Under the Flag of Law Enforcement

September 25, 2007

fore Bolivia passed a new law aimed at control-
ling coca production, a crowd of protesters gathered at
the drug police post in Villa Tunari, a small town in the
coca-growing Chapare region. An hour-long video tape
made by a crew from a local television station docu-
mented the scene: Hundreds of marchers, dressed in
shabby work clothes and carrying no visible arms, not
even sticks, approach the post. Nervous police, wearing
camouflage uniforms and armed with automatic rifles,
block the marchers' advance. A union leader asks per-
mission for the group to enter and go to the eradication
program office located on the site. Shots ring out. One
farmer falls dead, another is wounded. Several farmers,
including the wounded man, point out the police agent
who fired. A police official promises that his men's
arms will not be used again "against campesinos. Only
to fight drug traffickers." But many more shots are heard
as the police push the marchers off the grounds and far
down the road.
It was later reported that at least 12 more people died,
some by drowning, as the marchers tried to escape across
a river. The farmers later charged that agents of the U.S.
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had encour-
aged the police action. Nothing in the video seems to
prove this, though, judging by their appearance, several
men among the police could be North Americans. In
Washington, DEA spokesperson Cornelius Dougherty
specifically denied that any agents had been involved in
the shooting, but said the DEA has no comment on
whether any agency personnel were present on the day
of the incident. The helicopter watching from above as
the marchers fled, however, provided a stark reminder
of the active U.S. presence in the region.
U.S. attempts to impose its drug control policy in
Bolivia have provoked bitter opposition from the well-
organized coca farmers unions, as well as from large
sectors of the Bolivian people, virtually all of whom in
some way depend directly or indirectly on coca income
for survival. Many view the bloodshed at Villa Tunari as
a prelude to ever higher levels of violence over U.S.-
inspired policies, threatening the country's political sta-
bility perhaps more so than the drug trade itself.
ornate national congress building in La Paz, Bo-
livia's legislators moved toward a final vote on a contro-
versial revision of the country's drug laws. While culti-
vating coca had never been a crime in Bolivia,' the new
law, proposed at Washington's insistence almost a year
and a half earlier, would turn most coca farmers into
The Villa Tunari protest was only one of many in the
final weeks before the vote. In Cochabamba, capital of
the region that includes the Chapare coca zone, several
thousand farmers-members of powerful legally recog-
nized growers unions-directed much of their anger at
the United States: "iCarajo gringos!" the farmers
chanted, "Coca is not poison!" and "Gringos out of the
Chapare! Gringos out of Bolivia!"
Concern about the law's passage was widespread,
though not all shared the vehemence of the coca farm-
ers. Most Bolivians worry about the growth of the co-
caine mafia and say they support strong action against
drug dealers, but they are equally concerned about the
economic impact of cutting off coca production. By all
accounts, coca is now Bolivia's most valuable commod-
ity, worth more than all the country's legal exports com-
bined. This nation of less than seven million people is
the world's second largest producer of coca leaf. (Peru is
the largest.)
Without coca, many Bolivians believe, their dire eco-
nomic fate would be even grimmer than it already is.
While officially one in four Bolivians is unemployed
(the actual rate is probably far higher), more than
200,000 make their living in the coca fields or in the labs
where the leaves are converted to paste and then to
cocaine. At least 300,000 more work in the huge under-
ground economy that depends on the millions of dollars
generated by the coca trade. 2
In addition, an estimated ten to twenty per cent of the
Bolivian coca crop is consumed not by the international
drug mafia, but by Bolivians who chew it in leaf form or
use it medicinally or ritually [see "Does the Pope do
Dope?"]. Because coca continues to be used in these
traditional ways, many drug control officials have reluc-
tantly concluded that an outright ban is culturally insen-
sitive and-perhaps more important in their
view-unenforceable. 3 The legislation for which they
lobbied does permit a small controlled area of cultiva-
tion for traditional use.
