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Authentic Journalism on the "War on Drugs" in Latin America

"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simón Bolívar

War Correspondent's Log

By Al Giordano

Immediate History from the Drug War Front

December 19, 2001

The Chapare, Bolivia

White Paper on the Assassination

of Union Leader Casimiro Huanca

Photos: D.R. 2001, Al Giordano

From somewhere in a country called América...

Your correspondent's war logs of December 7th-9th and December 10th-17th included reports about the December 6th assassination of labor leader Casimiro Huanca in the town of Chimoré, in the Chapare region of Bolivia.

Huanca, 55, was president of one of the Six Federations of Coca Growers, and one of the most soft-spoken, pacific and respected leaders of this union movement encompassing 36,000 families.

The 48th political assassination by Bolivian government troops under the Banzer-Quiroga regime that came to power in 1997; and the 15th in the past five months during the term of Vice President-turned-President Jorge Quiroga (there have been three more since then, making Quiroga more of a butcher, in terms of assassinations-per-month, than the ailing former president Hugo Banzer, the military general and coup-master).

Civil prosecutors and police agencies that were investigating the labor leader's murder were elbowed out of the way by the Bolivian Armed Forces, who claimed exclusive jurisdiction through a military tribunal process to which the press and public have no access to the proceedings or the documents involved.

To nobody's surprise, the military tribunal ruled that the unarmed labor leader was shot and killed by a soldier who acted "in self defense."

Narco News went to the isolated Chapare region, where the Amazon rainforest begins, to conduct our own investigation into the facts. We interviewed eyewitnesses to the shooting and to the events of December 6th. We inspected the scene of the crime. We took photos. We took testimony.

We found that the so-called "Military Tribunal" that had acquitted the shooter did not even visit the crime scene, nor interview the civilian eyewitnesses.

Narco News did what the Bolivian and US governments refused to do. We entered the Chapare, through the government roadblocks, passing many of the 7,000 troops of the Bolivian government now has stationed there against its own populace. We investigated, directly, the facts.

And we conclude, based on the facts that we now share with our readers, that the Bolivian government assassinated the union leader, and that with the financial support and counsel of the US Embassy it has engaged in an illegal cover-up of the assassination. The officials responsible for the assassination and its cover-up have violated Bolivian law, international law, and United States law, including the Leahy Amendment to refuse US aid to military or police divisions that violate human rights systematically and with impunity.

This is the story of the last day on earth of Casimiro Huanca, beloved husband, father, farmer and labor leader.

We urge our readers to make an educated decision, based on the facts, as to what truly happened on that Black Thursday.

This is the tomb of Casimiro Huanca...

This is the Cochabamba-Santa Cruz highway, where it passes through the town of Chimoré. Behind the white car, and fifty yards from the road, there is a small building. It is the headquarters of the Special Federation of Colonists (peasant farmers) of Chimoré, the group to which Casimiro Huanca was president. Today it is a forensic crime scene...

This is a closer look at the driveway of the Federation office, with the multi-colored flag of indigenous movements in Bolivia. Can you see it? Not easily? Okay. Let's take a step closer...

This is the headquarters. Now can you see the rainbow flag? Good. Also, can you see the black flag of mourning, in memory of Casimiro Huanca? Can you see the children playing? Please make a note of the physical space -- this is a crime scene, and how the space is structured will tell us much about what happened on December 6th. Note the location of the main entrance in the center of the building; there is a sillouette of a child playing inside. Into that open doorway, a teargas canister was shot, exploded, and then four heavily armoured and armed military soldiers, according to eyewitnesses, charged into that center hallway.

Note, as well, that there is a white wall on the other side of this small building, indicating that a second building stands behind it. More about that second building - the concrete assembly hall - in a moment.

But first can you see, also, of the path on your left, along the side of the building, heading toward the back? There, according to eyewitnesses, nine military soldiers entered. Are you counting well? In total, 13 heavily armed, helmeted, gas-masked soldiers ran through the main entrance and along your left side to the space behind the building.

What happened on that day to justify the actions of to these 13 soldiers -- backed by 200 uniformed troops standing where your photographer is standing -- when they charged this peaceful meeting space of civil society? Read on...

This is a photo of Epifanio Cruz, the democratically elected mayor of the town of Chimoré.

Mayor Cruz was an eyewitness to the tragedy of December 6th.

In the photo above, he stands where the military commander stood on that day, with 200 soldiers, armed to the teeth, after they chased 200 farmers into the little building, most of whom fled to the space behind it.

Mayor Cruz was there with the municipal truck. He identified himself as the mayor to the soldiers. He had been there before the soldiers had arrived, and describes what he saw. "The military says that the farmers were in the road, blocking the road. That is not true," insists the mayor. "The farmers were along the side of the road, handing bananas and fruits to passing motorists, as a protest of the 'alternative development' programs that have left them with rotting fruits and no market to sell them. It was a peaceful demonstration, not a blockade."

