La Paz (apro).– Willy Yujra, non-commissioned officer with the Bolivian Army, and Michael Olivarez, physician, shared a fatal destiny; both were beaten, tortured and executed while they were on their knees.
The first received a blow to the head with a rock and the second, a shot to the back of the head after they were captured by coca growers (“cocaleros”) in an ambush of an army brigade that was eradicating illegal crops. Also killed by gunfire were police officer Reynalso Quispe and Army 2nd Lt. Oscar Gironda.
The attack took place on Saturday, October 10, in Apolo, a town that is 410 kilometers (246 miles) north of the City of La Paz. In addition to the four fatalities, the ambush left 12 soldiers and police officers with bullet wounds, the result of an action that showed drug trafficking’s most savage face, because, according to the investigation, the assault was carefully planned, leaving nothing to luck.
The origins of the incident go back to May 24, when a contingent of the FTC (FTC: Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta; Joint Task Force) arrived in the area. The FTC is a combined Army and Police unit that is tasked with eradicating surplus coca crops, the raw product for manufacturing cocaine.
Pursuant to Law 1008, in effect since 1988, Bolivia allows cultivation of coca in only 12,000 hectares (29.652 acres) in zones denominated as “traditional”, located in the La Paz and Cochabamba Departments [political/administrative subdivisions]. Apolo is located in one of the La Paz provinces where cultivation of up to 300 hectares (741 acres) is permitted, although, according to the government, there are at least 180 illegal hectares (445 acres) planted, that the FTC began to eliminate.
The investigation carried out by the commission of prosecutors in charge of the case determined that the “cocaleros”, possibly advised by experienced Colombian and Peruvian drug traffickers, according to Carlos Romero, Minister of Governance, carried out a careful study of the FTC brigade’s routine, put together a perfect logistical (plan) and triggered an armed assault that did not leave any casualties in its ranks.
“The ambush by community members in that locality … was properly and carefully planned. They installed surveillance posts the previous night to prevent the eradication, deploying small explosives, firearms and other (weapons), because (investigators) have collected unfired projectiles and casings, slingshots and other objects (used) to attack (the FTC)”, says the commission report.
The “cocaleros” even set up what Minister Romero called an “armed camp”, that operated as the command post for the attack, in which, among other objects, were found flags identical to those used by military forces for tactical training.
“Those flags were used, from different strategic points, to signal the advance of the FTC force and mark the path they were taking”, Romero explained.
When the FTC entered the area marked for eradication at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 18, the ambush was ready and events developed in irreversible sequence.
First, there was the sound of exploding sticks of dynamite and small explosives, which were the signal to attack the military and police column that was traveling on a path that was being watched by the “cocaleros” from the high, dense brush.
After the explosions, a volley of stones flung with slingshots fell on the (FTC) men, causing the first casualties. Next came the firearms, with volleys that decimated even more of the police and military, who could only attempt to flee in search of cover, unable to identify the direction that they were being shot from.
Army Second Lieutenant Oscar Gironda was one of the ones wounded by bullets. Wounded, he was dragged by one of his companions to get him away from the gunfire, but it was too late. “I want you to to tell my wife that I love her, that I am sending her a kiss”, he told a companion before he died.
Police officer Reynaldo Quispe was not even able to leave a message for his loved ones and was left lifeless on the ground by a well-aimed shot.
When the attack was over, non-commissioned officer Willy Yujra and Dr. Michael Olivarez were wounded, without any possibility of escaping or getting help. Captured by the “cocaleros”, they were brutally beaten, according to the report by the Institute of Forensic Investigations (IDIF), then, on their knees, they were killed.
Yujra’s skull, says the IDIF report, was crushed by a blow with a rock, while Olivarez, a physician who had joined the FTC just two days earlier, four months after getting married, received a shot to the back of the head.
The attackers also took police Second Lieutenant Eddy Triveno prisoner, who was left for dead after they shot him in the mouth, which they forced open with a firearm. Miraculously, the bullet hit his dental plate and was diverted to the side of his nose, where it lodged close to one of his eyes, without touching it. Triveno was rescued after the attack and is currently interned in a clinic in the city of La Paz, with other wounded individuals like Army members Jesus Ortega and Jose Luis Mercado Flores.
