The most notorious case is Cesar Apaza, former Executive Secretary of the Chulumani peasant federation from 2018 to 2021 and subsequently head of the Self Defense Committee. He was brutally beaten up before being committed on remand to San Pedro prison, and thence transferred to the high security Chonchocoro prison in the Altiplano on the outskirts of El Alto. There he suffered a stroke, in all probability a consequence of the beating, and was hospitalized for two weeks, but, still in a paralysed condition, was then taken back to prison to continue awaiting trial.
In May 2023, the People’s Defender (Ombudsman) finally declared that Apaza’s lesions were indeed due to having been tortured and subjected to degrading treatment at the hands of the police, but instead of recommending that he be released from preventive detention and allowed house arrest, merely declared that he should be assigned professional medical attention in Chonchocoro.2
Bolivian justice is notorious for making excessive use of preventive detention, usually justified on the grounds that the accused is likely to flee the country or will try to manipulate evidence or intimidate witnesses, but Apaza still suffers paralysis of one side of his body and is unable to move from his bed without assistance. It is difficult to imagine how he could run away or intimidate anybody.
The second in command of the Self Defense Committee, Rosalba Vargas, was put under house arrest in Yungas but without the right to go out to work, which is a ridiculous abuse when the accused is a peasant farmer who cannot work from home. Meanwhile various political authorities accused of corruption – who are members of the MAS, who could carry out their work on line from their homes - were put under house arrest with the right to go out to work every day.
During all this time, from 2021 onwards, ADEPCOCA sent repeated requests to the government for meetings to resolve the conflict with Alanes, but according to their public declarations, these were never answered. However, reports filtered out that, after the 8th of September 2022, they had in fact been holding secret meetings and had reached a deal whereby the other members of the administration would not be arrested so long as they avoided any other acts of protest and allowed Alanes’ market to go on functioning. He, meanwhile, attempted to revive the constitutional demand previously presented by Elena Flores to be recognized as the legal president of ADEPCOCA and, consequently, merited a legal order for the Legal Coca Market to be handed over to him.
The under-the-table deals between the government and Alanes’ ADEPCOCA came to light on 28th April 2023, when the Minister del Castillo who had recognized Alanes, ordered the acts of repression and the legal persecution of ADEPCOCA leadership, which was greeted with applause in an assembly in Villa Fátima, where the only regional representatives who were allowed to use the microphone were those who had supported the clandestine negotiations. At the same time, one member of the organisation was briefly imprisoned and then released following a request for an expedited trial. In Bolivian law, this corresponds to the accused admitting guilt, in exchange for an express trial and a reduced sentence. Alanes crowed victory, declaring the man in question, Gabriel Mamani, had admitted to the entire list of fifteen crimes and this meant that all the others accused of the same list were guilty too. In fact, the deal with Mamani was that he only had to admit to bodily harm and grievous bodily harm, but many grass roots members also think that his confession implies guilt on the part of all others charged with the rest of the crimes.
At the time of writing, Freddy Machicado is said to be negotiating a similar deal where he will confess to some of the accusations in exchange for being let out on bail, while yet another constitutional demand3 has appeared, this time in the name of José López, owner of the former school now a ‘point of sale’ for coca, claiming damages for close to a quarter of a million Bolivianos (about 35 thousand US$). As in Urujara, it turns out that Alanes never actually bought the building but was only renting it, supposedly with a promise to purchase; it was to have been valued with a view to finalizing the sale on 15th September 2022, that is, a week after it was taken over and wrecked.
Alanes claims that the ADEPCOCA leadership will have to either auction off or hand over the Legal Coca Market to pay these damages. Given that he has made so many false statements in the past4, many grass root coca growers consider that this is not to be believed, while others argue that the Market is the property of the institution, not of the individuals who happen to be occupying the leadership and so could not be confiscated even if the legal procedure rules favourably.
