WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
1 Feb 2003 | News

Coca Conflict Turns Violent

Special Update: Bolivia

Coca Conflict Turns Violent

Kathryn Ledebur

Upon taking office in August 2002, the Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada administration inherited a cyclical conflict of protest and government repression of coca growers as a result of the previous government’s aggressive coca eradication program, “Plan Dignity.”   In an effort to break the cycle of violence, the government and coca grower leaders initiated a three-and-a-half- month dialogue in mid-September 2002.  During these extended negotiations, the groups reached consensus on some key issues, raising expectations that a negotiated solution could be found.  Yet in spite of these agreements, other key areas remain unresolved, such as the coca growers’ demand for the demilitarization of the Chapare coca-growing region and a temporary suspension of forced eradication. After U.S. officials expressed opposition to any break in coca reduction efforts, the talks stalled and eventually broke down altogether.  As a result, on January 13, 2003 , coca growers and other social sectors began road blockades and aggressive protests across the country.  The large demonstrations were met with a heavy military and police presence.  In the ensuing conflict, eleven people were killed, including two members of the security forces, and many were injured.  A new dialogue effort began on January 18, putting an end to two weeks of violence on both sides.  The situation, however, remains tense and violence could easily erupt again.

Dialogue Leads to Limited Consensus and Continued Impasses
In the first round of talks initiated on September 14, 2002 , Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and other government officials met with coca grower leader and MAS congressman Evo Morales and other coca growers’ representatives. The willingness of the Bolivian president – in contrast with the previous administration – to meet with coca grower leaders represented a positive step towards a possible resolution of the coca conflict. The new administration’s participation at the negotiating table reflects both MAS’s new political clout as a result of congressional victories, and Sánchez de Lozada’s more strategic, diplomatic approach to relations with the Six Coca Growers’ Federations. 

In the June 2002 elections, the MAS political party won 27 of the 130 House seats and 8 of the 27 Senate seats, making it the second largest bloc in the Bolivian congress.  In the presidential race, party leader Evo Morales came in only one-and-a-half percentage points behind the winner.  The MAS draws much of its support from coca growers while also appealing to a larger electorate discontent with Bolivia ’s traditional parties and economic policies which have failed to benefit the poor.

Despite the willingness to engage in dialogue, however, President Sánchez de Lozada backtracked on various campaign promises related to drug policy and made clear his commitment to continued eradication, as laid out in Plan Dignity.

The negotiations centered on a five-point agenda.  If completed, the agreement would have represented a significant step forward in meeting coca grower demands while allowing the government to eradicate coca production not destined for the illicit market.  The five points under discussion included:

1.  Demilitarization of the Chapare coca-growing region:  Coca growers continue to demand that the Bolivian armed forces be removed from the region, as promised during President Sánchez de Lozada’s campaign.  Human Rights Ombudsperson, Ana Maria Romero de Campero, urged the president to follow through with his promise. She stated, “I think there are expectations about this in the Chapare . . . the citizens are waiting for the president to comply with what he promised as a candidate.”[1]  The Bolivian government stated its willingness to remove the armed forces from specific eradication duties, but made clear its plans to maintain a significant military presence in the region.

 2.  The modification of anti-drug Law 1008:  On October 7, President Sánchez de Lozada stated that the government might be willing to modify Law 1008. The coca growers’ proposed modifications include the authorization of the production of half a hectare of coca per family in the Chapare, effective January 2003.  Since the controversial law was passed in 1988, coca growers, legal experts, and human rights monitors have critiqued the law as unconstitutional due to some of the law’s requirements that violate due process and civil rights guarantees.  In addition, ambiguous language has led to conflicting interpretations of the text. 

3.  An objective study of legal coca consumption and markets:  Bolivian government officials and coca growers’ representatives agreed to have an autonomous institution carry out an in-depth study of legal coca consumption markets in Bolivia in order to determine how much coca is actually needed to meet traditional needs.   Law 1008 stipulates that 12,000 hectares of coca may be grown for legal, traditional uses.   However, this amount – referred to as a “guestimate” by one embassy official – is not considered reliable.[2]  Both coca growers and members of the administration express skepticism about the possible political motivation of recent studies. Coca growers state that if the results of the new study demonstrate that less coca is needed for traditional consumption, they will voluntarily eradicate the “excess” hectares.  If legal consumption and markets prove to be greater than the amount established in Law 1008, they demand the right to produce this greater quantity. This area of consensus represents flexibility on the part of coca growers and could provide an opening for modification of Bolivian drug policy.

