Issue # 22 Sign Up for Free Mailing List

July 22, 2002

Part III of the series...

Bolivia: The Power of the People

Narco News '02

Yungas: Paradise


The Narco News Interview

with Dionicio Núñez

By Luis Gómez

Narco News Andean Bureau Chief

Did you miss Part I of this series?

Did you read Part II?

This part of our series on the 2002 election campaign in Bolivia is dedicated to our young Dutch colleague Erik van Oudheusden, who as a journalism student has taken his first steps in the struggle for authentic journalism and has become a valuable volunteer collaborator in the Narco News project…. May a hundred, a thousand, and many more Eriks come to obtain victory against the commercial media…

"Evo, if you visit the El Alto region and the state of La Paz, we will win there," said one of the intellectuals involved in the campaign to candidate Evo Morales last June. "If you go to Yungas to reinforce the work of the coca growers there, we will prevail," one of his closest collaborators also told him… and that's how it went. The poorest, most insurrectionist, people in Bolivia, awaited the candidate in dozens of towns and communities, among the coca fields, at all hours, to see him and say that the Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of Peoples, the MAS party, was theirs, and that they were ready to triumph.

At the beginning, in spite of all preparations for the trip, Evo Morales was not sure that passing three days in the Yungas region would be so important… but he agreed to do it. And at down on June 7th the caravan left for the provinces of the west of the State of La Paz. He went with vice presidential candidate Antonio Peredo, the senate candidates Esteban Silvestre and Ángel Zavalla, with some members of the regional party leadership and with Dionicio Núñez, his friend, and maximum leader of the peasant farmers and coca growers of Yungas, also a candidate for congress from this district.

If any of you, kind readers, have imagined paradise on earth, it would surely be in Yungas, a sub-tropical region hidden between the slopes of the Andean range. To get there, say some tourist guides, you have to take the most dangerous route in the world, along the sides of precipitous hills full of dips and falls. And after two hours of travel from the city of La Paz, along the slopes they appear, the first greens and intense heat of the climate. At each curve, you see a valley below filled with banana trees and coca bushes, and small waterfalls of melted snow singing without hurry to reach the depths. Suddenly, on the side of the road that seems no more than an enormous emptiness between mountains, there is a small town, literally stuck to rocks, where scores of peasant farmers shout and salute with the blue, black and white banners (the MAS flag): Welcome to Unuavi, the border town between the cold and hot regions.

Over the road there is an arc, made of weavings, adorned with coca leaves, coffee beans, oranges and flowers to receive the visitors. "This is a festival," they say. "Evo has arrived and we're here to receive him." They break the sky with fireworks, toss confetti over the heads and collars to dignify the candidates. And this, kind readers, will happen 41 times in three days on the road, in the daytime, at midnight (or later). The poor of Yungas appear, meeting to celebrate, because having 12 percent in the polls in early June is already a victory. But there is even more reason to celebrate: In Yungas, starting years ago, they have fought courageously and successfully against the repression and eradication of coca leaves. And now they come to recognize their victory.

On early Friday afternoon, June 7th, the caravan arrived at Coroico, one of the prettiest towns in the world, semi-colonial and dominating a valley full of orchards. At the entrance to the town, a group of drummers and dancers awaited the candidates. When they saw Evo Morales come near, the artists, descendants of black slaves, began to play their best-known song, La Saya. But this Saya had new lyrics: "Listen, don Evo, sincerely/you must become president." And the dance began: Mulatto smiles escort Evo and the other candidates to the town square, amid flowers. In the atrium of the church, under a hot sun, the speeches begin… but we can't stay here long, because we still have to continue traveling and often the distance between one community and another, while short in appearance, becomes long as the caravan is late several hours in the route.

Here, we turn onto the range and here are various deep and rich valleys, as if the fingers of a benevolent god had rested here to recharge his energies. There, behind the falcon's flight, the destinations of the next two days lie ahead. Now we go to Coripata, where the multitude squeezes forward in front of the local union office, where, from the second floor, Evo repeats that, please, "don't think that this campaign is Evo Morales' or anyone else's… This is the campaign for the sovereignty and dignity of the poor of Bolivia. With me have come various of our candidates. Get to know them… And don't think we are going to forget you, because if we succeed, the victory will belong to all the Bolivian people."

