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Chronicle on the Scene Feature: In the Bolivian Chapare, Evo Morales' "Coca, Si; Cocaine No" Policy Brings Peace, If Not Prosperity

For more than two decades beginning in the early 1980s, various Bolivian governments working at the behest of the United States government embarked on a policy of forced eradication of coca crops in Bolivia's Chapare, a lowland region in the state of Cochabamba. It was a time of strife and conflict, human rights violations and peasant mobilizations as tens of thousands of families dependent on the coca crop fought with police and soldiers, blocked highways, and, eventually, coalesced into a powerful political force that helped topple governments. Now, with a Chapare coca growers' union leader, Evo Morales, sitting in the presidential residence in La Paz, times have changed and the days of a US-imposed "zero coca" policy are history.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/coca-leaves-drying-by-highway.jpg
coca leaves drying by side of highway
Under US-imposed legislation adopted in 1988, Law 1008, only peasants in the traditional coca growing region of the Yungas were allowed to grow coca, and total coca production was limited to 30,000 acres. But that did not stop peasants from growing coca in the Chapare, where, in the early 1980s, production had boomed during the "cocaine coup" years of Gen. Luis Garcia Mesa. The development of coca production in this non-traditional, non-allowed area was the most significant target of US-backed forced eradication efforts throughout the 1990s and the beginning of this decade.

As a result, human rights violations by US-trained and -financed anti-drug forces were rampant. "During this period, I would receive an average of 10 complaints a day from coca growers," said former Chapare human rights ombudsman ("defensor del pueblo") Godofredo Reinecke. "Murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, all of that, committed by soldiers and police against the growers," he told Drug War Chronicle this week.

Now, things are different. While soldiers remain in the area, a special police force assigned to the area to prevent road blockades and other upheaval has been removed at the behest of the US -- because there was nothing for it to do. The peasant uprisings have ended, the blocking of highways is history, and human rights violations by the security forces have dropped precipitously. There is peace in the Chapare, and that is because of the abandonment of the "zero coca" policy.

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Bolivian congressman Asterio Romero spoke with Drug War Chronicle this week.
The change actually began in 2004, before Morales was elected president, when then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada signed an accord with coca growers (or cocaleros) aligned with the Six Federations of the Coca Growers of the Tropics of Cochabamba allowing each family to grow one cato (1,600 square meters -- about the size of one third of a football field) of coca.

But as part of a broader policy of "coca, si; cocaine, no" adopted by Morales since he took office just over a year ago, the Bolivian government has in effect turned its back on the 30,000-acre legal production limit, now formally allowing an additional 20,000 acres in the Chapare to be cultivated with coca. But while such measures have brought peace to the region, it remains mired in poverty and desperation, as Drug War Chronicle saw during a visit there this week.

On a small plot of land near Villa Tunari in the Chapare, peasant farmer Vitalia Merida grows coca, along with oranges and bananas, in an effort to feed and clothe her seven children. Times are tough, she said. "My kids don't want to go to school for economic reasons," she told the Chronicle. "They want to go and make money." Her oranges and bananas bring only a pittance, she said, while her cato of coca allows her to pocket about $75 month, gaining her about $900 a year -- close to the average income in Bolivia, one of South America's poorest countries.

Despite the constant struggle to earn an income, said Merida, a former Six Federations leader (and still a member), life is better than in the days of forced eradication. "We are still poor, but we are free now," she said. "It is peaceful now. Before, we waited for the soldiers to come like bandits. They killed us, they took us prisoners."

As Merida spoke, the silence of the remote selva was broken by the roar of a helicopter. "No, they are not looking for coca fields," said Reinecke in response to a question. "They are bringing food and supplies to the soldiers and anti-drug police in the region." According to Reinecke, the US-financed resupply effort costs $12,000 a day, a veritable fortune in an area where fruit sells for next to nothing and coca for not much more.

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US-funded FELCN (Special Force for the Struggle Against Narcotics) checkpoint between Cochabamba and Chapare, search being conducted for cocaine and precursors
While funding for sustainable development is lacking, the US continues to fund the military presence in the region. At a military base in nearby Chimbote, built with US funds, where once a thousand troops were stationed, the base is nearly deserted, but the interim commander, Col. Edwin de la Fuente Jeria, sits in air-conditioned comfort in his office.

