There’s no funeral procession this time. The mourners have taken a bus that rolls into the canopy from Chimoré to Puente Roto, and from there to San Pablo and central San Andrés. The early morning is sprinkled with showers, but, like always, the sun in el trópico comes back to pound the steam off the puddles and cake the soil dry.
They have built these proud roads like a network, a hand that reaches out to touch the limits of the forest. They have stretched them year by year, militantly, as was the late Casimiro Huanca’s wish. He had dreamed of owning a car to drive from his home in Mariposas to his chaco—his garden—by the Río Carmen, and clear in less than an hour what had to take him over four to walk, burdened with a huge pink burlap bag full of coca leaves.
Huanca commanded one of Bolivia’s six coca-grower unions. Rising to power on the wave of a drought migration from the western provinces in the late 1980s, he had led his fellow miners and campesinos through the fertile jungles of Chapare, organizing and harnessing their rigor to the promise of the coca plant.
As the mourners arrive in San Andrés, the sun clocks back out of the clouds to heat up their sixty shoulders. Three days ago was Huanca’s funeral, today is the lavatorio, the washing. At ten they start walking a narrow chute down to Río Carmen, and a half hour later they will stop fifty yards short of the banks and wait next to a one-story wooden shack.
Huanca’s family has mounted a small stage by the river where the mourners can come to wash the clothes of the deceased, a mark of tradition in this part of Bolivia. His only brother, Rufino, is here. His sons Agustín, the oldest; René; and Franolic are here too, with their mother, Huanca’s wife, Sebastiana Barco—frail, dressed in black. Barco means ship in Spanish, and one can’t help but think of the infinite echoes of such a name in a landlocked place like this.
They all take turns soaking the light-blue t-shirt in the river, the blue cap, the lead-colored pants encrusted in blood from the two shots Huanca took in the groin before dying at three in the afternoon on December 6, 2001. Blood doesn’t clean easy, but the guests keep walking back and forth between the house and the riverbank, chewing coca leaves, mostly silent, sometimes talking about Huanca, sometimes about the war that looms. At four, when the fire roars in the pit, Sebastiana sends the clothes into the flames to be finally cleansed.
Huanca was fifty-five when he was murdered under obscure circumstances. His assassination was the first link in a chain of events that put an end to the war on drugs in Bolivia and paved the way for the rise of now-president Evo Morales. In 2006, Morales became the first indigenous leader of this nation since 1572, the fateful year when Francisco Alvarez Toledo, viceroy of Peru, ordered the execution of the last Inca emperor, Túpac Amaru.
Evo Morales opens his arms against the gray sky, his white short-sleeved shirt spotless dry after the rain. The central stage at the Félix Capriles Stadium in Cochabamba is crammed with cream, orange, and green balloons and rocked by a silence ten thousand strong. Its backdrop, a giant poster that reads “Sí. Con Evo Tenemos Futuro” [Yes. With Evo we have a future] flutters in the wind that’s now coming down from the mountains. The slogan prompts attendants to vote yes in the February 2016 plebiscite which, two months from now, will decide whether Morales will run for president for a fourth consecutive term or not.
Morales spits his lines fiercely today. His government has been in damage control for almost a year, since a report from the Bolivian Department of Internal Affairs revealed that almost ten million dollars destined for development programs through the Indigenous Fund—a pot managed by union leader Nemesia Achacollo—couldn’t be accounted for. Whenever Morales preaches from his pulpit, only silence stares back from the crowd.
On the stage, sitting in a row behind him while he speaks, is a thin spread of politicians and unmistakable influence peddlers: his vice president, Alvaro García Linera, and the former TV journalist Claudia Fernández Valdivia, whom Linera married in the ancient city of Tiahuanaco in 2012; David Choquehuanca, the foreign minister, dressed in constant black, who wasn’t expected in Cochabamba that day but was immediately summoned to the main stage when Morales spotted him walking through the crowd, hauling a small backpack. At the end of the line , Iván Canelas, the governor of Cochabamba. A gray-haired, deferential former journalist turned unlikely politician, he seems doomed to the smiling and the tricky diplomacy.
Canelas had agreed to talk with me a few days earlier. I’d been hanging around Evo rallies, hoping to land an impromptu interview (the regular channels had been closed off to me). The governor, a pal of Evo’s and at his side throughout the campaign in the area, must have noticed my doggedness. As a soccer match between the presidential squad and the locals kicked off—a routine finale to any Evo rally—we were escorted by two bodyguards in jeans and earpieces to the back of one of the gray presidential SUVs for a chat.