In these hours, the afternoon begins to fall over the Yungas region. But the caravan doesn't stop. Before the night begins they await the caravan in a town to bless a group of youths who are entering high school. And later, in a hidden corner, in the town of Santiago, they await the compañeros… The route lasts four more hours and there is a river, without a bridge, yet to cross. Around midnight, we arrive at Santiago, consisting of some twenty houses. On the only street, in front of Town Hall, nearly 500 people await, illuminating it all with a small gasoline-powered generator. After a brief welcoming ceremony, more speeches and the leadership of the Movement Toward Socialist party is given the keys to the town. "Are we going to stay here?" Evo asks discreetly. No, they answer him, a half hour from here they've been waiting for us since seven a.m. in another community… We have to go. And we go, because we can't make the people wait any longer, they continue waiting after 14 hours to get to know their candidates and to present their new officials, and, excuse the poverty, to invite them to a little bit of juice… This vertiginous day ended at three in the morning… And sleeping in the cars, because there aren't beds. "Ready, compañeros? We're heading out at five," Evo advises before resting.

Day Two:

More Dancing in Paradise

At night, along the roads of Yungas, everything smells of freshness and life. The orange groves spread their sweetness over men. The coca fields are found in each hillside and the stars appear as young as when they were put here for our delight. The second day begins three hours from Santiago, barely from the bed to the sun, in La Asunta, the town of Dionicio Núñez: a breakfast in his house and a happy welcome in the plaza, again, to salute farmers who come from all over.

Later, beginning at 11 in the morning, a trip of four hours toward Chulumani, maybe the largest town in Yungas, the most traveled by tourists, where the traditional parties have some sympathizers. And although there are two other stops on the road, Los Remedios and a small hamlet where the people wait by the roadside to cheer, we don't arrive very late at the destination, at almost five p.m. From the market, from the houses, from the neighboring towns, they have come to look and to smile, because in these parts no national candidate from any political party has ever shown his face before. "I come to tell you that the Movement Toward Socialism is not a traditional political party. It is a grand convergence of many social movement that seek only one thing: to reestablish the country, to create a government for all the Bolivian people," Evo began his speech at the end of day's light. "This is a fight, we have said many times, between money and conscience: that's why I come to you to propose that on June 30th we will all vote for ourselves, and definitively remove the corrupt from power… We will defeat the neoliberal economic model."

Here we do not stop for long. Although some militants of the MNR party, before fleeing, terrified, from the multitude, punched out the tires of the truck in which Evo is traveling. But, okay, after that infantile attack, another three hours more on the road to Chicaloma, a town inhabited by a majority of afro-Bolivianos, who dance and sing for he who, they say, smiling, will have to be the new president of Bolivia. Ah, beautiful town and sane happiness: The musical group of Chicaloma, that doesn't stop all night, is the best example of why there are no differences among poor people: They are named Saya Afro-Andina, some of the members are Aymara and the instruments of both cultures have joined together in happy matrimony.

The march is the same. Tonight the caravan closes in on one of the best organized and most scenic town in Yungas, named Irupana, land of the coca leaf and where some of the best coffee in the world, arábiga boliviana, is cultivated. Everything takes place under the active and attentive eyes of the local union office. The concentration of people assembles anew in the atrium. This time there are nearly 2,000 people shouting, applauding. It doesn't matter that it's already eleven at night. The compañeros from Chicaloma have come with the caravan, playing their traditional music.

Evo says: "Some years ago I came as a guest to Irupana, you will remember, to attend the founding of your union. I remember that among the compañeros of Yungas there were different political persuasions and tendencies, and it gives me great pleasure to see how you have become better brothers and sisters. For years they have wanted to divide Yungas and the Chapare region. And you know that is false: We cannot divide ourselves because our struggles have always been the same, and our enemy also. Tonight I want to thank you, because now I am more certain than ever that we are going to win… We don't take polls, we can't measure our support in this way. But, here, in direct contact with so many people, I can't help but believe that we are in first place and we are going to govern."

Once again, a few hours rest. "It's one in the morning and we're heading out at six. Thus, compañeros, go to sleep if you want to be able to awaken in time to wash your faces before we leave," smiled the principal candidate of the MAS before entering one of the rooms that the Farmer's Federation of Irupana has to receive its visitors.

Three Days on the Road

The southern part of Yungas is even more difficult to navigate. The communities are farther apart from each other. After breakfast in Miguillas at seven - bread, an egg and coffee - we leave thinking we'll be in Circuata by eleven. But in various communities along the path they had already put up the woven traditional arcs, the flowers and the dolls to adorn them: These dolls, the traditional representation, have varied a lot lately, they told us; Now it is possible to find Barbies and other plastic dolls (they last longer than those made of plaster), furry teddy bears, and even an inflatable Batman awaited, facing the road, for the arrival of Evo Morales.

