Violence Returns to the Chapare
One Death and Nineteen Injuries as Drug Warriors Clash with Bolivian Farmers
By Alex Contreras Baspineiro
Narco News South American Bureau Chief
September 29, 2004
COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA: “I’m not worth killing. Neither today nor tomorrow will I be worth killing,” said Bolivian President Carlos Mesa in a press conference several months ago. One wonders if Mesa believes that all the death and pain his drug policies are causing are “worth it” either.
A violent confrontation yesterday between soldiers of the Joint Task Force and coca growers from Bolivia’s Chapare region resulted in one death, nineteen injuries – five of them serious – several arrests, and roadblocks throughout the region.
Juan Choque Cruz, the slain coca grower, was a native of Potosí, and left five children fatherless. His widow is pregnant with their sixth child.
In the face of this killing, the Bolivian president has maintained an inscrutable silence.
“This is the first shooting death to happen under the administration of President Carlos Mesa. This situation cannot continue. We are not sure what might happen in the future,” announced congressman and coca growers’ leader Evo Morales Aima.
On September 8, the Bolivian government approved the “New Integrated Bolivian Strategy for Fighting Drug Trafficking 2004-2008.” The plan demands an investment of $958 million, of which only ten percent will be assumed by Bolivia, and the rest by the international community, principally the United States. The coca growers have called this U.S.-imposed drug control program “blackmail politics.”
The anti-drug strategy aims to completely eliminate the coca fields in the Chapare region, near the city of Cochabamba, and to implement policies to encourage voluntary eradication in the Yungas region, near the capital La Paz.
Official figures show that since 1988 more than ninety percent of the Bolivian coca crop has been eliminated. Still, there remain an estimated 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres) of coca plants in the country: 22,000 hectares in the Yungas and 3,000 in the Chapare. These numbers come from the government; the coca growers have different numbers, claiming much more coca production in the Chapare.
According to the famous Law 1008 (“Regulation of Coca and Controlled Substances”), there can be only 12,000 hectares under cultivation for personal consumption and traditional uses.
“Carlos Mesa’s government is the same as Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s or Jorge Quiroga’s because there are merely puppets of the North American empire,” said Leonilda Zurita, leader of the women coca growers of the Chapare. “For them, defending national sovereignty and dignity is not important; they simply follow the empire’s orders.”
Nearly all the coca growers reject the government’s new drug control policy.
“Carlos Mesa’s anti-drug plan is a response to imposition by the United States, which is trying to eliminate the coca growers’ movement in the Yungas, as well as all the coca,” said congressman and activist Dionisio Núñez of La Paz.
Now that the Bolivian government has endorsed the U.S. anti-drug plan, the Joint Task Force, comprised of police, soldiers, and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency advisers, has begun to step up its operations to eliminate coca crops, causing several confrontations.
On September 4, four days before the text of the new plan was made public U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee sent a message to the Bolivian government, praising the plan and pledging his country’s unwaivering support for Bolivian anti-drug efforts.
Two other recent events can hardly be coincidences given the current political climate: Government Minister Alfonso Ferrufino’s resignation “for health reasons” and his replacement by Saul Lara. Lara was a legal adviser to the coca growers’ movement in 1987 and 1988, when Law 1008 was first being enacted, and argued to keep the coca of the Chapare legal. At his new post, he has not only toughened Bolivia’s anti-drug laws, but passively followed the orders of the U.S. government.
On Tuesday, September 28, there was a confrontation in the Chapare town of Bustillos, which resulted one death, nineteen injuries, and an undetermined number of arrests.
Coca grower Juan Choque Cruz, 38, took a bullet in the forehead, fired by a uniformed soldier. He died instantly.
The conflict began when coca eradication brigades came upon group of coca growers on a security patrol in the town, located within the Isiboro Sécure National Park. This region is mostly inhabited by ex-mineworkers from the state mining company, Comibol. They came here unemployed after massive layoffs during the neoliberal reforms of 1985 and found coca to be their only method for survival. Indigenous people and other non-indigenous settlers also live in the area.
As they tried to block the destruction of their crops – which in such operations often includes killing legal “alternative development” crops as well as coca – the farmers were met with non-lethal bullets, tear gas, and live gunfire.
In an assembly on Saturday, September 25, in the town of Lauca Ñ, 170 kilometers (100 miles) from Cochabamba, the coca growers had decided to begin peaceful patrols to prevent the destruction of their crops.
Bolivian drug policy rests on four pillars: coca eradication, interdiction in drug trafficking, drug use prevention, and alternative development. Historically, the destruction of coca fields has been the most controversial.
Since Law 1008 went into effect, 115 people are estimated to have been killed in its implementation. The majority of these have been coca growers, while some soldiers have been killed as well. None of these murders have been investigated; none of those responsible have been punished. The military has total impunity.
The coca growers of the Chapare, together with other social movements, have called for a massive mobilization on October 11. A march will begin in the town of Caracollo and head north to the capital La Paz. They expect to arrive on October 18 to lead a series of demonstrations with three concrete demands: an end to the eradication of coca crops, nationalization of the country’s hydrocarbons, and the prosecution of ex-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada for human rights abuses.
Many Bolivian popular organizations have said that they will participate in the protest march. These include the Bolivian Managers Federation (part of the Gas Coordinating Committee, the main organization fighting for hydrocarbon nationalization), the peasant-farmer unions of Cochabamba, Oruro, Potosí, Santa Cruz and Chuquisaca, and many other local and professional organizations.
Evo Morales warned that if the Mesa administration does not change its drug control policies, and start listening to the popular movements rather than the U.S. embassy and multinational corporations, the situation in this country could worsen dramatically.
In the coming months, Bolivia takes three important steps: the creation of a new hydrocarbons law, municipal elections on December 5, and the Constituents’ Assembly, which is to be convened in the early months of 2005.
Confrontations over coca, government threats and U.S. intervention seem intended to prevent these democratic processes from developing. One year after the “Gas War,” Bolivia finds itself once again on the brink of social upheaval.
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