The colonel was as cool as his surroundings. "We have nothing to do with the coca anymore," he allowed, before going on to say that he could say nothing without prior approval from his superiors. According to Reinecke, that was right -- the base now serves primarily as a training ground for local recruits doing their mandatory service.

While campesinos like Vitalia Merida are struggling, the Morales government is attempting to ease their plight. Part of that effort revolves around helping them get their crop to market. In a coca warehouse just outside nearby Shinahota, cocaleros are drying and weighing the crop in preparation for transport to legal markets in Bolivian cities.

"This is our local crop," said Six Federations member Felix Cuba at the warehouse. "Under this new program, we are able to sell direct to the cities without middlemen. This means a little more money for us," he told the Chronicle. "And it keeps the coca out of the hands of the narcos."

While there is constant pressure to earn more money to feed their families, growers are abiding by the growing limit, he said. "We are maintaining the one-cato rule," he said. "It is out of respect for the policy. Evo said we can grow one cato, so to defend the policy, it is only one cato we grow. The federation runs this and we do it through social control."

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sign announcing construction of coca leaf industrialization plant financed by Venezuela
"Bananas, oranges, papaya, potatoes -- they all rot, and they don't bring much money," said Six Federations leader Juana Cosio as she watched the work at the warehouse. "This year, with all the rains, it is really bad. We grow coca as a back-up," she told the Chronicle. "But we need more markets. That is why we are trying to produce coca flour and other products. We are not narcos, we are just farmers. The government of Evo recognizes that, so now we are at peace here," she said.

Cosio pointed to the assistance provided by the Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chavez, which is providing financing for coca industrialization plants in both the Chapare and the Yungas. "Venezuela is helping us to process and sell our crop," she said.

Under an agreement finalized earlier this month, Venezuela is not only financing the construction of processing plants, but has pledged to buy up to 4,000 tons of coca products, a major breakthrough for a crop whose export is banned under the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Under that treaty, the coca plant is considered an illegal drug allowable only as a flavoring agent (with the cocaine alkaloid extracted) or for pharmaceutical use, with chewing of coca leaves to be phased out by 1986.

That isn't stopping Bolivia, Venezuela, and Cuba, which is providing technical assistance, from moving ahead with a People's Trade Treaty signed a few months ago. That treaty allocates about $1 million in investment on coca production research. While the US and international narcotics control bodies have raised objections, Venezuela and Bolivia are standing firm. As Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro noted as he stood with his Bolivian counterpart, David Choquehuanca, earlier this month, the two nations will move ahead will projects to "value and dignify the coca leaf."

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Six Federations coca growers' union member (and former leader) Vitalia Merida in her backyard -- no narco palaces here, as the cocaleros like to point out.
Industrialization of coca processing and expanding legal markets are the correct course of action, said Bolivian Deputy (congressman) Asterio Romero Wednesday. A member of Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party, Romero strongly supports the "coca, si; cocaine, no" policy. "First, I want to say that I am from the Chapare, I was a coca grower leader. It was always "coca zero," but there will never be zero coca," he told the Chronicle. "We fought for many years, we suffered many dead and imprisoned because coca is a source of economic subsistence for us. We will never allow other governments to impose "coca zero" on us. We are a sovereign nation; it is a matter of Bolivian dignity," he said.

"While, yes, we fight against the drug traffic -- and we are doing quite well; seizures of cocaine and precursor chemicals are up -- we also have to decriminalize coca growing, and industrialization is the way," Romero argued. "We have to revalorize the coca, we have to find more markets for coca. There are friendly countries that help us, like Venezuela, and we thank them for that."

Coca production has now been "rationalized" in the Chapare, as the Bolivians like to say, and the repression and state-sponsored violence are a thing of the past, but great strides remain to be taken before the lives of cocaleros there will see real economic improvement. The Morales government, in conjunction with its Latin American allies, is doing what it can to help on that score. But, as the accompanying feature article in this week's Chronicle indicates, it is going to have a battle with the United States and the international drug control bureaucracy on its hands.

U.S. worried by scandal rocking Colombia

Location: 
Bogota
Colombia
Publication/Source: 
International Herald Tribune (France)
URL: 
http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/02/28/news/colombia.php

Latin America: Killing of Salvadoran Politicians By Police in Guatemala Opens Window on Drug Corruption in Central America, Killing of Killers Closes It

Four Guatemalan police officers in an anti-drug and organized crime unit who were arrested in the gruesome February 19 murders of three Salvadoran politicians were themselves killed Sunday in a brazen assassination inside the prison where they were being held. The two sets of murders are raising serious questions about drug corruption in Central America and, in particular, links between Guatemalan police and organized crime, but the deaths of the police officers means that whatever they knew will go to the grave with them.

On February 19, Salvadoran politicians William Pichinte, Eduardo D'Aubuisson and Jose Ramon Gonzalez -- all members of El Salvador's ruling Arena party -- and their driver were found shot and burned to death in their vehicle on the outskirts of Guatemala City, where they had gone to attend a regional political meeting. With D'Aubuisson being the son of the late Roberto D'Auboisson, who led right-wing death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s, early speculation was that the killings were a political assassination.

But when Luis Arturo Herrera, head of the Guatemalan police organized crime unit, and three of his subordinates were arrested in the crime three days later, various theories related to a drug hit came to the fore. According to speculation in the Central American press, the hit on the Salvadoran politicians came as corrupt Guatemalan police looked for drug money secreted in a hidden compartment in the vehicle. Another version, via Salvadoran police chief Rodrigo Avila, has it that Herrera and his men were tricked into killing the trio by unknowns who told them they were drug traffickers.

Based on GPS devices in Herrera's vehicle, which place it at the scene of the crime, he and his three subordinates were arrested and jailed at the notorious El Boqueron prison some 40 miles east of Guatemala City. On Sunday afternoon, according to eyewitness accounts from inmates' relatives who were visiting the prison, prison guards forced visitors to leave, unknown armed men entered the prison, and the sound of gunshots was heard. The four policemen were found shot to death in their cell.

"They told them [the visitors] that they had to leave because there was going to be a search, and they began pushing the visitors out," said the mother of one prisoner, whose daughter-in-law called her from outside the prison. "When they went outside, they saw armed men enter the prison. Then, when everybody was outside, they heard various gunshots," she said.

"What has happened is that they tried to shut the mouths of those subjects so that they didn't implicate other similar organizations," Salvadoran police chief Avila told reporters. The dead policemen were the victims of "police hit-men," he added. "It is obvious that the persons who committed the murders within the prison have a level of influence within the police structures, or the prison structures, or the structures of the state," Avila said.

Otto Perez Molina, former chief of Guatemalan military intelligence, was thinking along similar lines. "They killed those four because they knew too much about the criminality within the national civil police and they could have implicated the authorities." According to Perez Molina, at least two death squads are operating within Guatemalan law enforcement agencies. "These groups are operating with the complicity of the authorities," he said.

Guatemalan prison authorities Sunday attempted to obscure the circumstances of the killings by trying to tie them to an uprising in the prison that same day by members of Mara Salvatrucha, the Central American gang. But Salvatrucha members who called the press from inside the prison said they rioted after the killings out of fear of being blamed for the officers' deaths.

While the deaths of the four imprisoned police officers means the real reason behind the killings of the Salvadoran politicians may never be known, the two sets of murders are raising questions that could eventually lead to an unveiling of the dark and ugly underside of Central American organized crime and drug law enforcement.

Back from the Chapare

I'm now back from the coca producing region of the Chapare. Yesterday was a real grind: Get up very early, fly from La Paz to Cochabamba, take a taxi to the Andean Information Network office where I met up with AIN's Kathryn Ledebur and her husband, former Chapare human rights ombudsman ("defensor del pueblo) Gotofredo Reinecke, hopped in his jeep with him, stopped for gas and coca leaves (it's a tiring journey), then drove about two hours over an 11,000-foot mountain pass and down into the jungly Chapare.

