Human Rights Violations and Coca Eradication

Vol. 8, No. 4 (D), May 1996


This report is published by Human Rights Watch/Americas as part of Human Rights Watch’s special initiative to examine the impact on human rights internationally of counternarcotic programs and policies. We take no position on the merits of antidrug objectives. But those objectives—like all national and international goals—must be pursued within the framework of internationally recognized human rights.


In 1995, under strong pressure from the United States, the Bolivian government began an aggressive coca eradication effort that was strongly resisted by coca growers. Periods of negotiation alternated with outbursts of violence in the Chapare, the sub-tropical region in which thousands of poor farmers produce most of the Bolivian coca that is destined for the illegal cocaine market. In its efforts to quell their opposition to eradication and to meet its eradication goals, the Bolivian government has engaged in serious human rights abuses such as excessive use of force, arbitrary detention, and the suppression of peaceful demonstrations. The primary agents of this abuse are troops of the Mobil Rural Patrol Unit (Unidad Movil de Patrullaje Rural, UMOPAR), the rural antinarcotics police controlled by the Ministry of Government.

Recent initiatives by the Bolivian government—including the formation of a human rights office in the Chapare and reforms to anti-drug legislation—hold the promise of mitigating the abuses documented in this report, as does action by the United States Embassy in La Paz to provide name tags for anti-drug police agents who had previously operated anonymously. Nonetheless, these are but the first of several steps required by both governments to bring to an end these abuses.

In this report we document violations that include:

The misuse of firearms by antinarcotics police resulting in injury and death in some instances. M-16s and shotguns firing rubber pellets were utilized with insufficient care during operations to disperse hostile crowds. In some instances, the evidence indicates police agents may have fired their weapons directly at Chapare residents who were not armed with deadly weapons. Our research does not, however, indicate a pattern of deliberate unlawful use of lethal force by the police.

A continuation of the arbitrary and unlawful arrests previously documented by Human Rights Watch/Americas. In many cases, the Ministry of Government ordered these arrests. The arrests have taken various forms, including indiscriminate warrantless detentions of individuals against whom there were no reasonable grounds for suspecting criminal conduct; arrests intended to suppress peaceful and lawful political protest activity; and detention of coca growers’ union leaders to secure advantage in negotiations with them over government policy. The special drug prosecutors condoned the arrests, despite their obligation to protect individuals from illegal detention.

Tear gas was used carelessly, with insufficient precautions in residential areas to avoid exposing individuals, particularly children, to health hazards. At least one death, that of a six-month-old baby, has been attributed to exposure to tear gas. Chapare residents also alleged that tear gas was fired directly into their homes and at a clinic where people with serious injuries were receiving medical attention. Children and especially infants reportedly suffered severe trauma with respiratory sequelae from inhaling gas.

Official investigations into deaths in shooting incidents have been limited in scope, superficial and slipshod. They have relied primarily on statements by commanding police officers, while police and civilians who were eyewitnesses to the deaths have not been questioned. Our review of investigation records shows no serious progress towards obtaining the evidence necessary to ensure accountability.

More generally, our ongoing research supports the conclusion reached by the human rights commission of the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies in its August 1995 report, Police Actions and Deaths in the Chapare:

[B]loodshed and deaths are part of an increasingly serious picture of violent confrontation in which the police act with an unnecessary display of power, abuse and indiscriminate attacks against the civilian population in the Chapare. Police interdiction activities seem to be guided by the assumption that all Chapare residents are drug trafficking suspects and that therefore the UMOPAR’s activities are guided only by the criteria of efficiency without the slightest respect for legal and procedural norms. There are persistent and consistent complaints which indicate police actions are preceded by a sort of armed occupation of the area in question, in which the residents, by sole virtue of suspicions, are subjected to mistreatment, physical aggression, verbal violence, illegal searches of their homes, arbitrary confiscation and taking of their goods and money, not to mention the agitation, tension and fear to which children, women and the elderly are subjected. (Translation from the Spanish by Human Rights Watch/Americas)

Responsibility for these abuses falls largely on the Bolivian government. Minister of Government Carlos Sanchez Berzain has failed to use his authority to ensure compliance by the antinarcotics police with Bolivian law and international human rights standards and to insist on accountability for abuses. Ministry of Government officials have both ordered and condoned arbitrary arrests and have tried to suppress peaceful political protests.

The United States shares responsibility for these human rights violations. Bolivian drug policies are heavily shaped by U.S. government concerns and priorities. The United States funds, equips, and provides training to the Bolivian antinarcotics police and other agencies responsible for counternarcotics activities, including the special prosecutors responsible for pursuing drug offenses in the courts. U.S. Embassy officials are in constant communication with the minister of government and other officials about counternarcotic operations and closely follow antinarcotic police activities.

Unfortunately, the United States has failed to ensure that effective protection of human rights is a condition of U.S. counternarcotics support. In particular, the United States has failed to use its considerable influence to curtail abuses by the UMOPAR. Although embassy officials pay close attention to the few instances in which the police shoot Chapare residents, they demonstrate comparatively little concern about the more pervasive problems of arbitrary arrest, misuse of tear gas, physical abuse, and theft by the UMOPAR. The United States has failed to press for the establishment of effective investigation and disciplinary procedures that will ensure accountability for human rights abuses committed by the UMOPAR. U.S. officials have acknowledged to our researchers that the UMOPAR’s record of civilian deaths and injuries to some extent reflects the lack of adequate training and control.

