Bolivian peasants or narco-terrorists?

A legal plantation in the Yungas region of La Paz, Bolivia.A legal plantation in the Yungas region of La Paz, Bolivia.Women and children die first
It was 1997, a warm April day in the Chapare, Bolivia’s principle coca-growing region. A respected 53-year-old elder woman, Alberta Orellana Garcia, was kneeling on the ground in front of a narcotics agent, begging him not to destroy the coca fields that fed her family. Her eldest son watched, petrified, as the narc pulled out a gun and shot her in the head, spilling her brains onto the earth.

The local town of Chapare erupted in shock and anger. A large group of coca growers closed in on the local eradication office and tore it to the ground. Shortly afterward, the government retaliated with armed officers firing tear gas.

The coca in the Garcia’s fields was potentially legal under Bolivian law, for in Bolivia there is a long coca-growing tradition with roots deep in indigenous culture. Coca is not just for export, but is used by local peoples for food and teas.

Kathryn Ledebur, spokesperson for the Andean Information Network (AIN), a non-profit group dedicated to exposing human rights disasters, remembers the death of Mrs Garcia, and sees Bolivia as a case study of everything that is wrong with the US’ drug war.

“It has only gotten worse since then. At that point [when Mrs Garcia was shot]the Chapare region was stipulated as a region in transition,” said Ledebur in an interview with Cannabis Culture. “We now have a promise since 1998 for the Bolivian Government to eradicate all of what they deem illegal coca in the Chapare Region [called Plan Dignity]. The US has provided financial support for the direct participation of the Bolivian military in coca eradication.

“What you have now is the eradication of the large bulk of the Chapare coca crop with nothing to replace it as a source of income to those families. So since April of 1998, what we have seen is already really poor regions become much poorer with higher rates of infant mortality. As a result coca growers have continued to resist eradication, setting off widespread conflicts last year and this year as well.”

The drug war has transformed Bolivia’s political landscape into a collage of nightmare images. Drug war protesters are often shot in the streets. Women and children are jailed together while they await their day in court ? often years later. Prison conditions are so intolerable that in 1999, in San Sebastian women’s jail, four female inmates stitched their own mouths shut in protest.1 Alas, to no avail. The international media has shut not only its ears, but its eyes as well to the plight of Bolivia.

Peasants or narco-terrorists?

Last year, the executive branch of the Bolivian congress called a temporary stop to coca eradication and called a meeting with coca growers for November 25, 2001, to negotiate a resolution to the conflict that for several years had touched off labour strikes, road blockades and demonstrations. At the same time, Bolivia hosted an international conference on terrorism, attended by countries from around the world.

At the coca talks, growers and government officials were close to reaching a compromise that would see an end to years of bloodshed. Before they could reach an agreement, however, hysterical speechmaking before US representatives at the international conference on terrorism would sabatoge progress between the farmers and the executive branch.

On November 26, Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga told the terrorism conference that terrorism and drug trafficking were “Siamese twins,” comparing Bolivia’s peasant coca growers to Afghanistan’s Taliban.2 Quiroga was backed by Bolivian military General Victor Hugo Garcia, who specifically identified Evo Morales, elected Bolivian congressman and President of the Andean Confederation of Coca Leaf Producers, as the chief terrorist. “The blockade of the principal highways of our country is the basis to execute terrorist and subversive plans,” Garcia exclaimed, referring to tactics employed by the coca growers and civil disobedience groups. And according to Bolivia’s director of Intelligence, Colonel Felix Torrico, the coca growers were a fundamental threat to Bolivia’s participation in globalization.

By November 28, the coca talks ground to a halt. The US ambassador, who attended the negotiations, was blamed widely for their failure. “Without any thought or consideration the ambassador said ‘coca or nothing’ ? that is to say, eliminate the last coca leaf in the Chapare or US aid will cease,” wrote Grover Cardoso Alcal? in Bolivia’s Daily Opinion newspaper on November 29.