In these towns, where coca is the principal crop, the people salute, await words to feed them. An old man, on bicycle, approaches the members of MAS: "Meat?" And what he asks for, everybody knows, is a bag of Political Instrument, he wants to join a political party… and he has traveled from his orchard to do it… The candidates arrive at Cicuata at 12 noon and this will, friends, be very brief. We can't stay for lunch with you because the people await us in Cajuata, two hours from here.

Now in Cajuata, 2,000 more people await. With the sun high, the speeches begin again. This time, Evo Morales tells them to prepare themselves, that this victory will have to be defended at any price: "Keep on thinking, compañeros, because you already must organize the committees in defense of the vote. We are not going to allow them to steal this triumph." This time, yes, we stay for lunch. "Look, lamb soup, Evo's favorite," says one of the directors of MAS who comes with the caravan.

We leave at three p.m. on the road to Inquisivi, a mining town in the southern border of the state of La Paz with that of Oruro. Barely 20 minutes have passed when, heading around a curve, each car in the caravan is detained by a pair of senior citizens. "How are you? Have a little orange juice for the trip… How was the rally in Cajauta? Oh, good. Take good care of Evo, please. We couldn't be there, but we are here, with you… always… continue forward." And so it seems, in her calloused hands, holding a plastic jug. There, the work and hard fight of many years can be seen. Or in his smile, that raises the juice jar as if it were a flag, and who sees each car off saying, "bravo!"

Have you noticed? This trip in Yungas has been impressive. Near the people, their enthusiasm, their hope, can be seen. And it doesn't end, because at the beginning of the afternoon of the third day, June 9, the candidates arrive in Inquisivi. A troupe of moxeños (who play a peculiar Andean flute with a sharp sudden sound) leads Evo to the Town Square in an impetuous march. The sun is lost in an immense holler, that seems to have been made with the edge of an enormous sword. The wind blows ice. And the music, hypnotic, everything gives this rally a distinct emotional character. Two hours later, the visit to Quime, where people have met awaiting Evo Morales since the day before… thousands more chanting, applauding, listening to the promise of a new State, of a new form of governing for the governed.

Near midnight, after the local leadership of the MAS takes office, the caravan heads on the return trip, because Evo must be in Cochabamba the following day. Three days, 41 rallies, less than ten hours rest… Such are the people in campaign. And this paradise, once lost and forgotten, has been regained by its people, who fight and continue advancing….

Who Is Dionicio Núñez?

In June of last year, tired of being ignored and of being threatened by the government (principally, with the eradication of coca plants), the farmers of Yungas closed all the access roads to the region. They had two members of then-president Hugo Banzer's cabinet negotiating two days with them, in their territory, and they didn't let them leave until they were certain that their demands would be addressed. This is how many other demonstrations, blockades and marches by the peasant farmers of Yungas, who are legendary in Bolivia's social struggles, went.

Currently, their leading organization, the Confederation of Farmers' Unions of Yungas (COFECAY, in its Spanish initials), which in recent months has come to represent nearly the entire state of La Paz, has Dionicio as its secretary. A young man, of dark complexion and a wide smile, with a lot of political experience, has just been elected to congress with almost two-thirds of the total vote count.

In response to some questions, he says:

"I am 36 years old. My family originated, like many in Yungas, in the High Plains (Altiplano) region. I was born in Oruro, but moved to Yungas at the age of five. First, I went to the rural schools of Yungas. I finished my third year of agronomy at the Major University of San Andrés in La Paz, but due to very common problems in farming families I could not finish my studies because my family lacked the resources and I had to return to work with them.

"I have been involved with labor issues ever since I was a student. I was a student leader of what was, in the 1980s, the Socialist Party, led by Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz. And in those times, during vacation seasons that I spent with my family in Yungas, I was designated in absentia by the union leaders in the central agricultural union to attend the congress of the Farmers' Federation of La Asunta… And as I became politicized as a university leader, I made some speeches on political affairs, and they named me as the secretary of this federation.

"And so I participated in the actions of my federation. We were raising funds, like from one non-governmental organization in Bologna, Italy, that was very progressive. We secured nearly $500,000 dollars, and with them we constructed the hospital in La Asunta, that was then a very forgotten region. We are speaking here of 1986. And my plans were to finish my work there and go back to college, but, also, in that year I met my wife and so I stayed. My wife is a nurse and I supported her work in the hospital, including by driving ambulances.

