Pubdate: September 29, 1997 
Source: Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Fax: 2132374712

Author: SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, Times Staff Writer

Bolivia Held Hostage by Cocaine 

One of Latin America's poorest nations has been told by the U.S. to end
coca production or lose aid. But efforts have barely dented coca acreage,
and critics say they violate human rights. 

CHIMORE, BoliviaThe column of police commandos trudges down the muddy
trail into the green maze of the jungle carrying rifles, shotguns, teargas
canisters, machetes and riot shields. The babyfaced commandos, known as
the Leopards, joke and grumble goodnaturedly as they hurdle logs and
streams. But they are ready for combat.

Peasants here once ambushed police patrols with bows and arrows and crude
bombs. Now the peasants defend their livelihood with ancient but durable
Mauser rifles that saw action in the war against Paraguay in the 1930s.
"The Mauser is very good; it has better range than our weapons," Col.
German Saavedra says, watching the hillsides that wall the trail. "They
fire on us from above, from several positions simultaneously. The peasants
have an impressive communications network. They move through the terrain
very well." 

The mission of the patrol: to find and destroy coca. This is a key
battlefield in the global war on drugs. 

Known as the Chapare, this New Jerseysized jungle valley with a population
of 220,000 is the source of about 25% of the world's cocaine. 

The "enemy" here is not cartel gunslingers but peasants whose crops make
Bolivia the world's No. 2 producer of the coca leaf and cocaine. 

Although Bolivia has avoided the savage violence and international
attention that have afflicted Latin America's other major coca producers,
Colombia and Peru, the Bolivian front has become increasingly treacherous.
Three police officers and six peasants have died this year, in the
Chapare's worst bloodshed in a decade. 

"The elements of an explosive mix are there," said Victor Canales, who
recently stepped down as Bolivia's antidrug czar. "This is the kind of
thing that happened in Peru and Colombia. . . . There is surely going to be
conflict. And the more progress we make, the more violence there is going
to be." 

The conflict seems as murky as the muddy labyrinth of the Chapare; the
politics and rhetoric on all sides are stubborn and contradictory. Whether
seen through the eyes of the police who patrol the jungle, the peasants
whose livelihood is based on coca or the politicians who fight the war of
words, the Chapare is a jungle of clashing perceptions and elusive realities. 

Bolivia, one of the poorest nations in Latin America, has come under
pressure as the U.S. revives a strategy that targets nations that are the
chief source of cocaine. Funding for international drug control more than
doubled this year. State Department antidrug assistance to Latin America
rose by 40%, an increase that does not include the expanding budgets of the
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Pentagon. 

"The best way to fight cocaine is to go to the plant," said Robert Charles,
counsel for a House subcommittee on national security. "The source
countries need very special attention. We are going to try to win this war

* * * 

The struggle is driven from afar by demand for cocaine and the political
importance of the drug issue in the United States. Washington has spent at
least $750 million since 1988 on a threepronged Bolivian offensive:
interdiction of drug traffic, eradication of coca and development of
alternative crops. 

Spurred by impatience in Washington, Bolivian authorities are scrambling to
meet yearend eradication targets required for U.S. certification of their
antidrug efforts. "U.S.Bolivian relations revolve around the drug
issueand the certification issue in particular," the Washington Office on
Latin America, a policy research and advocacy group, asserted this year.
"One has to ask whether [the] meager results are worth the cost." 

Drug seizures are up about 40%. Cocaine's dominance in Bolivia has declined
since the 1970s and 1980s, when military rulers were brazen partners of
traffickers. After taking office last month, President Hugo Banzer
negotiated a preliminary accord with coca growers that could reduce
tensions in the Chapare. But eradication efforts have barely dented coca

And the U.S.backed crackdowns are blamed for alleged human rights
violations. "We have run a great deal to find ourselves in the same spot,"
said Bolivian Congressman Juan del Granado, head of a legislative human
rights commission. "The problem is not the Chapare. The problem is wealth
and opulence on one hand and poverty and misery on the other." 

Bolivia's leaders have promised to wipe out coca despite years of failure
and their oftendubious antidrug records. Some politicians still defend
the coca leafwhich remains legal when planted under government
regulations, and is chewed by millionsas a symbol of sovereignty. The
bosses of coca growers unions have gained unprecedented clout; they
denounce cocaine while supplying the drug trade. 

"It's a poor country, but that's not an excuse," a U.S. antidrug official
said. "Should we allow you to violate the law just because you are going to
make more money? I say no. And there are a lot of socalled innocent little
peasants increasingly involved in the processing of cocaine." 

Bolivian drug traffickers, no longer junior partners supplying the big
Colombian cartels, increasingly produce cocaine bound for the United States
and Europe. They take refuge behind desperate and politicized peasants. 

