|English | Español||April 20, 2018 | Issue #34|
A Bolivian Military Colonel Speaks
"The Peace in the Chapare Is Owed to Evo Morales," Says Col. Jaime Cruz Vera
By Natalia Viana
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
We also thought that it would be very important to speak with these drug warriors to construct a wider vision of the complex issue of the drug war, because, as journalists, we believe that it is important to listen to all sides of the story. During the interview, he gave us information that is not easily or often said by official sources from the Bolivian government: He admitted, for example, that the coca leaf is not a drug, and that the “alternative development” programs (for substituting coca with other crops) don’t work. Of course the commander presented his version about the coca growers’ struggle and other issues that might be true or not, but we believe it is better that the readers decide.
Below, the surprising interview, conducted by Narco News School of Journalism professor Jeremy Bigwood, scholars Amber Howard and Eartha Melzer, and your correspondent, Natalia Viana:
Jeremy Bigwood: What percentage of the coca grown in the Chapare remains in the region to be chewed, and what percentage is used to produce cocaine?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: We can say that the entire Chapare region is a cocaine factory. Today there are more or less between 5,000 and 7,000 hectares of coca of which 99 percent go to the manufacturing of cocaine, because the leaf does not go to traditional uses. Generally, it is the coca leaf from the Yungas region that is chewed, including here in the towns of the Chapare. Some towns do chew their own leaf, but that is minimal. If we head toward Cochabamba, Oruro, La Paz, Potosí, Sucre, Santa Cruz, including in Argentina, where coca leaf is consumed, you will find the leaves from Yungas. The coca leaf of the Chapare already goes to manufacturing cocaine, to the labs that make cocaine base paste. For example, this year, from January to July 31, we seized 642 kilos of cocaine. 1,047 labs were destroyed. Base paste labs: 1,428. The farmers sell the coca directly to people who are linked to drug trafficking. They know these people are involved in the manufacture of cocaine. In many cases they rent part of their field and are manufacturing it right there.
Natalia Viana: How many kilos of cocaine can be made from five hectares of coca plants?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: On one hectare we are speaking of about eight kilos per year. Thus, 5,000 hectares makes almost 40 tons of cocaine. Of those about 10 or 20 tons are seized by us: generally, the cocaine comes from here. Now, cocaine is also being manufactured with coca leaf from Yungas, which is an area of coca production for traditional uses. But today it has surpassed (it’s legal limits for the amount of coca produced): we are speaking of about 21,000 hectares of coca leaf.
There have been, in general, between 7,000 and 8,000 hectares in Yungas, but the forced eradication that has occurred here, and the lack of control by the government, have led to an accelerated increase over the past five years. Part of it goes to traditional use, to “acullico” (sacramental use), to some rituals, to medicine. And another part is detoured to the cocaine labs in the high plains, in Cochabamba, in Santa Cruz, and in the rural areas. In these areas there are many labs using coca leaf from Yungas, including in the states of Beni, Sucre, and Potosí.
Natalia Viana: Are there plans to start eradication in the Yungas region?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: There have been, for many years, attempts by the government to enter the region and eradicate plants but lamentably we have not been able to reach this extreme. That’s because the coca leaf fuels the economy. That is what moves people. It is not the defense of life or the defense that they argue, but, rather, the economic part. They don’t see the public aspect, that which damages the rest of society.
Natalia Viana: When the coca growers say that they want to defend the leaf, that the leaf is not a drug, that it is a symbol of identity for the Bolivian people, that the leaf is good… what do you think of that?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: There are two aspects. One, that it is true that effectively the coca leaf is not a drug. What is more is that it has many medicinal properties. It helps combat fatigue. Lamentably, that coca is also the raw material for the manufacturing of cocaine. The coca growers know that the leaf goes to the cocaine factories. Of course they are seeing only the money to be made. If they plant to make palm harts or banana they will receive less economic benefit than that which they receive for the coca. They would have to work much harder, because with coca they just plant it and leave it for three months. But palm hearts and banana and other alternative development projects make them have to do farm work. That’s why their defense is intransigent, and also because their leaders are telling them that there is legal way to make a living with this crop. They go telling the coca growers that they are defending the constitution. Since the planting of coca is not penalized, right now one plot gets eradicated and once the government leaves they just plant it again. Thus, it is a cat-and-mouse game that is unlikely to come to an end.