"Later, they elected me councilor from my community. Later, they proposed that I seek reelection, but for me these kinds of things are not always worthwhile. I decided to return to my union, to the bases. And in this era - 1999 - came the congress of the Six Federations of Yungas, in Irupana: I attended in my role as executive secretary of my union. I got there a day late. And the compañeros were proposing my candidacy, which, in principle, I did not accept, but later they voted by majority and I had to assume the job of executive secretary of COFECAY. There were a lot of risks, then. There was a rumor that military troops were going to enter to attack us, and, thus, the person in charge of the organization should be there to stop the repression. This occurred in September, a little before the conflicts that paralyzed the country… Two weeks afterwards, we went to blockade the highways in October with the simple demant that Controlled Substances Law 1008 be repealed.

In this position I have traveled to various meetings about the coca issue. I went to a congress of coca growers in Puno, Perú and another in Ecuador. In August of last year I was in Mexico to attend the congress of the Latin American Coordinating Committee of Farm Organizations (CLOC, in its Spanish acronym), and for an anti-globalization event. The CLOC invitation came because of the expulsion of the Joint Task Force from our region that we undertook in June 2001, that had a lot of impact. We folded the government's hands, and had three government ministers here to negotiate. I've also been able to be in contact with other coca growers in Perú, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela.

"Upon my return the conflicts of last February were taking place, and ever since the problems in 2000 and up until now I've noticed that the conscience of the people has grown a lot. There had to be an advance. In many communities we can see it."

Narco News: How are you organized in the Yungas region?

Dionicio Núñez: COFECAY has existed for six years. There is another organization that administers the legal coca market in La Paz, where we sell our crops, but among people of various sectors we founded our organization to dedicate it entirely to the union issues and political formation. We don't have much influence in the administration of the market. We are more involved in the politics. We have a congress every two years to elect the new leadership. I am the fourth executive secretary. Since I was nominated as a candidate for congress, I proposed leaving my post. But my compañeros said no. In any case, the tendency is to do both things, congressman and union leader, because the people say: "If we leave you alone as a member of congress you are going to feel you are there and will forget about us."

Narco News: And when did your relations with the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabama, the coca growers of the Chapare region, begin?

Dionicio Núñez: This has been in the works for many years. By 1986, when I was a leader in La Asunta, before Law 1008 existed, the coca growers of Yungas and Chapare had one single organization called CONCOCA. We had national meetings of coca producers. Afterwards, in 1998, Law 1008 was approved and we were divided: the growers of Yungas were called (by the law) traditional growers, those of the Chapare were termed excessive, and those of Santa Cruz, illegal. Then came the first conflicts in the Chapare and we supported them many times, although the government told us to keep out of it. But many people know that when the repressive apparatus finished in Chapare it would come here. Then, we said that we have to fight so that this doesn't happen.

My first contact with Evo was in 1985, during a hunger strike that we held at the university against the triennial eradication plan. He came representing his union and we were in a hunger strike for a dozen days. We got to know each other there, and since then have been permanently in contact. Clearly, there have been tendencies inside of the Chapare, leaders who never related to the people in Yungas, and leaders in Yungas who didn't want to know anything about those of the Chapare. But with Evo and three or four others, although we were not leaders, we have always been in contact. And now we have met anew in this Political Instrument.

So, yes, between Yungas and Chapare there are differences. What I have been able to stress to the foreign journalists is that when they speak of the coca issue in Bolivia, they have only a general perception: coca equals violence, repression and drugs. But it's not that way. The coca in the Yungas region goes back a long time. There are studies that demonstrate the the cultivation of coca has gone on here for at least 400 years. And it has always been for traditional consumption, right up to today. This is an important distinction.

Narco News: How many hectares of coca are currently grown in Yungas?

Dionicio Núñez: We have an estimated figure. All the coca crops are controlled. In each union there are communal committees that control which affiliates grow coca, where they do it and in what seasons they harvest. And this makes sure that the coca goes to the legal market and is not detoured. Each committee extends a commercialization license to the producer that indicates how many pounds of coca leaf he brings to market. And the producer can only sell in the market with this document. It's a very strict rule. We calculate that the production of the past year did not exceed 9,500 hectares… Obviously, the government has its own calculations, and says there are 14,5000 and because Law 1008 permits only 12,000 hectares, they've used this argument to enter and eradicate crops.

Another of the arguments used to restrict our production is that the government says that traditional consumption is diminished and the crops have increased. We asked them to conduct a census to find out how many people chew coca leaf, but they didn't want to, because such a study would have to accept that because of the economic crisis many people who don't always have food to eat substitute their meals with coca. Thus, traditional consumption has extended to social spheres where it did not exist, such as in public universities.

Narco News: Is the government eradicating crops in Yungas?