4.  A break in eradication:  Coca growers call for a sustained pause in forced eradication efforts in order to study legal markets, reevaluate alternative development efforts and permit continued dialogue.   The Bolivian government officials presented shifting stances in response.   Finally, it rejected the proposal, stating that Law 1008 mandates eradication and that this will continue unless the law is changed.  Coca grower leaders repeatedly stated that a rejection of the pause could lead to widespread protest. One MAS congressman stated that the pause “is a government topic. What can we do? [Coca growing] is a subsistence issue.  We can starve to death or we can fight.  Our rank and file are about to take direct action without us.  The Chapare could set everything off.[3]

The government accompanied its rejection of the proposed pause with the presentation of a “new coca policy” offering to make alternative development efforts more sustainable and participatory.  Other offers include improvements in economic growth, health care, housing and infrastructure for basic services, all badly needed in the region.  The government also plans to accelerate efforts to give Chapare residents legal titles to their land.[4]  In addition, the proposal makes reference to protection of human rights and improvements in the justice system.  However, coca growers – who repeatedly in the past have had such promises fail to lead to concrete change – rejected the proposal as too vague and continued to insist on a pause in eradication. Throughout t
he discussions, U.S. officials made clear their opposition to any suspension in eradication, impeding the government’s ability to come to consensus with the coca growers.   Hence, the two sides were unable able to come to any lasting agreement. 

U.S. Opposition Hampers Dialogue

During the talks, the Sánchez de Lozada government was evasive about the proposal to temporarily suspend eradication.  A member of the executive branch admitted: “We have our backs up against the wall. On one side, we have the social pressure of the coca growers, and on the other, international pressure.”[5]  Otto Reich, then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, stated that “a pause in eradication would influence relations [between the U.S. and Bolivia ] because for us [the U.S. government] the eradication of illegal coca is most important.”[6]  When asked if a pause in coca eradication would prevent Bolivia ’s access to the benefits of the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) and U.S. economic assistance, the acting U.S. ambassador, Daniel Santos, responded: “Participation in the ATPDEA program is marked by certain requirements and conditions that dictate that the war on drugs must continue.”[7]  Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada met with President Bush in Washington on November 14, 2002 .  After the meeting, the Bolivian president stated that forced eradication of coca will continue in compliance with Law 1008 because “we have to finish the job . . . as soon as possible, without human rights violations, while providing alternatives to the campesinos.”[8]

Blockades and Protests Initiated; Human Rights Violations Ensue

In the early morning hours of Monday, January 13, 2003 , coca growers and other sectors began road blockades and protests against U.S.-backed eradication and other issues.  Tensions continued to increase as both the large number of protestors and the large number of military and police took action.   Confrontations resulted in eleven deaths and multiple injuries of both civilians and security personnel.[9]

Security forces repeatedly used excessive force, including indiscriminate use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition against protestors, leading to numerous injuries and nine deaths between January 13 and January 28.  Security forces shot Willy Hinojosa (22 years old) near Shinahota on January 14.  Eyewitnesses state that they began to disperse the crowd with gas as they attempted to clear a road blockade, and later used rubber pellets and live ammunition.  The Ministry of Justice autopsy report documents that a bullet entered Hinojosa’s left forearm and then left his side, fracturing his eighth rib.  He died in Villa Tunari.  There are also repeated denunciations of severe beatings.  In one case, Lt. Ruddy Torrico Montaño, in command of a small unit from a nearby army base, CIOS II, forcibly entered a home in the Rio Alto community on January 13 and beat Gabina Contreras (52 years old).  She suffered multiple contusions.

Of further concern is the high number of apparently arbitrary detentions.  Human Rights Ombudsperson Ana María Romero de Campero told the press on January 17 that she was “furious” about the conditions in which some detainees were held at the Cochabamba air base and about police and military officers threatening rape of female detainees.[10]  Detainees, such as Villa Tunari Municipal Council member Silvia Lazarte, denounced being severely beaten and kicked during detention.  The government admits that on one day in Cochabamba , 315 detainees were held in a military rather than police facility, in violation of Bolivian law.  That same day, in the Chapare, security forces detained 127 protesters.  Many of these detentions violated Bolivian law as well.  According to Godofredo Reinicke, Human Rights Ombudsman in the Chapare, security forces beat a significant portion of the detainees in the Chapare.[11]  Over the course of the conflict, more than 500 people were detained.

Repression from security forces triggered multiple civilian attacks against Bolivian security forces, resulting in injuries and two deaths between January 13 and January 28.  In one case, an unidentified person shot and killed military conscript Martín Copa (18 years old) in Siete Curvas on the road to Cochabamba on January 21.

