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May 3, 2002

Narco News '02

Be With Them:

Bolivian Civil Society

Resists the War on Drugs

Part I of a Series

By Luis A. Gómez

Narco News Andean Bureau Chief

Estar Con Ellos en Español, también

"We have to fight to legalize drugs"

-- Father Gregorio Iriarte

"The United States has definitively lost the war on drugs"

-- Peruvian Journalist Ricardo Rumrrill

Last April 18-20, Narco News had the opportunity to attend a conference about the war on drugs in the city of Cochabamba. This event was part of a series of four seminars with Civil Society in Bolivia to organize anew and obtain peace and justice in the Chapare for the coca-growers, for everyone...

In these valleys, kind readers, a tree has grown for centuries whose soft leaves - la coca - were delivered by the Gods to relieve men and women. But these gods now wander in the netherworld quartered and sad, waiting for their children to rebel definitively against the foreign power that represses them… the centuries pass, the men and women resist and the leaf does not leave them, even though the foreign power - from its great White House - has decreed its death sentence.

And in this history of hostilities, during the last five years at least 200 farmers have lost their lives in conflicts with the different repressive corps of State. Last November, soldiers armed by Washington moved to close the coca markets. And the farmers, supported passionately by the rest of the people, resisted in the Sacaba War. They were shot and gassed, they were jailed, but they could not be defeated. In those difficult days a group of honest and valiant people decided to rethink the problem, to find better solutions than repression, and to never again permit death and hunger, and misery, to ride with impunity through the coca fields.

Members of non-governmental organizations, of the unions, of the Catholic Church, of the youth organizations and the rest of the people gathered in the Palestra Center of Cochabamba to discuss a new focus, new strategies, to confront the conflict. During the past four weeks they have organized open seminars so that no issue is forgotten: the culture of the coca leaf, human rights, the role of the Armed Forces, narco-trafficking and its effects on the country, the mass media and the legal questions raised by the conflict.

Narco News attended the third event, in which the different profiles of the present fight against narco-trafficking in Bolivia were analyzed. This correspondent met here with honorable military officials who work on the side of the people, with impatient youth trying to create alternative channels of information, with representatives of neighboring countries, with social investigators and human rights defenders, all decided to bring forward, together, a new initiative.

The proposals that all of them came to after three days can be seen, in Spanish, at this address:

Now, we present a summary of what occured in the gathering titled "The fight against narco-trafficking: Objectives, models, results and challenges," and, next, two interviews: with Father Gregorio Iriarte and the Peruvian journalist and author Roger Rumrrill, panelists at the event and experts on the issue.

Publisher's Note: Narco News will also publish, as part IV of this series, the text of the presentation our own Luis Gómez made at the invitation of these representatives of Civil Society during the forum.

April 18, 2000

Repression or Legalization

It is a cool morning in Cochabamba. The participants wait patiently for the discussion to begin. In front of them is the moderator, retired Admiral Gildo Angulo and the Catholic priest Gregorio Iriarte. The voices begin: Angulo explains that it is not possible that the government of Bolivia, obeying the orders of the United States, continues to punish farmers, that it is not possible for the soldiers - poor and indigenous like the coca-growers - continue shooting to kill their brothers and sisters. In fact, remember that there is not a shred of evidence that the coca-growers are narco-traffickers; "this is a lie repeated a thousand times. A government that has delivered our riches to transnational corporations, a corrupt government, will never be able to solve the problem of the Chapare with bullets," says the admiral.

In his conclusions, Admiral Angulo proposed the necessity to revise the utilization of military aid that the United States provides. Later, questioned about the possible role of the military in the future, he said, strongly, that never again should the Armed Forces of Bolivia be used to fight against the people… What's this? An honest military leader, no more, no less…

Next came the lucid intervention by Father Gregorio Iriarte, who for the past 18 years has elaborated extensive studies of the Bolivian reality. His bishop put him in charge, for various years, to study the problem of narco-trafficking. Here is part of what he said:

"I think it is very important to distinguish between the four stages in the route between the coca leaf and cocaine. The first is the production of the leaf. Next, a second stage, when some people, using chemical precursors, make a paste called cocaine sulfate, that we know here as pasta base. The third stage comes when cocaine hydrochloride is manufactured; the white and soft powder that comes from state-of-the-art chemical laboratories; you don't find this in the Chapare. This is very important, because when we speak of drugs (in Bolivia) we are speaking of cocaine sulfate, not cocaine hydrochloride. There is cocaine in Bolivia, but not a lot, and not a single farmer in the Chapare produces it.