Dionicio Núñez: They're not eradicating, just mocking. We ask ourselves from where they get their figures, because we get ours directly from the local committees. And the government says they have satellite images. Which satellites? Those of NASA. Who is NASA? The gringos. Thus, of course they don't lie! We know that the gringos will always say we have more coca fields than we have. And at least in the areas where COFECAY works not a single hectare of coca has been eradicated. They say they have spent $800,000 dollars in the eradication, but the money probably just went to somebody's bank accounts. That's why we say they are merely mocking. There have been cases in which people who no longer live in the region have been promised money in exchange for eradicating coca fields that they no longer work, that are not producing. Or the authorities will count two coca fields eradicated where only one was eliminated in order to give the impression that eradication advances in Yungas. They say they have eradicated ten hectares where they haven't even eradicated five.

Narco News: And have you had problems with narco-trafficking?

Dionicio Núñez: No. We did in the 1980s, when the dictator Luis García Meza ruled. That was the only time. But not because the producers initiated the activity. García Mexa prohibited coca in Yungas, creating collection centers where everyone was obligated to sell their product. These centers were managed by agents of the Interior Minister, that is to say, the narco. And these gentlemen, as the only ones authorized to purchase coca leaf, fixed the price to maximize their profits. Then the clandestine buyers appeared, offering a better price than the collection centers… That was the first step toward the processing of coca to create base paste.

Narco News: How many coca growers are there in Yungas?

Dionicio Núñez: We don't know exactly, but there are six municipalities whose economy depends on coca leaf. There are others where it represents the second most important industry. Anyway, we have between 12,000 and 14,000 affiliated producers, although not all producers are affiliated.

Narco News: Is the consumption of coca leaf in Yungas for traditional use? Are there other uses?

Dionicio Núñez: Look, based on the information we have, 30 to 35 percent of the coca that we produce here would go clandestinely to Argentine... I say would go because with their economic crisis it already is not the same amount. Later, our coca is used to a lesser degree for ritual uses in the state of La Paz, such as the rudimentary elaboration of products like syrups, teas and others. But the largest part of our production goes for direct consumption all over the country, to Santa Cruz and including in Cochabamba. The grand part of it goes to be chewed.

Narco News: Do you believe that with the resurgence of the coca growers' movement and farmers in general that in Yungas there are better possibilities for you in services and sales?

Dionicio Núñez: We have the same demands as we've always had. Almost everything we have obtained, like hospitals, electric power, we have not been given out of kindness. These are the products of struggle. COFECAY has these proposals, but at the municipal level there is not the necessary force to achieve anything. The only hope for success is in the unions organized in COFECAY. There are non-governmental organizations, municipal governments and other institutions, but all of them work in a very dispersed form. We don't want that. We want to create coordination to plan and bring the work forward. This is one of the tasks that we want to take on from Congress. That the existing resources, together with what we can gather, will come to support the great necessities that we have, fundamentally on matters such as roads, education and health. It's for this reason that we all are working in the Political Instrument, organizing.

The idea thing for us is that it be legalized. For example, the exportation to Argentina and the north of Chile should be legal. But there are international treaties, like the Geneva Convention on Drugs, that don't permit it. That's why we've involved ourselves in politics, because from the seat of government we are going to fight for decriminalization of coca and so that we can export it and sell it in any part of the world.

Narco News: How did Decree # 26415, which closed the traditional coca markets in varios places around the country, affect the coca growers in Yungas?

Dionicio Núñez: The first of the decrees, that caused the conflicts in Sacaba, were said by President Quiroga that it was only a decree for Chapare and Sacaba. But in sections four and five of the decree it said that in Yungas the entire coca cycle, from harvest to drying, would have to be done by persons who were licensed as legal coca producers. And if not, they would seize the coca leaf. This intended to exercise a control, through the police, and would have clearly meant a great difficulty for us. In this cycle, the jobs are done through the family structure and if at any moment of an inspection the producer is not found with the product, if only his wife and kids are they, everything could be seized. And they only give one license per family. This would have caused big problems. Because it also speaks of "legal" coca and legal coca is only that which was cultivated before 1988. Everything since 1988 to the present is illegal, according to the text of the Controlled Substances Law 1008.

The second decree referred to the creation of primary markets for sale of coca leaf. They were going to construct markets in Corico, Chulumani, Coripata, Cajuata and in Irupana. With that, they took away from us the possibility of bringing our leaf to market in the city of La Paz. This was the same thing that the dictator Luis García Meza did in 1980, creating the so called collection centers, so that everyone would be obligated to sell only to these entities. This policy was an incentive for narco-trafficking, and afterwards, an argument to repress us. And that is why we entered into the blockades of last January and February.

Lea Ud. el Articulo en Español

For More Narco News, Click Here

Subscribe for Alerts of New Reports

Reporting from the Road to Democracy