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January 15, 2002

Narco News '02

Photo by Al Giordano, D.R. 2002

El Mallku Speaks:

Indigenous Autonomy & Coca

The Narco News Interview

with Felipe Quispe

By Luis Gómez and Al Giordano

from somewhere in La Paz, Bolivia


By Luis Gómez

Narco News Andean Bureau Chief

He has been a farmer and a guerrilla, studied history at the public university and, above all, has become a symbol of the voice of the aymara nation, an ethnic group of two-and-a-half million people that inhabits the heart of the Andes (in Bolivia and some southern regions of Peru). There, for example, in April 2000, during the serious social conflicts that shook Bolivia, Felipe Quispe led a siege upon La Paz, the seat of the government, and commanded a civil insurrection by more than 500,000 men, women, elders and children tired of living in misery, exploited by the mestizos, Creoles and foreigners who run this country.

This indigenous man of dark and shiny eyes, of a thin smile, is not just the secretary general of the United Farm Workers union of Bolivia (CSUTCB, the main farmer's organization of the country)... Quispe is also the Mallku (the Prince), the man to whom all the Indian nations that inhabit Bolivian territory have given the staff of traditional leadership, making him their one leader, their true spokesman.

Without ceremony, with simple manners, Felipe Quispe receives Narco News in his office. While he smokes some filter-less cigars and chews some coca leaves, he makes himself available for questions. But when, at the beginning of the conversation, he encounters the possible existence of left-wing media in the United States, his first response is a sincere doubt: "There is a Left there even now?" And in his way of seeing, with the Bolivian government as a mere reflector of the policies of Washington, that in Bolivia the organizations of the Left no longer exist, "all of them have been 'righted,'" he says, and Quispe believes that this process is a reflection of what has happened in United States politics.

Speaking of the large country of the north, the farmers' leader has no doubt: "The United States government hates me to death. I can not enter that country. They have classified me as a terrorist." Very probably, the events of last September 11th have influenced this treatment, because just a few weeks after the attack, Manuel Rocha, the ambassador of the Empire, participated in labeling the coca growers' leader and national congressman Evo Morales, and also Felipe Quispe, as terrorists during a conference on terrorism organized by the Bolivian presidency last November.

Quispe still has charges pending in Bolivian courts for armed uprising, due to his participation during the 1990s in the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army (a trial in which the State illegally prolongs the case without having obtained a judgment against the accused). But in any case, the secretary general of the CSUTCB is a powerful opponent of the Bolivian government and, as a consequence, the extra-territorial policies of the United States. Thus, the statements by Viceroy Rocha are no more than the typical reaction to a rebellion by those who, from below, refuse to accept the current state of things in Latin America and the rest of the world.

Included in this tradition of resistance is that of the ayamara people that embraces the fight of Quispe and the CSUTCB. Unconquerable to the Spaniard invaders, the Aymaras rebelled at least 20 times between the 17th and 20th centuries. Among all these rebellions, one that occurred at the end of the 1700s, stands out: the one commanded by Tupac Katari (the name that inspired the aforementioned guerrilla organization). This man, leading a contingent of ten thousand men and women, was at the point of expelling colonial power. In fact, in 1781, at the peak of his success as a guerrilla, Tupac Katari surrounded La Paz for months, provoking hunger and despair among the colonizers and their families.

Like his predecessor in the leadership of his people, Quispe repeated the act of surrounding the city in the year 2000, reminding all of the success of Tupac Katari in trapping the government in its own territory, in "its" city. And still more: Like most of the original American people, the Mallku maintains the call of history alive, always close to him. In his office at the CSUTCB, backing him from a wall and from the past, it is possible to admire portraits of Tupac Katari and Bartolina Sisa (Katari's wife and valiant lieutenant of the Aymara army two centuries ago). From that spot, backed by his ancestors and making his own notes about the interview, Felipe Quispe spoke about current events.

The Interview

Narco News: Let's speak a little about the coca leaf and the current situation of narco-trafficking in this country...

