War on Terror Meets War on Drugs in Bolivia (11/10/03)

Explicit efforts to link Bolivian coca growers to Colombian revolutionary groups, such as the ELN and the FARC, continue. U.S. officials have begun to publicly express concerns about narco-terrorism in Bolivia, although the country’s armed forces continue to deny this assertion. On October 3, U.S. Drug Czar, John Walters stated that Bolivia and Peru had suffered setbacks in their anti-drug efforts. Citing concerted efforts to fight drug trafficking and narco-terrorism, he added, "[Colombian] President Uribe is the model for Bolivia and Peru to follow…These countries receive substantial aid from the United States…the issue for us and them is how to reduce the drug problem, which is being used to feed political uprising. (El Diario, AFP La Razón 10/10/03, AIN translation from Spanish). On October 6, in a broadcast by C-SPAN, General James T. Hill, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, reiterated U.S. concern for the need to fight narco-terrorism. "On a daily basis, we are facing the likelihood of living with failed states [in Latin America] populated by narco-terrorists and international terrorists. As such, we are laying the groundwork for a cooperative, safe and prosperous future in this hemisphere." He later added, "In Bolivia, narco-terrorists and a radical political party have combined efforts to undermine the elected government."

Hill’s statements, sustaining that narco-terrorists operate in Bolivia and Walter’s praise for the Colombian model both reinforce comments made by a high ranking U.S. embassy official that members of the FARC and ELN have been in Bolivia. U.S. pressure to link the War on Drugs to the War on Terrorism appears to have been used as an excuse by Bolivian prosecutors to commit repeated legal irregularities in alleged terrorism cases.

Colombian and Coca Growers Continue to Await Trial

Police detained Colombian citizen Francisco Cortés Aguilar along with coca grower leaders, Claudio Ramírez Cuevas, Carmelo Peñaranda and two of Ramírez’s relatives, on April 10, 2003 on terrorism charges and for alleged connections to the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). All three men remain in La Paz’s maximum security prison.

This week, the Colombian ambassador to Bolivia stated again, that Cortés is a human rights worker (Los Tiempos 10/8/03). These statements did not detain Rene Arzabe, prosecutor in charge of the case investigation. After returning from an investigative trip to Colombia, the prosecutor stated, "If the diplomat has information about the investigation he can appear at the trial as a witness and tell the court what he knows. From the start we’ve sustained that the foreign subject is linked to subversive acts." "We have new elements that Cortés is a member of the ELN and that he entered the country to train Bolivians about terrorist activities and armed uprising; the evidence will prove this" (El Diario 10/8/03).

Colombian human rights groups and activists demand Cortés’s release from jail, and are working to take the case to the OAS Interamerican Human Rights Court (Los Tiempos 10/10/03). His lawyer has requested that he be transferred from the prison for health reasons. On September 19, Amnesty International echoes this concern. "Public statements made by Cortés’s lawyer indicate that he is suffering from hepatitis, headaches, serious sight problems and constant nosebleeds….Amnesty International is calling for a proper medical investigation and diagnosis of the health problems of Francisco Cortés, and for him to be given appropriate treatment (Amnesty Medical Action MA # 13/03 on Bolivia). No trial date has been set.

Prosecutors to Implicate Coca Grower Leader: Evidence Appears Shaky

Bolivian government prosecutors continue to seek links between Cortés and coca growers in the Chapare region. Legal sources confirm that two members of the La Paz District Attorney’s office travel frequently to the Chapare in a specific effort to make this connection. On April 15, these investigators attempted to implicate MAS councilwoman and coca grower, Juana Quispe, on terrorism charges. Multiple procedural irregularities paired with weak and contradictory evidence suggest that the prosecutors attempted to frame Quispe.

On September 14th, La Paz prosecutors, Silvia Blacutt and Marlene Taboada, assigned to the Cortés case contacted parish officials in the Chapare town of Chimore, stating that they had found dynamite and fuses in one Church building. They showed the surprised clergy members eight sticks of dynamite that were reportedly found by police. They offered no explanation about why police had searched the premises. The prosecutors told the press, though, that church staff had found the dynamite. It is interesting to note that fuses found with the dynamite were approximately four inches long—suggesting someone would have had to be standing next to the dynamite in the room to detonate the explosives, a risky and highly unlikely prospect.

Close to six a.m. the next day, the police burst into the home of Juana Quispe. They did not have an arrest warrant. Officers sustained that they found dynamite, detonators and fuses in her home. Police detained Quispe, but not her husband, who is also a coca grower leader and the owner of the house. Quispe and coca grower leaders stated that police planted the dynamite.

The next day, prosecutors accused Quispe of terrorism and attempted murder for placing the bomb in the church. The legal memo presented by the two district attorneys did not present evidence linking the accused to the dynamite in the church, nor did it establish a potential motive. Relations between the Catholic Church and coca growers in the region continue to be positive, and coca grower action against this institution appears implausible. Instead, Blacutt and Taboada argued that Quispe has connections to Francisco Cortés and the ELN. They did not substantiate this allegation with evidence. As a result, they transferred the case to a La Paz court. This change of jurisdiction is a violation of the Bolivian Criminal Procedures Code.

Quispe’s detention, along with her five month-old baby, clearly violated the new Bolivian Criminal Procedures Code as well, which stipulates that pregnant women and mothers of children less than a year old cannot be detained. The arrest took place without the knowledge of Chapare prosecutors. One unscrupulous employee of the Chapare legal system vehemently protested, "This is outrageous; those women can’t even frame someone effectively!" The Bolivian press reported that tests carried out on the cartridges presented as evidence contained no dynamite or explosives at all (Los Tiempos 9/18/03).

After Quispe presented required guarantees, a La Paz District court judge ordered Quispe’s release until her trial date, citing the criminal procedures code and stating that the prosecutor’s accusation that the Chimore municipal government was obstructing the investigation has no legal basis. Quispe must sign in regularly with a Chapare judge and await her trial in La Paz.

Prosecutors Investigating Terrorism Meet with U.S. Officials

Chapare Human Rights Ombudsman, Godofredo Reinicke, interviewed the prosecutors as they were leaving the office of the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Chimore. Taboada told Reinicke, that they "just happened to be vacationing in the region" when they discovered the evidence. It remains unclear what the prosecutors were doing in the Embassy office.

Quispe’s detention set the tone for further arrests. On October 7, Police detained Marcelino Janko in the Cochabamba Upper Valley. Prosecutor Arzabe sustained that, "He is an explosives expert. He was trained by the Colombians, especially by Francisco Cortés, who is already detained for attempting to organize irregular armed groups" (El Diario 10/10/03). He did not explain how he was able to gather this evidence from a different jurisdiction in such a short time. On October 9, a La Paz judge sent Janko to a La Paz prison to await trial.

Legal experts and human rights monitors speculated that the district attorney’s office’s effort to link coca growers to the FARC and ELN was also a strategy to buy time to make their case against the Cortés. By pressing charges against Quispe, prosecutors obtained a six-month extension of the trial date in the Cortés case. Human rights monitors express fear that if pressure to obtain results in the "War on Terror" will be as strong as it is in the "War on Drugs," prosecutors will increasingly violate legal norms. In a country where no organized revolutionary groups exist, efforts to create the image of a "narco-terrorist presence" will only exacerbate the present social conflict and create the potential for greater government repression.

Benjamin Dangl and Kathryn Ledebur work at The Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Dangl can be reached at: Ben@upsidedownworld.org. To contact Ledebur or to receive AIN updates write: paz@albatros.cnb.net