I was carrying an autobiography of Evo that Canelas had ghostwritten. I’d kept it as a possible icebreaker with Morales, but now I pulled it out to thank the author. All four doors of the car hung open. Canelas’s short-sleeved periwinkle shirt flapped in the breeze as he braced his right arm against the headrest of the front seat. Straight for a few minutes, his posture soon softened under the afternoon heat. With the stadium roaring in the back, we leaned closer to each other to talk.
Whether it was out of stupor and frustration, accumulated in the hours I’d spent chasing Morales, or a last attempt to find a living echo behind that constant wall of Andean bureaucracy, I found myself telling Canelas how I had first been to Bolivia sixteen years ago, a rookie reporter on a Pulitzer fund, determined to cover the early resistance of the cocaleros. How I’d managed to speak with then-Congressman Evo Morales while he was in hiding, accused of terrorism by his own government as he campaigned for presidency from the jungle.
Canelas remembered this well. In the background of 9/11, few people in the international media were interested in Bolivia. And no one expected the cocaleros to rise to power here. I believe I got to talk with Morales because, at the time, he needed the exposure as much as I needed the story. But there was one subject he then refused to discuss—the assassination of a cocalero leader that had taken place just weeks before our meeting.
I’m back to finish that interview, I told Canelas. The questions surrounding the man’s death have hung over me for years. I was hoping that, with the passage of time, the president would be able to speak about Casimiro Huanca with me. Would the governor be able to relay my message to the president?
The name gave Canelas visible pause. As he looked at me in silence behind the silver-framed glasses, his pupils started to dilate. He snatched the book from me and split it open to the middle.
“I was here,” he said, pointing to a photo. His voice had dropped an octave, to almost a rasp. “I carried him to the van that took him to the first-aid outpost.”
Fifteen years had passed since the day that picture was taken, but as he replayed the scene minute by minute, it was clear that the circumstances were still as vibrant in his mind as they were in mine. Huanca’s death had entangled our roots.
After we left the car and returned to the stadium, Canelas approached me with a name: Franolic. Casimiro Huanca’s youngest son.
I had to talk to him.
In certain stories, a deviation from the natural course of events creates a shift in perspective. Journalists, however, rarely stick around long enough to explore this “detour,” due to the constraints placed on reporting by both time and resources. But the emotional link that had locked me to this story for more than sixteen years made it impossible for me not to reconsider what I thought I knew. So when my long-term approach brought about this new direction, foreground and background were suddenly reversed, and talking to Evo became far less relevant than understanding the system of supporters, men and women, who make leaders like Morales possible in Bolivia.
A few days later, as a brass band plays at the Félix Capriles stadium, red and white uniforms streaming with sweat under the vertical sun of Cochabamba, I first hear Franolic Huanca’s voice on the phone, a thin thread filtering from beyond a wall of white coaxial static and the muffled blare of Morales’s voice leaching out of the back cones of the speakers.
I walk behind the stage, looking for a place where I can hear better. A back entrance leads to a web of internal corridors. The staircases are chained off behind iron gates, and the deeper I go, the sharper the reek of the human urine that’s creeping into my nostrils, strong enough to make me heave.
On the other end of the line, I hear Huanca. I try not to breathe by focusing on the two-color walls of the corridor, white on top, burgundy below, scratched and nicked by the transit of multitudes. At first, I cannot say whether Huanca can even hear me, because every time I ask a question, he responds with an inordinately long pause. “Are you still there?” I keep repeating. But when I do hear him, the experience takes me back to his father. In a remote part of my mind, the scene is playing out as if I were talking to a ghost.
“I will see you tomorrow,” he says. He’ll be driving to the ampliado—a town meeting—at Chapisirca, a small shepherd’s hamlet embedded in the Tunari National Park on the high plateau. I can come along.
The next day, I arrive in Plaza Busch a few minutes early and sit on a park bench. I’m waiting to catch a ride with Franolic Huanca’s team before we pick him up at his home on the outskirts of town. Across from me stands the headquarters of the Seis Federaciones, the seat of the coca-grower unions in Cochabamba, and as I look at it, the pit of my stomach twitches.
I think I know this place.
Sheltered behind a nest of air cables, the building has gold-tinted windows where there used to be only blind openings. Its balconies have been painted in pastel blue with some geometrical Incan guards in white, but the construction is still flanked by an empty lot on the left and the Los Angeles restaurant, a feeder of a certain ambition, on the right.
This isn’t just a coincidence. The once-invisible patterns are coming to the fore. The true halls of power in Bolivia are here—they have always been here, and not in the Palacio de Gobierno in La Paz.
It was in this building, fifteen years ago, that I interviewed Morales for the first time.
I had arrived at Plaza Busch at 3:30 a.m., thirty minutes early, and stood in front of the metal gates.
There was no bell, so I clapped my hands. The sound bounced back, expanding off the concrete walls. In the window of the second floor rose a bare-breasted woman—olive skin, big arms, thick black hair in a braid. She was holding a sleeping baby in a white blanket.
“I’m looking for Evo!” I hissed, in a whisper, trying not to wake the baby.
“He is not here,” she yelled back, glinting the golden caps of her teeth.
“I’m meeting him at four…” I said, as the baby started to whimper.
“He is not here. Come back in a half hour.” She ended our conversation by pressing the child against her left breast and kneeling down and out of sight.
As I walked back to the bench in the park to wait, I saw a French reporter whom I’d met the day before. She worked for Le Monde and was also here to interview Morales. We exchanged some pleasantries and a few notes.
Evo Morales got his start as a young coca farmer in Chapare, but only a few years after joining the union as its sports secretary, he rose to the leadership of the six federations, one of which was commanded by Casimiro Huanca. In the ’90s, Morales spearheaded the protests against forced eradication of coca in el trópico, pushed by the Bolivian government and the United States. By 2002, the coca union movement had crystalized into a strong political block that implanted Morales and seven other cocalero representatives in the House. Morales commanded this coalition until early 2002, when he was banned from Congress, accused by the Executive, the American embassy in La Paz, and the DEA of supporting terrorism and drug trafficking. But Morales’s campaigning against the Bolivian government continued as he hid in the jungles of Cochabamba, denouncing the Executive’s dealings with the US, American corporations, the local white elites, and the DEA. By 2002, the six federations were already starting to lay down the structure that would eventually propel him to the presidency of Bolivia.
The headquarters of the Seis Federaciones, the six federations of coca growers in the Cochabamba tropic, was already a hive of union power in Bolivia. But to me, up until that moment, it was still just the stipulated meeting point.
At 4:00 a.m., when it was time to go, my French colleague and I nodded at each other and headed into the building .
There were several people past the metal doors. It was dawn but I could barely see the ground along the hallway until a door opened to our right. The room had no light, or light bulbs for that matter, but I could make out the silhouette of a short man who asked us to follow him through a honeycomb of rooms and hallways until we reached an ample staircase.
The higher we climbed, the clearer the shapes became: men and women reclining along the walls, some sitting with their backs against a door, or on a chair, some leaning against the railing, many stretched on the ground, most of them asleep. As we approached the top floor, shafts of silver morning light began to pour in from the street. It was only then that I noticed the swarms of amputees, the bandages, the blood, the stretchers, the crutches; dozens, maybe hundreds of wounded cocaleros who were there to recover from clashes with the police and military groups in the jungle. They were tended to and sheltered by the union, which also gave a little money to the families of the dead.
On the top floor, a door opened to a room with a desk and three chairs. My French colleague walked in first. As I followed, I felt a sting on my back, a sharp tap with enough push to propel someone two steps forward. It hit me on the back of the ribcage, right in the intercostal muscles. “This is what prodded cows feel like,” I thought: a cold, sharp tap and then the unfurling of chills into the body; the slow spread of a possibility, the direct neurochemical reaction to what could have been a physical presence, but was—up until that point—only thrust and sheer imminence.
When I turned, I saw two men with automatic rifles. Morales was about to make an entrance, and they were part of his security team. One of them asked us to sit down and wait, and moments later Morales walked in.
He was shorter than I expected. He shook our hands but avoided our eyes. He looked tense and rushed. Backlit, his large jaw and a dense crown of black hair made his head look out of scale against his narrow body. It was the first time I saw him in person. Perhaps due to his build, or my mental state, my mind drifted to the supernatural theories that link the Inca of Nazca and Cuzco to certain forms of extraterrestrial life.
The interview lasted two hours, during which Morales answered our questions directly while the two men with guns stood behind us. The tone was cordial, but when I brought up the assassination of Casimiro Huanca, Morales redirected the topic to a general plot, which, orchestrated by a group of military officials, was geared toward the killing of all the union leaders in Chapare, including, he emphasized, himself.
The union kept Morales protected, constantly on the move, and closely shielded by the policía sindical—the union police—a compact group of de facto bodyguards, worker bees who escorted him around, assault rifles in hand, and sometimes even tried his food to make sure it was safe for eating. To finally get to see him that day, I had been screened several times by high-ranking union leaders in a process that lasted months. One of these cadres—the final one—would have been Casimiro Huanca.
