Human Rights Violations and the War on Drugs

Vol. 7, No. 8 (B), July 1995


This is the first report by a Human Rights Watch special project to examine the impact on human rights of counternarcotics policies and programs. We take no position on the merits of counternarcotics objectives. But those objectives—like all national and international goals—must be pursued within the framework of internationally recognized human rights.

I. Introduction and Summary

President Clinton, like his Republican predecessors, has made the Andean countries of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru a focus of his international counternarcotics strategy. Within this trio, Bolivia—second to Peru as a producer of coca leaf and to Colombia as a producer of refined cocaine—has been the largest recipient of U.S. counternarcotics aid. The impact of U.S. counternarcotics pressure on Bolivia cannot be overstated: Bolivia has passed laws, created institutions and adopted antinarcotics strategies shaped by U.S. concerns and dependent on U.S. funding. The United States funds and equips Bolivia’s special antinarcotics police, and has stationed a large contingent of Drug Enforcement Administration (dea) personnel within Bolivia to train and guide them. The United States also funds and provides technical assistance to all other Bolivian agencies involved in counternarcotics activities.

Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Robert Gelbard insists that U.S. “counternarcotics assistance can be a powerful force in advancing, rather than retarding, human rights objectives in the hemisphere...” In Bolivia, however, U.S. counternarcotics assistance has supported programs and policies deeply flawed by human rights abuses:

Under the country’s anti-drug law, Law 1008, Bolivians charged with drug offenses—no matter how minor—are imprisoned without the possibility of pre-trial release and must, if acquitted, remain in prison until the trial court’s decision is reviewed by the Supreme Court, a process that takes years. During that time, prisoners are held in appallingly overcrowded and miserable prisons.

In the Chapare, the rural area in which most of Bolivia’s coca is grown and cocaine base produced, the antinarcotics police run roughshod over the population, barging into homes in the middle of the night, searching people and possessions at will, manhandling and even beating residents, stealing their goods and money. Arbitrary arrests and detentions are routine.

A number of Bolivians detained on drug trafficking charges allege torture by Bolivian law enforcement personnel. They also allege DEA complicity with abusive interrogations. DEA personnel acknowledge that they do not intervene to stop abuse.

Impunity for abuses by the antinarcotics police is the norm. Even complaints of serious human rights violations, including torture, are rarely investigated. Charges of human rights abuse by DEA agents are left unanswered. A mantle of diplomatic immunity and agency secrecy impedes public investigation and accountability.

Bolivian and U.S. public officials make excuses for or attempt to justify human rights violations in the context of the drug war. Senior Bolivian officials concede that there are profound problems with Law 1008, but insist that the United States, which had encouraged the enactment of the law, would oppose reform. U.S. officials acknowledge that aspects of Law 1008 are inconsistent with principles of liberty and due process, but are concerned that any legislative reform of the offending legal provisions would be accompanied by efforts to weaken the law’s substantive framework, which undergirds Bolivia’s entire antinarcotics effort.

U.S. officials dismiss or downplay abuses by the U.S.-supported Bolivian counternarcotics forces. To some extent, this reflects a complacency rooted in a comparison of Bolivia’s recent human rights record with that of neighboring Andean countries. Bolivia has, since the demise of military rule in 1982, been largely free of serious political violence and human rights abuses; certainly it has been spared the widespread brutality (e.g., mass killings, disappearances) that has plagued Colombia and Peru. But the U.S. attitude also appears to reflect a determination not to be distracted from the principal goal of combatting drug trafficking, and a willingness to overlook human rights violations that arise in pursuit of that goal. When questioned by Human Rights Watch about abusive interrogations by the Bolivian police, a senior DEA official in Bolivia acknowledged the problem but said simply that “the Bolivians have their own way of doing business” and that it is “not our job to interfere.” U.S. officials are well aware of the reputation of the rural antinarcotics police, the UMOPAR, as “thieves and thugs,” but have failed to use U.S. leverage to press for adequate reform. U.S. efforts to improve the UMOPAR’s human rights record have consisted primarily of including a human rights component in the UMOPAR’s basic training; trying to ensure that “good men” are placed in senior positions; and engaging in ad hoc monitoring, necessarily limited to the more egregious cases.

Human Rights Watch believes the United States should pay more attention to the problem of abusive conduct by the antinarcotics police. We do not, however, discount the importance of U.S. efforts in other areas that bear on human rights. U.S. funding and technical assistance currently contribute to the strengthening of institutions that can buttress Bolivia’s adherence to the rule of law. The United States has provided technical assistance and funding to modernize and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Bolivian courts, which currently labor under anachronistic case management systems and antiquated legal procedures; to professionalize the investigative and intelligence-gathering capacities of the police; and to train prosecutors how to develop sound legal cases backed by solid evidence. In addition, the United States is providing technical assistance to help develop Bolivia’s newly created system of public defenders.

After more than a century of political instability, including twenty years of military rule ending in 1982, Bolivia has recently begun the difficult task of consolidating democratic rule. Promoting that effort is one of the principal U.S. foreign policy objectives for the country, one which, in the view of U.S. officials, is complemented by the goal of combatting drug trafficking. Indeed, in justifying to Congress its most recent International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs budget request for Bolivia, the State Department insisted that “neither a stronger democracy nor a stable growing economy is possible under the pervasive threats of drug related crime and violence, corruption, domestic drug abuse and environmental damage caused by illegal narcotics production and trafficking.”

There is no question that drug trafficking jeopardizes democracy and the rule of law in Bolivia, as elsewhere in Latin America. It subverts and corrupts the government, legislature, judiciary, police, military and other public institutions. But it is also true, as some U.S. and Bolivian officials recognize, that counternarcotics efforts that do not respect human rights can themselves subvert the broader objective of promoting democratic values.

Recent events in Bolivia underscore the dangers posed to democracy and respect for human rights by counternarcotics efforts—and the unfortunate role of the United States in exacerbating those dangers. On March 2, the United States informed Bolivia that it would cut off aid and oppose multilateral bank loans to Bolivia if the government did not immediately undertake certain counternarcotics efforts, including the eradication of 1,750 hectares of coca by June 30. This ultimatum, which prompted political furor in Bolivia, came at a time when the Bolivian government was already being sorely tested by other domestic political battles. On April 18, in the midst of escalating political tensions, the government declared a state of siege, suspended certain constitutional rights, and began to round up labor leaders who were prominent in the public opposition to government initiatives. Precise figures are not available, but estimates are that approximately 400 individuals were arrested; most were administratively detained and banished—without charges or access to judicial review—to public facilities including military barracks in remote areas of the country.

The government ostensibly imposed the state of siege to end increasingly violent demonstrations by teachers’ unions. But the government also used the suspension of constitutional rights to suppress opposition to its plans to carry out the anti-drug actions demanded by the United States. Among those arrested were leaders of the coca growers who have fought government eradication efforts. The clear intent of the government was to use their detention to exert pressure on the coca growers and their political allies in the context of the debate over how the government would respond to the U.S. ultimatum.

The state of siege illustrates, we believe, a broader pattern in Bolivia by which U.S. pressure to yield results in the war on drugs can subvert the rule of law. Pressed by the U.S.—under penalty of forfeiting crucial economic support—to combat coca cultivation, but lacking a strong domestic constituency in favor of such action, the Bolivian government has reacted by skirting its international obligation to protect the human rights of its people.

As of this writing, all of those detained under the state of siege have been released. The formal abrogation of liberties under the state of siege is due to end by mid-July, when the ninety-day period for emergency powers permitted by the Bolivian constitution expires.

In this report, Human Rights Watch evaluates the impact that counternarcotics policies have on human rights in Bolivia. We focus primarily on the effects of Law 1008 and on respect for human rights in the Chapare, the region that produces most of the Bolivian coca that is processed into cocaine.

The Bolivian government has, of course, primary responsibility for ensuring that its agents and laws comply with international human rights standards. But the U.S. government also has a responsibility to ensure that it does not facilitate or underwrite human rights violations. There are many reforms that would improve respect for human rights during Bolivian counternarcotics operations. Human Rights Watch believes the following are indispensable—and feasible—first steps:

Reform of Law 1008, in its terms and application. Law 1008 should be amended to: 1) permit pre-trial liberty for persons charged with violations of antinarcotics laws, subject as necessary to guarantees to assure appearance for trial; and 2) in particular, require the release of acquitted defendants during the period that their acquittals are being mandatorily appealed by the prosecution.

Guidelines for searches. Clear guidelines for determining the circumstances in which arrests and searches of persons and property are reasonable should be developed for counternarcotics personnel and strictly enforced.

Identification of law enforcement agents. Antinarcotics law enforcement personnel should be required to wear name tags so that citizens can identify them.

Review and reform of complaint and disciplinary procedures. A commission of civilians (including community leaders, human rights activists and defense lawyers), law enforcement officials and representatives of the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Attorney General, among others, should be created to investigate the efficacy of existing internal procedures for deterring human rights violations in antinarcotics operations and disciplining abusive antinarcotics agents. This panel should make public recommendations for reform. Among such reforms, we urge: 1) the establishment of adequate, accessible and widely publicized complaint procedures by which the government of Bolivia can receive complaints of abuses by antinarcotics law enforcement officials; 2) the allocation of sufficient numbers of trained personnel to investigate such complaints; and 3) the public disclosure of the findings and results of administrative investigations. We also recommend the development of a mechanism for citizen participation in the complaints review process.

Monitoring of disciplinary procedures. The Ministry of Justice or the Defensor del Pueblo (if created as authorized by the constitution) should be given ongoing oversight responsibility to ensure that the internal disciplinary mechanisms of counternarcotics personnel function properly.

Reporting on human rights cases. Periodic reports should be prepared on the status of cases of alleged abuse against civilians by antinarcotics law enforcement agents that are being handled by internal disciplinary procedures or that have been turned over to the courts. These reports should be made public and shared with the U.S. Embassy.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Bolivian government to adhere to international human rights standards as it pursues its national drug policies, and we urge the U.S. government to use its influence to strengthen the Bolivian government’s willingness and ability to do so. At the very least, the United States should insist that mechanisms be instituted to ensure the adequate investigation and prosecution of cases of abuse by the antinarcotics forces that it funds. It should also act vigorously—both in public and private—to seek the elimination of laws and procedures that trample fundamental rights, whatever their contribution to counternarcotics objectives.



I. Introduction and Summary

II. Background

III. U.S. Counternarcotics Strategies and Bolivian Institutions

IV. Criminal Prosecutions Under Law 1008

V. The UMOPAR and Human Rights in the Chapare

VI. Abuse Outside the Chapare

VII. Impunity

VIII. The Role of the United States

IX. Conclusion



Human Rights Watch      July 1995      Vol. 7, No. 8 (B)

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