returned from the Chapare. I toured a coca farm and an alternative development project, where coca was also grown. So it seems coca is grown, no matter whether there is alternative development. So what exactly are US taxpayers paying for with alternative development projects, and do you think they work?
Kathryn Ledebur: Up until now, I would say that alternative development, and here we´re talking about eighteen years of programs, has been been a failure in the Chapare.
Alternative development efforts in Bolivia have failed to provide sufficient income for families affected by eradication. They have been used as a cushion for forced eradication by security forces, not as a true development effort. Human rights is US-stated policy goals, but it clearly takes a backseat to drug war objectives. In the meantime, families’ livelihoods have been ruined, and poorly formulated projects—when they did generate income – it kicked in too late.
The rules say that if a family´s whole coca crop was eliminated, then they could have access to alternative development. But citrus fruit takes eight years to mature, pineapples take two years, and forestry programs between ten and fifteen years.
So what are these people going to eat in the meantime? That´s a question nobody can answer. So you get very poor results with this type of crop substitution.
Furthermore, access to markets for products is limited and many producers have complained that it is more expensive to take their products to market than to let them rot in the field.
There are concrete success stories of certain individuals and groups that have done relatively well. But the statistics that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provides in their 2003 report, that they´re providing a significant income to over half of the Chapare farmers and an income of over US$2,000 per year to these farmers, is laughable. And when you ask these farmers, they break out laughing. These are the same people who are using rubber bands to hold up their pants.
Alternative development has been a failure because it has been poorly directed and formatted. It has been viewed as a cushion and a justification for eradication, but it has not been focused or structured as a genuine development program. It violates many of the basic precepts of good, integrated development, including working directly with your supposed beneficiaries.
Narco News: Is that changing at all?
Kathryn Ledebur: Up until very recently, coca growers have been consistently demonized by the US government as participants in drug trafficking. As a result, the US has been unwilling to work directly with the coca-growers unions, although they are probably the most organized social movement in Latin America.
So what (USAID) has done is create parallel producers associations, with the dual purpose of having an agricultural association, with the idea that participants must have eradicated all of their coca. Also, these associations pull people away from and weaken the union. This creates structures that are in direct conflict. Although USAID presents to you that there are a huge number of participants in these programs and people on the waiting list, the truth is that some people only go to one meeting, some people on the list have only gotten one bag of rice.
Most of the Chapare campesinos still have coca, claim to have eradicated all of their coca, and still participate in both unions and associations. There isn´t a real distinction between who is in one group or the other, except in the eyes of USAID and USAID contractors. So that has been one of the faulty premises of alternative development.
The other has been conditionality – the idea that when Plan Dignidad started, that access to alternative development would be conditional. This is something that has historically been part of the program, but changed when Plan Dignidad and accelerated eradication began.
Also, in a supposed effort to generate employment into the region, USAID has put an undue amount of emphasis into funding the Bolivian private sector, a sector that has never reinvested in its country, or been respectful of workers´ rights.
During the Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada administration, the head of the country´s alternative development facility was also the co-owner of an agricultural company that received US$180,000 in one year from USAID, at a time when the company owed their workers over US$80,000. This even though the Bolivian anti-drug law (Law 1008) states that the great majority of alternative-development funds must go to small producers.
Several months ago, the US announced they are will to work with Bolivian municipal governments to channel part of their projects – though it´s not clear how much – through these governments. USAID has worked with municipal governments throughout the country, but it has been unwilling to work with the municipal government in the Chapare because all five municipal governments there are controlled by the Movimiento a Socialismo (MAS), or Movement to Socialism, which is the coca-growers party.
Ironically, in spite of USAID reluctance to work with them, the MAS-run municipalities have a much better record of being effective and avoiding the corruption of municipalities run by traditional parties, mainly due to the high level of accountability to the population.
This is something that coca growers and advocates have been asking for for a long time. On paper it´s a very positive thing. The Bolivian government and coca growers have signed an agreement to that effect.
What remains to be seen, and the US ambassador told us this when we met with him, is that the devil´s in the details. How is this carried out? How is this executed?
Narco News: When you meet with US Embassy and other government staff, what sorts of things to do you discuss? Are they receptive to your ideas?
Kathryn Ledebur: When I first started doing this job seven years ago, they would snicker at me. But they´re not snickering as much any more.
American officials are open to meeting with me, and they´re available. Issues we discuss depend very much on what´s going on at the time. One of the ongoing discourses we have is about impunity issues, the Leahy amendment, and the US double-discourse of promoting human rights while making eradication a clear priority. That is something that we are in an ongoing debate about, and the different views in our efforts to pressure the government. Members of the US Congress have been very helpful in writing congressional inquiries and expressing concern for these issues as well.
We also talk with them about accuracy in reporting. The reports on human rights practices, the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) report, and other memos often contain a great deal of inaccuracies. We write critiques of these reports, we´ll talk about overall impact of policies.
One of the concerns we have now is that military officers who have been implicated in human-rights abuses are receiving promotions within the Chapare. There isn´t prosecution. We also talk about alternative development and any concern with US law.
One of the things we find is that the people in La Paz don´t actually have a clear idea about what´s going on in the Chapare, and people at the State Department have an even less clear idea of what is going on. And so we meet with people at embassy, but we also meet with people at the State Department, Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), and people in Washington, DC.
One of the strengths that AIN has is that we´re able to do the field work directly in the Chapare and then go to Washington and speak authoritatively on topics.
Narco News: You were in Villa Tunari in the Chapare in Sept. 2000 during the coca-growers´ uprising there. What was that like?
Kathryn Ledebur: This was a month-long protest. The coca growers blocked the road, largely in protest of US-funded construction of three US-style military bases in the region, in spite of an already-high military presence in the region. They blocked the road totally for a whole month. A security force in the Chapare and – others shipped in from other regions – maintained recurring daily conflicts with the coca growers.
Human-rights monitors were trying very hard to cover this, to send out updates. Many growers were shot and taken to the hospital. Members of the security forces also disappeared during that conflict. It was something that escalated very quickly and was a demonstration of all of the negative things that Plan Dignidad had produced for everyone involved.
One of the things that is very interesting, and that you see when you have been in the region for a very long time, is that it is very clear to both the security forces and the coca growers that this is a US problem coming from the outside. Both sides chew coca. The eradicators take coca from the bushes, dry them outside of their tents at night, and, as their commander explained to me, they have to chew coca to have the stamina to eradicate it.
You would think you would find, when talk to the different sides here, very different positions. But the overall view on the war on drugs is very uniform.
Coca producers, anti-drug police, and military will kick a soccer ball around, watch TV, and hang out together until they receive orders for confrontation. So it´s not a war that the Bolivian people feel they are a part of. They feel like they are going through the motions. And they feel like they are paying a high price and not receiving anything return.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism