Ambush Leaves 2 Dead, 4 Hurt in Bolivia Coca Region

Reuters, 22 Oct. 2000

La Paz, Bolivia - Bolivia's government on Sunday blamed coca grower unions for the previous day's ambush that left two soldiers dead and four injured in the crop's central Chapare growing region.

The Andean country of eight people is fresh from weeks-long protests by coca producers against a government eradication campaign that resulted in 10 deaths and 165 injuries.

The official destruction of large swaths of the crop is part of an anti-drug push given that coca leaf is the base ingredient for the manufacture of cocaine.

Interior Minister Guillermo Fortun held coca producer leader Evo Morales responsible for the latest attack, which preceded the death of a police officer and the disappearance of four security force personnel and one of their wives.

Fortun accused Morales, a deputy, of ``shielding himself in his parliamentary immunity to make people disappear and attack with impunity those who are carrying out their duty.''

Morales retorted that the government should ``paralyze the forced eradication of coca fields and demilitarize the (Chapare) zone, or else confrontations will continue.''

After finishing their destruction of a portion of the crop on Saturday, six members of a military and police team were attacked in Chapare. Soldiers Mario Mercado Ochoa and Justo Antacagua Gutierrez died in the ambush, while the four remaining survivors were airlifted out by helicopter to the eastern city Santa Cruz to receive medical attention.

``Whoever defends coca leaf in such a manner is a narcotrafficker,'' said Fortun, adding that the hunt was still on for the five people who previously went missing.

Despite the latest attack Fortun said the government would honor its accord signed with coca producers on Oct. 13 that calls for alternative development programs. President Hugo Banzer is sticking to his goal of eradicating illegal coca leaf cultivation by the end of his term on Aug. 2, 2002.

Morales said coca farmers will give the government until Nov. 6 to comply with the inked agreement, pull its forces out of the growing zone and stop eradication of the crop. If union demands are not met roadblocks will be set up on the key highway leading from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz and marches and hunger strikes will take place, he said.

© 2000, Reuters