US interference in the coca talks touched off a more general protest, including a hunger strike by member of Congress, and a general strike on December 5, in which taxi drivers paralyzed transportation throughout the country for 24 hours, receiving support from the country’s doctors and even some police. Nearer to the coca fields, the Six Chapare Coca Growers’ Federations began blockading highways.

Rather than heed the warnings of democratic opinion, the US Ambassador reported back to Washington with the news that Evo Morales and the coca growers were terrorists, and should be utterly destroyed.3

The mother of a slain coca farmer, killed in a clash between coca farmers and police.The mother of a slain coca farmer, killed in a clash between coca farmers and police.Uncivil war

While Presidents Quiroga and Bush cozied up to talk business on December 6, 2001, Bolivia’s Expeditionary Task Force shot to death Coca Growers’ Union president Casimiro Huanca, during a peaceful protest against the US-backed crop replacement program that had farmers growing produce with no viable market.

Casimiro Huanca was the president of one of the growers’ unions headed by Evo Morales. The Expeditionary Task Force that killed Huanca is a special coca-eradication and security squad, headed not by the Bolivian police, but by a military commander, and funded directly by the US government. The Expeditionary Task Force has been implicated in numerous human rights violations since its creation in January 2001.

“Roughly about two minutes after a warning by the Expeditionary Task Force to retreat, the coca growers began heading back to their office,” said Kathryn Ledebur of the AIN, who has seen a videotape of the events. “The soldiers then began kicking and hitting the coca growers. There was absolutely no provocation. At that time, some members of the Expeditionary Task Force followed people into the office, and detained union leader Huasca. As he was detained, they shot him twice in the leg, severing the femeral artery. He died soon afterward.”

Reports from Narco News Bulletin ? an online news service that translates Bolivian newspaper articles and conducts its own investigative reports ? paint a picture of what happened in the following days. After the death of Huanca, the military took over the investigation and ruled that the soldiers had acted in “self-defence.” Protests erupted throughout the Chapare, violence continued to escalate, and among the coca growers there was talk of retaliation.

On January 15, 2002, when police shut down the traditional coca market in Cochabamba, four coca growers were shot and two died, bringing the number of uninvestigated government-sponsored slayings of coca growers since 1988 to about 57. In an eye-for-an-eye gesture, coca growers at the market also killed two officers, then abducted two others who were found dead the next day.4 The government considered the deaths of police officers a serious escalation of the conflict.

Within days, 100 protest leaders and organizers were arrested. In the Bolivian Congress, Morales’ enemies blamed the cops’ deaths on him. In what political commentators say was an illegal move, Morales was removed from congress and stripped of the political immunity that had kept him out of jail thus far.

“It seems to me that kicking out elected representatives is a real escalation by the government. How ironic that the government kicked out Evo without any sort of trial, but is equally insistent on protecting former dictator and President Banzer from an attempt to try him for his blatant human rights abuses,” said Jim Shultz, Executive Director of the Democracy Centre.

Shultz was referring to the order for the arrest of former Bolivian President Banzer by an Argentinean federal court on December 26, 2001, which so far has gone unreported in the major American media. Banzer is wanted for cooperation in a covert operation known as “Operation Condor,” by which US-backed military-style dictators in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia kidnapped and assassinated tens of thousands of opposition leaders, their families and their children in the late 70’s and early 80’s, paving the way for economic invasion by the US. Current president Quiroga was hand-picked by Banzer as vice-president, and only assumed the presidency in 2001 when Banzer fell ill from lung cancer.4

On January 25, 2002, Evo Morales began a hunger strike while still avoiding arrest and possible assassination by government forces.5 During the following two weeks, the people of Bolivia erupted into protest over Morales’ removal from office, freezing all travel and commerce in four of Bolivia’s commercial centres ? La Paz, Cochambamba, Ororo, and Potos?.

On February 9, the Bolivian government was forced to negotiate with Morales, relegalizing the growing and sale of coca for traditional uses, and calling for a 90 day truce with the plant’s farmers. Whether Morales will be allowed to return to his elected political office is still questionable.

A helicopter lands in Chapare, Bolivia`s principle coca-growing region.A helicopter lands in Chapare, Bolivia`s principle coca-growing region.Oily trade scam

A close look at the December 6, 2001 meeting between Quiroga and Bush reveals the strings being pulled behind the drug-war persecution of Bolivian peasants. Romina Alvarez, a journalist with the respected Bolivian newspaper La Razon, told Cannabis Culture how the US bullies and bribes Bolivia into participating in drug war atrocities.

“[Free trade] was a part of the meeting with Quiroga and Bush,” said Alvarez. “We have a huge reserve of gas, and they want to sell that to the US. We have six months to fulfill the conditions in order to sell the gas? also to make the material arrangements to sell the gas [Bolivia lacks a sea port]? The principle condition is that we have to eradicate coca. If we do that we can have a free trade market in textiles. We will be able to export gas. That is why for President Quiroga, one of the main objectives of his presidency is to eradicate coca in the Chapare region. That is the reason why that region is a region of conflict, always.”

By way of comparison, it is no coincidence that the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico exploded into action in Chiapas on January 1, 1994, the very same day that Mexico entered into NAFTA.

Besides trade, US Department of State documents show that terrorism and the drug war were also hot topics at Quiroga and Bush’s rendezvous.6 Both Romina Alvarez and Kathryn Ledebur provided a sense of Bolivian public opinion, which sees the violence of the war on drugs as strongly related to US interests in Bolivian resources, especially oil and gas. Oil and gas are two of Bolivia’s biggest money makers, in large part due to finds in the coca-growing region of the Chapare. Indeed, oil and gas rigs are popular targets of drug-war protesters in the region, who seize the sites and block trade routes.7

How convenient that peasants and indigenous people should be eradicated from those very same fields by the US drug war! Maxus, the US oil corporation that owns the targeted sites, had similar problems in Ecuador in the mid 90’s, and dealt with indigenous protesters by kidnappings and assassinations, with the assistance of Ecuador’s military.

The same pattern of drug war oppression occurred in Colombia. In their 1997-98 report, the internationally respected Organization Geopolitical Drugwatch showed a correlation between regions with high oil and mineral extraction and areas targeted for brutal death-squad activity against supposed “narcoterrorists” (CC#23, Colombia’s Corporate Killers). One notable example are the U’wa people, some of whom were mercilessly driven into a river and drowned in February, 2000 by Colombian military during protests against the activites of oil giant Shell and its partner Occidental, who were drilling for and extracting crude oil from U’wa lands (CC#26, Colombian Death Spray).

According to a report from the University of America, US oil and gas companies, including Shell and Exxon, are also making millions in profits by exporting to South American countries the petrochemical ingredients necessary for converting coca leaf into cocaine, the very product that justifies the US war against Bolivia’s traditional coca culture. Between 1990 and 1995, when the drug war was just getting underway in South America, sales of these chemicals to Bolivia grew by about 60%, to $15 million per year.8

Bolivia shows all the signs of being well on the way to becoming another Colombia, with heinous human rights abuses against peasants and indigenous peoples threatening to destroy a millennia-old culture, intimidating otherwise peaceful people into violent self-defence.

From an economic perspective, the combination of drug war and free trade pits foreign industry against national agriculture? and the new war on terrorism has given foreign industry the justification it needs to make it a fight to the death.

Yet even these cultural/economic perspectives hardly approach the heart of what killing people for growing coca means to Bolivians. We can only begin to grasp the psychology if we can imagine a foreign force kicking in the doors of our chapel and grabbing an elderly widow ? with the wine-blood of Jesus fresh on her lips ? grabbing her by the hair and shooting her brains out on the altar. This is the war on drugs? an ancient evil that is known by the names “hatred”, “racism” and “genocide.”