However, the strategy of legal persecution has had worse repercussions in the Yungas. Arguably, it has been more successful for the government than direct confrontation and repression, in that it has caused a general crisis in leadership at all levels of the peasant organization. Very few people now dare to stand for election in the peasant federations and at the level of the agrarian Centrals and Subcentrals, unless they are MAS sympathisers and prepared to obey government orders, because they fear that if they oppose policies designed for Yungas, they will be accused of trumped up charges and imprisoned, given that the judicial system is totally lacking in independence.
This is part of a long term strategy that the MAS has been carrying out ever since Evo Morales secured his third term in 2015. Under the new Constitution which his government approved in 2009, a president is only allowed two consecutive terms. But Morales and MAS argued that his first term was under the previous constitution and therefore did not count, so in 2015 he was starting his second term. The equally submissive constitutional court then declared that indefinite re-election is a human right, discarding Morales’ own constitution.
However, as occurs with any government that prolongs its time in office, the MAS was gradually losing support with the ‘social organizations’ it claimed to represent. When MAS lost control of an organization, they adopted the strategy of setting up a parallel organization staffed by government party militants, as with Elena Flores’ parallel ADEPCOCA. The same has occurred with the peasant federations and agrarian Centrals in a large part of Yungas, and with the Regionals of ADEPCOCA, provoking many local conflicts which ranged from beatings, destruction of property, harvesting the coca fields of members of the rival organization, and even deaths. Municipal authorities and government agencies collaborated with the divisions by recognizing the minority parallel organizations and channelling development projects and public works through them, ignoring those who continued to support the majority organizations.
After Morales resigned, most authorities ceased to manipulate projects in such a direct way, but still recognize the parallel organizations, although most of these have few or no grass roots support and the same leaders remain in office for years having long since overrun their terms. The divisions were particularly active in the municipality of La Asunta, where they had already appeared before 2015 when leaders favoured coca eradication campaigns (see below).
At times division occurred within the same community. In other cases a whole agrarian Central was associated with one or another band, as happened with La Calzada, fiercely anti government, versus the neighbouring town of Santa Rosa, unconditional supporters of MAS. In March 2023 Evo Morales, now without any position in government but exercising influence as President of the MAS party organization, honoured Santa Rosa with a personal visit. He planned to travek on to the municipal capital of La Asunta to meet his supporters there, but when he travelled from Santa Rosa to the main road, people from Calzada, together with the anti government peasant federation of Asunta, had blocked the highway and refused to let him pass. He was forced to do an about turn and stage an unplanned visit to Irupana, a MAS-supporting municipality. The car he was travelling in turned out to have been stolen in Santa Cruz and was recovered by the police, though not returned to its owner, and instead was handed over to the governing political party.5
In addition to its murky links with the government, the actual ADEPCOCA leadership shows signs of promoting divisions at the regional level, in cases where this had been overcome with much effort because of the resentment created by previous conflicts, for instance, in Regional Arapata. In April 2023, this Regional elected a new board of directors, but the departmental leadership did not turn up to swear them in. They were sworn in by the same electoral committee that had organized the election, by acclamation, supposedly because they did not have funds to print ballot papers for a secret vote. ADEPCOCA argued that this was not a legitimate procedure6, did not recognize the newly elected board or directors when they presented themselves in Villa Fatima and a few weeks later, swore in a new electoral committee of notorious MAS sympathisers to carry out another election.
The Villa Fatima leadership wanted to ratify the regional president, who supported their deals with the government, but the grass roots elected a new administration which, like most of the coca producers, considers that the leaders have buckled under the government just to keep themselves out of prison and have not obtained any concessions in return: in particular, the demand to close Alanes’ illegal market, and if not absolution, at least allow for house arrest for Cesar Apaza and other detainees. Those who were en route to swear in their preferred candidate claimed that there were ‘problems’ in Coroico, they could not risk getting involved in and turned back before arriving. It remains to be seen what the consequence of these actions will be.