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With a campaign of strikes and road blockades led by cocalero leader and national political figure Evo Morales now in their second week and with no sign of a breakthrough in talks with the government of Sanchez de Lozada, an armed rebel group has now announced its presence in the Chapare coca-producing region -- maybe. According to Bolivian press reports, a group calling itself the Army of National Dignity (Ejercito de Dignidad Nacional, or EDN) has emerged near Colomi.
The Bolivian government admitted the existence of a "small armed group," adding that according to its intelligence, the group consisted of 12 sharpshooters armed with World War II-era weapons and was "directly connected" to the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), the largest political party in the insurgent coalition headed by Morales.
Morales was having none of that. "This is one more wild accusation from the government," he told La Razon (La Paz) Thursday. "They are desperate, they are frightened. About this group, I can say that perhaps the bases are getting ahead of us as they confront repression and murders by the armed forces."
The number of dead in ten days of blockades and protests had risen to 15 by Thursday, according to La Razon (other sources say 17), and with indigenous leader congressman Felipe Quispe ("El Mallku") announcing Wednesday that his people would join the protests, Bolivia appears headed for a social explosion if thegovernment cannot find a way to meet rising popular demands. The movement begun by coca growers angered by the government's US-backed eradication policies has now spread across vast sectors of Bolivian society.
The emergence of armed guerillas in the Chapare has been whispered for months, but this week a reporter for Reuters broke the story open by interviewing a man who identified himself as the leader of the armed group. Surrounded by armed, masked men, the masked leader told Reuters they had taken up arms "because they are shooting at us. We are former soldiers of the Bolivian army," said the masked man. "We have arms that our indigenous grandfathers had left us to defend our country. We are taking up arms to make the government enter into a dialogue and because we don't want the massacre of our peasant brothers to continue," he explained. "We are a social, indigenous organization. We don't have any political or party ties, nor are we cocaleros," he added.
And maybe they're not even real guerrillas, according to Bolivian journalist Jaime Iturri, who has studied Bolivian guerrilla movements. The supposed guerrilla force could be a trick by the government to justify more repression and more foreign assistance, Iturri told La Razon, noting that a foreign reporter got the scoop. "Irregular armed groups usually try to show themselves in the national context before the international," he said, "but here it is interesting that they say there are guerrillas in Bolivia in order that Army intelligence and the police get more international financing. It could be a trick," he said.
Bolivia's narcs have their own theory. According to Luis Caballero, head of the Task Force Against Drug Trafficking, the guerrillas are in the pay of drug traffickers. "We have been examining the thesis that there exist armed groups," he told La Razon, "but they are linked to the drug trade."
And while the nation worries about a dozen men with Mausers in the wilds, much more concrete social movements are stepping up the pressure on the government. In a communiqué issued Wednesday, the "Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Bolivian People" -- representing a broad coalition of labor and other social groups -- denounced that the Sanchez de Lozada government had "met the demands of the people with bullets, tanks, tear gas and helicopters, leaving 17 Bolivians dead on the national territory."
The communiqué called for all citizens to mobilize in defense of the country against the government, to intensify the campaign of blockades throughout the country, to hold marches and mobilizations, and to demand the resignation of Sanchez de Lozada for incompetence, unleashing repression on the population, and "high treason to the fatherland."
While the US government is busy obsessing on Iraq, things are beginning to go south for it in a big way in the heart of South America.
Note: Both Evo Morales and Felipe Quispe are confirmed speakers for next month's conference, 'Out from the Shadows: Ending Drug Prohibition in the 21st Century'.