Natalia Viana: Do you think that your work is effective?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: No, I do not. We do not have the ability to cover the entire terrain. There are 600,000 hectares in the Chapare where coca leaf is produced and we have only 1,500 troops to control it through eradication. UMOPAR, as a unit, has just 350 men who interdict and seize drugs: to destroy cocaine labs, to seize controlled substances, to arrest the drugs and the people who are trafficking them, whether with the base materials or the drugs. Already the Joint Task Force is the agency that engages in forced eradication, with its own troops, which are made up of members of the Army and the police. Thus we have an insufficient number of troops. That is, it would be difficult to be able to end (coca growing) while there is no law that punishes the planting of coca and the individual who plants or transports coca leaf.
Natalia Viana: How is the conflict with the coca growers going now?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: This year it is very peaceful in that there has not been any kind of conflict. But from what we have heard, from our sources, is that the coca growers want to break the truce with the government. Still, that is not convenient for them either because it would result in the loss of human life.
Jeremy Bigwood: To what countries does the cocaine made from Chapare coca leaf go?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: Most of it today goes through Brazil toward Europe and Argentina, and toward the United States via Chile. But most of it goes to Europe, specifically Spain and Belgium, because entering Europe is now easier for Bolivians because there is a special visa process.
Jeremy Bigwood: In the case of the Yungas region, is the terrain the reason you can’t have more control? Is it the need to climb and descend the mountains?
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
Jeremy Bigwood: When, for example, the people from the Narcotics Affairs Section, the NAS of the U.S. Embassy, hear that you can’t enter the Yungas, is there a lot of pressure on you to do it anyway?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: In fact there is pressure. I can’t say no. But they are also conscious that if we enter there that this country will have another kind of problem that will not do any good, and nor will it favor their interests. We have achieved very large successes with the eradication and interdiction, and perhaps we will not stop, but there is a little hope that this country’s political situation will calm down and then we will be able to head out and face what is in the Yungas region. They also understand that. So it is not pressure but an understanding of what could happen.
Natalia Viana: How is the collaboration between the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the NAS with the Bolivian agencies in the drug war?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: Well, they are different entities. The NAS administrates the money from the U.S. government, not only regarding interdiction, but also for eradication, alternative development, and prevention. The DEA, for its part, only supports the interdiction with intelligence work and sometimes in the administrative end by donating some things. For example, here everything you see at this military base is what the Embassy has given us through those two institutions. Our government alone, unfortunately, would not be able to afford it. Bolivia can only pay the salaries and the United States pays the entire administrative and logistical part.
Natalia Viana: How much do you make in salaries?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: The salaries are varied. In the Army they are between 3,000 and 3,500 bolivianos (between $375 and $437.50 dollars) a month. A police officer makes 1,200 bolivianos ($150 dollars a month).
Natalia Viana: When President Carlos Mesa took power in October he said he would change the policy of intervening against the coca leaf. Has any change occurred? Has the eradication been slowed?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: No. The same policy that we had of interdiction and eradication continues. There has been no change or pause. It remains the same.
Natalia Viana: So, the news reports that the amount of coca is increasing in the Chapare aren’t true?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: In fact we can say that it has, because last year there were 5,000 hectares and right now we have 7,000 hectares in spite of the eradication. Of the 43,000 hectares on specific lands that we had in 1992 we had eradicated 43,000 by December of 2000. However we now have the new places where they are planting.
Natalia Viana: Where are the fields that remain in the Chapare?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: There is not one area where the coca leaf is concentrated. There are no more plantations of two hectares like there were before. Now we find the leaves inside fields dedicated to alternative development. They plant large kind of crops and put the coca bushes in the middle, so they can’t be seen by satellite. You ask me where they are: I tell you they are throughout the Chapare, sometimes in larger quantities where the Joint Task Force isn’t working.
Jeremy Bigwood: We went to Sacaba and there is a coca market there, and there was a lot of coca from the Yungas but also a lot of coca from the Chapare, and the people were buying it to chew. How big is this market? Because it is obvious that it is a legal market.
