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Authentic Journalism on the "War on Drugs" in Latin America

"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simón Bolívar

War Correspondent's Log

By Al Giordano

Immediate History from the Drug War Front

Archive of December 7 to 9, 2001

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December 9, 2001

Cochabamba, Bolivia

From somewhere in a country called América...

Storm clouds hung over Cochabamba City on Saturday, the thunder rattled from the surrounding hills, but the rain did not arrive. Such was, too, the immediate history of this Bolivian region.

Since Thursday's assassination of coca growers' union leader Casimiro Huanca and the shooting of Fructuoso Herba (see our war log report of December 7, below), the theme has been tension, heightened by the regime's efforts to cut off telephone and transport communication from the Amazon region known as the Chapare.

It has been a week in Bolivia when key leaders from both sides of the conflict were out of the country:

-- Military Dictator-turned-president Hugo Banzer, who resigned last summer to seek cancer treatment at a US military hospital in Washington, DC, returned on Wednesday, received at the airport by 50 leaders of the old-guard faction of his ADN party, the ones commonly known as "the dinosaurs."

Imposed from Above: Banzer, Quiroga and Bush

-- His former vice president, now in his old job, Jorge Quiroga, met with George W. Bush at the White House on Thursday and returned Friday morning to greet his cabinet in a televised photo-op.

-- Today, Congressman Evo Morales - elected with a record-setting 70 percent of the vote from his district, the Chapare; more than three times the 22 percent garnered by the Banzer-Quiroga ticket in the last presidential election of 1997 - returned from representing his MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) party in a Pan-American congress held in Havana, Cuba. He held some meetings in Cochabamba and headed off tonight to the Chapare.

-- Oscar Olivera, the leader of the factory workers and internationally renowned environmental leader, the man who was arrested and charged with sedition and then released after a global public outcry, returns to Cochabamba tomorrow, where he will meet the two newest members of his family; his new twins, born yesterday.

The Wind from Below: Evo and Oscar

Today, President Quiroga addressed a ceremony attended by the top brass of the Bolivian Armed Forces. In his speech, he said that "the assassins of Casimiro Huanca will be punished in accordance with the law."

Your reporter asked various citizens, "Do you believe it? Is he going to castigate the guilty military officers?" He was answered with rolling eyes and a question, "Are you kidding? Of course he won't. He never does what he says."

But it does indicate that the heat is felt at the highest levels, eight hours away in the capital of La Paz, with the growing awareness that Casimiro Huanca still lives, a thousand times more powerful, in the beating popular heart that has had enough of the US-imposed drug policy that destroys a nation's democracy, its human rights, its environment, its sovereignty and has brought its economy to its knees.

For when would we ever see a United States president tell his own military, even if insincerely, on national TV, that its members who killed a "drug" grower will be punished? Think about it. Meditate on this if only for a few seconds. It happened Saturday in Bolivia.

And then the top military general and the secretary of defense were dispatched to the Chapare region, the former telling the press that he would "clarify" what happened with the murder of Casimiro at the hands of his troops "within 48 hours." The regime is trying to buy time before the situation explodes.

The coca farmers of Bolivia have already won the dignity and respect of their country's populace, despite decades and billions of dollars paid to persecute and to demonize them. Presidents and Generals, armed to the teeth by the US government, fear the political consequences of this dignity.

Does this not indicate that the reality of our América is very different than the story we are told by the U.S. media?

Oh, one more thing from another front in the war... Thanks, Banamex!

December 7, 2001

Cochabamba, Bolivia

From somewhere in a country called América...

Your correspondent arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia after midnight and learned of the assassination, at 3 p.m., December 6th, of an important leader of the coca growers' union, Casimiro Huanca.

Casimiro Huanca (1946-2001)

Casimiro leaves behind a widow and three sons, 16-, 18- and 20-years-old.

The Chapare region, where Casimiro lived and organized, his life cut short at 55 years, was in crisis once again. Access to the region had been shut down by the Bolivian military. Your reporter recalled that the 4,000 military troops were occupying the region, supposedly, with the pretext to keep the highway traffic flowing in the face of blockades by the growers' union. But now it was the same Armed Forces that were blockading access to the Amazonic region, four hours from the state capital of Cochabamba. Such is the hypocrisy of governments in the so-called "war on drugs."