Felipe Quispe: Okay. Coca has been, ancestrally, a sacred leaf. We, the indigenous, have had a profound respect toward it... a respect that includes that we don't "pisar" it (the verb "pisar" means to treat the leaves with a chemical substance, one of the first steps in the production of cocaine). In general, we only use it to acullicar: We chew it during times of war, during ritual ceremonies to salute Mother Earth (the Pachamama) or Father Sun or other Aymara divinities, like the hills. Thus, as an indigenous nation, we have never prostituted Mama Coca or done anything artificial to it because it is a mother. It is the occidentals who have prostituted it. It is they who made it into a drug. This doesn't mean that we don't understand the issue. We know that this plague threatens all of humanity and, from that perspective, we believe that those who have prostituted the coca have to be punished.

But now, who pays in this life? We, who labor and cultivate the coca. We have even been criticized for chewing it. This happens above all to the farmers in the zones of Las Yungas and the Chapare. In these regions, we are in danger, because the United States has the saña to destroy, to annhilate our sacred coca leaf, even after we have traditionally cultivated the leaf for many centuries.

Sooner or later the drug will be legalized, and surely we will be turned into consumers who depend on they who manufacture it in the North and in place of chewing our own leaves we are going to have to buy the ones that they cultivate. This is the mentality that the gringos seem to have, or at least how we see it from our communities.

For us, it will continue to be a sacred leaf, because, also, thanks to her we can work constructing buildings, on farms and in the mines. The leaf combats hunger and misery. Coca has a lot of properties. It's not just any plant.

Narco News: The first prohibition of coca in history was doing the Spanish colonial period, but it failed…

Felipe Quispe: Yes. At the beginning, the Spaniars said it was a diabolic leaf. But in the end, motivated by their ambition, they pushed a rise in production. They were the ones who saw the economic advantages, because in the mines (like on Potash Hill), a lot of coca leaf was consumed. Thus, to satisfy the demand, for example, the Spaniards were the first to cultivate coca in the Yungas regions. They have prepared grand extensions of land for its cultivation. During the Inca Empire, massive cultivation did not exist. It was a light production only for coca's sacred purposes. The Spaniards extended it (and, later, the governments of Bolivia did the same), and now the United States wants to take away from us even that part that corresponds to the indigenous, this essential part of our culture.

Narco News: Speaking of the present situation, the Bolivian Armed Forces seem to have been subordinated to a foreign power while, on the other hand, each day more evidence appears that the State itself has become narcotized. What is the role played by foreign governments in this country?

Felipe Quispe: Look, in this country called Bolivia, from 1825 (the year of Bolivia's independence) to the present, military officials have governed more often than anyone. In the case of the production of cocaine, they are not far from what happened: the ex dictator Luis García Meza and the one and only Hugo Banzer were the first big pushers of narco-trafficking in Bolivia. I spend five years in prison and there I met all the famous Bolivian narco-traffickers, who had been members of the political class and the traditional political parties: the MNR (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement), the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left) and the other political parties. The parties have used drug trafficking to finance their campaigns. Definitively, Bolivian politics has been narcotized. Many of the narcos are on the outside, they don't even know the inside of a jail cell. They, for example, in Congress.

The great majority of those imprisoned for drug trafficking are indigenous who have chemically treated coca to make cocaine or who have trafficked on a small scale. I already said, these are the people who pay: the Indians. In recent months, they have hunted Indians every single day in the Chapare. And because it is others who control the economic, political and social power, they are going to continue controlling the drug traffic. We lack an impartial government. The law needs to measure everyone with the same yardstick. More than anyone, they, the ones who are in charge, are the truly guilty parties responsible for thousands of deaths throughout the world. This is the type of politics that we have here.

