The Prisoner and the Presidents

Translated by Forrest Hylton

At the meeting in Monterrey, the president of the United States prepares to “squeeze” Latin American governments, perhaps much more so on political than on economic terrain. In an electoral year, the spectacle occupies politics. “Narcoterrorism” will be a recurrent theme. In this moment, one of the small pieces in this great game of pressures and simulations is in the Bolivian prison of Chonchocoro.

The Maximum Security Prison of Chonchocoro is more than 4,000 metres above sea level, on the Bolivian high plains, a half hour from El Alto. We’re on our way to visit three social movement prisoners.

We stop in El Alto to buy grilled meat to take with us. I look at the name of the place: “Taliban Grill.” Not unusual, because in El Alto, a dynamic Aymara city of 800,000 inhabitants, I already saw at least two minivans which had, on the rear windshield, Che Guevara on one side, Osama Bin Laden on the other, and the word “Love,” in English, in the middle. We also buy a kilo of coca leaves for the three prisoners. We’ll share it in conversation.

We get to Chonchocoro. We go through security. We go to the cells, or whatever they call them in Bolivia. In April 2003, the deposed president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada put two Bolivian coca growers there, Carmelo Peñaranda and Claudio Ramírez, both founding members of MAS (Movement Toward Socialism). Arrested with them in a commando operation at Claudio’s house in El Alto, with masked police and all the paraphernalia of globalized illegality, was Colombian peasant leader Francisco “Pacho” Cortés.

Of course the latter is the key to an operation that has the classic-and bumbling-aspect of a police frame-up. Pacho Cortés is Colombian, which is to say, “narcotrafficker,” and “terrorist,” and who knows what else. It’s always good to have a foreigner to confuse and paralyze the defense of detained nationals, suggesting “international conspiracy” on the part of outsiders whom local society does not know. I know the fable from my own experience.

When he was arrested, Pacho Cortés had only been in Bolivia for four days. He had been there before, to attend peasant congresses, as Cortés is a known leader and human rights defender of peasant communities in Colombia. This time, however, he was going to Bolivia in search of a place to bring his family, threatened by paramilitaries.

For the repressive policies against the coca growers’ movement, which had been intensifying after he took power in August 2002, for “Goni” (as they call the deposed president in Bolivia) it was good to have a Colombian peasant leader enclosed in Chonchocoro as an international item to show the US Embassy, the true directing center of the campaign to eradicate traditional coca plants.

As of February, Goni had already initiated his policy of responding to demands with massacres. More than thirty died in the police rebellion and the revolt against taxes on low-income salaries. Goni had been elected with twenty-one per cent of the vote, one per cent more than Evo Morales, but precisely for this reason he wanted to show how strong he was.

An “international narcoterrorist conspiracy” appeared as a good ingredient with which to set up the repressive scenario that was exacerbated last September and would end, on October 17, with the precipitous resignation and flight to Miami of Sánchez de Lozada.

The case of Pacho Cortés is, in this sense, scandalous. They accuse him of traveling to Bolivia with the intention of extending the Colombian ELN, thousands of kilometers away. According to the Bolivian police, in the house in which they found Cortés, they found a black-and-red ELN flag, a guerrilla manual, seventy bullets in bad shape, and wire and adhesive tape that could be used for home-made bombs.

Without worrying about the ridiculousness of the supposed “evidence,” they seem to have forgotten to plant more convincing elements, since each time political police carry out these types of detentions in these regions of the world, they claim to have found “flags” and “manuals”-they used to find books by Lenin-as if every time people got together to conspire, they took care to bring a subversive flag for the corresponding police photo.

The justice system did not accuse Cortés of any concrete criminal acts, but rather of having “intentions” to commit them. In any case, without a crime to pursue, standard practice would be to deport him to his country. But no: for evidently political reasons, they needed a Colombian peasant leader in Chonchocoro, where, indeed, there are real Colombian traffickers as well.

This is the story as they tell it. The reality, in contrast, is that various human rights organizations from Colombia, Belgium, France and other countries; José Bové, the French peasant leader; more than thirty peasant organizations of Via Campesina from various countries, among them Uncora, CIOAC, and CENPA of Mexico and the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) of Brazil; fifteen deputies of the European Parliament and deputies from France, India, Spain, Portugal, Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, among others, have demanded that they free Pacho Cortés and his compañeros, as have senators and human rights activists in Bolivia itself.

Goni was defeated and run out of Bolivia on October 17th, 2003. That day, Carlos Mesa assumed the presidency of a country undergoing financial meltdown, political crisis, and social conflict. Mixed in with this catastrophic legacy, Goni left Mesa the poisoned gift of the case of Francisco “Pacho” Cortés. In the week of his downfall, the by-then delirious Goni still had time to declare that the mass movement that demanded his resignation was directed by “narcosindicalists” and “narcoterrorists.”

Until now, President Carlos Mesa continues to carry the weight of this legacy. Why? Do pressures from the US Embassy to keep alive “narcoterrorist” ghosts? Does he believe that it works in his favor to prolong the case as a bargaining chip for the future? Or maybe three imprisoned peasant leaders, one Colombian and two Bolivian, do not mean anything for a regime overwhelmed by other problems?

No one can escape the symbolic significance of this case. It serves to strike at peasant leaders involved in international activity; to criminalize the social movement as “terrorist”; and to leave open the possibility of more arrests, which police attempted last December, but had to set eight coca-growing prisoners free twenty-four hours later.

The immediate freedom on Pacho Cortés and his compañeros, besides being an act of justice that cannot wait, would lift this stupid and foreign mortgage on the already complex relations between the government of La Paz and the social movements in Bolivia. A government that persists in keeping these types of social prisoners incarcerated might run the risk of becoming a political hostage of the case of the prisoners in Chonchocoro. What for?

Historian, journalist, and essayist, ADOLFO GILLY (b. Buenos Aires, 1928) has taught history on the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at UNAM since 1978, and he became a Mexican citizen in 1982. He has written numerous books, most recently El siglo del relámpago: Siete ensayos sobre el siglo XX (2002), Pasiones (2001), and Chiapas: La razón ardiente (1997). As a correspondent for Marcha (Montevideo), he lived in Bolivia from 1956-60, where he learned about politics from revolutionary tin miners. He returned to Bolivia in 1999 and again in December 2003.

This essay originally appeared in Spanish in La Jornada.