<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
 English | Español November 19, 2017 | Issue #34


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“The War on The Cocaleros Has Brought Bolivia Nothing But Poverty and Death.”

The Story of Leonilda Zurita Vargas


By Yasmin Khan
2004 Narco News Authentic Journalism Scholar

August 9, 2004

With her long braids hanging from under a traditional white straw hat and her calm, motherly air, Leonilda Zurita Vargas doesn’t look like a narco-terrorist.


Leonida Zurita Vargas
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
Zurita, 36, is a Quechua leader of the women’s arm of the Six Federations of cocaleras and president of the local Federación del Trópico. Both are coca grower organizations fighting against eradication of the Coca plant in Bolivia, and Vargas is a powerful force behind women peasant organizing. Now she, along with several other South American social-movement leaders, has been accused of terrorism and narco trafficking.

“If you’re a leader working for human rights, democracy, or farmers rights, you are dubbed first as a narco trafficker. Then you are dubbed as a murderer. And now we are being assigned the title of terrorists,” said Zurita at a recent press conference in the Chapare region of Bolivia.

Zurita was arrested in November 1999 upon her return to Bolivia from the U.S. where she spoke on economic conditions in South America, human rights violations and the negative impact of U.S. international drug control policy.

The emergence of such charges in Latin America are relatively new and are connected to anti-terrorist laws created by the United States, and that are now implemented by the Bolivian government.

Zurita’s arrest and subsequent night in jail was based on a case in which she and several other union leaders were charged with causing damage to property in the amount of $38. However, she along with 43 other social-movement leaders and cocaleros were also charged with terrorism in connection with the case of Francisco “Pacho” Cortés.

Cortés, a Colombian human rights activist and peasant farm leader was arrested April 10, 2003 with two cocalero leaders and two children during an anti-terrorist operation conducted by the Bolivian military. The Bolivian government accused Cortés of attempting to develop a new chapter of the Colombian National Liberation Army, or ELN; participating in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC; narco-trafficking and bomb making. Zurita and the 43 other cocaleros were accused of joining forces with Cortés and are now on parole.

Both the ELN and FARC are considered foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. Department of State. Accusing Cortés and others of participating in terrorist organizations opens the door for the U.S. to allocate anti-terrorist funds and military force to the Bolivian government.

For example, the United States has proposed to spend $25 million to fund anti-terrorism and anti-kidnapping training and equipment for the Colombian police and military.

Cortés has been illegally detained in Bolivia for 14 months, the Bolivian government does not deny U.S. participation in the televised arrests and charges.

However, none of the accusations have been proved and no formal charges have been filed.

“In no legal process in the world is it acceptable to imprison someone for more than year for investigative reasons,” said Erick Altamirano, defense attorney for Cortés.

In Bolivia, the criminalization of social-movement leaders and coca growers under U.S. policies is a source of violence between U.S. funded Bolivian military and civilians.

In 2003, the U.S. military trained more than 2,000 Bolivian soldiers, according to Joy Olson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America. The U.S. military trained 22,855 Latin Americans in fiscal year 2003, an increase of 52% from 2002.

“There are treaties, conventions, and joint actions… in the fight against terrorism…terrorist activity is of an extra-continental nature and that’s why we have agreements of an understanding with any country, not just the United States,” said then-vice minister of government Jose Luis Harb at the time of the arrests.

Some say the criminalization of the coca growers and accusations of terrorism are a way for the U.S. to justify its war on drugs.

“Alternative crops have been a total failure”

Zurita’s mother supported six children growing coca plants and a few traditional food crops until complying with U.S. eradication procedures called Plan Dignidad in 1997. After her family’s coca were destroyed, their income disappeared. The money given to Zurita’s family and other farmers in exchange for “volunteered” eradication and to purchase alternative crops didn’t last long. Zurita was forced to abandon her education in Cochabamba and returned to the Chapare.

“The United States says it is better for us to just forget about coca. Bolivian officials distributed American money — $300 to $2,500 per farm — and told us to try yucca and pineapples,” she said. “But 60 pineapples earn us only about eight bolivianos (about $1).”

Coca growers say a single hectare of coca can bring in almost $4,500. A hectare of palmitos, an alternative crop, will only bring in about $250.

Besides not having a market for the alternative crops, the harvest is difficult to carry into the cities, she says, despite a new road built with U.S. “eradication funds.” The new crops also spoil easily and are labor intensive to plant and harvest. Many plants, such as passion fruit, require the use of expensive and unhealthy pesticides and herbicides. For many, coca farming is the last way to support a family.