Almost everyone, even the coca farmers, agrees that
some kind of control is desirable. But there is bitter
disagreement over the nature of that regulation, and how
it should be enforced. That disagreement lay at the heart
of the debate over the coca law which raged for over a
year throughout Bolivia. In the end, the Bolivian gov-
ernment put aside these weighty considerations in favor
of improved relations with the United States, and in
mid-July the new law was approved.
an overwhelming role in drug law enforcement in
Bolivia. Operation Blast Furnace, in which some 160
U.S. troops descended on the Bolivian jungle in 1986
with the announced goal of searching out drug labs, was
only the most high-profile of U.S. activities. The troops
left after four months but U.S. army trainers remained to
work with Bolivia's special drug police unit, and agents
of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration frequently
accompany the Bolivian police in the field. Six U.S.
helicopters are currently used in drug enforcement pro-
grams in the country; as many as four more may soon be
added. In all, funding for the U.S. International Narcot-
ics Control Program in Bolivia will probably reach $10
million for 1989.'
Raids against cocaine labs hidden deep in the jungle
are dramatic and visible, but the primary goal of U.S.
policy is to destroy the coca fields. Washington esti-
mated in 1987 that 100,000 acres of coca were under
cultivation in the Chapare, Yungas, Santa Cruz and
Apolo regions of Bolivia. For U.S. officials, those fields
are, above all, cocaine in unfinished form-the source
of some 90 metric tons of the drug that year.?
The United States is careful to monitor the total
amount of coca destroyed, a figure often used as a rough
measure of the success or failure of drug control efforts.
In some recent years Bolivia's eradication figures were
extremely low-only 119 acres of coca were destroyed
in 1985 and 692 in 1986-partly because the legal basis
for eradication was so shaky. Assistant Secretary of
State Ann Wrobleski, who heads the Bureau of Interna-
tional Narcotics Affairs, called the new law's passage a
"landmark for Bolivia and for the international commu-
nity," though she recognizes that "implementing it will
be more difficult."
Drug control is, in the eyes of many U.S. officials, at
the center of U.S.-Bolivian relations. After the 1980
"Cocaine Coup" led by generals reportedly involved in
the drug trade, the United States refused to extend diplo-
matic recognition and cut off almost all aid. Relations
improved when the three succeeding short-lived mili-
tary governments began to take some, largely cosmetic,
measures against drug trafficking. Following the Octo-
ber, 1982 election of civilian President Hernin Siles
Suazo, the United States agreed to reopen the aid
pipeline, if (and it was a big if) there were
progress--defined by strict U.S. guidelines-on drug
That policy has since become law: In 1986 Congress
passed legislation which requires the president to certify
to Congress each year that drug producing countries are
cooperating with U.S. drug control efforts. Countries
which are considered uncooperative are "decertified"
REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 26and face mandatory penalties-in the first year, half the
country's U.S. aid is cut; if the country is decertified for
a second year, all aid is eliminated. U.S. representatives
to multilateral development banks are instructed to vote
against loans to the decertified country and a series of
trade sanctions can also be imposed. 7
Congress singled out Bolivia, declaring that the coun-
try should not be certified unless it met strict eradication
targets. Those targets were not met in 1986, and Bolivia
lost $9.5 million in U.S. aid; nor were they met in 1987,
and it lost another $8.7 million. 8
representatives sat down to negotiate the terms of a
three-year bilateral drug control agreement, the U.S.
delegation insisted that the Bolivians declare their re-
solve to meet the eradication targets (4,500 acres in the
first year) and institute laws "to restrict the production
and trafficking of narcotics, and to reduce coca cultiva-
tion and prosecute those responsible."'
Mindful of the political clout of the growers unions,
some of the Bolivians preferred emphasizing voluntary
crop reduction, but the U.S. delegation, under heavy
pressure from Congress, remained inflexible. "They were
talking about forced eradication," said a Bolivian who
was present.
The negotiations dragged on. Nine months after they
began, Fernando Illanes, Bolivia's ambassador to the
United States, spoke on Capitol Hill. He explained that
the cocaine trade brought $600 million a year into Bo-
livia, while the country's annual gross domestic product
was only $3.5 billion.