Two recent initiatives by the Bolivian government that were spearheaded by the Ministry of Justice brighten the otherwise somber panorama of human rights protection for coca farmers in the Chapare. In particular, we are encouraged by the establishment in December 1995 of an official human rights office in the Chapare responsible to the Ministry of Justice. The precise role of the office has yet to be defined, and it is still underfunded and lacking basic equipment. But one of its proposed functions is the receipt, transmission, and monitoring of complaints by Chapare residents against the police. Such activity by the office could play an important role in increasing police accountability and protecting rights in the Chapare.

Another important effort by the Ministry of Justice was development of the recently enacted Law of Judicial Bond (Ley de Fianza Juratoria contra la retardacion de Justicia Penal). This statute eliminates some of the provisions of Law 1008, the country’s antidrug legislation, which flagrantly violated due process principles. For example, drug-offense defendants acquitted by trial courts or who have already served their sentences will no longer have to remain imprisoned pending the results of appeals to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, in contradiction to international human rights principles, the law still retains a blanket prohibition on pre-trial release for all drug offenders.

Another positive development, facilitated by the support of the U.S. Embassy in La Paz and through U.S. funding, is the name tags that members of UMOPAR are beginning to wear. The name tags end the anonymity of police agents and will enable residents of the Chapare to identify police who abuse them.



No social or political objective, including the elimination of narcotics, justifies disregard for human rights. We call on the Bolivian government to adhere to international human rights standards as it pursues its national drug policies. More specifically, we recommend:

Guidelines for searches and arrests. Clear rules governing the circumstances in which searches and arrests are permitted and the manner in which they are to be conducted, consistent with Bolivian law and international human rights treaties, should be developed for counternarcotics police and strictly enforced.

Police training. A review should be undertaken of the training UMOPAR and other police in the Chapare receive to ensure that they have the skills and experience needed to protect civilians from unnecessary, careless or excessive use of firearms and riot control agents.

Support for the Human Rights Office of the Ministry of Justice. The office should be given the financial, personnel, and logistical resources necessary to function effectively. It should establish an accessible and widely publicized system for receiving complaints from the public against members of the antinarcotics police, for transmitting them to police and prosecutors, and for monitoring actions taken with regard to them. The office’s staff should have unrestricted access to internal police and court documentation to enable them to fulfill these monitoring and reporting functions. Information about the complaints and the results of investigations and administrative or judicial proceedings should periodically be made public.

Reform of Law 1008. Additional reforms of Law 1008 should be enacted to permit judicial consideration, on a case-by-case basis, of pre-trial liberty for persons charged with violations of antinarcotics laws.

Reform of internal police investigation and disciplinary procedures. We repeat our recommendation for a full and independent investigation into the efficacy of existing procedures for deterring human rights violations during antinarcotics operations and for disciplining abusive antinarcotics agents. The investigation should produce public recommendations for reform. Among the reforms we urge are: 1) the establishment, in cooperation with the Human Rights Office, of adequate, accessible, and publicized complaints procedures; 2) the allocation of sufficient numbers of trained personnel, both within the UMOPAR and within the judicial police force, to investigate such complaints; 3) establishment and enforcement of guidelines for such investigations, including the requirement that every attempt be made to identify and interview police and civilian witnesses to incidents involving physical injury or death; and 4) public disclosure of the findings and results of such investigations.

Instructions to special drug prosecutors. The attorney general should instruct all special drug prosecutors to fulfill their responsibility to secure full respect for the Constitution and, specifically, to ensure that searches and arrests by antinarcotics police are consistent with Bolivian law and international human rights standards, and to order the release of all persons arbitrarily detained.

Provisions of record of confiscated property. When property is confiscated or impounded by the UMOPAR, the possessor or owner of the property should be given signed documentation of that fact along with instructions about how to reclaim his or her property. The confiscation should be registered at the UMOPAR command. The Human Rights Office should have unfettered access to such records to respond to civilian complaints of theft or arbitrary confiscation.

We also urge the U.S. government to ensure that it does not underwrite human rights violations through its counternarcotics assistance to Bolivia. It should use its influence and resources to strengthen the Bolivian government’s willingness and ability to protect fundamental rights, including by adopting the recommendations noted above.

In addition, the United States should:

Withhold weapons. The United States should not provide or fund the acquisition of arms and riot control agents for the UMOPAR until it is satisfied that the police have been trained to use them properly and that sufficient controls are established on their use; and

Condition funding. The United States should condition continued funding of the UMOPAR on the institution of adequately staffed, effective investigation and disciplinary systems; and on the promulgation and enforcement of rules for lawful searches and arrests.

We further recommend an expansion of the scope of the “certification” review the United States undertakes of counternarcotics progress in drug-producing nations to include the human rights implications of antidrug programs. The Clinton administration considers human rights to be a cornerstone of its foreign policy. But verbal assurances of the United States’ commitment to human rights will mean little if they are not backed up in practice. The United States must honestly consider the human rights dimensions of programs to suppress drug trafficking and take forceful steps to ensure that the protection of fundamental rights is paramount.













Human Rights Watch      May 1996      Vol. 8, No. 4 (D)

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