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: Well, I don’t have the data for this year but last year, in the legal coca market of Sacaba, there were leaves from about 104 hectares of coca from the Chapare, and taking into account that we have 7,000 hectares here, 104 hectares isn’t anything.
Amber Howard: After you eradicate the coca, can they plant alternative crops in the same place or do they have to look for new lands?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: Sometimes, if the coca has been planted there for a long time, the land is infertile to be able to grow another product, so they have to wait. And if the coca has been on that land for twenty years, you practically have to wait another 20 years for the necessary nutrients to return and make the land fertile again for legal crops.
Amber Howard: So what do the people do?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: Well, the land laws gave them 10 hectares per person, and they have planted two or three hectares of coca. Thus, once there is eradication they go deeper into their parcel, and many have also migrated to other places.
Natalia Viana: You have said that there have been no conflicts this year. To what do you think this peace is owed?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: I believe part of it is political. In this case it is Mr. Evo Morales who has instructed them to calm down. Before him the national conflicts never stopped. Now there is peace.
Natalia Viana: You attribute this to Evo Morales?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: Exactly. It’s that he is already conducting his politics differently. He doesn’t want conflicts here so that his image won’t be harmed.
Natalia Viana: What do you think of Evo Morales?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: That he has risen thanks to the support of the coca farmers in a struggle that really shouldn’t exist, because it is not legal what he is defending. If you asked me whether this crop had a productive aspect for the enjoyment for society, I would say yes. But this coca is also damaging because it is going to an entirely illegal kind of consumption too.
Amber Howard: I would like to know if you have seen any ecological damage during the eradication missions.
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: The manufacturing of cocaine is very damaging because they use up to 100 square meters to make the wells where they mix the leaf with sulfuric acid, lime, baking soda and diesel fuel. And this leaks into other lands because the laboratory is always alongside a river or riverbank. Once we find a laboratory, unfortunately, we also have to pollute the environment to destroy it: we have to burn everything that is there, and so there is pollution. The coca growers are also deforesting the rainforest. They have advanced into the Carrasco National Park, into the foothills, and even into the Isidoro Séboro National Park and its foothills. This year we have detected some 2,000 people who have moved into Carrasco to deforest more lands.
Amber Howard: It seems to me that you don’t leave them any other option if they can’t use their eradicated lands…
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: That is not our goal. It is because these lands are farther away and the eradication forces, like us, can’t get there so easily. If they would like to participate in the alternative development programs they would have space. They have lands here throughout this region that remain unused. But they don’t want to do it. The work is very hard and it is also true that there are not many markets for those products. This is another aspect that pushes the peasant farmer to grow coca. We have banana and pepper, that is about it, because the sale of palm hearts is already at a very low price, also the pineapple and citric products. And since these products are seasonal they don’t pay much. Thus, maybe the alternative development projects are not bearing the necessary fruits and maybe the government or the countries that are helping us with that are not opening up their markets to these products. We already don’t have a market for agricultural products. The only ones we have are Chile and Argentina.
Jeremy Bigwood: Some time back I read a report from the 1970s by USAID (United States Agency for International Development) about the Chapare, and it said that the soil quality was poor…
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: That is also true. Our soil in the Chapare generally is only 50 centimeters (about one and a half feet) thin, and that’s why it is not rich in nutrients. It is good for coca leaf, yes, but for other kinds of plants it is not very good. This is also something that causes the farmers to have their legal crops with coca plants hidden throughout the plantation to give them something to live from.
Amber Howard: Are you going to eradicate those too?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: Well, it is the task force that does this job and if it is passing through a plantation and it sees small plots, then it eradicates. But mainly it goes to places where there is a cato (a 40-by-40 foot plot), a half cato, or a hectare of coca. It is very rare to find a full hectare of coca.
Natalia Viana: Do countries other than the United States support the forces of UMOPAR and the eradication forces?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: Very little, at times we get help from the special forces of Spain, from Germany… some equipment, computers, vehicles, but very little.
Natalia Viana: What about the United Nations?
Colonel Jaime Cruz Vera: No. The truth is that it is the United States that does it.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism