La Paz Coca Growers Displaced by Violent Groups: Interview

A right-wing minority faction of the coca growers association in the Yungas region of La Paz violently seized control of the official coca market in La Paz known as ADEPCOCA, on Monday. Their first move was to remove the indigenous wiphala flag.

The pro-MAS majority have been displaced from their headquarters after weeks of armed protests by the right-wing minority. We spoke to the former President of ADEPCOCA, Elena Flores. Flores is an Afro-Bolivian leader who was jailed by the Añez dictatorship.

Context

Bolivia has two legal coca-growing regions, the Trópico of Cochabamba, where Evo Morales comes from. The other is the Yungas region of La Paz. Both regions are bastions of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). This year, MAS candidates won every single mayoral race in both regions. 

In the Trópico, the opposition has no presence at all. However, in the Yungas region, there is a violent right-wing minority faction that held a rally for Fernando Camachoduring the 2019 coup and joined the failed election campaign of ex-dictator Jeanine Añez. On Monday, that minority faction seized control of the coca market in La Paz, known as ADEPCOCA, by force. The majority and minority factions have been fighting for control of the market for years due to the large revenues it brings in. 

The right-wing faction took full control under the Añez dictatorship and they banned the MAS-supporting campesinos from selling their produce, leading to a spike in poverty within the region. When the coup was defeated by the landslide electoral victory of Luis Arce, ADEPCOCA returned to the majority. Flores immediately called fresh elections which were to be organized by the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) to ensure transparency. The far-right minority refused to participate and instead chose to violently seize the building of ADEPCOCA, this follows months of armed violence by this group which includes the murder of a police officer in July. 

Below is our interview with Elena Flores on Tuesday, October 5th.

How did this conflict get out of hand? Why didn’t the right-wing faction accept your proposal for independently organized elections? 

Well, their leader Armin Lluta is a self-declared leader, he’s never been elected for any position within ADEPCOCA, he’s only ever tried to seize control undemocratically in a capricious manner. He’s been organizing the external financing for this faction. He was present at our initiatives to organize dialogue, but they didn’t want that to work. 

Clearly, there is a split within the Yungas. We have 17 regional branches within the real ADEPCOCA, and the Lluta group has created their own parallel-group within their own 17 branches. The bases want unity for the whole Yungas region, but Lluta wants the opposition to take control of the institution. Why? The Bolivian opposition has lost everything, they lost the elections last year, but if they can seize ADEPCOCA then they obtain an important base of social and economic power, our institution has 40,000 members who sell their coca through here. They want to neutralize this bastion of struggle and turn it into a base from which to attack the government. They claim that the government was getting involved in our internal affairs, but that’s false, all they’ve done is protect the building from violence.  

KN: Who are the violent protesters who’ve stolen ADEPCOCA? What were they doing last year during the dictatorship? 

The majority of them are people who’ve always been opposed to the MAS, but we fought hard last year to prove that we are the majority and in the 2020 elections the MAS won by a huge majority in the Yungas region. They lost the elections, but they didn’t give up, they began a misinformation campaign with the aim of seizing ADEPCOCA for a small handful of individuals. They think they can get ahead by trampling on others. 

We fought so hard last year to win back our institutions for the majority. I was jailed by Añez, MAS supporting coca growers were banned from selling their produce by this group who’ve now taken back power (of the market). They’ve assaulted us.. I remember how in 2019 the day before the coup, they went around looting the produce of MAS supporters on Calle 10. 

We didn’t do that to them, we always allowed everyone to sell coca without political discrimination. We have to reflect on how we got here, and hopefully, a new generation of leaders can emerge from the Yungas. 

KN: They also held a rally for Fernando Camacho and joined Añez’s failed election campaign.

Yes, when the people of the Yungas were suffering under the coup, this group was celebrating and rallying for Camacho. Their leader at the time, Franklin Gutierrez, now has to answer for his role in the coup, but now he’ll be coming back to ADEPCOCA surely. They don’t want the government involved in ADEPCOCA, but the government has every right, and responsibility, to supervise what goes on, in terms of eradicating illicit production and sales and other important things. Why don’t they want the government involved in that?

I’m sure they feel like victors today, they’ll want to once again use ADEPCOCA to launch a coup, but we won’t allow that. We recognize that we’ve been naive and complacent since we’re in government. We need to do an internal analysis about how to rebuild. We have elected representatives in Congress and at other levels, so those people need to now lead the way in helping to put the Yungas back on its feet.

KN: Every single Municipality in the Yungas region has an elected MAS mayor. Surely it will be possible to rebuild after this defeat?

It’s definitely possible, but we have to reevaluate things. After years in power, we grew complacent and many weren’t worried about the threats we faced. Our people are very innocent (naive) sometimes. Yesterday, all of our supporters were rallied and only had a bag of coca each, nothing to defend themselves with, and we got assaulted by the right-wing mobs that were armed to the teeth. 

Their group celebrates saying they’ve ‘seized’ ADEPCOCA, well no one seizes something that is rightfully one’s own, if you seize something that means it doesn’t belong to you. Seizing an institution in this violent manner is illegal and even they recognize it when they talk about ‘seizing’ the market. 

We’ve won every single mayoral race in the Yungas region, but those mayors haven’t wanted to get involved and have tried to work with all sides. That approach is coming from the government itself, but here are the results of that. This is the result of not being strong and defending ourselves, many comrades are disappointed at how we struggled for democracy against the coup, but now many authorities have been too cautious and haven’t supported us against the right in a strong enough way. 

Let’s see what happens. The last time these right-wing groups held power, they wielded it in a vengeful way to persecute us as the majority, hopefully, that won’t return. I’m certain that I won’t be able to sell my own produce again, they’ll ban me as revenge. Let’s see, ADEPCOCA is an incredibly important institution for the region so let’s hope it doesn’t fall into the abyss.