? Jim Shultz at the Democracy Center: PO Box 22157, San Francisco, CA, 94122; tel 415-564-4767; fax 978-383-1269; email [email protected]; web
? Kathryn Ledebur at the Andean Information Network: tel 591-4 448-0771; email [email protected]; web
? Narco News Bulletin: email [email protected]; web
? Bolivia’s Coca Museum: email [email protected]; web


1. Sewing their mouths shut in order to be heard. The Democracy Center Newsletter. Volume 26 – June 8, 1999.
2. Quiroga: Terrorism and Narco-Trafficking are “Siamese Twins” Reuters Latin American News Service. November 27, 2001.
3. From an interview with Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network.
4. More Repression vs Coca Growers The War Over Sacaba by Luis A G?mez. Narco News Bulletin. January 23, 2002.
5. Bolivia Bans Democracy by Luis A G?mez. Narco News Bulletin. January 25, 2002.
6. From the US State Department website (
7. Disturbances in Bolivia. Publisher GeorgeAnne Potter in Cochabamba, Bolivia. September 25, 2000.
8. Bolivia Coca Trade by Adrian Muniz. A publication of American University. May 1996.
9. Villena and Sauvain, Usos de la hoja de coca y salud publica, Instituto Boliviano de Biolog?a de Altura, La Paz, Bolivia, 1997.
10. Calculations based on figures from the 1999 UNDCP Profile of Bolivia (, and the CIA Factbook, 2000 (
11. The Economics of Cocaine Capitalism by Rensselaer Lee. The Cosmos-Club Journal, 1996 (


Evo Morales, President of the Confederation of Coca Leaf ProducersEvo Morales, President of the Confederation of Coca Leaf ProducersInterview with Evo Morales, peasant leader and accused terrorist

Bolivia is on the brink of civil war because of US drug war policies, and Evo Morales is at the centre of the conflict. An elected Bolivian congressman with the most votes in Bolivian history, former nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, leader of the Five Federations of Lowland Peasants and President of the Andean Confederation of Coca Leaf Producers ? Evo Morales is a figure as important to Bolivian history and politics as Che Guevara, the radical leftist who was assassinated by CIA-trained and coordinated forces in 1967, and who has since become a legendary icon to Latin-American indigenous movements.

Morales now stands accused of being a “terrorist,” but he gave Cannabis Culture this exclusive interview, with our set of questions brought to him by Bolivian journalist Iv?n Canelas. What follows is translated from the original Spanish.

Cannabis Culture: Are the war on drugs and the war on terrorism much the same thing?

Evo Morales: The drug war and the war on terrorism, from our perspective, go together. Before it was communism, then they moved onto the war on narcotics, and now onto terrorism. They are all pretexts and excuses of the US for relatively peaceful control in many countries, though in others they assume the level of a low-intensity war.

Could you explain the difference between coca leaves and cocaine?

[Coca] is not the same as cocaine. Coca leaves aren’t damaging. The ones who convert it to cocaine are the narcotics traffickers, and perhaps those are the ones who should be detained. The farmers are victimized, while narcotics traffickers are happy in the city with the US doing nothing to sanction them. Their fortunes accumulate in Miami banks, and the US doesn’t do or say anything.

Is the war against terrorism an excuse to destroy Bolivia’s coca producers?

Yes. Not only the coca producers, but all social movements that are against the model and against the system. Any social struggle will be classified as terrorism? and all will be excuses to avoid the social protests of thousands of people who are against the present system and US politics.

They’ve accused us of being terrorists, with their only interest being to affect our fight, and only because we are brainstorming the social movement ? the fight of the indigenous pueblos [villages, groups or peoples], for land and territory, defence of the coca, natural resources, amongst others. These fights irritate the present system because they oppose the model forced and imposed on Bolivia.

They intend to continue exploiting our resources ? our petroleum, gas and others ? in ways that serve only the transnationals and not the people.

Could you comment specifically on US interest in Bolivia’s oil and gas?

Especially with gas and mining, they want to take the national parks and forest reserves before they fill up with so-called Indians and landless people from the countryside and the cities. I don’t doubt that in the future, the requirement of (US aid) certification will not just be a drug war, but the ultimate handing over of all these lands.

Do you believe that the US wants to steal your land?

That’s their intention. Because the Chapare is strategic to their interests, including military interests, they want to impose their model of economic misery upon us, and we will not accept that. We fight not only to maintain our culture, but our tradition and wealth.

