At the same time, the government carried on with the ‘rationalization’ of coca plantations – the current euphemism for eradication – by military forces in the ‘red zones’, those which had remained outside of the ‘traditional cordon’ in the agreement signed between the government and Yungas coca growers in 2008. This divides the communities later to feature as registered from those which are illegal with respect to coca growing, and within the cordon, there is a ‘green zone’ where each peasant syndicate member is entitled to cultivate up to one hectare of coca, and a ‘yellow zone’ where the limit is a cato.6 Those who exceed these limits are also subject to the rationalization of those plantations which go beyond the permitted. In the ‘red zones’, all the coca fields are to be eradicated. Various growers resisted the elimination of their principal source of income without receiving anything in exchange, culminating in a confused ‘ambush’ in August 2018, where an army lieutenant died in unclear circumstances; the army responded shooting at coca growers who were blockading a bridge, causing the death of two men who were not mobilised but just working in coca fields – and one of whom was not even a coca grower as such, but a migrant worker from the province of Muñecas. Franclin Gutiérrez was not even close to the site of the violence, but was cited by judicial authorities and handed himself in – he said, to avoid that the police who had surrounded the Market would lead to another intervention – the 27th of August 2018. This sealed the rejection of the MAS government on behalf of the majority of Yungas coca growers. The government renewed the directory of COFECAY (Consejo de Federaciones Cocaleras de los Yungas, Council of Yungas Coca Growers’ Federations, which supposedly imitates the Coordinator of the Six Federations of the Chapare in offering a united leadership) in an election which file holders were obliged to attend, and the ‘organics’ responded by electing their own COFECAY.
The grass roots insisted that while Franclin remained in prison, he had to continue as president of ADEPCOCA and refused to allow his vicepresident, Gregorio Chamizo, to take his place. In consequence, Chamizo went over to the government and CONALDPRODC, while continuing to insist that he was the vicepresident of ADEPCOCA and in charge of the organization. The plan was, firstly, to set up parallels in those Regionals (local divisions) of ADEPCOCA where they did not yet exist, and once these covered a majority of the 17 Regionals, call a new election. This was not successful, as for example in Chulumani the attempt to form a parallel Regional was violently rejected, but another element of the strategy was to open a parallel Coca Market in La Paz and oblige the file holders to trade there and not in Villa Fatima, so as to strangle ADEPCOCA depriving it of income. This is illegal according to the Law 906, which only recognises one legal coca market in the city, but Minister Cocarico justified his resolution in favour arguing that it was not a ‘market’ but only a ‘collection centre’, on the same level as the coca trading venues that operate in each town in the Chapare. This market wandered from one more or less accessible and suitable hired venue to another, but all with the common fundamental aspect: both file holders and retailers, that is retailers who are not coca growers, in order to receive the stamp authorizing them to transport coca anywhere else in the country had to have bought the coca in the parallel market currently functioning.
In June 2019, when ADEPCOCA called an assembly in Villa Fatima, Chamizo with CONALPRODC called another in the Plaza Villaroel where they named an Electoral Committee to elect a parallel directory of ADEPCOCA. This took place the 31st of July of the same year, when – in a managed election by ‘acclamation’, that is those present lifted their hands without any precise count or control of who voted or how many times, but the same was habitual in ‘organic’ ADEPCOCA – Elena Flores, afro descendent and file holder who did not have a coca field nor was a union member in her community of origin, was named president. That afternoon, her followers took over the ‘coca growers’ Hospital’, constructed to that end by ADEPCOCA but which had never functioned, in Calle 10 of Villa el Carmen and proceeded to install their parallel market there.
Another motive for the government’s viciousness with Gutiérrez was that in 2018 he made an ill-timed announcement, which had not been consulted with his grass roots, that he aimed to present his candidacy for the Presidency in the national elections to come in 2019, which was seen as a threat to the MAS who then sought how to put him out of the running. However, various other men and women leaders in the Yungas did not learn from his example, but now that the elections were round the corner, resigned their posts in ADEPCOCA, COFECAY and other organizations, in order to campaign as candidates for the lower house or even the Senate, with Comunidad Ciudadana (Citizen Community) at the head of Carlos Mesa for the Presidency, or with other minority parties with minimal possibilities, thus weakening the leadership.
In September 2019, Flores’ ADEPCOCA began to issue its own producers’ cards, the basic document required to pass highway controls and use the legal market with wholesale quantities of coca. Obviously these cards, and not those emitted by Gutiérrez, were demanded from the file holders, and other people obtained them believing that the government would shortly declare Flores’ cards to be the only ones valid in any instance. It was easy for anyone to take out one of these cards since, unlike the ‘organics’, applicants did not have to figure in any list of community affiliates nor present a signed approbation from their community. But this was on the verge of the questioned national elections of 20th October 2021 y the posterior conflicts which resulted in Evo Morales’ renunciation and his flight from the country.