I do not have to tell this group how impoverished
my country is....Under the best of circumstances,
that is without sanctions, the total U.S. ESF
[Economic Support Funds] assistance to Bolivia
is roughly $30 million for the next year....Thus,
the withdrawal of U.S. aid, while harmful,
constitutes a minor blow, a drop in the bucket,
and simply cannot be expected to have the kind
of impact some believe it will. This does not
mean, however, that we consider the loss of U.S.
aid inconsequential. It is not. Indeed, we will
require more, not less participation from your
By threatening sanctions for failure to meet eradication
targets, Illanes said, "Congress is essentially demanding
results before funding your participation."' 0
The Bolivian government had to weigh not just the
economic cost of sanctions but also the political risks
involved. Opposition to the U.S. plan, and criticism of
the heavy-handed way the United States was pushing for
its adoption, was coming from some "moderate" politi-
cians, as well as from Left parties that the U.S. Embassy
characterized as "extremist" even though they sit in the
Bolivian Congress. Their outrage was not simple elec-
tioneering, as the Embassy liked to imply. Nor was the
opposition instigated by the cocaine mafia, as Bolivian
officials sometimes hinted. It originated with the coca
farmers themselves.
coca do not live in a shadowy underworld far out-
side the mainstream of national political life. Their well-
organized unions form part of the legal labor movement.
Local unions are grouped into regional centrals, the cen-
trals into national federations, and the federations be-
long to the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), Bolivia's
powerful trade union umbrella organization.
In the Chapare, where at least 40,000 families culti-
vate coca, even U.S. officials are unable to overlook the
importance of the growers' organizations. A State De-
partment report reads:
Although these peasants are independent owners/
planters, most are members of the more than 500
unions which combine to form 52 centrals. This
central union structure serves as the lowest
echelon of an active, functioning democratic form
of local government which strongly influences
the economic, political and social fabric of the
Chapare peasants' life."
The power of the unions dates back to the 1960s,
when large numbers of people migrated to the Chapare
[see "El Dorado Gone Awry"]. Faced with the central
government's neglect, the unions distributed land, settled
disputes and built schools and health posts. In 1965,
when the prefect of Cochabamba tried to impose a new
tax on coca shipped out of the Chapare, the unions
threatened to resist the tax by force and burn down the
collection station if necessary. The tax was withdrawn."
In 1982, the government demanded that the Chapare
farmers sell their coca only at outposts of a new official
agency which would pay less than the free market price.
The farmers occupied the buying centers and the gov-
ernment was forced to retreat. 1 3
In 1987, the conservative administration of President
Victor Paz Estenssoro made the mistake of overlooking
this history. The growers were to be most directly af-
fected by the proposed U.S.-Bolivia accord, and yet
their unions were not consulted. In May, a draft contain-
ing a strict timetable for eradication and the text of a
harsh proposed coca law was circulated. The growers
made their displeasure known, and when the govern-
ment failed to respond, the unions mobilized.
On May 25, ten thousand coca growers gathered in
Cochabamba. They set up roadblocks on the highway
leading to La Paz-one of the most heavily travelled
routes in the country-declaring they would not leave
until their demands were heard. The situation was tense,
and U.S. personnel were pulled out of the area. Three
days later, police and military units were sent to dis-
mantle the blockade, killing two and wounding nineteen
-1-7 "'.COCA
in the process. Faced with a wave of criticism and the
prospect of continued clashes, the government agreed to
open talks with the unions.
Long-time COB leader Juan Lechin, known for his
forceful role in the tin miners' struggles of the past,
joined the negotiating team of seasoned growers union
leaders. On June 6 the government and the growers
signed an accord in which the growers disavowed links
with the drug trade and agreed to a voluntary coca eradi-
cation program. "We support that," union leader Alberto
Vargas said later. "We're human. But we're campesi-
nos, and we aren't responsible for the demand for our
product. Why are other nations consuming so much? we
ask. The governments that are against coca have to un-
derstand that we aren't going to give up what we've got
for nothing-they have to consider its worth, offer some
other means of employment in exchange."
The growers, Bolivian officials, even most U.S. offi-
cials, all agree that no coca control program, voluntary
or involuntary, can succeed unless the farmers have an
alternative source of income. In its accord the Bolivian
government promised cash payments to individual farm-
ers who destroyed their coca, and pledged to implement
a major regional development program. In spite of the
income that coca generates, the Chapare is still a raw
jungle frontier. There is almost no industry (except for
the manufacture of cocaine paste); poor roads make the
transport of agricultural products difficult; and many
towns lack schools and other public facilities.