Entrenched impunity has further fostered human rights violations, as there is no deterrent to excessive use of force or other abuses by security forces personnel, who have yet to face legal consequences in the civilian court system.  International and local human rights groups have long called on the Bolivian government to take adequate steps to confront the problem of entrenched impunity; to date, these calls have gone unheeded.


Government and protesting sectors reached a preliminary agreement to begin negotiations on January 27, 2003 .  The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, and the Catholic Church agreed to serve in
a facilitating role.  Blockades ended and the military presence on the highway visibly diminished.  The government met key demands from protesting sectors for dialogue. As was the case with similar conflicts in February 2002, as part of the preliminary agreement, the government accepted the same conditions proposed by protesting groups that they had rejected before blockades began.  Sadly, eleven deaths, serious injuries on both sides and over 500 detentions could have been avoided.  The willingness of both sides and the facilitating organizations to spend many hours creating the framework for continuing negotiations is a positive sign. Yet, ambiguities in and conflicting interpretations of the preliminary agreement could cause the fragile process to break down at any time.  Continued use of excessive force by the government or active road blockades by opposition groups could also jeopardize negotiations.

 It is crucial that the U.S. government and international organizations permit the Bolivian government the necessary leverage to make key concessions to allow lasting solutions to end cycles of recurring protest and violence.  At key points in negotiations when both sides appear predisposed to make concessions, U.S. opposition more often than not leads to a breakdown in talks and hence the renewal of violence.  Upon arriving in La Paz in January, U.S. ambassador Greenlee stated, “I hope there is a solution and a dialogue based on respect for the rights of citizens.”  At the same time though, he said, “there is no change in [ U.S. ] drug policy.”[12]  Although Greenlee’s public support for dialogue is a positive step, it is precisely the dictates of U.S. antinarcotics policy, and in particular opposition to a suspension in eradication efforts, that impede negotiations.  In the end, a strategy of dialogue combined with respect for human rights is what will best serve the objectives of the U.S. and Bolivian governments as well as the interests of the Bolivian people.

 Policy recommendations

The US. government should:

  • Publicly support dialogue between the Bolivian government and coca growers as a way to avert further violence and address social concerns;

  • Take effective steps to investigate, sanction and prevent abuses committed by U.S.-funded security forces in Bolivia ;

  • Suspend funding to those units who commit abuses when responsible members are not sanctioned, in accordance with U.S. law; and

  • Ensure adequate levels of economic assistance to allow coca-growing families to earn an alternative income.

Kathryn Ledebur is presently a WOLA consultant, monitoring U.S. drug policy and its impacts on human rights and democracy in Bolivia .  Ms. Ledebur is the director of the Andean Information Network (AIN) based in Cochabamba , Bolivia .   AIN monitors U.S. drug control policy in Bolivia and documents human rights abuses in the Chapare coca-growing region.  AIN informs activists, policy organizations, and human rights groups with frequent AIN updates and meets regularly with U.S. government officials.  To contact AIN or receive their updates please email [email protected]. 

This is a publication of WOLA’s “Drugs, Democracy and Human Rights” project, which examines the impact  of drug trafficking and U.S. international drug control policies on human rights and democratization trends throughout Latin America and the Caribbean .  The project is supported in part by grants from the Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation and the John Merck Fund.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) promotes human rights, democracy and social and economic justice in Latin America and the Caribbean .  WOLA facilitates dialogue between governmental and non-governmental actors, monitors the impact of policies and programs of governments and international organizations, and promotes alternatives through reporting, education, training, and advocacy.  Founded in 1974 by a coalition of religious and civic leaders, WOLA works closely with civil society organizations and government officials throughout the hemisphere.



[1] El Diario, 4 October 2002 .

[2] Interview by author, 19 November 2002 .

[3] La Razón,El diálogo de la coca tiene cuatro avances, pero puede naufragar,” 2 December 2002.

[4] El Diario, “Cuarto intermedio en el diálogo Gobierno-cocaleros,” 3 December 2002.

[5] Opinión,  “Presiones de EE.UU. y cocaleros estanca decisión sobre la pausa,” 8 October 2002.

[6] La Razón, “Una pausa en la erradicación de coca pondrá en riesgo el APTA,” 11 October 2002.

[7] La Razón,  “EE.UU. condiciona toda su ayuda; Bolivia debe seguir erradicando,” 28 November 2002.

[8] La Razón, “Luego de hablar con Bush, Goni dice que la erradicación seguirá,” 15 November 2002.

[9] The information on human rights violations presented in this section was documented by the Andean Information Network.

[10] La Razón, “En un gigante operativo apresan a 315 campesinos,” 18 January  2003.

[11] Interview by author on 25 January 2003 .

[12] El Diario, “EEUU no cambiará política antidroga,18 January 2003.