Many of the Chapare cocaleros are former tin miners from the Amarya and Quechua indigenous populations who migrated to the tropical coca-growing region seeking a living after the tin market fell apart in 1985.

Privatization of the tin mines and adjustment policies which decreed a liberation of markets resulted in 20,000 people losing their jobs in an already oppressed economic market. Approximately 1,000 miners became cocaleros in the mid-eighties.

Coca markets in Cochabamba and La Paz are the main trade zones for the medicinal leaf, which is used in tea, shampoo, and is chewed to stave off hunger, fatigue and altitude sickness.

Zurita described consequences of drug war militarization and eradication programs on their community, which began in the 1990’s. She said since April 2004, 13 people from her community have been killed, including a child who died from inhaling gases during a military confrontation.

“The forces that are supposed to only eradicate coca have burned down 15 of the cocalero’s houses, as well as 8 hectares of pineapple, one of the alternative crops to coca,” she said. “Bolivian officials come to the United States and claim to be making crop substitution work. It hasn’t worked because they have no markets for the alternative crops. Alternative crops have been a total failure for Bolivian farmers.”

Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs said the United States will continue its alternative development activities in the Andean region to discourage cocaleros from returning to “illicit crops” and “our experience has taught us that fighting drugs and terrorism is not only compatible with respecting human rights, the two goals are mutually reinforcing.”

“Fighting terrorism is compatible with respecting human rights”

On Oct. 15, 2003, Zurita wrote an editorial article for the New York Times speaking out against the eradication of coca fields and the United States lack of differentiation between coca and cocaine.

“In 1998, the Bolivian government announced it would eradicate coca farms through a military program financed by the Americans,” Zurita said in her article. “We did not turn coca into cocaine; the chemicals needed for that are made in countries like the United States. Bolivia now allows us to grow a very small amount of coca, but it is not enough..”

John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, rejected Vargas’ arguments that traditional local use of coca should be condoned. In an Oct. 22 response to Vargas’ letter, Walters said the vast majority of coca currently being grown in Bolivia “is sold to the illicit drug market.”

In his letter, Walters said Bolivia’s coca cultivation of more than 45,000 hectares of coca could produce about 200 metric tons of cocaine, “hardly an argument that coca was being planted for traditional local use.” He also said that “hitching Bolivia’s future to coca cultivation could relegate it to permanent backwater status.”

“We as women are organized.”

Zurita’s involvement with the cocalero syndicate- groups of 25 or more families working together as farmers- began when her mother worked for the collective cleaning and cooking during festivals and meetings.At 17, she assumed her mother’s role in the syndicate. However, Vargas altered her role to help provide space for women to participate in the meetings.

“We asked, why can’t the women get organized,” she said. “In this area, women are disempowered. They didn’t know they had rights. Many of my sisters could’t read or write. It was easy for them to be beaten and kicked and mistreated with impunity.”

That same year, the Bolivian government announced it would eradicate coca farms through a military program financed by the United States.

“Soldiers came to the Chapare and destroyed our coca crops with machetes,” Zurita said. “School teachers were beaten, and some houses were burned down.”

Soon after the forced eradication began, Zurita organized a month-long women’s march into La Paz and a 12-day hunger strike to protest a massacre fueled by “Law 1008,”—the regulation of coca and controlled substances law. The law concerns forced eradication and for 15 years has caused violent oppositions between peasant farmers and the Bolivian military. Rape and arson became a common affair in Zurita’s village.

To fight against illegal procedures and police brutality, Zurita implemented educational programs to help indigenous people become literate and understand laws concerning their coca crops and learn their rights to protect them from police force. She recruited people village by village to join efforts to fight eradication. She is now president of a 40,000 member womens’ organization.

“To me, real success in the war on drugs would be to capture and prosecute the big drug traffickers, and for the United States to stop its own citizens from using drugs,” she said. “The war on the cocaleros has brought Bolivia nothing but poverty and death.”

Zurita, Cortés and countless other cocaleros and social-movement leaders are subject to anti-terrorist laws stemming from the U.S. and the Bolivian government’s desire to gather U.S. funds for its military. The cocalero’s fight to protect their traditional crops in the face of coca eradication is becoming increasingly dangerous. Zurita and the other cocaleros have become pawns in the fight against narco-trafficking and terrorism.

“Because of the American drug problem, we can no longer grow coca, which was part of our life and our culture long before the United States was a country,” she said. “We are used to chewing coca leaves every day, much as Americans drink coffee.”

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America