The coca leaf warehouse outside Shinahota. Here, local farmers bring their crops to be carefully weighed and sent on to legal markets within Bolivia. The entire process is controlled by the local growers' union. But first, we had to traverse a major landslide on the highway caused by incessant rains. (We were extremely fortunate to have a mostly sunny day, a rarity this rainy season). At the landslide, buses and cargo trucks were backed up by the dozens, as they had been for days. The smell of rotting fruit in the trucks was pervasive. Bus passengers had to gather their bags and make a mile-long trek over a muddy path to get to buses waiting on the other side, but we left the jeep on the near side and walked right down the roadway itself—a shortcut—after Godofredo explained to the soldiers that I was a photojournalist shooting the "derrumbe." My sandals, socks, and jeans were covered with mud (which made quite an impression at the Cochabamba airport this morning). Once across the washed out area, it was onto the backs of small motorcycles for hire for another half-mile to where the buses and taxis were waiting for travelers trying to continue their journey, and then we hired a taxi for the tour of the Chapare. In the miserably hot and humid lowlands, we stopped for lunch, where Godofredo spotted veteran newspaper vendor and scene-observer Don Jaime Balderrama, with whom we had an interesting chat. Then it was on to the local military base for a talk with the comandante, which proved absolutely fruitless. He refused to say a word of substance, saying it all had to be cleared with the military high command. Sadly, this seems to be the attitude throughout the Morales government when it comes to coca matters, and as a result, I am not making much progress in getting interviews with government officials (although I still have some feelers out and some hopes, fading as they may be). The army fort, bought and paid for by US tax dollars was nicely constructed, and the colonel's office featured the only air conditioning I ran across on the whole trip. Sweet for him. Sweet for us, too. I didn’t want to leave, even though we were getting nothing from him.

former cocalero leader Vitalia Merida with her daughter, in their coca field

Then it was on to visit Vitalia Merida, a former coca grower union leader (and current member), who has a coca field way out in the middle of nowhere. After her family suffered during the repression of the forced eradication years, she now reports that there is peace, if not prosperity. I'll be writing about what she had to say in a feature article this week. I have to say that is was an absolutely brutal hike in the mid-day sun to her coca patch. When I complained, Vitalia said, "You see how we suffer," although she sweated not a drop. Next was Shinahota, a small town that was the center of the Chapare cocaine economy during the Wild West days of the "cocaine coup" back in the early 1980s. Main street there features a bunch of two-story buildings erected at that time. Downstairs you bought cocaine, guns, and luxury items; upstairs you rented prostitutes. It's much quieter these days, and much less profitable. Just outside Shinahota, we stopped at a coca leaf warehouse operated by the local growers' union and had a nice chat with some Six Federation leaders who, sadly, were camera shy, and just a little bit suspicious of this wild-looking gringo. (I was indeed wild-looking by then: mud-splattered, sweat-drenched, my hair blown into knots as I hung my head out the window of the taxi seeking relief). We had an interesting conversation, though, and I will report on that in the Chronicle, too. Between Shinahota and Villa Tunari, we stopped briefly at a new coca leaf processing plant, which is being financed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He has promised to import coca products to Venezuela, which would violate the UN Single Convention, but as AIN's Kathy Ledebur noted, "Who's going to stop him?" No one there but construction workers, though. Shortly past the new coca plant, in Villa Tunari, is a municipal hospital staffed primarily by dozens of Cuban doctors and nurses. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast: The US builds forts and supplies the military, Venezuela helps Bolivia industrialize coca, and the Cubans heal the sick. So it goes. That's my report for today. I now have in essence a day and half left in Bolivia. I'm attempting to line up some last interviews, but I'm a little depressed by my lack of success with government functionaries, and just bad luck with some other people I hoped to talk to. But I still have 36 hours... More pictures will be posted here later today.
Location: 
COC
Bolivia

Europe: Britain to Provide Heroin to Addicts, "Restricted" Home Office Brief Says

The British government is prepared to begin prescribing heroin through the National Health Service to "recidivist veteran users" after a pilot program has proven successful, according to a report in the newspaper The Independent, which cites a "restricted" briefing paper prepared by the Home Office strategic policy team. The briefing paper also suggests the licensing of heroin and cocaine sales, but the government will not go that far, The Independent said.

According to the brief, which The Independent says it has obtained a copy of, "The Home Office should consider wider rolling out of injectable heroin prescription for highly dependent users through the NHS. Given the failure of supply-side interventions to have any significant effect on the drugs market, it is worth considering a greater management of the market by wider rolling out of injectable heroin prescription for highly dependent users through the NHS."

