BY GRAHAM GORI
IBUELO ALTO, Bolivia - One morning last April, Hilaria Perez Prado began her day as always -- hoping soldiers wouldn't burst from the jungle and tear her farm to pieces.
They did come, though. They trampled her fields. And then one shot her in the chest as they left.
Perez, 41, is out of the hospital. But her lung is damaged and so is her hope of eking out a living for her family farming deep in the Chapare, a remote Bolivian region that is deep in America's war on drugs.
Over the past seven years, Washington has spent $470 million on a militarized campaign to deter Perez and other poor farmers from growing coca.
Plan Dignity, as the campaign was dubbed, worked dramatically for the first five years. Bolivian soldiers, most of them teenage draftees from poor families, were given hoes and machetes and ordered to uproot coca plants one by one.
They yanked out more than a billion plants. Bolivia went from supplying half of the United States' cocaine demand -- the crop brought an estimated $500 million into this country of eight million people each year -- to supplying very little. American diplomats called Plan Dignity their most successful anti-narcotics mission ever in South America.
But oranges, bananas, manioc root and other crops urged on peasant growers haven't proved profitable because few buyers come to these isolated regions, and farmers have begun drifting back to growing coca. Coca production in Bolivia is up 23 percent since 2001, the White House Drug Policy Office says.
So anti-drug efforts have been intensified, bringing an escalation in tensions and conflict between soldiers and peasants.
The People's Defense Office, an independent Bolivian human rights group that tracks the government's interdiction effort, said 30 farmers and 21 soldiers have been killed the past five years. Some 600 civilians and soldiers were wounded, it added.
Also, 1,200 farmers have been arrested on charges of growing coca, the group said.
''It's easy to understand why people are growing violent. They're hungry,'' said Godofredo Reinicke, a human rights activist in the Chapare.
Stanley Schrager, former director of the narcotics section at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, isn't sympathetic to the argument.
''There is an idea out there -- I call it the myth of the innocent coca
farmer -- that he is simply trying to put food on the table to feed his
kids,'' Schrager said. ``But in reality he is at the beginning of a chain
of events that ultimately leads to the drug trade and drug addiction in
the United States, and thus bears some responsibility for the ruined lives
which are the result of this addiction.''