U.S. Role in Coca War Draws Fire
Bolivian Anti-Drug Unit Paid by Washington Accused of Abuses
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
CHIMORE, Bolivia -- The wary residents of this sweltering town in Bolivia's
remote Chapare jungle have a nickname for the uniformed newcomers: "America's
The Expeditionary Task Force, the official name for an armed unit of
1,500 former Bolivian soldiers, is paid, fed, clothed and trained by the
U.S. Embassy in La Paz,
the Bolivian capital. Since setting up camp 18 months ago on three bases around this town of 2,000 inhabitants, the troops and their assault rifles have become a
common sight on the local highway, putting down protests along the steamy jungle road by peasants combating a sweeping, U.S.-backed campaign to eradicate the
area's biggest cash crop -- coca.
The force, which has tripled in size since its inception, has become one of the most contentious signs of Washington's involvement in the drug war.
U.S. and Bolivian military officials say the unit has played a vital
role in an aggressive attempt to eradicate coca from the Chapare jungle,
a region larger than
Connecticut that provided the basic ingredient for almost half the world's cocaine during the 1980s and 1990s. Although the soldiers are directly salaried by the U.S.
government, American and Bolivian officials describe the outfit as "a group of reservists" within a regular Bolivian army brigade and commanded by regular Bolivian
But a growing number of critics are calling the force an abusive irregular
army whose existence violates Bolivian law. And the unit, described by
scholars as the first of its kind in the drug war, has been accused of using excessive force and committing human rights abuses, including murder and torture.
A Bolivian civil court judge issued a preventive arrest order this past
week for the unit's commander, Col. Aurelio Burgos Blacutt, pending investigation
from witnesses that Burgos shot and killed an unarmed man during a peasant protest Jan. 29. However, legal sources said the order has yet to be carried out and the
military is bringing pressure to get it annulled.
Other task force soldiers have been accused in at least four killings
and more than 50 instances of clubbings, beatings and theft over the past
eight months, according
to Bolivia's human rights ombudsman's office.
The reports of abuse have been largely dismissed by the U.S. Embassy
and the State Department. "We don't believe them, the human rights allegations,"
said a U.S.
counternarcotics official in La Paz, 200 miles to the northwest. "This is not a paramilitary group, and it won't become one."
Nevertheless, the force's track record has sparked fears among Bolivian
defense experts, human rights advocates, U.S. legislators and others. Their
view is that
Washington is funding a band of hired guns in an effort that may lead to the rise in Bolivia of paramilitary groups similar to those in Colombia, where paramilitary units
have committed gross atrocities against civilians.
"These are soldiers with no clearly defined loyalties, and a foreign
power is funding them to run around our country with guns," said Juan R.
Quintana, director of the
Defense Policy Analysis Unit at the Defense Ministry. "The existence of this force is a violation of the Bolivian constitution and our military law, which does not permit
the creation, by the government or anyone else, of armed groups such as the expeditionary force."
Birth of the Task Force
The Expeditionary Task Force sprang to life as a byproduct of Latin America's most ambitious campaign to eradicate coca.
After decades of looking the other way as Bolivia became one of the
world's leading producers of coca leaf and a hotbed of trafficking, the
armed with millions of dollars in U.S. military aid, launched the Dignity Plan in 1998. Unlike eradication attempts in other coca-growing countries, the Dignity Plan
gave farmers who cultivate coca no choice. The military rolled into the Chapare region, with its base in Chimore, and uprooted coca plants by force.
Statistically, the plan marked one of the greatest victories in the
drug war. Cultivation of illegal coca in Bolivia, once the second-largest
producer of cocaine and its
by-products, dropped from 74,360 acres in 1998 to roughly 7,000 acres in 2001, according to U.S. and Bolivian officials. An additional 24,000 acres of legal coca
is grown in Bolivia's Yungas region for traditional uses, such as chewing it to ease hunger pangs or putting it in medicinal teas.
But Bolivian officials concede that attempts to provide alternative
crop assistance to farmers -- roughly 40,000 poor and largely indigenous
families -- did not keep
pace with coca eradication. Roman Catholic Church officials in the region say forced eradication left thousands of poverty-stricken families without a source of
income, sparking serious malnutrition.
The result was a surge in replanting of illicit coca over the past year, along with a violent uprising among poor farmers in what has been dubbed Bolivia's "coca wars."
Furious and desperate, farmers began staging roadblocks on the Cochabamba-Santa
Cruz highway, which handles 70 percent of Bolivia's overland commerce and
runs through Chimore. As the clashes grew more violent, Bolivian and U.S. authorities worked together to form the Expeditionary Task Force. The idea, officials
said, was to ease the burden on the cash-strapped Bolivian army and military police, minimize clashes between the regular army and rebellious peasants and, sources
say, provide guarantees that the U.S. funds are well spent.
The U.S. Embassy maintains the right to vet all of the unit's members.
Salaries -- $100 a month, about 40 percent more than a regular enlisted
man's wage -- are
distributed by the U.S. Embassy through a private financial company that hands out the cash in the jungle here once a month. U.S. officials say the payment structure
was designed to maintain better oversight on spending but does not mean the U.S. Embassy controls what the unit does.
The U.S. Embassy's Narcotics Affairs Section also pays virtually all
other expenses, including food and uniforms, at a total expense of about
$200,000 a month. The
money, handed down through the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, comes from anti-drug aid allocated to Bolivia
The unit is commanded by a few dozen U.S.-trained officers who are paid
directly by the Bolivian military and report to Bolivia's high command
in La Paz. They also
consult regularly with the U.S. Embassy's narcotics section and U.S. military officials. Their mission represents the heavy lifting in the Dignity Plan, handling the
roadside confrontations with coca farmers.
"It is better for us not to be involved in the worst of the conflicts
with the coca farmers," said Col. Jaime Cruz Vera, head of the Chimore
base of UMOPAR,
Bolivia's militarized anti-drug police. "We live with the peasant farmers. We pass by them in town. They are not our enemies. The creation of the [task force] has
meant a lot less animosity between us and the peasants, allowing them to have more faith in us."
Clashes between coca farmers and the task force, the regular Bolivian
military and police forces have left 10 farmers and four regular soldiers
dead since September.
Only one task force member has been killed, in July.
At Chimore, the unit's main base rises under a jungle canopy, a fortress-like
military compound with a perimeter wall of wooden tripod fences and barbed
the gated checkpoint, guards wear military jackets with the task force symbol, an outline of Bolivia colored in the red, yellow and green of the national flag, with a
superimposed profile in black of a soldier carrying an assault rifle.
A reporter invited to the base passed the contracted men dining at the
"NAS Cafeteria," a reference to the U.S. Narcotics Affairs Section. Several
could be seen
sporting black T-shirts emblazoned with a slogan that, roughly translated from Spanish, says, "I'm an expeditionary member, and what are you going to do about it?"
Officers refused to be quoted by name, but said they were acting in the common interest of Bolivia and the United States.
"You have to understand, in the Chapare, we are dealing with something
like the Soviet Union in the 1930s," said one high-ranking task force official.
Marxists and communists, they are dangerous for both [the United States] and Bolivia. But there's an added problem. They are also narco-traffickers. And you can't
expect all operations to go smoothly. We are certainly not going out there looking to be tough guys. No, that's not our way."
On Dec. 6, a typically hot summer's day in the Chapare, one of the most
severe of the alleged excesses involving the task force took place. At
the coca growers
union headquarters in Chimore, a group of protesters lined fruit along the side of the road. In a videotaped account of the event broadcast nationwide, it appeared to
be a peaceful demonstration highlighting one of the biggest criticisms of alternative development here: low prices and lack of access to domestic and international
markets for legal crops such as bananas and pineapples.
Soon after the protest started, task force soldiers arrived and began
seizing fruit from demonstrators. Soldiers are seen on the videotape kicking
farmers as they order them back into the marketplace. The forces can also be seen roughing up the mayor, Epifanio Cruz, as he tried to calm the situation. Soon, the
security forces began launching tear gas.
After one soldier was apparently hit in the face by a rock, retaliation
was swift. The contract soldiers chased coca farmers into the union compound.
Four shots went
off. When the soldiers emerged, the local union leader, Casimiro Huanca, 55, was fatally wounded. A second victim, farmer Fructuoso Herbas, 34, had to have his
right leg amputated below the knee after he was shot once in the leg.
"It is clear to us that the [task force] is using excessive force and
committing severe human rights abuses across the Chapare," said Godofredo
human rights ombudsman for the Chapare region.
A State Department account of the event, in a Jan. 29 letter to concerned
U.S. legislators, stated the irregular forces were "attempting to clear
the road while it was
being blocked." It said, "The crowd became one large mass as the [peasants] continued to advance on the [task force]." Herbas, the farmer whose leg was partially
amputated, was described as having been "wounded slightly above the ankle."
"We investigate these cases as best we can, checking as many sources
in and out of the government as we can, and we try to follow them up and
information as we can, so our report at any one point in time may have some information that may not prove to be accurate," James Dickmeyer, the U.S. Embassy
spokesman in La Paz, said in explaining the difference between the embassy's account and that conveyed by the video.
"In the case of Bolivia, I think the war on drugs is being used as an
excuse to carry out behavior that we would never otherwise accept," said
Rep. Maurice D.
Hinchey (D-N.Y.), who has raised the issue with the State Department. "Our actions in Bolivia represent a gross complacency that borders on complicity. There
seems to be purposeful obfuscation about the facts."
Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga said in an interview that he supported
the arrangement and did not consider the unit to violate Bolivian law or
come under undue
"We have the Spanish funding hearts of palm [alternative development
projects] in the Chapare, and that doesn't mean they belong to Spain,"
he said. "We have the
Koreans assisting in building a main highway from Santa Cruz, and that doesn't mean they own the road. This is simply another group in our fight against drugs. We're
dealing with people who are making a lot of money from drugs. It's impossible to be foolproof in a situation like this."
U.S. officials and task force leaders blame farmers for the violence
and insist most incidents described as human rights abuses were committed
in self-defense. The
coca farmers, officials say, are directly linked to narcotics traffickers and include snipers and experts in booby traps who have wounded and killed several soldiers.
As an indication of the level of trafficking in the region, officials
point to a recent anti-drug sweep called Operation Cascabel II, in which
agents in the Chapare seized
370 pounds of partially processed cocaine and uncovered 365 cocaine base laboratories. "The [task force irregulars] have been in difficult situations," said a U.S.
Embassy source who asked not to be named. "The coca growers are not peace-loving beatniks."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company