The development program was not a new one, but a
re-packaging of U.S.AID-funded projects already under-
way in the Chapare, where a number of development programs have been tried with little to show for it. The
terms of the voluntary eradication accord firmly commit
the Bolivian government to making this one a success. At least that is how the growers saw it: They were
obligated to continue with the eradication program only
as long as the government made sure the development
project moved forward.' 4
program advanced at a brisk pace, with over 2,500
acres of coca destroyed. But in early 1988, the growers
brought it to a halt. Some complained they never re-
ceived payment for pulling up their coca, and that the
regional development program was going nowhere. A
Bolivian development specialist described the scene in
mid-1988 in Villanueva, a Chapare town designated as a
"development pole" for the project: "There's a govern-
ment sign that proudly says 'We're building here,' but
there's no construction going on, and no construction
equipment-just one broken-down tractor."
Not only had the development program run short of
funds, it was wracked by bureaucratic wrangling be-
tween Bolivian and U.S. officials over how and when
funds should be disbursed. Clearly, to pay a reward for
each acre of coca pulled up would have been simplest.
But U.S. policy does not permit compensation for end-
ing what the United States views as an illegal
activity--even though it is not seen as such in Bolivia.
The solution lay in a semantic sleight of hand: Farmers
were given $2,000 per hectare (about 2.5 acres) of coca
destroyed-characterized as aid for switching to new
crops, instead of as compensation for losing the old one.
The United States wanted to make part of the payment in
tools and seed. The farmers wanted cash. In the end, the
United States agreed to pay $750 per hectare, and the
Bolivian government, at least on paper, would pay the
rest. In reality, other forms of U.S. assistance were in-
creased so Bolivia could pay its share.
Then the United States said it would disburse funds
to individuals only after they had destroyed at least 70%
of their coca, and it would fund local development only
after the same percentage of coca had been eradicated in
the entire area. "I don't want to be a pessimist," said
Radl Lara, legal adviser to the growers unions, "but I've
been studying this for a long time. Development plans
and projects haven't ever worked before, and they aren't
going to work now because there's not enough funding."
Lara said a "serious" project would require at least $500
million-the U.S.AID plan called for spending only $72
million over five years. U.S. officials agree that funding
is inadequate but say it is intended only to get things
started. They add that under the terms of the bilateral
three-year plan the Bolivians are to seek financing from
countries other than the United States.
Washington's unwillingness to pay the price of the
program has made the growers just as mistrustful of U.S.
intentions as the United States is of theirs: "The gringos
want to take away our work," said a farmer who has
grown coca in the Chapare for five years to support his
entire ten-member family. "They want to take it away
just like they did to the miners." (The Bolivian govern-
ment laid off 20,000 miners in 1985.) "The miners are
living in garbage dumps now, eating garbage. We don't
want to end up like them."
"They don't pay any attention to our complaints,"
union leader Vargas says, "What they want to do is
eliminate us." Until now, the Bolivian government has
tried to juggle the interests of both the United States and
the farmers. With the passage of the new coca law, the
farmers lost one of their most valuable bargaining chips.
Before, they had to be persuaded to support eradication.
Now it can occur with or without their cooperation.
L.of enforcing laws, there is every reason to expect
that the United States will press hard for enforcement of
VOLUME XXII, NO. 6 (MARCH 1989) 29COCAo Asr4
this one. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, approved
by the U.S. Congress in October, says Bolivia cannot be
certified for foreign aid in 1989 unless it has reached the
eradication targets of the three-year plan and "has begun
a program of forced eradication if the targets for volun-
tary eradication are not being met." The law even speci-
fies that the President cannot waive these special re-
quirements for Bolivia by citing national security con-
Even before the new coca law was passed, Bolivian
drug police and U.S. DEA agents stepped up their pres-
ence in the region. Armed helicopters, on loan from the
U.S. Department of Defense, are frequently seen flying
over the Chapare, ferrying police and U.S. drug agents
to and from operations.' 6
Drug control officials say many of their actions are
directed against the small planes that land and "within
seven minutes load up a cargo of cocaine paste and
leave." In other operations, police raid the tiny "labora-
tories" where cocaine paste is made. While some of the
paste labs are hidden in dense jungle, officials say a
large number are found near the owner's home where
paste is frequently stored. "If our intelligence says that
paste is being accumulated in a house, we have to raid
the house and get the drugs," said an official who has
participated in Chapare raids.