"The fourth stage is the sale of cocaine in the grand markets of Europe and the United States. The last two stages have traditionally been controlled by the Colombian cartels. Bolivia has never controlled this delicate and expensive process of cocaine production. It's role has been limited, almost always, to the cultivation of coca leaf and also the production of the base paste, that is, cocaine sulfate. Bolivia would have been able to produce cocaine hydrochloride, perhaps, if the tragedy of Huanchaca had never occurred; a laboratory hidden in the Amazon jungle that, it is widely presumed, had the objective of generating large quantities of money for the intelligence services of the United States to finance the famous Iran-Contra scandal. In Bolivia, all the drugs seized, which the media almost always refers to erroneously as "cocaine," is, in reality, cocaine sulfate, or base paste.

"That is to say, we are speaking of a process in which half stays in this country, including in its affects," Father Iriarte said, and he was correct... the effects of cocaine sulfate as a drug a significantly weaker than those of 98 or 99 percent pure cocaine.

The first myth falls: Bolivia doesn't produce cocaine, despite what the government, aided by the commercial media and backed by the United States ambassador, says. "Now, the impact of narco-trafficking on the Bolivian economy has been very important," Father Iriarte continues. "In 1988, everything related to coca or cocaine represented 8.5 percent of the Gross National Product." With this, the priest made it very clear that nearly $500 million dollars are laundered in this country, according to the official statistics of the government, but there are experts who calculate that the figure could be as high as $800 million dollars.

As the years passed, this quantity has been diminishing, fundamentally because of the government policies in the war on drugs, and has had a very hard impact on the economy, not only because this money has stopped circulating, but also because the thousands of workers who, before, were employed in the production of base paste now don't have the means to make a living. In few words, Father Iriarte explained how the current economic crisis in Bolivia is partly caused by the fall of the drug business.

Gregorio Iriarte also speaks about "alternative development" in the Chapare, mentioning some 25 legal products elaborated with coca base: from medicinal syrups and liquors to toothpaste. What that means is, yes, there are real alternatives to continue commercializing the sale of coca leaf cultivated in this country. And his conclusions, his proposals, are very concise. There has to be economic compensation given to the farmer who stops growing coca, but equal to the losses he suffers from the cut off of money from the narco… Yes, it should come, in part, from the consumer countries of Europe and the United States… "Second, all the alternative aid that comes here must be transparent; it needs a control mechanism because there is so much corruption and the money doesn't get to the people. Third, we must not confuse immoral with illegal… many times the laws are not legitimate nor moral. Morality is located in values, not with whether the law is obeyed or not. Finally, the effects of the sulfate must be studied, because there are minimum or nil."

After the presentation, Father Iriarte took questions from the audience. One participant raised his hand and said: "What is your position on the legalization of drugs?"

"Well," Father Iriarte answered, "the United States is going to always oppose legalization because it is going to say that illicit drugs bring more profits than legal ones… I believe we have to fight to legalize them… and later we must support some new laws, worldwide, so that the drugs that have been demonized, like marijuana, can come to the people legally…." Read it well, kind readers: A Catholic priest says we have to legalize drugs… In a while we will speak with this interesting man of God.

Truth and Law

The afternoon brings the debate over the role of the media in the war on drugs to the table: Almost all of them submissive to the government and the United States Embassy. In the room there is a shared perception about the poor and distorted information that the local newspapers and television networks are offering about the recent failed Coup d'Etat in Venezuela… The words of the large media outlets are still fresh in memory and the actions taken by the large media (La Razón, a national daily, titled its April 12th edition: "Venezuela Tires of Chavez and Throws Him Out," collaborating with the information blockade of those days). In general this issue is approached from critique to astonishment. It is evident to the attendees that a new relationship between the people and the media, and the creation of alternative channels of information, is urgent. The dominant discourse (that describes all the farmers of the Chapare as akin to criminals) stops being the only daily bread. The social impact of the famous letter sent by five U.S. Congress members to the Cuban-American Otto Reich; a document that has shaken public opinion and, of course, the functionaries of the government of President Jorge Quiroga.