The cell phones of the union leaders were suddenly blocked. The regime's goal: to shut down all communication and try to prevent the true story of yesterday's assassination from spreading.

The government's Interior Minister, Leopoldo Fernández, had told the press that the murder of Casimiro was the fault of the coca growers' protests. "If they hadn't blockaded, this would not have happened," he said.

But there were witnesses, plenty of them, and by morning the Catholic Church, the Public Defender and the Human Rights offices all had concluded that Casimiro was assassinated - "in cold blood" - by government forces, without a shred of justification. By Friday morning, Casimiro's funeral and burial were already underway - no time to get to the Chapare and past the military roadblocks to break that information blockade.

Another farmer had, however, been shot in the same series of events. He was a younger man, the newspapers said he was 30. His name is Fructuoso Herbas. And now he was in the Viedma Hospital in Cochabamba City.

"You can't just walk into the hospital," your correspondent was told by a friend. "This isn't Mexico!"

But efforts to contact the hospital director, or somebody of rank who could authorize the visit to a controversial patient from a North American journalist who did not know him, came up empty. The phone rang and rang, unanswered, at the hospital director's secretary's desk. Your correspondent grabbed a colleague and headed there anyway. The correspondent and colleague rehearsed their lines, carrying the names of top doctors and others hospital officials to drop when the hospital staff would inevitably stop them, they anticipated, at the door.

It was imperative to interview the wounded. Fructuoso was the second bullet victim of yesterday's conflicts on the highway through Chimoré, the one that lived, and thus to tell about it.

Every soul in front of the hospital it seemed to be of the Quechua ethnicity, most of them women in round hats with children tugging on their skirts. But something seemed funny, out of place, at the entrance. The front doors of the medical facility were wide open. A blackboard was placed near the entrance; it's biggest word, scrawled, "HUELGA," or STRIKE!

Your correspondent and his local guide smiled at each other and entered. Nobody stopped them. There was no staff. No one asked what our business was. There were two overworked young women at the reception desk. "Where do we find Fructuoso?" They had no idea. It seemed as if they were not regulars at the reception desk. They asked, who is he? "He's the farmer who had the accident in El Chapare," answered your correspondent's colleague. They directed us one floor up, to the INTENSIVE CARE wing.

We roamed the maze, through doors that said HOSPITAL PERSONNEL ONLY, and more doors that said the same. Some young men were cleaning the blood off surgeons' gowns in the next room. Down a dark hallway, we found the Intensive Care section and asked for Fructuoso. The nurse said, "on the part of whom?" Of his friends from the Chapare, answered the guide. She came back a minute later, "are you looking for the man who was shot in the Chapare?" Yes, him.

She frowned: "He passed away."

"The one with the bullet wound in the leg died?"

"Oh no, he wouldn't be here. We only deal with serious damage here, like bullets in the kidney, that sort of thing," she answered, pleased that her visitors hadn't lost their friend. "Your friend would be in one of the regular patient rooms."

We roamed around the hospital and asked around for Fructuoso's room, found it, found him. He did not look well. His lower leg and foot in a cast, and two worried-looking men hovered over his bed.

Fructuoso's Leg

Photo: Al Giordano, D.R. 2001

There were three other beds in the room, each occupied. And a young man in a wheelchair was moving around the room, as if there was not a bed for anyone with the luxury of having a chair to sleep in. The windows were wide open. The local colleague introduced the North American journalist. And would Fructuoso please give an interview so that people in the world could know what happened through his eyes? Yes, of course.

Your reporter lowered the tape recorder close as possible to his lips, and he began…

"We work in alternative crops," Fructuoso began, struggling to hold his head up off the bed. "When we stopped growing coca we worked planting pineapple, palm, other fruits. But there is nowhere to sell these fruits. There is nowhere to take them and they are wasted. Nobody buys them. There is no market. Later we told ourselves, it's not working, this growing of bananas. We needed to bring the produce out on the highway to make a noise, to demonstrate to the press, for the international press too, we put out the fruits that were rotting, fruits of various qualities, for all to see…"

Ah, so the newspapers were wrong. Fructuoso wasn't a coca grower. He was from the class of farmers that were supposed to represent the drug-war "success story" told so often by the US Embassy and by the ex-AP reporter Peter McFarren: he had stopped growing coca to plant and harvest "alternative crops." But when the pineapples, the palm hearts, the bananas, were ripe, there was no market in which to sell them. Months of labor had come to nothing.