"The compañeros invited the soldiers to eat the pineapple, and some did. Then came the commander giving orders. The soldiers took all the pineapples, all the bananas away -- moments before they had been receiving them as gifts -- and the soldiers became very aggressive. They grabbed our brothers like they were animals, pushing and pulling them. They kicked them. I saw one farmer get kicked in the back of the neck. The farmers fled into and behind the union headquarters."

The mayor continues: "The compañeros were now all inside or behind the building. Casimiro and a small group, the leaders, were in the doorway. I was standing very close to the military commander and he gave an order for his troops to line up in formation. The biggest, tallest soldiers were in front. The commander yelled 'Action!' They shot a tear-gas grenade into the building. Then a group of soldiers charged the building, four went through the middle, nine went around the side. If the order of the commander had not been given, this would not have happened."

"Within a few minutes I heard gunshots, from over there," the mayor points around the side of the building. The soldiers came out. Then some compañeros came running out, shouting, that people had been shot."

This is the doorway into which a tear-gas canister was shot, exploded, and followed by four of the 13 attacking soldiers....

On the left side of the hallway that is seen in the prior photos of the entrance, there are two small rooms.

In the second room, a three-year-old child was napping.

This is the three-year-old child, and her mother, Elvira Acosta.

"Me han matado," says the child, who had fainted from the tear-gas. "They have killed me," she says, almost playfully, as if to describe her fainting.

Elvira Acosta, her mother, explains: "I was behind the building when they shot the tear gas. I ran to get my daughter. She had fainted. I took her out of there and don Casimiro was already dead and bleeding on the ground."

Albino Paniagua had been one of the leaders who stood in the front passageway with Casimiro Huanca after the soldiers had chased the peaceful protesters into the shelter. "We were in the doorway," he remembers. "The boss of the (military) operation asked us to evacuate the offices. We had prepared a protest for this day with products for which there is no market, no price. It's a farce. The soldiers then shot a gas grenade at us. We headed behind the building."

"This is the door to the assembly hall," says Albino Paniagua. "Luckily, it had been chained with a padlock, or we would have all ran in there and been trapped, probably massacred. When the four soldiers entered the hallway in front, we ran to the side. But then there were nine more soldiers charging along the side. I saw two soldiers trap Casimiro. He was being held. He was protesting, shouting, 'Let me go!' I can't say which soldier shot him. They all had helmets on. They all looked alike. The soldiers grabbed me by the shirt. I passed by the side of Casimiro. I heard the shots and I heard him cry out, 'ayyyyyy.' When I heard the cry, I also saw a soldier shoot at Fructuoso Herbas, point blank, a shot that 'burns the clothes' is what we say here. Fructuoso cried out, 'Where is my foot. I have no foot!' His foot was there but it was totally destroyed."

"The soldiers then took off," explains Albino Paniagua (above). "I took my shirt off so they might not recognize me as easily and ran out front, shouting, 'there are wounded!' Casimiro was spilling a lot of blood. It looked like he'd been hit in the testicles. There was still this intense smell of the gas. This moment, it all happened so fast."

Albino Paniagua stands along the side of the rear building, the assembly hall, where his friend and fellow union leader Casimiro Huanca was assassinated by gunshot...

Flowers are laid in the place where Casimiro fell. The side door fo the assembly hall, according to the witnesses, was also padlocked during the attack...

Elvira Acosta points to one of three bullet holes found in the side of the assembly hall...

Another bullet hole: deep and wide into the concrete bricks, made by high caliber weapons...

Still, another bullet hole...

Albino Paniagua points to where Fructuoso Herbas had fallen: a small, dry rivine. He told Narco News that he saw the farmer shot, point blank. The bullet was later found 16 centimeters in the ground after passing through Fructuoso's leg and foot....

Fructuoso Herbas (above), the following day, December 7th, in the Viedma Hospital of Cochabamba...

Precisions on the story of Fructuoso: When your correspondent found Fructuoso Herbas in the hospital, he was still in great pain and traumatized. As a result, there were some minor errors in his story as told to Narco News. Fructuoso had said that the military commander had ordered the farmers to clear their fruits off the side of the road within "five hours." In fact, the order was to do it within "five minutes" according to the other witnesses. He had also described lying for "three hours" before his compañeros found him. The other witnesses, including Albino Paniagua, had come to his side almost immediately.

In your correspondent's analysis, Fructuoso's confusion -- using the word "hours" in place of "minutes" twice, was due to his fragile medical state and high level of physical pain cited during the interview. But we do wish to be precise here in the Narco Newsroom.

Fructuoso also described "at least 300 soldiers." Other witnesses counted closer to 200 soldiers. The eyewitness accounts, some of whom chose not to be identified for fear of the security forces, otherwise agreed on all the facts published above...

Godofredo Reineke (above) is the Public Defender for the Chapare Region in the State of Cochabamba. He was appointed by the national Public Defender, Ana María Campero, who was appointed by the federal congress. The Bolivian Congress, three years ago, established the office of Public Defender to be an independent watchdog agency on human rights abuses in the executive branch, including the police agencies and armed forces.