Doctor Rose Marie de Achá, a young attorney with much experience in the defense of human rights, particularly in the Chapare, also participates in the seminar. A member of Acción Andina, Dr. Achá expresses a serious problem: the criminalization that the war on drugs generates. "It creates crime," said Achá, "beginning with the legislation: people are already treated as criminals, which creates a necessity for repression and control of those who are deemed dangerous for the system." There is a problem of unequal justice toward the detained, and this doesn't only happen to the farmers in the Chapare, but also to all individuals whom, for whatever reason, become trapped in the Bolivian legal machine. And the mass media (how not?) contributes to this process of criminalization, using one language to describe people who have not yet been convicted as criminals and presents them that way to society. That is to say, there is a criminalizing language projected toward the people.

Dr. Rosemarie de Achá

Photo by Al Giordano, D.R. 2001

For Rose Marie de Achá, this is a serious issue, because it not only makes direct legal work more difficult in courtrooms and police stations, but also it generates judicial precedents that become obstacles to justice, affecting the human rights of everyone in its process. A good example, says Achá, "is the impunity of the military, that, for example, in the case of Sacaba or Casimiro Huanca has let the assassins go free, because the military code doesn't permit the involvement by civil authorities." This is very grave: a coca grower arrested, accused of narco-trafficking, can lose his elemental presumption of innocence, be treated in the media as a criminal and even though he might escape from the trap, it is difficult for him to appeal because there is no justice in any part of Bolivia. The truth and the law are absent in this war…

The forum has now opened the discussion over various conflicts that the war on drugs generates. It has begun to destroy myths. The participants converse in the hallways. Little by little a consensus is being generated over what must be done, what proposals to launch, which paths to follow…

April 19, 2000

The United States

Has Been Defeated

On this day the forum heard from a special guest, the Peruvian journalist and author Roger Rumrrill, who, as expert on the war on drugs in his country, and active member of Acción Andina and other organizations, has worked intensely to criticize and denounce the attacks by Washington upon his country. And Rumrrill opened fire criticizing the posture of little Asa Hutchinson, man of the DEA, because he can't perceive today's conflict in our América as a simple "clash of civilizations after September 11, 2001. Today's wars are economic, for petroleum and other resources… and the United States has definitively lost the war on drugs." The Peruvian, a simple man, smiling and plump, understood perfectly that the White House has unleashed a Third World War "against narco-trafficking and terrorism, a war that seeks a uni-polar world… Thus, we have a discourse against the coca growers that uses the same words as those against terrorists or narco-traffickers."

In Perú the situation is even more evident. To begin with, Rumrrill affirmed that his country is a society very alienated from its daily reality and that, during the governments of Fujimori and Montesinos, the fight against drugs enjoyed a virtual success and was waged with the agreement of the Clinton administration, particularly regarding the eradication of coca leaf. "In Perú, there are no official statistics. They always work with the statistics provided by the United States. During the Fujimori-Montesinos decade a bushel of coca went from costing $50 dollas in 1995 to $5 dollars between 1996 and 1997. Don't forget that Perú's democracy still needs strengthening and in recent years has seen engaged not only in eradication of coca leaf but also criminalization of it… And the most direct result of the so-called Plan Colombia in Perú - a government always allied with the foreign policy of the United States - has been that the price of a bushel of coca leaf rose this year to $40 dollars."

There are two accusations that have confirmed Roger Rumrrill's affirmations. The first, as he told the press in his country, is the intent by the United States to construct a military base in the Amazon jungle of Perú, in the community of Uchiza. And the other, linked to the slogan of "zero coca," was proposed in Lima during the meeting of some Andean presidents with George Bush: the formation of a multinational force to fight the war on drugs. "These policies, adopted by the Peruvian government, have meant, as a consequence, that the war on drugs in Perú will be an eternal war," explained Rumrrill. "Seven months after the nomination of a drug czar, there still is no law that explains what he does; he's just an ornament."

