Coca growers resist drug troops
Coca growers are using bombs and booby traps against Bolivian troops trying to raze their crops. The U.S.-funded Andean war on drugs could suffer.
BY KEVIN G. HALL
Knight Ridder News Service
VILLA TUNARI, Bolivia - U.S.-trained Bolivian antidrug troops are sustaining heavy casualties from bombs, booby traps and ambushes as they attempt to uproot coca, the plant from which cocaine is made.
The battleground is the Chapare, a New Jersey-sized swath of steamy tropical lowlands in south-central Bolivia where most illicit coca is grown. Since 1997, soldiers have reportedly uprooted 85 percent of the Chapare's coca, about 90,000 acres. But coca growers, called cocaleros, are fighting back now. Their success threatens U.S. antidrug programs in the Andes, credited with cutting cocaine's availability on American streets.
According to U.S. and Bolivian officials, seven Bolivian antidrug
soldiers were killed and at least 91 wounded in the Chapare in 2003, most
of them by explosive booby
traps planted shoulder high in the dense undergrowth. Casualties were negligible in the two previous years.
Some devices used a simple trigger like a tin can that pulls a trip wire when stepped on. Others are detonated by remote control. In one instance, a truck carrying troops rolled over a roadbed trigger that launched a small rocket at troops sitting in the back.
''We need to do this. The soldiers are taking our children's food right off our table,'' said one cocalero in Villa Tunari, the largest town in the region of the attacks. The coca grower agreed to speak only on condition that his name not be used.
Most violence has been in the Chapare's so-called Red Zone. It's
an area to which former miners migrated when the government closed state
tin mines in the 1980s, a
time when Bolivia was the world's second-largest supplier of cocaine. The most resistant cocaleros farm there, and many have a knowledge of explosives from their work in the mines.
When government eradication troops moved against Red Zone cocaleros last fall, ''We fully anticipated an increase in violence, and sure as hell it came,'' recalled a U.S. official whose agency doesn't allow him to be quoted. ``We were really having a hell of a time of it. It was almost every day, it seemed.''
The official added: 'When you are telling them, `We took your livelihood once [when the mines closed], and now we are going to do it again,' sure there is resistance.''
The Chapare's coca-growers -- and the troops -- got a reprieve
in December when a bridge washed out along the country's main highway,
disrupting the delivery of
eradication forces to the Red Zone. The bridge is due to reopen later this year.
In an interview last week, Bolivian President Carlos Mesa said ''isolated terrorist acts'' in the Chapare were being investigated.
Mesa declined to comment on Bolivian and Colombian media reports
that Colombia's Marxist National Liberation Army (ELN), which is allied
with Colombia's cocaine
producers, may have provided Bolivia's cocaleros with explosives or training. Those claims were based on the arrest in Bolivia last June of a Colombian national, Francisco Cortes, who allegedly was carrying training materials and papers linking him to the ELN.
Colombian cartels and the Marxist rebel groups that collect ''protection taxes'' from the drug trade previously had been reported in neighboring Peru but not in Bolivia.
Adding to tension in the Chapare are conflicting and unconfirmed
reports that right-wing paramilitary organizations are training there,
or, conversely, that cocaleros are
forming their own armed forces to repel troops advancing on their fields.
At the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, concern is also growing about violence not just against soldiers but aid workers -- American and Bolivian -- who try to persuade farmers to grow other crops.