"U.S. Success Story" in the "War on Drugs"

Photo: Al Giordano, D.R. 2001

"And then," explained Fructuoso of Thursday in the Chapare, "came the military soldiers…"

"The uniformed soldiers appeared, at least 300 of them, and they said, 'Why are you throwing this produce in the garbage? We give you five hours to remove it or we're going to take action.' But we weren't provoking," Fructuoso explained, "we weren't blockading, we were on the side of the road. We just wanted the press to publish stories that showing that the fruit was going to rot, that we didn't have anything to provide for our families. I have five little children and a wife. I need to enter the economy to support them…"

"Then the security forces attacked. They choked us with clubs, with their rifles on our necks, they started to beat us up, and we started to escape. Others insulted the soldiers, saying, 'Why do you come after us with guns and clubs?' The soldiers said, 'Because you are blockading.' Next we learned that our leader was dead…"

"There was one soldier who had a megaphone, he had a big mouth. They started shooting gases at us. The gases were raining, and we were escaping. I escaped into a dead-end street, and behind me there was a soldier. That's when he shot my foot, from about a meter away. He was in uniform with a helmet and his face was painted. I was on the ground, wounded, and he covered me with palm leaves so that no one would see me. After three hours my compañeros found me. They came near me and asked if I was okay. They brought me to the hospital…"

"Right now," said Fructuoso Herbas, the peasant farmer of legal crops, the US-claimed success story in the war on drugs, straining to see his own injured leg, "the pain is something I can't stand. Why is the government concerned with bringing us bullets and gases? Our neighbors don't have anything. There is no economic source. With what is there to survive? We don't have roads to get our products to market. And the market doesn't want to come here because the roads don't even have bridges. We don't know what is going to happen. And the government just shoots bullets..."

The farmer, from his bed, begins to fight tears: "What about my kids? How will I support them? I have five kids. And my wife…" By now he is sobbing.

Juana y Fructuoso

Photo: Al Giordano, D.R. 2001

"They told me to plant palm to sell palm hearts," he cries out, unheard in the capitals of Washington and La Paz, who imposed this tragedy upon him. "But it was all for nothing. They tricked us. But the palms don't sell. And I'm so worried they are going to shoot us more. Who is going to help me? We have no economy. We have no money…"

His cries are difficult to hear. They make your correspondent uneasy, with a rage that boils up from his gut; the outrage that feeds on and grows off the miseries that are imposed from above. Fructuoso tells of his five children, the oldest is 11. He is 35, not 30 as the newspapers reported.

"There were little children there," he recalls of Thursday's confrontation between a military and its own people. "I don't know how strong those children were to be able to escape from these soldiers with painted faces. How can they stand the tear-gas?" He is crying again.

His brother, Asiento Herbas, by the bedside speaks:

"I was watching television at eight p.m. and heard that my brother had been shot. He's my little brother. I'm 48. There are already various deaths over this. Many are in the same situation as my brother," he says, then adding a phrase that still means what it says in the indigenous worlds inhabited by your correspondent: "This," the brother finishes, "is my word."

"Excuse me, señor," Fructuoso looks up from his bed to address the reporter. "But I want to know: What is going to happen? What is going to happen with all these things? They shouldn't shoot us. I can't sleep due to the pain. Help us please. Help us."

In the next bed is José A. Quiroz, who, your correspondent learns, was shot by the soldiers weeks ago, during protests against the coca eradication policies. He is recuperating, but still unable to walk. A half-rusted brace, with wing-nuts protruding at awkward angles, surrounds the cast on his right leg.

"Good afternoon," begins José, 52, speaking formally. "I am here because of what happened on the 20th of October." He describes the protests and the soldiers who came to stop them, opening fire on the unarmed campesinos. "A bullet hit me in one leg, broke the bone, and landed in my other leg. See that brace? I spent a week waiting for it."

José A. Quiroz at Viedma Hospital

Photo: Al Giordano, D.R. 2001

"And that's why we will continue blocking the road," he explains. "They're not going to fool us again. The way the soldiers entered our lands was by coming inside trucks that said they had sugar or meat, but there were soldiers hidden inside. They have these clubs that are so hard they can break your ribs. On October 20th we were by the side of the Pan American highway between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. And it's a lie that they ran us off. They tried. But they can not stop us."

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