They don’t accept that we have a relationship with our land. Instead, they aspire for us to be agricultural labourers. That is to say, they aspire for us to work for others.They want to tear us away from our culture. That’s why they try to give indigenous struggles, the defending of our villages and lands, a bad name. We are determined to fight for our culture so that they don’t take our land and enrich only a few in return.

How did you feel when you were accused of being a terrorist?

I didn’t care. I know I am not. I fight for my people, my culture and so that the farmers can live better. If they say we are terrorists, it is only an excuse to repress us and kill us.

`Any social struggle will be classified as terrorism...``Any social struggle will be classified as terrorism…`Are you peaceful?

We have always been peaceful. We don’t attack; we defend ourselves. The government transports military troops and police to the Chapare to kill us, and what can we do but defend ourselves?

We don’t have guns, only our screams, rocks and the forests. During all these years, they’ve killed nearly half a sentinel [over 50]of farmers. The murderers are not in jail, because they enjoy the protection of the government.

Do you count on support from other sectors of the economy?

The producers of coca count on the solidarity of all and if many people can’t express themselves with freedom, it is because they are scared. They show solidarity in their own way. Studies in Cochabamba for example, established total support for us, but many are still afraid to speak out because the government represses so harshly.

Is the war against drugs a war on the Bolivian economy?

The Banzer regime overall has destroyed the economy. President Banzer promoted narcotrafficking activity while claiming to end coca production. Also, eradication without alternative development has left an economic imbalance. Our plans for a legal coca market have not been fully understood or appreciated.

Do you feel that the US wants to destroy Bolivian commerce to impose its own trade politics?

Bolivia and other countries from the Andean region have been excluded from global commerce. If the US cries for free importation, free trade, when they are the first to protect production? above all agricultural production, how will [President Quiroga] be able to solve our economic dilemma?

A country that has politics of free trade should permit our products into their country, but instead they have sanitary pretexts to exclude our goods.

What is the US’ true goal in the drug war?

The US is scared because it doesn’t have a monopoly on drug commerce. Flight of currency exists. Their interest is not in how to fight drugs, but in how to control the commerce.

Military intervention in Colombia was no solution. It only provoked major conflicts. What needs to be eradicated for the US to be successful is the demand for drugs in the market. If not, drugs will continue to appear everywhere.

Does the US pressure the Bolivian government to take action against coca growers?

They are the ones that rule. They approve and impose politics, actions and operations. They blackmail us to raise money for their fights. Bolivia is not sovereign. It is ruled by the US.

What do you think the future holds?

I believe that there will be a confrontation throughout the whole world between indigenous towns and those who intend to become owners of what is ours.


`Any social struggle will be classified as terrorism…`Bolivia’s legal coca

In Bolivia, coca leaf chewing is considered totally separate from the use of the coca leaf extract known as cocaine. Cocaine only became available after the process for isolating it from the leaf was discovered by Albert Niemann of Gottingen University in 1859. “Coca is an Andean tradition while cocaine is a Western habit,” said former Bolivian President Paz Zamora in a 1992 speech before the World Health Organization.

The chewing of coca leaf is a historical, spiritual and cultural phenomenon that reaches deep into the identity of local peoples not only in Bolivia, but in the entire Andian region. According to researchers at Bolivia’s Coca Museum, archeologists date coca chewing as far back as 2500-1800 BC. The leaves were chewed by the Incas, the Quechuas and every Andean people after them. It has been a part of their spirituality since the beginning of time.

Chewing forms a part of ceremonies and rituals to ensure fertility, ward off natural disasters, protect from curses and effect shamanic healing. A gift of coca leaves is a standard way to “seal the deal,” as common as a handshake in western culture. Coca leaf gifts are also used in petitions to community leaders, in proposals of marriage, and in any reciprocal arrangement. The traditional coca field outside of a family’s home is considered a reflection of the life of the family that grows it.

