March 31, 2002

War between coca farmers, Bolivia rages on

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (AP) --He's 45, but Maximo Rivero looks 65.

Cancer gnawing away at his cheek, the coca farmer wept as he described his plight
-- no money and in yet another hospital, this time with a leg broken during hours of
interrogation by police searching for farmers who killed five soldiers.

Rivero joined a growing number of victims in the battle over coca that has plagued
Bolivia since 1997, when the government began a U.S.-backed campaign to eradicate
the Andean crop used as the base for cocaine.

The government has already declared success in central Bolivia's Chapare, once one
of the world's largest coca-growing hot spots. Officials say they have wiped out
more than 127,000 acres there and have only 5,000 acres to go, although some
experts think the latter figure is too low.

The battle is far from over. The poor farmers who grow coca say they will keep
fighting attempts to eradicate the lucrative crop. "If there is no more coca, my
people have nothing," Rivero said. "Everybody has a cause to die for -- this is ours."

The government is just as resolute. "Bolivia chose a road in 1997, and we are going
to keep following it. We have no time for complacency," Foreign Minister Gustavo
Fernandez said recently.

Thirty-nine coca farmers, police and soldiers have been killed since 1997. Clashes
have gotten worse since President Jorge Quiroga took office in August, with 14 of
the deaths coming since then.

Most confrontations occur in the tropical Chapare in a repeating cycle of violence:
Joint military-police units are sent to uproot coca plants, farmers blockade roads to
protect their fields, soldiers and police fight to open the highways. Farmers are killed
by guns or rifle-fired tear gas canisters; officers are shot by snipers or captured and

In January, the conflict spread outside the Chapare, with waves of anti-government
protests throughout the country.

Thousands of Chapare farmers stormed into the small town of Sacaba outside
Cochabamba and tried to reopen a market shut down for allegedly selling illegal
coca. Three coca farmers and five security troopers died during four days of

The government responded fiercely. The coca farmers' radio station was shut down,
and dozens of farmers were taken into custody.

The cancer-stricken Rivero, who said he had been avoiding the coca wars because
of his health, wound up in the middle of the chaos one night when he stopped on his
way home from cancer treatment to spend a night at the coca farmers' federation in

He said he was seized in a raid on the guest house, taken to police headquarters and
beaten until officers conceded he knew nothing about the Sacaba deaths. Finally, he
said, he was thrown out, with a broken leg and various injuries to his head and

The coca farmers' main leader, Evo Morales, was accused of organizing the violence
in Sacaba and expelled from Congress.

Coca farmers marched in Cochabamba to demand Morales' reinstatement, the
freeing of all jailed farmers and the reopening of their radio station. "You are not
alone, brother Evo," Morales' supporters shouted in marches that often turned into
clashes with police.

Demonstrators, who accused Quiroga of being a puppet of Washington, chanted
they won't be "slaves of the Yankees."

The eradication campaign is up against both tradition and economics. Coca has been
grown for centuries in Latin America, and the leaves have been used in religious
ceremonies or smoked and chewed as a medicine and mild narcotic, especially by
indigenous people in the Andes.

"The peasants in the Chapare do not defend drug trafficking, but we also do not
accept that the coca leaf should be criminalized," Morales said.

In sponsoring Bolivia's anti-coca effort, the United States has spent $50 million since
1997 to develop alternative crops, build roads and clinics, and improve electricity in
the Chapare. Farmers complain that alternative crops like black pepper don't pay as
much as coca and that their bananas often attract no buyers and must be left to rot.

According to government figures, 60 percent of Chapare farmers have converted to
legal crops. But thousands are still planting coca.

After a rash of road blockades thrown up across Bolivia, Quiroga's government
finally began to negotiate with Morales. Most of the jailed farmers were released, and
protesters took down their blockades.

But agreements between the government and coca farmers usually are short-lived.
The government continues to insist it will completely wipe out coca, while farmers
vow they will protect their right to harvest the crop.

"There are only two escapes from this situation," said Sacha Llorentty, a human
rights activist. "Either the government starts truly negotiating with the coca farmers,
or the conflict gets more and more violent."

 Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.