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Bolivian Powers to Combat Illegal Coca Crops Promts Violent Reaction - 2002-01-19


The Bolivian government's adoption of new powers to combat the cultivation of illegal coca crops has prompted a violent reaction from growers. Seven deaths, dozens of injuries and considerable destruction of property have resulted from confrontations between government forces and coca farmers in recent days.

Just four miles outside the country's third largest city Cochabamba, lies the normally tranquil agricultural homesteads of the Sacaba Valley. As night fell on the 17th of January, the area played unwitting host to the gruesome beating and lynching of two policemen. The officers were murdered attempting to escort an ambulance through an enraged mob of protestors who descended on the area to protest the closure of its local coca leaf market.

Three days of violent protest have now left a total of seven dead, some fifty people seriously injured, and at least twenty vehicles in flames.

The incidents marked an apparent shift in the level of violence coca growers are now prepared to employ. Demonstrations in support of the farmer's right to grow the leaf for traditional purposes have previously been relatively peaceful. Although past battles with the military and police have resulted in fatalities, these were largely accidental. The farmers claim they are only defending their livelihoods and are not responsible for those who use the coca leaf to manufacture cocaine and trade in the illicit drug.

The root cause of the farmer's anger is the introduction of a presidential decree to heighten control over the drying, transport and sale of coca leaves, which remains legal in some parts of the country. The government has so far rejected questions over the legality of the measure and protests from the government's civil rights organization,Peoples Defenders,on constitutional grounds.

Grower's leaders say the government has refused to negotiate over the decree and have stated they will not return to their farms until it is annulled. The standoff is preventing any attempt to bring a negotiated end to the protests.

Interior minister Leopoldo Fernandez said in an interview that the government has no choice but to "forcibly return law and order to the area". A plan dangerously likley to produce more bloodshed in the days ahead.