The Yungas coca growers only participated in a peripheral fashion in the mobilisations inappropriately known as ‘las pititas’ (‘the little cords’) since they were concentrated in vigilance of their Market to defend it against possible interventions or attacks by the other group, but celebrating jubilantly Evo’s dismissal. Ironically, in the published voting figures all the Yungas voted MAS, except for Chulumani which went for Comunidad Ciudadana. Having resigned from an organizational post to be a candidate, far from gathering votes on the basis of a known trajectory of opposition, apparently was seen more as a show of opportunism unworthy of support, and the opposition parties lacked coherent proposals of what if anything they would do once in office, preferring to continue protesting the ’21-F’ (the 2016 re-election referendum) as if that was a plan for government.
At the time these results meant nothing, as the election was never recognised and the old parliament carried on under the transition government. The new administration changed all the Ministers and Vice ministers, and for a while the Vice ministry for Coca was occupied by Franz Asturizaga, recognising his months of unpaid and sleepless labour as the president of the self-defence of ADEPCOCA. He was then removed from office and replaced by a political nominee without any connection with the Yungas (in the end, any ‘power share’ is a deal of the moment, without any legal basis for questioning if it should be simply ignored). He did manage to get DIGCOIN to return to its post stamping permits in the main door of ADEPCOCA, with which commercial activity returned to normal, the only thing which really interests most associates. But they hardly had time to enjoy it, because with the arrival of the pandemic and quarantine, all entries and exits of people and products in the Yungas were limited from months to products of basic need, foodstuffs, fruit and vegetables, and coca did not figure in this list. The local economy was totally paralysed. From July 2020 coca began to be traded again, firstly on the basis of quotas assigned per community and Agrarian Centre, where every week two people from one community had to travel with a lorry loaded with a hundred or more takis (fifty pound bundles of coca, the current unit for wholesale trading) and oversee their sale in the Market, this to avoid large conglomerations of people. In the communities themselves, from November 2019 there was a wave of fines, some quite reasonable but others extremely heavy, applied to those – basically file holders and their families and friends, or members of communities conditioned in exchange for public works – who had supported CONADPRODC and Elena ‘Virus’ (as the ‘organics’ nicknamed her), and several were struck off the producers’ lists for refusing to pay; during the epoch of the quotas there were accusations that MAS supporters were not given access to the quotas that corresponded to them, or that attempts were made to block them when they had to travel with coca. Little by little the restrictions let up, and in November 2020 new elections were held, with an undoubted victory for the MAS, although not as overwhelming as in the past, leaving them without the two-thirds ‘steamroller’ of representatives they formally had in the lower house.
But the plan to take control of social organizations did not change. The former head of the government COFECAY, Rolando Canceno, was named Vice minister of Coca. He authorized the parallel market in another site, the seat of a transport union in the suburb of Qalajawira on the highway to Yungas; it was completely inadequate for the huge flow of coca, so most of the transactions had to take place on the muddy pavements or in buildings under construction rented from local residents. Although he did not go so far as to declare that only Flores’ cards were valid to take coca out of Yungas, there were constant complaints that in the Rinconada control point, certain functionaries – apparently identifying associates who, for their advanced age, humble appearance, or came from sectors notoriously divided sectors, could be intimidated – demanded those cards and if they did not have them, confiscated their coca. Franclin Gutiérrez was liberated in November 2019 and many thought that since he had overrun his period in office, new elections should be held right away, but he and his directory remained in their posts until November 2020; the general opinion was that they did so in order to recover the money that they had spent in prison (not only Gutiérrez was detained, but also his right hand man, Sergio Pampa) or to make up for the time spent taking care of the Market when there was no income, so they wanted another year while it was functioning regularly.
After the 2020 national elections, Elena Flores made a weak attempt to take over the Market by force, which was easily repelled, and then presented a constitutional demand on the doubtful basis that she was the legal president of ADEPCOCA and the recently elected Armin Lluta was obliged to hand the institution over to her. She was unable to impose this, but the demand was sufficient to open a new court case against Lluta. A widespread current of opinion was ‘neither Elena, nor Armin’, arguing that both should resign and ADEPCOCA should hold a sole election accepting candidates from both sides. Lluta was sufficiently responsible and unselfish to agree with this and offer his resignation, which was eventually accepted by the grass roots in October 2021 leading to a new election in December of that year, but Flores’ group ignored it and in July 2021 organized an election which their own Electoral Committee suspended halfway through the ballot due to clashes; the results of the votes counted were never made public, but a winner was proclaimed, Arnold Alanes, who had previously been the president of the Electoral Committee which proclaimed Flores as the winner. Not everyone on that side agreed with this result which was not at all clear, and in September they held an assembly where they fought with Alanes’ followers; these last then set off for Villa Fatima with a police escort. The few people present in the Market – it was at the weekend when there is minimal commercial movement – did not realize what their intentions were and they were able to enter directly and take over the building. The Minister of the Interior went to the Market and expressed his recognition of Alanes as president of ADEPCOCA, although one of the motives for holding a united election was that the government was supposedly ready to recognize the person who won it, leaving behind the parallel organizations. The ‘true coca growers’ reacted setting up their headquarters in the Hospital in Calle 10, whence they marched out every day towards the Market to be received with teargas by the police cordon that protected it. After a fortnight of violent clashes they finally discovered tactics which took advantage of their numerical superiority and on the 4th of October 2021 they ‘recovered’ the Market. That same day, Alanes was holding an assembly in the nearby Plaza del Maestro, but when he saw the river of thousands flooding towards the Market, he and the five hundred people who accompanied him abandoned the place without offering resistance. Once again commercial activity returned to normal, and at the beginning of 2022 the market in Qalajawira, as well as another which Alanes opened higher up in Urujara, ceased to function, although Alanes declared that he would open another in a rented ex high school beside the terminal where buses leave for Yungas, and was supported by a part of the coca retailers in Santa Cruz, although at the time of writing (March 2022) there is no sign of movement in the venue.