Narco News: That type of politics is, with various variations, the same problem that we find throughout Latin America, especially in the Andean countries: Ecuador, Colombia, Perú and Bolivia. Plan Colombia, invented by Washington, has failed and, according to my analysis, there are three decisive factors in this failure: The first is that its rejection has been internationalized, for example, through the disagreement expressed by the European Community with this military plan. The second is that many sectors of Colombian society have declared themselves in favor of drug legalization in the United States as a solution to the problem. The third factor is that a confluence can be observed between the legalization movement and the indigenous movements in Colombia. Do you think that this dynamic could have applications in Bolivia?

Felipe Quispe: Okay. You said that this type of problems with the narco exist in places were we, the indigenous, also exist, whether it be in Perú, in México or another country. And for is, the policy is our enemy, it is what discriminates against us and kills us. In other words, I would say that Plan Colombia was created with the intention of annihilating the indigenous peoples. Not only that, but also to take away our jobs and our lands, our homes. But we are organized and we are not going to permit them to take our homes away. We are going to defend ourselves, if necessary, with teeth and nails. We cannot lose our sacred leaf. With this, I am not defending narco-trafficking. We are speaking of coca in its healthy and living form, an inheritance that our ancestors gave us. We leave the drug problem to the United States, because we Indians don't consume drugs. We simply "pijchar" (an Ayamara verb that refers to the act of chewing coca, in small amounts, between the gums and the inside of the cheeks); it's a political, religious and even an economic question, since many farmers in Bolivia live through the cultivation of coca, working lands that can produce only coca, that cannot produce any other agricultural product. There are thousands of projects like Plan Colombia and other plans that gringo imperialism can produce. But they are not going to work here.

An Indigenous Nation

Narco News: In some of your speeches, you have proposed the theme of indigenous autonomy. In this, your ideas resonate with those of the Zapatistas in México and others throughout the planet. Let's speak about that…

Felipe Quispe: We, the indigenous, have our own territory. This territory does not belong to the occidentals, to the colonizers. It is ours. We have our own history, our own philosophy, our laws, religion, language, habits and customs. From this perspective, we, the Aymaras, consider ourselves to be a nation and from there we have the idea of self-determination. We don't follow the tri-colored flag of Bolivia that our oppressors carry. We have the whiphala (the flag of seven colors, in quilted squares).

Photo: Al Giordano, D.R. 2002
Felipe Quispe and the Whiphala Flag
(note his cane of leadership with the flag)

We have our own heroes and martyrs. Little by little we are advancing to have our own political Constitution of the State of Kollasuyo (the ancient name of this Andean region). We are already creating our own laws and codes, according to the present-day needs. All this means that indigenous self-determination is going to happen sooner or later.

For example, in some provinces of the State of La Paz, there are already no police nor judicial authorities, nor political authorities. We are already fighting to get the military bases out of these regions. In all of these places we have elected our own authorities. With this, we are beginning. When there were police there were crooks who robbed our belongings and our cattle. Now that this system doesn't exist any more, there already are not so many problems. What we see in the occidential laws, the Bolivian laws, is that they bring failure, theft and other crimes. Apart from this is the question of ID cards. We are not going to use the Bolivian ID cards any more. In this confederation we are working to create our own identity documents.

Thus, the wiphala flag flies over our ayllus (a word for the traditional communitarian form of property ownership, productive, social and even military organization). An air of peace, of freedom, of self-determination, is what we breathe here. We have our own authorities and we are the owners of the territory: of the soil, the subsoil, the products that grow on the soil and the airspace above the soil. There, soon, we will have autonomy, although we know that this will not happen easily, that this process is going to cost us blood. But there it is: We have to shed a lot of blood, but we are certain that we are going to have our own form of organization, our own indigenous nation.

Narco News: And in your vision as secretary general of the CSUTCB, how will the autonomy strategy be developed?

Felipe Quispe: Okay, for the past two years, I have worked directly with the communities of the high plains. It is a long process in which we try to de-ideologize our brothers and sisters, to liberate the Indian mind from foreign ideology. After that, logically, comes the task of re-indianization, of retaking the essence of our ancestral culture. But in these two years I have only been able to work with the Aymara communities. Now I have to establish contact with the Quechuas (I just had my first meetings with them in Chuquisaca, in the center of the country), and the field is fertile. I just have to mention our historic past and my brothers and sisters immediately understand what I have come to propose to them.

