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Bolivia Coca Crisis Explodes

Deaths and other human rights abuses by Bolivian security forces have mounted in recent weeks as they confront angry coca-growing peasants determined to protect their crops and their economic well-being.
 
 
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In the last three weeks, the simmering social crisis centered on the Bolivian government's policy of eradicating all coca production in the Chapare region of the country has once again reached the boiling point. Deaths and other human rights abuses by Bolivian security forces have mounted in recent weeks as they confront angry coca-growing peasants determined to protect their crops and their economic well-being.

The crisis reached a new level on Thursday, when Bolivian security forces assassinated a leader of the Six Federations of Coca Growers and the wounding of another, as approximately 150 coca growers in Chimore began to set up a highway blockade. According to the Andean Information Network, members of the Manchego Army Regiment from Santa Cruz and members of the National Police gave the protesters five minutes to disperse, then immediately opened up with tear gas on the fleeing crowd. Citing eyewitness accounts and an autopsy report, AIN reported that Casimiro Huanca Colque, 55, a leader of the Chimore Federation, was detained by security forces inside the nearby Chimore Special Colonizer's Federation office by the highway. Colque is reported to have been shot twice at close range inside the office and to have bled to death.

Another union officer, Fructuoso Herbas Rivas, 36, was detained behind the building and forced to the ground. While prone, an army officer approached and shot him in the right leg at close range. He is hospitalized in Cochabamba, AIN reported.

An unknown number of other peaceful demonstrators were detained. AIN reported that witnesses told human rights investigators security forces appeared to be targeting specific individuals for arrest. AIN noted that the killing occurred at the same time President Quiroga was being lauded at the White House for his anti-drug efforts.

The US government, in the person of Ambassador Manuel Rocha, has played a key role in provoking renewed conflict with its rigid demands that Bolivia continue forward with the eradication program in the face of intense opposition. And the US news media has not had a word to say about it.

Two sources of information, however, are breaking the media blackout on a regular basis. The Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network ( http://www.scbbs-bo.com/ain/">www.scbbs-bo.com/ain/) has provided regular bulletins on the confrontations from the beginning, and Al Giordano's Narco News ( www.narconews.com) is temporarily relocating to Bolivia to report on the situation live.

According to AIN, escalating confrontations between security forces and coca growers, after the deaths of three coca-growers shot by security forces on November 15, led to negotiations between the government and the Six Federations of coca growers. As a result of those talks, the coca growers agreed to suspend their highway blockades, and the government agreed to suspend coca eradication in the Chapare.

That didn't sit too well with the US Embassy, AIN reported. The US government frequently holds up Bolivia as its Latin American "success story," for the violent coca eradication campaign begun under dictator-turned-elected president Hugo Banzer and now carried on by his successor, Jorge Quiroga. (Quiroga is in Washington this week, meeting with President Bush, DEA head Asa Hutchinson and IMF/World Bank officials, among others.)

When coca growers asked for a short extension of the eradication suspension, the government, under pressure from the US, refused. Now, the coca growers are again taking to the barricades as some 4,000 troops patrol the Chapare. As AIN put it, "Both parties, as well as members of the facilitators groups, cited strong US pressure to resume eradication as the cause for the breakdown in dialogue."

According to the latest reports from the newspaper La Opinion (translated and posted on the NarcoNews.com web site), the Six Federations were to begin renewed highway blockades as of Tuesday. Growers' leader Luis Cutipa told the newspaper that peasants were forming self-defense committees and that blockades were already under way. "In some sectors, surprise blockades began on Saturday night," he said.

Coca growers rejected a government offer to pay them $73 each in compensation for eradicated coca, Cutipa said, "because we don't want to be employees of the US Embassy," adding that there was no money in the Bolivian treasury to make the payments.

Cutipa told the newspaper the growers would end the blockades only when the government suspends eradication. In the meantime, he warned, "coca growers and other sectors involved are studying how a Coca Growers' Army will be formed."

The blockades are set. The troops are in place. US drug policy is once again bringing Bolivia to the brink of rebellion. When will the US media notice?

Philip Smith edits DRCNet's Week Online.