Area farmers charge that police often use the raids on
Chapare homes as a cover for stealing money and house-
hold appliances. They further charge that DEA agents
have participated in such break-ins. At a Cochabamba
press conference on May 23, Alberto Villarroel said that
police agents obeying orders from "the gringos" entered
his home in Samusabeti. "They took $5,900, a radio,
blankets, appliances and other belongings," the farmer
maintained. After a resident of the town of Isinuta made
similar charges, the producers union issued an ultima-
tum demanding that all DEA agents leave the Chapare
within 48 hours. If not, "they will be held responsible
for what might occur as a result of the abuses they
commit against the region's poor farmers.""'
In a June interview, a drug control official denied
that DEA agents had been responsible for any abuses
and he brushed aside the victims' professions of inno-
cence. "You can't expect a criminal to say he's a crimi-
nal," he said, adding that he believed the "great major-
ity" of people living in the Chapare are "mixed up in
drug trafficking."
Bolivia's leading human rights organization, the Per-
manent Assembly of Human Rights of Bolivia, takes the
farmers' complaints very seriously. In August, follow-
ing the killings at the Villa Tunari police station at the
end of June, it opened a Chapare office to monitor the
new coca law no doubt appears reasonable and
moderate: It allows for the continuation of the voluntary
eradication program. It provides both a carrot (the de-
velopment program) to encourage cooperation and a
stick (jail terms) for those who refuse to go along. It
even calls for a phase-in period before penalties take
effect. '
Things look rather different on the ground. Though
they have been weakened, the coca farmers still enjoy
the sympathy (and often the outright political support)
of Bolivians from all walks of life. "Just what are those
people supposed to do, starve? Where do they think
there are other jobs?" asked a La Paz resident who
works with unemployed miners. During a recent strike
at San Andr6s University in La Paz, the country's lead-
ing university, students draped the administration build-
ing with a huge banner in support of the coca farmers
and repeatedly linked the growers' demands to their
"It's Yankee imperialism that's got the attention of
this traitorous congress," a speaker told the ten thousand
people demonstrating against the coca law last June in
We know that the solution to the drug problem
lies with the consumers. The real problem is our
country's poverty. What [the United States] wants
is to turn us into a Yankee colony, and the
government and the congress are playing along.
His comments were greeted with cheers and applause,
which grew louder when he vowed that the growers
would do whatever is necessary to defeat U.S. plans for
their country.
In Peru's Huallaga Valley, it was forced eradication
of coca which allowed the Shining Path and MRTA
guerrilla movements to win considerable support. So
far, there is no sign of the formation of a Bolivian
guerrilla movement, but according to union adviser Radil
Lara, "If there's no rational solution and they try forced
eradication, I think they may be encouraging the emer-
gence of guerrillas or some sort of violent
movement... [because] the economic problems that will
be caused by eliminating coca will provide an excellent
medium for extremists who wish to take advantage of
the situation."
The United States admits that its drug policy is, in the
words of State Department official, now ambassador to
Bolivia, Robert Gelbard, "very risky" for the Bolivian
government. But, Gelbard claims, the policy will ulti-
mately be a bulwark for Bolivia's democratic govern-
ment against the drug lords. "We had a taste of this a few
years ago..,where we saw a nondemocratic government
in bed with the drug traffickers....[I]f this program...fails,
we could see a similar kind of non-democratic govern-
ment in the near future.'"2 Officials like Gelbard see the
drug lords as the main threat to Bolivia's democracy.
For many Bolivians, U.S. actions in the name of drug
control are a far more serious menace to their country's
democratic process.
Under the Flag of Law Enforcement
Linda Farthing generously shared her research on this subject
and her assistance is gratefully acknowledged. Thanks too, to my
colleagues at CIDRE in Cochabamba and CEDOIN in La Paz.