CONALPRODC itself has also entered the process of division, partly due to the actual faction fighting within the MAS, where some support their ex president Freddy Velasquez who is a proportional representative for the department of La Paz, and others favour Gladys Quispe, who is the member of parliament for Yungas, in addition to the eternal complaints about the ‘economic report’, that the ex leadership have not rendered accounts of the income – the same complaint with which they began their attack on ‘organic’ ADEPCOCA. Divisions also continue with greater or lesser vigour in some Federations and Regionals in the Yungas, and a rapid solution is not in view – unless the government leaves off once and for all recognizing, supporting and offering benefits of clientship (access to projects, posts for ex leaders of parallel organizations that line up with the government) organizations supported by a minority and often conditioned, either openly as when file holders had to go not only to CONALPRODC events but also to Evo’s official visits in Yungas on pain of being fined or suspended, or indirectly, as when the General Secretary of a community who wanted to ‘leave a public work’ for his people, saw it as opportune to cease to support mobilizations so as to achieve acceptance by municipal authorities.
Before Flores left office, in July 2021 she tried to hold an assembly in Coripata, which was blocked by the local population resulting in the death of a policeman, once again in a situation not at all clear, but sufficient to imprison the president of the Coripata Regional, Daynor Choque, who has to date not been brought to trial. There are other conjunctural factors, such as the recent fall in the price of coca,7 which for many is caused by overproduction due to the ‘authorization’ of zones of production over and above the legal demand, while others attribute it to the entry of Peruvian coca due to the scarce or null control carried out by the government on the frontier (in practice, the government is notoriously incapable of suppressing contraband of any type of merchandise, from tinned sardines to undocumented motor vehicles). During the pandemic the rationalization campaign was suspended in Yungas, but it 2022 it was announced that it would be reinitiated, which is likely to bring a new wave of conflicts.
I think this summary of events is sufficient to make it clear why the majority of Yungas coca growers oppose the policies on coca implemented by the MAS with and without Evo Morales. More than anything, they reject government interference in their organizations, which has provoked division on every level, even within families. While there are structural motives, such as the class separation of the file holders who then leant themselves to actions aimed at destabilizing the majority organizations, which explain how and on part of whom these fractures have emerged, it is certain that without government promotion they would not have reached open division.
The Chapare has never moved away from the MAS, and has received much greater benefits, from Senate seats for ex leaders of the sector to the lion’s part of all the funds for alternative development and others. A sole example: citrus production was promoted in the Chapare as one alternative to coca. The result has been that the yungueños have abandoned their orange groves because Chapare fruit has inundated the market, leaving coca as the only possibility to earn money. Seen from the Yungas, this is because the government has political and party aims – staying in power at any cost – linked to regional sympathies due to the trajectory of their principal leader, who according to some continues to direct policy from behind the throne. It was never a coca growers’ government, but rather a Chapare government and only conjuncturally of coca growers.
1 The new Constitution changed the country’s name to the Plurinational State of Bolivia.
2 A peasant organization from the Altiplano which is known for supporting the MAS.
3 A riot control vehicle which disperses demonstrators with fierce spouts of cold wáter, much more efficient in the freezing nights of La Paz.
4 Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu (National Council of Native Communities and Native Towns of Qullasuyu), an indianist organization which aims to replace the agrarian union or syndicate organization, seen as a European intrusion, with original authorities. Qullasuyu is the name of the quarter of the Inca empire which included what is now Bolivia.
5 Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (Sole Union Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia), the national organization which represents the agrarian syndicates or unions which are the grass roots organization of the majority of rural communities, one of the largest organizations in Bolivia and which includes great regional and ethnic diversity.
6 ‘Cato’ is a traditional measure of land which varies according to the region. In the Yungas it is 50 by 50 metres, or 2500 square metres, versus 40 by 40 metres, 1600 square metres, in the Chapare.
7 The price of coca fluctuates from week to week and even from day to day, as well as varying according to the quality of the leaves, but while in 2021 the farm gate price reached 35 to 40 Bolivianos per pound, in the early months of 2022 it has not overcome a maximum of 25 to 28 Bolivianos per pound (a dollar is equivalent to approximately 7 Bolivianos).