Issue # 20 Sign Up for Free Mailing List

May 5, 2002

You Can't Take It With You...

Narco-Dictator Hugo Banzer of Bolivia

May 10, 1926 - May 5, 2002

Narco News '02

"Hugo Banzer Was


The Narco News Interview

with Father Gregorio Iriarte

Part II of a Series

By Luis A. Gómez

Narco News Andean Bureau Chief

Read Part I of this Series: "Be With Them:

Bolivian Civil Society Resists War on Drugs"

The Narco News Andean Bureau recently interviewed Catholic Priest Gregorio Iriarte in Cochabamba, Bolivia during the discussions by representatives of Civil Society to forge a new path in the war on drugs. Iriarte is the man the bishop put in charge of studying narco-trafficking issues years ago and one of the most informed experts on the theme...

Lee Ud. la entrevista en Español

Narco News: Father, could you give us a wider explanation of what you call the coca-cocaine circuit?

Gregorio Iriarte: All the pressure that the United States Embassy, above all, makes is against this view. However, we must distinguish, because within this circuit there are debatable aspects, legal aspects and frankly illegal aspects. Thus, not all of it can be condemned. In the first place, there is the cultivation of coca leaf, that has always been legal in Bolivia. In second place, comes the sulfate, that is to say, generally in Bolivia what is done is that holes are dug in the ground, ditches about one meter deep, lined with plastic. There, the coca leaf is mixed with the chemical precursors, that generally include kerosene or ether, and they mix it, making a species of whitish paste; this is the sulfate. But in the international nomenclature this is also called cocaine, but it is not cocaine. The cocaine is a hydrochloride. The level of illegality and the level of damage caused to people by the sulfate are minimum by comparison.

Many times it is said, for example, "they've seized 20 kilos of cocaine." No, it's not cocaine, I insist, it is sulfate, the first step in the process. And the second step is the production of cocaine, but this requires a true chemical factory. And Bolivia has never controlled this step in the process. The Colombians have controlled it: the Ochoa family, the Escobars, and others connected with narco-trafficking.

They have to get this powder to the market in the United States and Europe, which is where it really happens. Well, the Colombians are also the ones who do this. In Bolivia, I have not seen practically any who have put sent the drug to the market there. If something like that happened it would be through working with the Colombians. Bolivia produces the raw material, but in sum I think it is important to distinguish between sulfate and cocaine because the sulfate doesn't have the negative effects that cocaine has. It doesn't bring the same profit. And it is not defined as an illegal substance in this country, although the U.S. Embassy places it in the same suit.

Narco News: During your presentation in the seminary, you spoke of the compensation that Bolivia has received for the economic losses caused by the eradication of coca...

Gregorio Iriarte: This is the second aspect. In recent years more than 30,000 hectares of coca crops have been eradicated, and we would have had, directly or indirectly, more than 200,000 people who made their living off of that, with the profits well distributed. A few years ago, the income from this activity represented 8.5 percent of the Gross National Product of Bolivia. Now it represents approximately 0.6 percent. That is to say, it's very connected to the economic crisis in the country right now and has had en enormous impact on society. One thing that calls our attention is that the government has accepted this loss without asking for any truly balanced compensation… and another aspect is that for seven years the United States has put a lot of pressure on Bolivia to accept a Draconian law known as Law 1008… This is what has provoked many people to go to jail, many times for crimes that are not proved, where instead of the State having to prove their guilt, they have to prove their innocence… And this is what that law says. It's against not only the Constitution but against the most fundamental basis of law.

Narco News: And how is this reflected in the current policies of the government?

Gregorio Iriarte: Well, for example, the government contracted 500 mercenaries to fight against narco-trafficking, against the blockades by the coca growers. The mercenaries committed many abuses. The government calls them "reservists," but they are mercenaries. A species of psychosis-of-war has been created…

Narco News: And in this society, how are the economic effects of narco-trafficking perceived?

Gregorio Iriarte: What the farmer receives for the coca leaf, although it is more than he's going to receive from alternative development products (like banana or pineapple) does not make him rich. It's at a level in which the poverty is obvious. The people are very malnourished. That is to say, others have made the money. There has never been a study of which families or groups have been the beneficiaries of narco-trafficking. There is a connection with the police, yes, a lot of corruption also, and many of the politicians are narco-connected too, but it is very difficult to detect them. I think that the government of Banzer was very connected, beginning with his wife… The case of the Italian, Marino Diodato, is often spoken about; he is married to Banzer's niece and linked to the Italian mafias, but there was no investigation and nobody was convicted for it. But Banzer had already had an intimate friend who he named prefect of the state of Santa Cruz during the dictatorship and he was very connected to narco-trafficking. Later he was killed over fights between narcos and nothing more was known about the case… This should have been investigated, but all the journalists have been, I think, very afraid to look into that world.

Narco News: And what about legalization?

Gregorio Iriarte: Well, yes. But we must take into account the effects of the drugs. For example, the effects of cocaine sulfate have not been studied. I think that the world will have evolve in this… It's about, in reality, an economic and commercial question, not one of health in the world.

Narco News: Thank you, Father, go with God. Next in the series, we will speak a while with a colleague from Perú…

Coming Next in Part III:

The Narco News Interview

with Journalist Roger Rumrrill

for more Narco News, click here

Ecumenical Truth vs. a Fundamentalist Drug War