Among the Peruvian myths to take down is that of the deforestation of the Amazon jungle. Rumrrill, as advisor to a Peruvian Congressional commission, has been able to fight to protect the forest because, let's be very clear, the coca leaf doesn't grow at low altitudes. It needs a soil that is 1,000 to 1,500 meters above sea level… and the jungle doesn't rise to that altitude. "What we need to do is to engage in true agricultural development, effective macro-economic policies, and de-narcotize the State's agenda," concluded Rumrrill. "The Amazon's biodiversity is the future of the Andean world and its control is a real objective of the military policy of the United States." It's that, he clarified, the next natural resource to pay attention to will be wars over water, and in the Amazon basin we have the most important aquifer on the planet.

Now, legalization of drugs? "The issue is taboo in Perú… It had begun to be discussed from the perspective of harm reduction, but after September 11th the discussion just shut down." We'll keep talking with Rumrrill, but right now we'll let him respond to questions… later, our interview with him.

The rest of the second day of the seminar was spent in work groups and discussion... Youths and priests, human rights defenders and union leaders, all spent hours revising and debating… We'll come back tomorrow and see what they've concluded.

April 20, 2002

The Critical Route

The forum's final day has, as its focus, the presentation of conclusions and their approval. Like the two previous seminars in this series, the themes presented here will be discussed, in a few days, during the fourth seminar. Civil Society is organizing, discussing, and fighting. Why don't we review the conclusions of these good people?
Civil Society, widely represented in the seminar titled "The Fight Against Narco-Trafficking: Objectives, Models, Results and Challenges," concludes that:

"A true fight against narco-trafficking would receive the support of all strata of Bolivian society, beginning with the farmers of the Tropic of Cochabama. The fight against narco-trafficking is utilized by the United States to impose conditions and solutions that are far from our own reality. The repressive nature of the fight is the best pretext the United States has to guarantee its military presence in strategic zones of this country and region… It is necessary that those who govern us unite forces with their colleagues throughout the Andes and utilize the mechanism created by the Organization of American States to certify, annually, the advances by the government of the United States in the reduction of the consumption of cocaine hydrochloride and its derivatives in its own country."

The group also demands the revision of national drug laws and the treaties that foment corruption and the imposition of foreign interests in Bolivia. "Economic aid, that Bolivia justly claims, in compensation for the loss of income caused by the eradication of coca crops, has to be equal to the losses in quantity and quality."

A second conclusion reached: "The responsibilities and internal structures of the police and Armed Forces need to be established starting with a plan of national interest that corresponds to the Constitution." In few words, the seminary attendees asked that the military abandon police tasks, illegal and repressive, and said that "the existence of armed troops paid by a foreign country and acting in our territory" is unacceptable. "That's why we demand the immediate dissolution of the Expeditionary Task Force. Also, the presence of foreign advisors, incorporated in military plans without any accounting at the national level, is a grave danger for the sovereignty of the country… The abusive nature of Martial Laws especially must be corrected so that Civil Justice can investigate and judge crimes committed by members of the military that harm the human rights of the population."

"It is urgent to form a Truth Commission to audit and reorient the investigations of human rights violations that have been committed with impunity even though they have been denounced," they concluded. The impunity must be ended, and impartial investigations must be waged "over the violations of human rights that the Armed Forces commit in the region to realize coca eradication tasks," as well as "the irresponsibility with which the public prosecutors do their job regarding crimes committed in the tropical zone."

Finally, among the event's conclusions, "We ask the mass media to help in the creation of mechanisms to detect and correct messages that distort the reality of the fight against narco-trafficking." In this, the participants were quite clear: "We demand our rights as listeners, viewers and readers to receive accurate information presented responsibility and with self-criticism… Reports proved to be erroneous or wrong must be corrected," and they proposed a mechanism of verification of the media, so that attacks against truth and law won't continue…

After all this, your correspondent has nothing left to say except to ask you, kind readers: Aren't these people valiant? They are. And they've also begun to fight in an organized manner alongside the coca growers of the Chapare. They still haven't stopped the death and destruction in this war imposed by Washington. But now their voices seek and create a space to criticize, to accuse and to propose…

And while Civil Society opens this important battle, Narco News invites you to get to know a very interesting Catholic priest…

Coming Next in Part II:

The Narco News Interview

with Father Gregorio Iriarte

for more Narco News, click here

Journalism At the Service of Civil Society