1. Various legal controls on the production and sale of coca
have been in effect in Bolivia since colonial times, and perhaps
before, but these were generally aimed at raising revenue. In 1981,
the military government of Gen. Celso Torrelio Villa issued a
decree aimed at controlling coca production and sale, and in 1985
elected president Herndn Siles Suazo issued an "executive decree"
to the same end. These two decrees appear surprisingly similar to
the 1988 law-but neither was ever ratified by the Bolivian con-
gress or effectively enforced. Thus, until the 1988 law was ap-
proved, for all intents and purposes, coca cultivation was legal in Bolivia, or at least, to use the currently popular word, "decriminal- ized." 2. Author's interview with economist and former Bolivian fi- nance minister Flavio Machicado. 3. Bolivia is signatory to a 1961 United Nations accord which commits the government to abolishing coca cultivation completely by 1989. This agreement is still technically in force and provides the legal basis for defining coca as a "controlled substance" inter- nationally, but few people still believe it is possible or rational to try to wipe coca off the face of the earth. John Cusack, former DEA chief of international operations, is one of the few. See his remarks in Coca and Cocaine: Effects on People and Policy in Latin Amer- ica, Cultural Survival Report No. 23 (June 1986). 4. State Department Bureau of International Narcotics Matters 1989 Budget Request to Congress. 5. International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports issued an- nually by the State Department Bureau of International Narcotics Matters. Many find these official figures highly questionable (as the report itself notes). One very knowledgeable source said the 1987 figure, 40,300 hectares, is much too low. He calculates 75,000- 100,000 hectares were being cultivated in the Chapare alone. In any case, despite this and despite what appears to be an extremely optimistic projection for the area to be eradicated in 1988 and 1989, the report still shows net cultivation rising every year between 1985 and 1989. 6. "Drug Control: U.S.Supported Efforts in Colombia and Bo- livia," U.S. General Accounting Office, Nov. 1988. 7. "The Role of the U.S. Congress in International Narcotics Control," Raphael Perl, Congressional Research Service, (Sept. 30, 1988), pp. 7-10. Some humanitarian aid and drug control funds are exempt from these sanctions. 8. "Drug Control..." 9. The main text of the "Plan Trienal Para La Lucha Contra El Narcotrdfico" was released by the Bolivian government, but the "annexes" which contain the details of how the agreement will be carried out, were not. One version of the "annexes" was published in Debate Agrario, No. 11 (La Paz), but some believe this was not the one finally adopted. 10. "Narcotics Related Foreign Aid Sanctions: An Effective Foreign Policy ?," Congressional Research Service report on semi- nar held for the Senate Caucus on Intemrnational Narcotics Matters, Sept., 1987. 11. "International Narcotics Strategy Report," 1988, U.S. State Department. 12. Ray Henkel, "The Chapare of Bolivia: A Study of Tropical Agriculture in Transition," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wis- consin, 1971), pp. 80, 84. Henkel writes, "...official government agencies exert little influence on the [Chapare growers]....The pub- lic officials usually insure that their policies and decisions do not conflict with those established by the [union] leaders." 13. Gonzalo Flores and Jos6 Blanes, LD6nde va el Chapare?, (La Paz: CERES, 1984) p. 1 7 8 .
14. U.S.AID is currently trying to implement an "integrated de-
velopment" plan aimed not just at the Chapare, but also at the
highlands areas from which many Chapare farmers come. The goal
is to stem migration to the Chapare. It is estimated that three-
fourths of the Chapare's current population will have to leave the
region if coca is eradicated, because the soil used for coca will not
adapt easily to other crops.
15. Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 (H.R. 5582 sec 4302).
16. New York Times, April 17, 1988. Reporter Peter Kerr de-
scribes DEA participation in Chapare raids.
17. Ultima Hora (La Paz), May 24, 1988.
18. Latinamerica Press (Lima), Sept. 2, 1988.
19. The complete text of the "Ley de sustancias controladas,"
was published in Presencia (La Paz), July 18, 1988.
20. "Narcotics Related Foreign Aid..."

Tags: Coca, Bolivia, drug trade, US drug war, eradication

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