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The war on drugs in Bolivia

In December, 2001, Casimiro Huanca, Executive Secretary of one of the six federations of coca leaf growers (« cocaleros ») in the Tropic of Cochabamba, was the head of a group demonstrating against the alternative development program imposed upon the region. A military unit burst in on the peaceful demonstration and several people were beaten. Minutes later, military forces identified the cocalero leader and executed him on the spot.

Since this repression against cocaleros started, more than fifty peasants have died at the hands of the police and the military. More than five hundred people have been registered as injured and five thousand people have been illegally arrested. Likewise, many cases of torture were reported, all of them carried out in such a similar way that it was concluded that they were following a systematic model.

All these cases have been registered and properly denounced. The investigations that the government promised never took place. Those who were responsible were never dealt with although in some cases their identity was known. State violence and impunity are two sides of the same coin

Since Richard Nixon declared « war on drugs » at the end of the seventies and since the second Reagan administration stated that the production, traffic and consumption of drugs were a threat to US national security, the relationship between the US and Bolivia has been dominated by the obsession with « narco-traffic ».

The imposition of public policies, the shameless interference into internal affairs, the scorn and lack of trust as well as the addiction of different Bolivian governments to resources coming in the form of conditional « help » from the US, result in almost no space for sovereign action in Bolivia and near blind obedience to the wishes imposed by the State Department, the Drug Enforcement Agency, NAS, CIA, etc.

In the seventies, the US government backed the Coup d'Etat, which resulted in seven years in government of the former colonel Hugo Banzer, a military man coming from the School of the Americas and responsible for the systematic and widespread violations of human rights. In this period, coca production and the cocaine trade grew to dimensions never seen before, and the social group that most benefited from the trade became closely related to the dictatorship and part of the establishment.

In 1986, a Bolivian scientist discovered a huge cocaine factory in Huanchaca. He was killed immediately. The CIA used the profits to buy arms and to provide financial support to the Nicaraguan Contras, the Iran-gate scandal. The Bolivian deputy Edmundo Salazar who was investigating the case, was killed.

At that time, the US imposed a new law on Bolivia concerning anti-narcotics, known as the 1008 law. This law not only created a criminal subsystem in order to repress drug-dealers, but it also identified a maximum limit of 12 hectares in which coca crops are legal- to be used for traditional use, making anything greater than this illegal. This law was denounced before international organisations for violating rights and guarantees made in international human rights declarations.

In 1997, the dictator Banzer returned to power. During this year he promoted « Plan Dignity » as an initiative intended to take Bolivia out of the coca-cocaine circuit during his five-year constitutional mandate. The proposal theoretically includes four basic plans: alternative development (which theoretically underpins the whole proposal),eradication of all the cultivated plots owned by small producers by means of military action, prohibition and prevention.

From a budget of 900 million dollars, 700 million were supposed to go to alternative development. Reality shows that the policies that were prioritised were those that involved the military's eradication by means of attacking the weakest link in the chain: the small producers. After 5 years, less than 200 million dollars were directed to the alternative development plan and most of this money got tied up in the parasitic bureaucracies of the national and international organisations. The independent news reports on the Alternative Development plan conclude that it was a failure. The war on drugs puts all its weight on the shoulders of the poorest countries and within these countries on the shoulders of the poorest: the coca farmers.

However, the coca farmers are strongly organised. With more than six hundred trade unions, they are one of the social forces with the greatest power to mobilise. They created a stir this year when one of their main leaders, the cocalero Evo Morales, came in second place in the general elections, and as second most important for the parliamentary position. This unexpected result was obtained despite nine warnings from the diplomatic delegation of the United States, threatening that voting for Evo Morales would jeopardise the 'help' that Bolivia receives from the US.

The discourse of the coca movement is not limited to the defence of the coca leaf but has joined with the national left, strengthening the foundations of the social movement, including its proposition to open the political system and to wrestle control of natural resources back from multi-national corporations.

The recent success of the coca movement in particular and of social movements in general may give the Bolivians the possibility to start an open debate on the 'war against drugs'. Firstly, we have an opportunity to confront the deliberately mistaken claims that the demand for drugs is stopped by attacking the small producers, thereby feeding the circuits of violence and corruption of one of the most lucrative businesses in the world that feeds itself thanks to 'prohibitionism'.

The thousands of victims, like Casimiro Huanca, of a war that has created more destruction than drugs alone would have caused, creates a complex riddle with many hidden pieces. The same old story of repression is repeated in the similar scenario of prohibitionism.

Cocaine farmers throw cocaine leaves as a sign of protest in Chimore, Bolivia, to show that cocaine cultivation still exists on the same day the Bolivian government was holding a ceremony to claim victory in its campaign to rid the nation of drug-growing plantations. | ALCA/FTAA | Plan Puebla-Panamá | Bolivia |