Pubdate: Sun, 26 Jan 2003
Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2003 Associated Press


COCHABAMBA, Bolivia --The president began peace talks with coca leaders, 12 
days after thousands of growers shut down the nation's largest highway over 
the government's plan to eradicate illegal crops.

President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada began the talks Sunday and said they 
would continue into the coming days even though coca leaders have not yet 
lifted the blockade. Since Jan. 14, protesters have blocked the highway 
with tree trunks and boulders.

Coca is the base ingredient of cocaine , but many Bolivians chew the leaves 
or use them to brew tea. About 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of coca can 
be cultivated legally, but growers want the limit increased.

The protests have killed 10 civilians and two soldiers. Local human rights 
groups said 100 people were injured and about 1,000 were detained by soldiers.

Evo Morales, the coca leader who lost to Sanchez de Lozada by only two 
points in last year's presidential election, said the growers' blockades 
will continue until the government agrees to a series of demands to 
alleviate poverty.

The demands include an immediate withdrawal of soldiers and the 
demilitarization of the coca growing region, along with a promise that 
Bolivia's government will not sign a free trade agreement with the United 

Although the talks have formally begun, the government has not announced a 
cease fire, or a possible withdrawal of the thousands of soldiers 
patrolling the highway and keeping it clear of debris.

For the past 12 days, companies have not sent their trucks across the 
200-kilometer (125-mile) highway connecting Cochabamba with Santa Cruz to 
avoid skirmishes between government forces and coca growers.

The government estimated the blockade cost the nation $80 million in lost 
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