President Jorge Quiroga is proving an apt successor to Gen. Hugo Banzer, the former dictator turned president who implemented coca eradication in Bolivia at the behest of the US government. Quiroga may lack Banzer's dictatorial credentials, but has shown that he is a quick study in the fine art of repression. The problem for Quiroga and his American partners is that the Bolivian peasantry is showing increasing signs that it has had enough of Quiroga and his intensification of the Banzer eradication plan, "Plan Dignity."
As DRCNet reported last week, Quiroga further tightened the screws on coca growers by issuing Supreme Decree 26415, banning the drying, transport, and sale of coca in the Chapare region and moving to shut down 15 previously legal coca markets, including the large market in Sacaba, just outside Cochabamba (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/220.html#andeanupdate). Since then, the region has seen repeated clashes, blockades and mass mobilizations. And on January 17, cocalero threats to take up arms against the security forces appear to have materialized, as three soldiers and one policeman were killed in a very ugly fashion.
As the Andean Information Network (AIN) reported, "Angry coca growers intercepted an ambulance carrying two wounded soldiers who were killed: Wilson Cartagena and Elio Pinaya. The ambulance was later burned. They also destroyed tollbooths outside Sacaba. One military and one regular police officer were originally declared missing, but were found dead early on January 18th. Their cadavers showed evidence of intense torture. Their hands had been tied and their heads had been bashed in with rocks. These deaths have created an environment where negotiations and any resolution are extremely difficult."
Those killings came in the wake of the killing of two peasants in clashes at the Sacaba market last week and the beating, wounding and/or detention of dozens of others in various clashes around the Chapare. While the spasm of peasant violence in response may be understandable, it has played into the hands of repressive forces in the government and Bolivian society. Efforts are now under way to eject coca union leader Evo Morales from his seat in the Bolivian parliament and strip him of his parliamentary immunity, which would allow the government to imprison Morales for organizing road blockades. If Morales is jailed, he will join at least 20 other high-ranking coca union leaders sitting in prisons around Cochabamba. Those unionists face numerous charges, including homicide and armed uprising.
This week clashes continued across the region, and the military shut down an independent radio station, Radio Sovereignty, operated by coca growers, on Tuesday. According to AIN, the military also appears to be singling out journalists for special brutal attention. As AIN wrote, "A photographer from the Opinion newspaper was injured in the leg by a tear gas canister. Police hit a reporter from La Razon several times for taking pictures of the incident. A Channel 13 reporter was shot in the cheek by a rubber pellet while taking photos. Security officers told them that they had orders from Cochabamba Prefect Jose Orias to impede photographs."
At press time, the Six Federations coca grower unions were threatening to blockade the Santa Cruz-Cochabamba highway if Morales is removed from parliament. And in an act of solidarity with potential dire consequences for the government, Felipe Quispe Huanca, "El Mallku," the country's most powerful indigenous leader, has vowed to hold sympathy blockades in the altiplano and other rural regions of the country.
Meanwhile, the Bolivian Human Rights Ombudswoman, Ana Maria Romero de Campero, announced that she considers Supreme Decree 26415 illegal. The government does not have the legal right to create new sanctions against coca cultivation, she said. Pointing out that Supreme Decrees were a legacy of dictatorship, she argued that no Supreme Decree can override the coca cultivation law, the penal code, and the constitution.
The government wasn't listening.