“What happened in Apolo is criminal. Those people, whoever they were who attacked the eradicators, were defending something that is illegal from any perspective because they knew they did not have authorization to cultivate more coca. Apparently, it was the Apolo coca producers themselves who reacted like that”, said Rafael Puente, former Deputy Minster of Governance.
Four days after the attack, 300 soldiers and police were sent to the zone to resume the eradication and protect the investigators while they worked, in a flashy operation that was a show of force, with the Police Deputy Commander himself leading it and troops armed with FAL and AR-15 rifles, body armor and anti-riot gear.
As of Friday, (November) 1, there were eight persons under arrest suspected of having participated in the attack, while there were six arrest warrants issued against “cocaleros” who, according to investigators, participated directly in the death of the three uniformed elements and the doctor. The six suspects have not been located and the Police assume that they fled to Peru.
Under the surface
Although President Evo Morales has not hesitated in attributing the attack to a partnership of “cocaleros” and drug traffickers, for whom he has promised the most severe punishment, analysts and critics of the government argue that government permissiveness towards surplus coca production is the root of the problem, and that Apolo was not the last chapter in this explosion of violence.
The last verified report concerning the amount of coca cultivation in Bolivia was issued two years ago by the United Nations Office Against Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which revealed that there were 25,300 hectares (62,516 acres) of coca planted, that is, more than twice what is authorized by Law 2008 exclusively for traditional use (chewed by mouth, infusions, ointments, medications and other similar uses).
Starting with the government itself, everybody is certain that surplus production of coca, of which Bolivia is the third ranked producer after Peru and Colombia, has drug trafficking as its only destination. However, the government still refuses to make public a report drafted in 2010 by the European Union (UE) and delivered to the (Bolivian) authorities, that determined the precise amount of coca currently used in the country for traditional purposes.
“The studies were completed in 2010, and we are expecting much. The most important thing is to have reliable and relevant studies. That’s why the government has wanted to carry out a little more work on complementary studies, and we are awaiting results”, stated the chief of the UE delegation in Bolivia, Tim Torlot.
According to the government, the UE report will be released to the public when “complementary studies” being carried out by national authorities are concluded concerning the consumption of coca, by chewing, in mining sectors, nonsalaried workers and others. There is still no (official) date for release of the UE report and the complementary studies.
“The polling of households was done for a year to observe fluctuations in sectors that use coca. It used a sample (population) of 12,000 households; a larger sample than that which the UK, with a population six times greater, uses for its economic statistics. We worked with the National Institute on Statistics (INE), with other reliable consultants, and with the government, to design (the polls). I am very proud of the way the coca study was carried out and with the reliability of the work. I had several meetings with Minister Romero and he never commented about that (possible errors in the report). Publication of the results depends on the government”, commented Torlot.
Once the report is made public, the government would be obligated to eradicate the number of hectares (under cultivation) that is over the figure allowed for traditional consumption.
On this subject, the leader of the opposition Movimiento Sin Miedo (MSM: Movement Without Fear), Juan del Granado, claimed that he had obtained access to the UE report, which states that only 6,000 hectares (approx. 15,000 acres) of coca are sufficient for traditional uses.
“The government party MAS (Movimiento Al Socialismo; (Movement Towards Socialism)) has for three years been systematically concealing the results of these studies. Today, having gained access to the report, I want to point out that Bolivians only need 6,000 hectares (about 15,000 acres) of coca leaf cultivation to supply traditional needs”, Del Granado asserted.
Although the study has not been officially released, at least eight legislative initiatives have already been introduced in the Land and Territory Commission in the Senate Chamber, backed by parliamentary officials from the “cocalera” zones, that propose to increase coca production from 12,000 to 20,000 hectares (29,652 to 49,420 acres).
For the president of the Commission, official senator Julio Salazar (MAS), the 20,000 hectares are “defined and sanctified”.
