A Military Base Shakes the Yungas
The Bolivian Government Gives Into Demands of Both Highway-Blocking Coca Growers and the US Embassy
By Alex Contreras Baspineiro
Narco News South American Bureau Chief
April 8, 2004
COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA, April 8, 2004: The “Coca War” continues in Bolivia. The setting has changed from the Chapare region near the city of Cochabamba, to the Yungas, near the capital of La Paz. But the protagonists have not changed: the resistance of the coca growers, the cowardice of the Bolivian government, and the pressure from the United States continue unabated.
The coca growers – known in Spanish as cocaleros – of the Yungas region mobilized from April 5 to 7, blocking the highway that connects La Paz to the east. Starting today, they have declared a state of emergency in response to the construction of new military infrastructure and the attempts to forcibly eradicate their crops.
In June of 2003, confidential reports leaked from the Ministry of Defense demonstrated that the government had agreed to demands from the US for the construction of two new military bases inside Bolivian territory. One would be in the Yungas region, the other in the Chapare – the country’s two major coca cultivation zones.
The documents also revealed that the US Embassy was to finance the establishment of the “Tricolor” radio station (a reference to the three colors of the Bolivian flag) in the town of Chimoré, to be run by the Bolivian armed forces. Broadcasting at up to 15 kilowatts the station will reach all across the country, disseminating discouraging messages to the coca growers about the supposed war on drugs and terrorism.
It was former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s government that made these commitments to the US, but these commitments are now being fulfilled under the new administration. In the Rinconada region, construction has begun on new police/military barracks. There are also rumors circulating about the installation of the “Tricolor” radio station in the Chapare.
According to the government, the Police, Transportation, Immigration, Forestry, and Coca Management departments, as well as the Mobile Rural Patrol Unit and the Search and Rescue Group will fund the barracks’ construction – but “it is not a military base.” But according to the coca growers of the Rinconada, it represents the repression and militarization of their home, human rights abuse and forced eradication of their crops.
Yesterday, after three days of conflict, the government and the coca growers signed an accord, which indefinitely suspends the construction of the Rinconada base. It also requires that the existing installations not be used as barracks, and that no forced eradication take place in the three provinces of the Yungas region. The farmers and the government will establish a joint committee to evaluate the alternative development programs, the creation of competing coca markets, and the maintenance of local roads left nearly impassable by years of government neglect.
Having achieved their goal of shutting down the military base construction indefinitely and preventing the eradication of their crops, the coca growers lifted the highway blockades and returned to their communities.
The Yungas in the Crosshairs
The latest satellite data from the US government, produced this February, show 28,100 hectares (69,500 acres) of coca fields in Bolivia. Of these, 23,550 hectares are located in the Yungas region, and 4,600 hectares in the Chapare. Bolivia’s “Law 1008,” which regulates controlled substances, limits the entire area of coca cultivation in the country to 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres). In other words, 16,200 hectares must be eliminated.
On Tuesday, April 6, US Ambassador David Greenlee reminded President Carlos Mesa of the existence of 11,000 hectares of surplus coca in the Yungas.
“According to the satellite readings,” said Greenlee, “there are surplus coca plantations in the Yungas that must be eradicated through integrated alternative development.”
In a conversation with Narco News, congressman and cocalero Roberto Calle rejected US interference in internal affairs, and called Greenlee’s words manipulative.
“It is an embarrassment that the Mesa government accepts so much interference from the United States,” said Calle. “We will not permit them to touch even one coca leaf in the Yungas, and we emphatically reject the ambassador’s words when he proposes an integrated alternative development. That is a new lie, and nothing but a distraction in this low-intensity war.”
Calle added that the coca growers’ demands include the immediate withdrawal of Joint Task Force troops (the Bolivian forces charged with coca eradication) from the area; the abandonment of a plan to separate the coca marketing association in the Yungas into two or more organization, thus dividing the coca growers along provincial lines; better maintenance of the roads in their communities; and treatment for three cocaleros injured in Monday’s confrontations.
José Galindo, chief of staff to President Mesa, admitted on April 7 that the government has bowed to pressure from the US on issues of drug control. He warned that the historic transition the country is going through could be violent if the precarious balance reached last October is upset.
“Obviously, we do have pressure on that side,” said Galindo, “as [the US government] tells us they can’t control drug trafficking if they don’t have a base from which they can control the amount of coca and processed drugs produced.”
Galindo recognized that the current government cannot change the model because of its international commitments, but that the establishment of a popular “Constituents’ Assembly” could be a starting point.
Attempts at violent intervention are not new in the Yungas – they began to come from the government months ago.
On February 26, congressman Antonio Peredo accused then-Vice Minister of Alternative Development Marco Antonio Oviedo of primary involvement in the creation of paramilitary groups in the Yungas and destabilizing the democratic process.
Hours earlier, Agustín Mamani Quispe and Fidel Arce, activists from Oviedo’s “Revolutionary Left” party, were caught on their way towards the Yungas with FAL rifles and dozens of boxes of ammunition. One of the detained men said that “those armaments were for protection from extremist groups.”
A few days ago, with the Yungas conflict stalled, the administration removed Oviedo from office and replaced him with Jorge Azad Ayala.
But the Bolivian commercial media have launched their own campaign to label the social movements as violent. In early February, the senior Bolivian daily El Diario published an article with the headline “Introduction of AK-47 rifles denounced.” The paper interviewed a “foreign citizen” – unidentified for obvious reasons -– who claimed that “a group composed of Nicaraguans, Peruvians, and Colombians supposedly belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forced of Colombia (FARC), transported 285 AK-47 rifles on the commercial ship MSC Bahía from the Republic of Bulgaria to the port of Ilo (Peru).”
“I got involved with the FARC for personal reasons, even getting to know many of the details of their activities,” said the “foreigner.”
At the same time, the article said that “the rifles have been in the Peruvian port of Ilo for weeks, and it is expected that they will enter Bolivian territory on February 13, via Desaguadero.”
According to the anonymous source, 50 AK-47 rifles, similar to those used by the FARC, entered the Chapare early last August. He claims they have been distributed among the popular leaders of the Chapare.
At the same time, El Diario had received information about civilians making contacts to receive firearms, including both handguns and rifles, as well as ammunition (the newspaper claimed 7.65 and 7.69 caliber bullets were favored). The paper said that these weapons were for use in unspecified provinces around La Paz – a thinly veiled reference to the Yungas.
No government representative has had any comment on these claims.
What is clear, dear readers, is that the United States feels that the Chapare region has now left the coca-cocaine circuit, and that the violent intervention should now be realized in the Yungas.
The administration of Carlos Mesa now finds itself at a crossroads: it can continue to passively obey the impositions of the US government, or it can begin to hear the demands of the Bolivian people.
The lessons from October are still fresh in most Bolivians’ memories. On the other hand, it seems that the authorities are not with that majority, and have taken the wrong lessons away from those historic events.
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