* * * 

The U.S. has committed itself to helping professionalize Bolivia's
antidrug fight and developing legal crops to substitute for coca. But the
debate over the strategy divides even U.S. law enforcement. Retired DEA
agent Gene Castillo, the former No. 2 chief in Bolivia, is a critic.
"Eradication is never going to work," Castillo said. "For all the money the
U.S. spends, they could just buy up the coca leaf. The U.S. State
Department does not have a handle on the culture. They are asking too much
of the Bolivians." 

Chapter One: The Soldiers Col. Saavedra's 289officer eradication patrol
rolls out of the police base here in the town of Chimore at dawn. The
convoy of 13 trucks drives down a narrow road past tethered cows, women
washing laundry in a stream, peasants who murmur cautious greetings. The
commandos are guided by an informant who claims that there is coca growing
in the hills beyond the end of the road. The trek begins down a trail that
a night of jungle rain has turned into yellowbrown slop. Urging on the
troops, Saavedra booms: "Mud? What mud? Why bother to clean your boots?
Keep moving!" Looking very much the jungle warrior in his crisp camouflage
uniform, M16 at the ready, Saavedra has a dimpled smile and a tough
reputation he cultivated as chief of the La Paz riot squad. Now he is a
commander of the paramilitary Rural Mobil Patrol Units, or UMOPAR, an elite
force trained and paid bonuses by the Narcotics Assistance Service of the
State Department. In 1988, Bolivia passed one of South America's toughest
drug laws. The mandate to eradicate coca planted after that year proved a
Sisyphean task. Farmers plant fields as fast as police uproot them.

In 1995, the U.S. gave Bolivia an ultimatum: Eradicate in earnest or be
judged uncooperative in the battle against narcotics and face losses in
U.S. aid. Crop destruction went into high gear. Peasant militias
retaliated. Riots left seven peasants dead, including a 13yearold girl,
and scores injured on both sides. The fighting surged again early this year. 

President Banzer, who ruled as a dictator in the 1970s, has promised to
eradicate all coca in the Chapare in five years. 

Critics predict more violence, which human rights advocates blame on
heavyhanded police operations. "They take over the whole village in a
violent fashion, kicking down doors, hitting men, mistreating women,"
lawmaker Del Granado said. "There is no control." 

The alleged abuse does not rise to the vicious levels reported in other
nations, and the peasant militias are not the "narcoguerrillas" of
Colombia and Peru. But a concerted drive to wipe out coca would be risky,
according to former DEA agent Castillo. "It's not going to be pretty. You
would end up having to kill a lot of innocent people," he said. "It would
be a winnable war if you used the military. But what would be the price?" 

Saavedra's morning patrol knows one potential price. The commandos do not
expect an attack, but they know they are shadowed by lookouts in the brush.
The column slogs down the trail for about two miles. The colonel calls: "A
path! Find a path!" The patrol scouts a trail that twists up a steep
hillside through thorns, vines and insects with a feverinducing bite.
Their sweat mixing with a drizzle, the soldiers emerge into a clearing.
Kellygreen coca crops stretch before them. They march through the first
field without touching a plant. 

Under the complex rules of this game, the authorities do not destroy coca
of indeterminate age, even if it was probably planted after 1988 and is
therefore illegal in this region. The plant remains productive for about 20
years. Only a few peasants have ever been arrested for planting new coca.
The commandos stand guard as officers unsheathe machetes and go to work on
a patch of clearly new coca. They yank and slash the plants by hand. If the
roots are not slashed properly, the plants can be stuck back into the
ground. Coca is a plant that needs little care. The officers record the
tally: about 1,500 square yards. A small victory on a big battlefield. 

Chapter Two: The Politician Congressman Evo Morales, the de facto ruler of
the Chapare, is Bolivia's most divisive political figure. Morales, 37, an
Aymara Indian with a helmet of black hair and a slightly hooked nose, is
wearing a black jacket, jeans, sandals. He heads a confederation of about
31,800 coca growers, one of Latin America's most effective peasant movements.

This summer, Morales became the first cocalero leader elected to Congress.
Allies captured three other congressional seats and numerous village
councils. As he takes the stage of a crowded union hall in the jungle town
of Sinahota, Morales looks unperturbed by the knowledge that the Bolivian
and U.S. governments consider him Public Enemy No. 1. A speaker winds up
her diatribe in mixed Quechua and Spanish with cries of "Long live coca!
Death to the Yankees!" And Morales flashes the practiced smile of a born
politician, a smile intended to soften incendiary rhetoric. The audience is
Morales' people: seated peasant women resplendent in their red, purple and
orange skirts, straw hats decorated with ribbons, hair intricately braided. 

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