Narco News: And in your autonomy movement, are the racial questions definitive and decisive for your actions? Is there a role for people of solidarity from other parts, including Europe and the US?

Felipe Quispe: We are not puritans. We don't speak only of the indigenous, but of all the people. We are also worried about our brothers and sisters who are not indigenous, who also suffer because there is no work. We even think of the people in the wealthiest neighborhoods of the cities who list in the worst misery: We still have some little plots to plant in, but they don't. We are also thinking about working with them, because they were also born here. We don't want to implant the same racism that was created in the colonies and continues existing in this government. We cannot confront white racism with Indian racism. That would be a social aberration and a political suicide. What we are going to do is to embrace everyone. This movement has a very big poncho, and below it everybody fits.

On Being El Mallku

Narco News: A month or less ago, your organization signed an accord with the government in which it has promised you many things (like the delivery of tractors and raises of the subsidies to the farms). What has come of that?

Felipe Quispe: Well, about the accords we signed in Pucarani, we are holding meetings, but the government doesn't keep its word. More likely, it is trying to divide the farmers' movement. We are very angry over broken promises, and that's why we are studying what can be done: Our response will have to be given in an organized form, well structured. We know that we are going to die, because the government is arming itself with machine guns, tanks and other weapons. We know they are going to kill us.

Narco News: Recalling the role that the government of the United States plays in Bolivian politics, have there been any incidents or confrontations between your organization and the Embassy in Bolivia?

Felipe Quispe: Well, there is an ambassador who is the concrete expression of the United States in this territory. But let's go back to September 11th, when the Twin Towers were toppled. The whole world said, "Oh, those poor people." However, we, as indigenous, see that this attack was against a system, an imperialist system that also represses us, although we also knew that the soon the United States would then go and attack another country, as it did in Afghanistan. And above all because it is evident that it is not about trapping a terrorist, but, rather, to acquire wealth in the form of petroleum, uranium and other minerals.

Personally, as I have publicly expressed, I have suffered some threats, but most recently there were the declarations of Manuel Rocha in which he said that Evo Morales and I are terrorists. He went as far as to speak of extraditing me to the United States. That is to say, the Embassy sees us through bad eyes, because our actions affect some United States business interests in Bolivia.

Narco News: What does it mean that they call you El Mallku?

Felipe Quispe: I was one of the organizers of the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army. They captured me on August 19, 1992. This guerrilla surged as a response to the 500th year of the Spanish invasion and we thought it would be possible to fight bearing arms. We had worked between 1984 and 1990 in the formation of regular armed groups. And, well, when they captured me, the journalists asked me if I was the chief or had any rank within the organization. I did not tell them that I was the chief. I answered that I was one of the Mallkus, the princes who wanted to be president, one who led an organization. There, the term was born and everyone now knows me by that name, even the journalists use it. And, well, on November 14, 2000, I was ratified as the leader of the CSUTCB. They delivered me the staff of leadership and proclaimed me, legally, as their Mallku, which is like being president of Bolivia. That's why, on various occasions, I have proposed speaking with (ex president) Banzer as equal to equal, with the same authority, because I am the president of the Republic of Kollasuyo and he was president of Bolivia. Beyond that, on November 14, 2001, came people from Peru and Ecuador to an event in which they proclaimed me as the Mallku of América, which mainly says that the struggle is spreading already to other regions.

Narco News: I think we have already reviewed various important issues. Would you like to add anything before we end?

Felipe Quispe: Yes. Through you I wish to send a fraternal and revolutionary salute to all the Indian people who, like us, fight to self-govern and to be free. We are with our brothers and sisters in our cause. We hope that our fight becomes international and that you will know about us because someday we will return to being the Great Tahuantinsuyo (the Aymara Nation in its totality.)

La Entrevista en Español


Presenting Luis Gómez

Andean Bureau Chief for

the Narco News Bulletin

for more Narco News, click here

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