At that point, I had one question left to ask, the hardest of my career, then and since. Talking with Huanca on the phone, and arranging a meeting with him on what turned out to be the day of his assassination, had left me shaken. Was there a connection between our meeting and his murder? I asked Morales, releasing a thorn that had been lodged in my mind for weeks. Did I have anything to do with Huanca’s death?
But Morales, the one person whom I believed could have given me a straight answer, wouldn’t. He simply looked back at me with shadow eyes, as if the answer was above his pay grade, something he didn’t have the authority to discuss, or the reach to comprehend.
Standing up abruptly, he shook our hands and was pulled away by a cloud of cocaleros, both men and women. We followed him downstairs as closely as we could and watched him get shoved into the back of a green SUV, which drove a few yards and turned the corner to disappear.
You have to understand, Cochabamba was different in those days. It was like America before the Pequot War, Mexico before Zapata, South Africa before Mandela. It was quiet and, at the same time, the most fertile terrain in the world for a massive civil war.
Bolivia was flooded with money geared to fully eradicating coca in the tropical area of Chapare at a rate of more than one hundred million dollars a year, while replacing it with alternative crops, close to $80 million worth in annual investments.
But coca is part of the Bolivian national identity. Tucked in its dry form between the gum and the cheek, and absorbed over hours at a time, like tobacco, through the saliva, it helps workers stimulate alertness, suppress hunger, and stave off altitude sickness. It accompanies every kind of social gathering. It is so embedded in Bolivian culture that the alternative development program devised by the United States was doomed to failure, Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, claims.
Before 1988, growing coca was legal throughout Bolivia. But Law 1008—allegedly crafted by American experts, and heavily pushed by Ronald Reagan—banned the activity almost completely, not because of the way it was used locally, but because of how its byproduct, cocaine, was consumed in the United States. After the law passed, Bolivian prisons began to overflow with coca farmers and poor peasants, and by 1992, the penal population in the country had risen from a few hundred to 8,500.
“People were imprisoned for carrying toilet paper or cans of kerosene into Chapare, [both used in the production of base paste for cocaine, but which are also] staples in most households in el trópico,” Godofredo Reinicke, a former People’s Defender in Chapare, told me.
So, for the farmers and the cocaleros in the jungles of Chapare, who were forced to abandon their livelihoods by a law passed in the city, pushed off their land by the military, and severed from a sacred crop, the most valuable they could produce, the war on drugs in Bolivia was rapidly becoming synonymous with class and religious warfare.
The alternative crops, the only other options to coca production in Chapare, were five products: heart of palm, pineapple, banana, passion fruit, and pepper, all systematically banned from entering the United States under the guise of minute USDA import regulations. Of course, no Florida farmer would have allowed a Bolivian pineapple in a local supermarket over his dead body. But even if they had, the idea of forcing this change down the throat of the children of Inca, the Sun God, a deity who had bestowed the coca leaf onto the earth to endow his progeny with the strength and pride of the divine, was as preposterous as trying to convince a Texan that the kangaroo is his national animal, and that tulips are the flowers of the land.
I made the call from a bedroom with two chairs and a table, bars on the windows, and no bathroom. The hotel in La Paz on Sagárnaga Street was just uphill from the Iglesia de San Francisco, an ominous monolith of Andean Baroque. I usually kept the shutters closed tight, to save my mornings from the racket of vendors and traffic below, but that day, December 4, 2001, the neighborhood was peaceful and the sun was warm and comforting.
After speaking with a woman, I was passed to Casimiro Huanca. His voice was prosy and high-pitched.
He was preparing for a big demonstration. That morning, his farmers had started walking from the different corners of the jungle, bringing with them the fruits of their converted chacos—products meant to replace coca but impossible to sell. They would place the fruit on the shoulders of the road, flanking both sides of the Cochabamba-Santa Cruz Highway, right in front of the federation building in Chimoré: hundreds of pounds of pineapples, mangoes, and bananas hauled there to be shared for free with the passersby and then rot in the sun—a peaceful protest against the failing “alternative development program.”
Huanca and I spoke for a while. We set up a meeting for December 6 at 3:00 p.m. in the building of the Federación Especial de Colonos de Chimoré.
I knew it would take me over twenty-four hours on a bus across the high plateau to reach the jungles of Cochabamba. The area was under the tight grip of the Fuerza de Tareas Conjunta (Joint Task Force) with more than fifteen hundred soldiers burning down the coca fields and others stationed in at least five permanent military checkpoints along the main road to Chimoré.
For some time now, the government had treated el trópico as a war zone. There had been a number of armed fights between the cocaleros and the Bolivian forces, with eight deaths, a journalist wounded, and the targeted assassination of six military patrolmen.