A 1997 study conducted by two of Bolivia’s most respected universities, in cooperation with the French National Scientific Research Institute for Development through Cooperation, found coca to stimulate the respiratory system, to increase one’s tolerance for heavy work, to inhibit platelet aggregation, to moderate the uptake of glucose and generally improve blood oxygenation. “From this perspective,” reads the report, “coca would play an indispensable role in adaptation to high altitude.”9 Traditionally, coca is used to cure not only altitude sickness, but vertigo, gastrointestinal disorders, sexual problems, colds, headaches and sore muscles.

Surprisingly, coca leaves are also prized for their nutritional value. In a 1975 study conducted by Harvard University, a 100 gram dose of Bolivian coca was found to contain the recommended daily intake of calcium, iron and phosphor, as well as vitamins A, B2 and E. The same report found coca to contain significant quantities of vitamins C and B1. Coca leaf is 18.9% protein and 11.4% essential fatty acids ? richer in nutritional value, said the study, than many common cereals, vegetables, fruits and nuts.

Coca-leaf, the real thing

There is a long-standing legal coca market in Bolivia, which was significantly reduced in 1988 by the passing of Bolivian Law #1008, which allowed for only 12,000 hectares of legal coca in the country. By 2000, four-fifths of Bolivia’s coca crops had been eradicated, leaving only 14,600 hectares of coca leaf.11

Most of Bolivia’s coca crop is now totally legal. One repeat customer of this legal coca crop is Coca-Cola, which imports about eight tons of coca leaf each year. They process the leaf, sell the cocaine to pharmaceutical companies, and put the rest into their famous drink. Clearly they believe strongly enough in the benefits of even de-cocainized coca leaf to make such an effort.

According to Evo Morales, elected Bolivian congressman and President of the Andean Confederation of Coca Leaf Producers (see interview, sidebar), the coca growers only wanted to develop the legal market. Records kept by the United Nations Drug Control Program and Bolivia’s National Exporters Association show that in 2000 legal coca employed 51,300 Bolivian workers, represented 2.2% of the country’s legitimate GDP, and 1.5% of Bolivia’s total legal exports. A study by Harvard scholars Mario de Franco and Ricardo Godoy found that if the legal coca market were allowed to expand even 10%, it would raise GDP by 2% and reduce unemployment by 6%.10

In 1995, researchers at the UN’s World Health Organization found that coca leaf chewing was harmless, and that even the dangers of moderate cocaine use were greatly exaggerated. The report was buried by the UN’s cadre of drug war zealots, and the US pushes on in its goal to eradicate “every leaf of coca” from Bolivian fields.

? Coca Museum: email [email protected]; web


Marijuana in the mix?

Sources in Bolivia say that marijuana plantations are relatively rare compared to coca fields. Entheobotanist-pioneer Richard Schultes’ book Plants of the Gods shows Bolivia as a low-marijuana-producing country, due to a preponderance of lush tropical rainforest. Still, marijuana is grown in the region, and marijuana offenders are subject to the same ruthlessness as those who grow or deal in coca leaves.

Jim Shultz is the executive director of the Democracy Center, which monitors political developments in the region. “Possession and sale are prosecuted and punished the same,” Shultz explained, showing that injustice is rampant.

For example, in 1999, Adela Rojas Rodriguez, a resident of Cochabamba, was arrested on marijuana charges; both she and her baby were both carried off to a Bolivian prison. Her child had its first birthday behind bars. However, she wasn’t growing marijuana, didn’t have any marijuana when she was arrested, and hadn’t sold marijuana to anyone.

On the day she was arrested her cousin was caught with two large bags of marijuana, and Adela was called to the police station to identify him. When she arrived, child in arms, she was also thrown in prison, where she and her baby spent a total of 20 months, held most of that time without a trial, or the slightest bit of evidence to prove her guilt.

She was convicted before her release, despite the help of the Democracy Center in championing her cause. She is currently free and appealing the judge’s ruling.

It stands to reason that if peasants who grow coca traditionally and legally in Bolivia are “terrorists,” peasants who illegally grow marijuana in Bolivia may be considered even moreso. Which raises a haunting speculation ? how long before home marijuana growers in North America are labelled terrorists as well?`Any social struggle will be classified as terrorism…`