Attorney Reineke has investigated the murder of Casimiro Huanca and the shooting of Fructuoso Herbas, as well as the other facts of December 6th. It is his job to do so. He has been to the crime scene and taken official testimony from the witnesses. He told Narco News that civil prosecutors and investigators had begun a parallel investigation, but that the Armed Forces took the investigation away, and the civil investigators and prosecutors were ordered by the federal government to back off. "The first thing that concerns me," begins Reineke, "is the military tribunal. Article 34 of the Bolivian Constitution says that the military tribunal can't meddle in these things. But they always do. In many cases of assassinations of civilian leaders, the military tribunal has taken the investigation away from the civil authorities, and it always reports the same thing: that the assassinations were justified in self-defense."

"I did not witness the shootings of December 6th, but I had passed by the place in my auto 15 minutes before the shooting. There was no blockade, as the authorities first claimed. The farmers were on the side of the road with their fruits. It was peaceful. Upon hearing about the shooting, I arrived at the scene a half hour later. I saw Casimiro's cadaver. Fructuoso was brought to the hospital. There are various testmonies as to what happened. There was no resistance at any moment. Casimiro was 55 years old, a religious man, a pacifist. The solders who grabbed him were with the Manchego Battallion, the "rangers," out of Santa Cruz. They were part of the Expeditionary Task Force."

"It is clear," says the Public Defender, "that there had to have been premeditation in Casimiro's assassination."

"My office has tried to depose the military commander. We are still awaiting his answer," says Attorney Reineke. "The prosecutor should be independent, but the military tribunal apparently is not. The number-one problem is impunity. From 1995 to the present, in the Chapare region alone, there have been more than 40 deaths of civilians at the hands of the authorities. There is a systematic violation of human rights, in this case, the first right, the right to live."

"What is needed in the face of this impunity is international attention and support," says the Public Defender, Godofredo Reineke. "Only international support can make sure this doesn't happen again. This official violence has reached the limits of irrationality. We have no guarantee that this won't happen again tomorrow. The military commanders feed off these murders, many are proud to have committed them. It's totally out of control."

Father Sperandio Ravasio (above) is a Catholic priest in Villa Tunari, one of the larger towns in the Chapare region, two towns away from Chimoré. He knew Casimiro Huanca, the assassinated union leader.

"You journalists!" he begins, berating your correspondent. "Many times we sit here, everything is peaceful, tranquil, and we read the newspaper and it tells us we're at war. Then when there really are problems, there is not a word. It's a psychosis!"

"During the blockades of 2000, from September 15th to October 13th of that year, the military was all over the place. They occupied this town, Villa Tunari, for one solid week, shooting tear-gas night and day. One night they came to the church. They thought the farmers were staying here. They weren't. The garden out back was empty. But they shot gas cannisters into the garden, later we found three cartridges there. We have lived with this for a while now."

"There was an American journalist here at the time," recalls Padre Sperandio (an Italian name -- the Padre is from Milan -- meaning "hope in God"), "she had just been in Colombia. I asked her why these events didn't receive coverage in the American press. She said, 'You need twenty to twenty-five deaths on a daily basis in order to get a story into the United States press. This,' she said, 'is regrettably the reality.'"

Padre Sperandio has watched the conflicts of recent years in the Chapare between the government and the coca growers heat up and explode with increased frequency. "I ask myself," he says, "with this lack of respect that is given to the populace, what is this going to come to? The government has signed agreements with 15 or 17 points of accord with the growers. How many have been complied with? None of them! They mock the people yesterday, today and tomorrow. The people don't trust the government any more."

The priest was a party to the most recent round of negotiations, the Coca Summit of November 2001. "There was a real dialogue," he says. "The coca growers pledged to help and guide the government in the eradication of all the larger plots, those of more than a cato of coca. There are large plantations of two or three hectares. There was agreement between the growers and the negotiators to eradicate this coca. We all sat down to eat during a break in the talks, happy, content, we thought we had arrived at an agreement. Then the call came in. And it was over!"

"It's continuous, this lack of respect," says the Father. "Casimiro was here during the summit. He spoke. Then this cretin with a megaphone and a uniform comes to his town and Casimiro was shot, Fructuoso was shot."

"I worry about the reaction of the young people," the Padre expresses. "Many of them say, 'Evo or no Evo. Leaders or no leaders. We are going to get vengeance.' I think of a 23-year-old man I know, who told me, 'Since I was 12 years old, I remember when the police came to my house, shot my father, raped my mother. Now I am 23 and I am going to avenge their deaths.' And yet still it surprises me, the patience that the coca growers have. There needs to be more attention on this matter internationally to bring about a new respect for the people, if violence is going to be avoided." The priest looks directly at his interviewer, ending as he began, with a dare: "Let's see if you can do something about this, journalist! Let's just see!"

Read the December 7-9 2001 War Log

Read the December 10-17 War Log

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