“Because there are so many proposals, we have to develop only one (proposal). It’s clear; for all of La Paz, 13,000 hectares (32,000 aces); for Cochabamba, only 7,000 hectares (17,297 acres)”, said the parlamentarian, without producing any technical support document for the proposal.
His colleague Fidel Surco, also with the MAS party, is more conservative and proposes organization of sector meetings with the participation of the authorities, “cocaleros” and groups involved in the production of coca, to develop a single proposal. “We’re going to hold the summits to see if we can agree with the Executive on a law for coca”, he declared.
For opponent Del Granado, legalization of 20,000 hectares would be a mistake, without even minimum technical support.
The government has not taken an official position with respect to these proposals, but analysts say that the authorities, starting with the president himself, will have to deal with strong pressure from the “cocaleros”, mainly those in the Department of Cochabamba, where Evo Morales is, in addition, the supreme leader of the Federation of Farmers from the Tropic (Federacion de Campesinos del Tropico), a region dedicated to the production of coca.
Franklin Alcaraz, an expert on matters related to coca cultivation, points out, for example, that according to the last registration done in 2008, the number of “cocaleros” registered in Cochabamba was 70,000, while in La Paz, there were 27,000.
“It (the fact) is interesting because La Paz is the producer par excellence of (coca) leaf destined for traditional consumption, while, according to international organizations, more than 90% to 95% of the coca produced in Cochabamba goes to drug trafficking”, he explained.
For political analyst Marcelo Silva, the political strength of the “cocaleros” is a worrisome symptom of the power that corporate groups have in the decisions taken by the State.
“The State has assumed a corporate form. What do I mean? that political power no longer resides in the formal instruments and institutions, but rather, government is supported by alliances or pacts with influential sectors of society”, says Silva.
Spiral of violence
Six coca shredding pits found in the vicinity of Apolo during the operations subsequent to the ambush of the FTC brigade confirmed, according to the government itself, that the destination of the surplus cultivation was nothing other than the manufacture of cocaine.
“During the incursions, two shredding pits were found in which drugs were produced, in addition to four inactive (pits). This corroborates the strongest hypothesis we had, which is that a group of people in the area were tied to drug trafficking and that the ambush was an act related to this illegal activity”, reported the vice-minister of Governance, Jorge Perez.
But what appears to be news to the government has been a reality for several years for the residents in that location and for the Police and Armed Forces intelligence organizations. All the communications media that visited Apolo after the violent events verified that the coca leaf is sold without any kind of control.
Likewise, confidential reports by the Special Force in the War Against Drug Trafficking (FELCN: Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotrafico), the police organization charged with anti-drug operations, state that the major part of the coca produced in Apolo is sold in neighboring Peru at prices significantly higher that the local market.
According to the same reports, Bolivian coca is processed in Peru to manufacture cocaine, which then crosses the border between the two countries (680 miles of Andes and Amazon jungle with very little or no controls), to reach the Brazilian market. Although small scale, Bolivian producers take advantage of this circuit to add their own cocaine.
For investigator Roberto Laserna, the Apolo ambush was not the first, nor will it be the last, in a calculated power play by illegal coca producers and drug traffickers.
“It happened before in Chulumani, in Chapare. They were surrounded, there was fighting, they killed police officers and Army troops in other circumstances. I think it is a gesture that farmers use to demonstrate the power they have, the protection they enjoy, and I think that they are trying to open negotiating space and recognition for their production”, he explains.
A review of the most recent incidents of violence, which involve “cocaleros” in the deaths of police and military (personnel), supports Laserna’s argument.
In El Chapare, the principal production zone for coca intended for drug trafficking, “cocaleros” and drug traffickers were until recently using booby traps to attack police officers and soldiers.
Today, booby traps have been replaced with accurate fire from modern weapons, although the victims remain he same, in a spiral of violence and terror that no government police force has managed to put an end to.
In the words of political analyst Carlos Cordero, everything is the result of the coca-cocaine circuit, “that in Bolivia is currently enjoying a prosperous life.”