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Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Bolivia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1997
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Bolivia, 1 January 1997, available at: [accessed 18 December 2017]
Comments This report covers events of 1996
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Human Rights Developments

Human rights violations continued to accompany the enforcement of drug laws in Bolivia during 1996, though they appeared to diminish in frequency and seriousness. Most abuses occurred in the Chapare, the tropical lowland region where poor peasants cultivated much of Bolivia's illegal coca, from which cocaine is produced. Impunity for abuses by the police remained a serious problem, even as Bolivian officials promised to establish mechanisms to investigate and sanction such abuses. This section focuses on human rights abuses associated with Bolivian counter-narcotics programs in the Chapare.

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. As documented in Bolivia Under Pressure, published in May 1996 by Human Rights Watch/Americas, the Bolivian government engaged in serious human rights abuses in its efforts to quell farmers' opposition to eradication and meet its goals. Abuses included excessive use of force, arbitrary detention, and the suppression of peaceful demonstrations, most frequently by the Mobile Rural Patrol Unit (Unidad Móvil de Patrullaje Rural, UMOPAR), the anti-narcotics police force. The improper use of firearms caused serious injury and several deaths during crowd-control operations, and police used tear gas indiscriminately in residential areas, without sufficient precautions to avoid harm to residents. Indeed, in May, Col. Luis Caballero, the commander of UMOPAR, acknowledged frankly and for the first time that UMOPAR agents had been responsible for abuses during confrontations with growers.

In 1996, the government's anti-narcotics efforts were largely free of the violent confrontations between coca growers and police that had occurred previously. Local human rights groups reported no new fatalities during coca-eradication missions, but arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment, including beatings of persons arrested or under questioning by UMOPAR agents, continued. Massive detentions intended to stamp out legal demonstrations or arbitrarily round up suspects without arrest warrants occurred in December 1995 and January 1996. In December, for instance, police arrested hundreds of women coca producers during a peaceful march from Cochabamba to La Paz. The following month, in an effort to close down coca markets, they detained 145 people in the Chapare without arrest warrants.

Further reports of abuses were documented by the Chimore Human Rights Office (Oficina de Derechos Humanos de Chimore, ODHC), established in the Chapare region by the Ministry of Justice in December 1995 to investigate and report human rights violations. In memoranda addressed in June to the Subsecretary for Human Rights at the Ministry of Justice, the director of ODHC, Godofredo Reinicke Borda, M.D., reported the receipt of thirty-six complaints of human rights violations during the previous six months, including the beating or ill-treatment of suspects at the moment of arrest. For example, UMOPAR police detained Irineo García Acuña on February 27 in the province of Carrasco. On March 4, when García was examined by Dr. Reinicke, he was found to have a fractured rib and severe bruising, which Reinicke attributed to the police beating. The UMOPAR commander in the Chapare failed to reply to an ODHC request for information on the case, however, and the special anti-narcotics prosecutor did not act against the officer in charge of the police unit.

UMOPAR agents also arbitrarily detained thirty-five peasants following an attempted robbery in May, according to ODHC, and failed to refer the investigation to the National Police, as the law required. Three of those detained, Nicolás García Balderrama, Gualberto Acosta Sánchez, and Feliciano Sánchez García, had minor injuries that showed that undue force had been used. On May 9, two UMOPAR agents detained and beat a fifteen-year-old girl, Valeriana Condori, during a coca-eradication mission in Uncía. Dr. Reinicke, who examined the victim on May 23, found signs of bruising still present. In several other cases, ODHC complained that the anti-narcotics prosecutor had failed to do anything to investigate allegations referred to him or to prosecute officers allegedly responsible for abuses.

The Inter-Institutional Human Rights Commission (Comisión Interinstitucional de Derechos Humanos, CIDH), a monitoring group composed of representatives of eight nongovernmental organizations, reported in September that UMOPAR agents raided and searched homes illegally during a coca-eradication mission named Operation Hurricane (Operación Huracán), and that UMOPAR agents failed to wear identification tabs on their uniforms. UMOPAR introduced the tabs in late 1995, as urged by local activists and in the Human Rights Watch/Americas report Bolivia: Human Rights Violations and the War on Drugs.

ODHC's efforts notwithstanding, impunity for abuses continued. Indeed, it appeared that ODHC's reports failed to prompt appropriate action by either the UMOPAR or narcotics prosecutors. Not only did the UMOPAR and the narcotics prosecutors fail to investigate charges, but in a meeting with Human Rights Watch/Americas in August, Minister of Government Carlos Sánchez Berzaín professed ignorance of cases of human rights violations committed in the context of anti-drug operations, although Human Rights Watch/Americas had been informed that the Ministry of Justice had already referred the cases to his ministry.

Bolivia's anti-narcotics efforts took place within the framework of Law 1008, which defined penalties for the illegal cultivation of coca and the processing and trafficking of cocaine, and which created special judicial procedures and institutions for drug cases. In our 1995 report, Human Rights Watch/Americas expressed concern that people charged under Law 1008 were not allowed, under any circumstances, to be granted bail and were forced to await trial in prison. In addition, those acquitted by the first-instance court had to remain in custody. On February 2, 1996, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada signed into law a measure designed to correct the more flagrant due process violations stemming from the law. The reform ensured that those acquitted could await review of their cases on bail, and that review by the higher court would be discretionary rather than mandatory. It also imposed a time limit of eighteen months for pre-trial detention, such that those held for longer without trial must be released. The reforms did not, however, affect Law 1008's blanket restriction on pre-trial release for all defendants accused of drug-related offenses. In meetings with Minister Sánchez Berzaín, Minister of Justice René Blattman, and Foreign Minister Antonio Araníbar Quiroga, Human Rights Watch/Americas recognized the advances but pushed for further needed reforms.

The Right to Monitor

We did not receive any reports that the government prevented or restricted human rights organizations from conducting their investigations and reporting their findings during 1996.

The Role of the United States

While primary responsibility for human rights violations rested with the government of Bolivia, the U.S. government shared responsibility because it financed, trained, advised, and equipped the UMOPAR, as well as the special narcotics prosecutors and other Bolivian anti-narcotics institutions. Historically, the U.S. failed to make effective protection of human rights a condition of U.S. counternarcotics support. It had not used its considerable influence to curtail abuses by the UMOPAR, nor had it pressed for the establishment of effective internal investigative and disciplinary procedures to ensure accountability for such human rights abuses.

In a welcome development in August, the United States and Bolivia signed an agreement on U.S. assistance to Bolivian counternarcotics programs that included significant human rights conditions. Indeed, in that agreement, the U.S. made its financial support conditional upon "regular and measurable progress" toward the human rights goals established in the agreement. (See Special Initiatives section, on drugs and human rights.)

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