Evangelical Christians in Bolivia Caught in Local Coca War

Wednesday, November 15, 2000

Tensions Remain High as Church Leaders Search for Peaceful Resolution

by David Miller

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (Compass) -- The violent October protests that rocked Bolivia, causing 12 deaths, scores of injuries and millions of dollars in damages, embodied one more local clash in the international drug war. The conflict has pitted the government, which is implementing a plan to eradicate the coca plant, the raw material from which cocaine is produced, against peasant farmers from the tropical Chapare region, where 90 percent of the country's illicit coca crop is grown.

Tragically, the controversy has enveloped hundreds of evangelical believers. During the protest, Christians manned road blocks and clashed with army units, apparently in support of the "right" to grow coca. In many cases, however, the Christians joined the pro-coca movement against their will. In fact, evidence suggests that a basic human right -- freedom of conscience -- has become a casualty of this local drug war.

The plight of the Yura tribe, who have lived in Chapare for generations, shows how this happens. First introduced to the gospel in the 1950s by missionaries of the New Tribes Mission, the Yuras today have nine local churches and a bilingual (Yura-Spanish) Christian school. A few Yuras grow coca, but the majority of the tribe -- and nearly all the believing Christians -- avoid the leaf in favor of bananas and rice.

Saturnino Temo, 42, pastor of the National Evangelical Church in Puerto Cochabamba, explained the reasons why.

"As we look at it, the plant itself is not evil. However, the ways mankind has discovered to misuse it are evil. It is not something that benefits humanity, so for me it is not right (to grow coca). As a son of God, I'm here to bring people the message of life, not death."

Despite Pastor Temo's views, several men in his church lent support to the pro-coca cause. They had no choice. In early October, the Chimore Homesteaders Federation, a local farm union that organized highway blockades to protest coca eradication, sent the Yura an ultimatum: join our blockades, or we will cut the road from Puerto Cochabamba to Sinahota. The 10 kilometer stretch is the only route between the Yura and the markets where they sell their banana and rice crops. Destruction of the vital link would create hardship for the tribe.

"Some of the brothers decided they had to comply," Temo said. "They went and joined the blockades for two or three days so that the protestors would not destroy the bridge on our road, as they were threatening to do."

Farm unions also levied fines on members (reportedly between $10 and $30 dollars per day, equivalent to a week's income in some areas), in order to coerce them to join the barricades. As violence at the road blocks escalated, many Christians found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Such was the case of an elder from the Church of God in Nuevo Tacopaya. The local farm union ordered him to a barricade at Cruce Castillo. When an army unit came to clear the road, shooting erupted and the man received a bullet in the shoulder as he fled the scene.

Violence that claimed the life of another Chapare farmer in June graphically demonstrates the dilemma Bolivian Christians face in the coca war. Originally from the highland village of Pocona, the man moved to the Chapare region five years ago and began to grow coca. According to family members from the National Evangelical Church in his hometown, he eventually felt God wanted him to destroy his coca plants, which he did.

His neighbors, however, did not believe his change of heart was due to religious conviction and accused the man of spying for the drug police. On June 18, unknown assailants attacked and killed him with machetes. To date, no arrests have been made in connection with the murder.

Evangelical leaders are working to ease tensions brought on by the coca controversy. The task requires discretion as well as conviction, especially when dealing with indigenous farm unions.

Mrs. Albertina Colque Iriarte, news director for the Quechua-language radio station "Mosoj Chaski," said that on several occasions, protest organizers requested she read public service announcements over the air calling on Chapare farmers to erect road blocks. In order not to antagonize union leaders, she complied. In the interests of peacemaking, however, Iriarte deleted from the announcements appeals to farmers to bring their guns with them to the barricades.

"In our culture, it does no good to say 'you are doing wrong' to someone's face," she explained. "Instead I asked them to reflect on the situation. 'If you go to the blockades,' I said, 'be careful not to destroy our roads.' It hurts us to see this, because it does enormous damage to the farmers themselves."

Peacemaking efforts are desperately needed at the moment. On October 15, pro-coca forces called a temporary halt to protests. Army troops dismantled road blocks and inter-city traffic began moving again after nearly three weeks of paralysis. However, tensions in the country remain high. Farm union organizers, who are known to receive funding from Libya, Colombia drug cartels and other foreign sources, have vowed to fight on until the government abolishes the coca eradication program.

Bolivian authorities, on the other hand, remain committed to "zero coca" production in the Chapare region. During the last week in October, President Hugo Banzer Suarez deployed an elite, anti-terrorist army unit in the Chapare region to enforce eradication. Unless the standoff is resolved, this particular skirmish in the international drug war may well claim more victims among Christian believers.

Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.