The Frontlines of the War on Drugs

Click here  to view a slide show of scenes from the Red Zone.

Rafael Ugarte's daughters and nieces in their home
Rafael Ugarte’s daughters and nieces in their home

CHAPARE, BOLIVIA—“Villa 14 de Septiembre? I can’t take you there. That’s in the Red Zone. It’s way too dangerous for a gringa like you,” said Jorge, chuckling at my naive suggestion.

The Red Zone. The name conjures a hotbed of terrorist activity. Images of ruthless narco-traffickers, clandestine cocaine-production labs, and bloodthirsty FARC-style guerrilla insurgents came to mind. My curiosity was piqued.

The next day, Michael Marroquin and I bounce along a river rock road that cuts through the brush of the Red Zone in his white flatbed Ford pickup. On this side of the police checkpoint that regulates all access to the Red Zone lies a great swath of jungle that is home to 40,000 small-holding peasants, among the worst-off in Bolivia, the poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti. An area roughly the size of Rhode Island in the northwest corner of Chapare, the Red Zone produced over 90 percent of all illegal coca grown in Bolivia during the 1980s and 1990s, the heyday of the Bolivian cocaine industry.

I now understand Jorge’s reluctance to bring me here.  As a project manager for Development Alternatives International, a U.S. government contractor, he knows that there is little to show for the more than $200 million of U.S. taxpayers’ money that has poured into development projects in Chapare in the wake of the U.S.-funded coca-eradication campaigns. * Funneled through the U.S. Agency for International Development to various contractors, the money was meant to help coca growers get back on their feet after they switch to legitimate crops. Together, coca eradication and alternative crops were supposed to stanch the flow of cocaine from this poor Andean country to the United States. But a trip through the Red Zone reveals the unintended consequences of a policy that has only further impoverished Chapare farmers.

My guide, Michael, a gregarious Texan who is as gringo as it gets, threw down roots in the Red Zone five years ago to start a foundation, Angels of Hope, that combats poverty in four Red Zone communities. “They really have taken out about 70 percent of all the coca in this area,” he drawls. “Everybody’s startin’ to starve to death. We have 12 cases of leprosy that we know of.” As we visit the homes of his neighbors, spread through miles of jungle, I slowly gain a sense of the predicament of their lives.

“We are really screwed here,” Rafael Ugarte, who has lived in the Red Zone for 12 years, confesses as we sit at the rickety table in his open-air kitchen. Rafael and his brother live together with their wives and children in this one-room shack that looks like it could provide no more shelter than a tree house. “Before, a hundred oranges would fetch 8 to 10 Bolivianos (about $1.15), at market. Now, I can only get 2 or 3 Bolivianos (less than 40 cents) for the same number of oranges,” he says as eight little girls, his daughters and nieces, look on coyly and giggle.

Rafael’s neighbor, Betty Rodriguez, bemoans the low price of bananas that her husband and sons harvest on their small plot of land. A man comes by in a truck every week to buy stacks of 720 bananas for 15 Bolivianos—about $2. This year’s unusually severe rains flooded the nearby river, leaving her banana trees standing in several feet of water and rendering the fruit dry and tasteless. “It’s useless. It can’t be sold,” she says. Many of her trees will take two years to recover. A levee built along the river would provide a solution for this small community. Too poor to undertake the project themselves, they’ve asked USAID for help, but to no avail. “I’ve told them many times, but they don’t understand,” complains German Serra, the head of the neighborhood organization.

These conversations echo the widespread perception in the Red Zone that USAID’s emphasis on planting alternative crops—mostly bananas, pineapples, hearts of palm, peppers, and passion fruit—has done nothing but produce a huge glut on the market for these fruits. The double whammy of coca eradication and abysmal prices for alternative crops has ravaged farmers’ incomes. Moreover, few residents have seen concrete benefits from the millions that have poured into the region. Money often flows to senseless projects when more urgent problems, such as flooding, go unattended. For instance, USAID brought electricity to several communities in the Red Zone, but most families can’t even afford to wire their houses, let alone pay the monthly electricity bill.

As Michael sees it, USAID has also failed here because they haven’t gotten the basics down. “Let me ask you something,” he demands in his typical confrontational style, “Do you want to buy oranges from someone who doesn’t know what toilet paper is? Heellooo … hepatitis!” While an army of highly paid development technicians planted banana trees, the basic medical and nutritional needs of the people went unmet. In the Red Zone, malnutrition is plainly visible in the swollen bellies of toddlers and the blackened tooth rot of teenagers. Adults as young as 20 have lost their front teeth.

Bolivian soldiers in Chapare
Bolivian soldiers in Chapare

Trucks filled with bananas or Bolivian soldiers—whose job it is to enforce the ban on coca—barrel down the road. A U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency helicopter flies overhead, no doubt snapping pictures of the brush. The only landmarks we encounter are primitive shacks built on stilts 2 or 3 meters off the ground, meant to guard against Chapare’s poisonous snakes. These hovels, slapped together with sticks and wooden planks, provide little shelter from the sheets of rain that fall during the tropical storm season.

Making matters worse, to discourage a revival of coca production in the Red Zone, the government has decreed that all road access to the area must funnel through one police checkpoint. As a result, there’s no tourism, no investment. Commerce with the outside is problematic when only a tiny fraction of farmers own cars. To sell their produce, they rely on large trucks to swing by their plots of land. Those who live deep in the jungle are out of luck. They must drag their fruit along dirt paths to the road. No wonder the featherweight coca leaf is a more popular crop than the pineapple.

Cut off from the outside, the residents of the Red Zone are not only inconvenienced but also stigmatized.  Passengers in trucks and buses wait in lines to exit the Zone as police search them and dogs sniff them for drugs. “Because we live in the Red Zone, the government thinks we’re all narco-traffickers,” says Rafael. “They send us teachers with just high-school degrees for our schools.”

Father Gregorio De Marchi, a Franciscan priest who has worked in the tiny community of Chipiriri in the Red Zone for 28 years, insists that the coca growers are poor farmers trying to survive. “I was posted in Colombia before. There I saw wealth and big houses. But, here you have poverty,” he tells me as we walk through the parish orchard. “Where is the narco-trafficking?”

Back in the pickup with Michael, we spot a peasant woman along the road carrying her baby, swaddled in a brightly colored blanket, on her back, her other children trailing behind. Who knows where they are headed. The few villages that crop up out of the thick vegetation are several hours’ walk away.

Correction, Feb. 5, 2004: This article originally said that more than $100 million of U.S. taxpayers’ money goes to development projects in Chapare each year. This was an overstatement. (Return to the corrected sentence.)