According to the Home Office sources cited by the newspaper, only hard-core users who have not responded to methadone treatment will be eligible. "It is only going to apply to a small number of people," said a Home Office spokesman.

Home Office sources added that in Switzerland, where doctors prescribe heroin rather than methadone to such users, 26% have quit using and criminality and unemployment have decreased. Citing the Swiss experience, the brief says, "Contrary to popular belief, there is evidence that heroin does not necessarily intoxicate the user -- it can be stabilized with people living relatively normal lives."

The brief also warns that Britain is in a losing battle with drug smugglers and suggests legalizing the sale of heroin and cocaine. "There is mounting evidence of the impossibility of winning the war against drugs supply. A system of controlled availability of drugs would allow the Government to exert a much greater degree of influence over the way in which substances are used than is currently possible," the report advised. "There is a strong argument that prohibition has caused or created many of the problems associated with the use or misuse of drugs. One option for the future would be to regulate drugs differently, through either over-the-counter sales, licensed sales or doctor's prescription."

But in an Independent on Sunday editorial, the newspaper noted that the government will not move to license or otherwise regulate drug sales. "Legalising drug supply has been firmly rejected by the government because it would sanction the use of drugs," the newspaper noted. "The policy of targeting drug smugglers and dealers continues, despite the report's warning that reducing the drug supply drives up the price and increases crime."

Europe: Legendary Irish Broadcaster Says Country Should Debate Legalizing Drugs

Former Irish talk show host and current head of the Road Safety Authority Gay Byrne has called for a national debate on legalizing drugs. As host of the Late Late Show in Ireland from 1962 to 1999, Byrne was a leading catalyst in the transformation of Irish society, tackling such taboo subjects as abortion, homosexuality, the sexual abuse of children by priests, divorce, and AIDS. Now, he is speaking out on drug policy.

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Gay Byrne
In remarks reported over the weekend, Byrne said he had arrived at the point where he believed fresh thinking on Irish drug policy was needed. "This is a mighty chasm for me to leap," he said, "but I've come to the conclusion that the possibility of legalizing drugs should be looked at."

Byrne said Irish police are spending millions of dollars trying to stop the drug trade and have been doing so for years, without much success. "Dead bodies are being found every day of the week. All I am saying is maybe there is another way of doing it," he said. "Do you keep on trying to solve a problem that has been with us for 40 years, or should we be looking at legalizing the bloody thing?"

Drug prohibition leads to increased criminality, Byrne suggested. "You do not find people killing each other over a packet of cigarettes or a can of Heineken," he argued. "How long do you keep on repairing a car that is not working before you say maybe there is another way of doing this?"

Forever, if the Irish government has its way. Despite growing concerns over prohibition-linked crime, high rates of drug use, and drug overdoses, the government was quick to respond to Byrne's comments with a firm negative. "I'm entirely opposed to legalizing any drug," said Noel Ahern, minister of state responsible for drug policy. "At different stages, different people have tried to make an argument for legalizing drugs. But it's not a suggestion that can work. Drugs are illegal, and that's the right way to have them. Any talk about liberalizing drugs is irresponsible."

Right. Better to continue down the merry path of failing prohibitionist policies than even discuss alternatives, one supposes. But given Gay Byrne's history as a catalyst of change, Ahern and his colleagues in the government might want to think again.

Colombia political scandal imperiling US ties

Location: 
Bogota
Colombia
Publication/Source: 
The Boston Globe
URL: 
http://www.boston.com/news/world/latinamerica/articles/2007/02/25/colombia_political_scandal_imperiling_us_ties/

Home Office backs heroin on the NHS in effort to cut crime

Location: 
United Kingdom
Publication/Source: 
The Independent (UK)
URL: 
http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/article2303023.ece

Cartels grip a border city

Location: 
Nuevo Laredo
Mexico
Publication/Source: 
Miami Herald
URL: 
http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/16772540.htm

U.S. drug czar finds ally in Tory government

Location: 
Ottawa, ON
Canada
Publication/Source: 
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20070223.DRUGS23/TPStory/National

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