I was traveling alone, so on the advice of one of my editors, I turned to Leopoldo Fernández, the minister of government, whom I had already interviewed that week. Fernández was robust, and his ghostly pale skin had a batrachian luster. I told him I would be meeting Casimiro Huanca and asked him for a safe conduit into Chapare, which he curtly denied. “The cocaleros need an international death to blame our government and bring attention to their cause,” he argued. But the same would work for the government, I thought.
It was night already, but I needed to walk. When I reached Murillo Avenue, clouds of shoeshiners, children barely seven or eight, played around the Fuente del Prado in black ski masks. I’d always assumed they wore the masks to filter the pollution in the air, which was pervasive in those days. But a friend had recently told me that it helped them get away with petty theft. Three kids followed me for a few blocks, pointing at my brown boots, begging for money, and grabbing my jacket. At the San Francisco church, they finally dropped me.
Back in the hotel room, I was still pacing. I couldn’t shake the conversation with Fernández. Something felt off, even beyond the dangers of internal conflict. Was Huanca being honest? Were the cocaleros open to talk? Were they planning to use me, as Fernández had insinuated? And now that the government knew I was in contact with the cocaleros, would they try to silence me?
I tried to sleep for an hour to clear my head, but exhaustion had made me paranoid. Unable to close my eyes, I opened one of the beers stacked in a corner. The noise from the streets seeped into my room, along with the diesel exhaust of thousands of old urban buses. A choir of voices—vendors, kids, drunken tourists—piled on the ones in my head.
To be in Chapare in time to meet Huanca, I would first have to get up, undress, take a shower, dress, take a cab for forty-five minutes to the bus station at the other end of town, buy a ticket, come back to the hotel, pack, try to sleep, get up, go to the station again, and take an ancient bus over three hundred miles on a highway with the highest elevations in the world.
The later it got, the smaller I made my window to leave, the tighter my chest became. I grabbed another beer, and then another, until I finally fell asleep.
In a dream, I imagined taking a shower in lukewarm water, the citrus smell of soap, walking down the dark stairs, dodging the shoeshiners and the street vendors. I dreamed of my conversation with the cab driver; I saw him reach out to the dangling end of a rosary that hung from his rearview mirror and touch the cross at its end. I saw the ticket booth, white and blue, empty and closed.
Later that night, the silence of the streets woke me. I looked through the window. The orange light at the hostel down the hill drenched the cobblestones in an amber soot. It was too late to get to the bus station. There was nothing I could do now—I wouldn’t be traveling after all. But, strangely, I felt no relief.
I had to call Casimiro Huanca. I had to let him know that our plans had changed, that we needed a new time, a new venue for our meeting. As I dialed the number that had gotten me to Huanca a day earlier, I noticed that my hand was shaking. The same woman picked up. I explained again who I was and how I needed to speak with Huanca.
He was not there, the woman said. He was already on his way to Chimoré, to his chaco in the jungle. That meant that, traveling by foot, Huanca was still six hours away from our meeting point. But there was no other way to reach him, she told me. There was no other number to call.
The next day, although I was still in the city, La Paz felt like a different place. As I came out of my hotel, I noticed two men in dark clothing stationed across the street, occasionally looking up at my window. During my round of daily calls, strange sounds crackled in my phone. And when I went for lunch at the restaurant across the street from the church, I had a feeling that I was being followed and watched.
Two days later, while browsing through a newspaper at a café at the Plaza San Francisco, life came to a stop. All my thoughts and plans for the day, all the phone calls I had to make, all the words I had to write, crashed into a wall of silence, and as sounds muted around me, a funnel of clouds isolated my vision to the page in front of me. In a photo above the fold, next to my morning coffee, I saw Casimiro Huanca for the first time. He was lying on the floor, his pants drenched in blood. Huanca, the paper informed, had been shot point blank and killed by a group of Expeditionary Task Force (ETF) agents. The time and the place of his death coincided exactly with our stipulated meeting point.
After the silence, a landslide of thoughts. “I would have died there” was the first. But soon another, stronger, rounder one, the mantra that would stay with me for years.
“I should have been there. I could have warned him.”
Heat disperses over my lap, sweat smudged by a pink, fifty-pound burlap bag the size of God’s uvula. At each turn, the cargo writhes and bounces as it leaps off every pothole in the road. Under any other circumstance, I would have preferred the load to be steady, but the jolts are my chance to correct the positioning of both my legs and feet under the bulk, making the stiffness of the back seat more tolerable. Outside, the air is sterile, and it gets drier as we approach the high plateau and mountains. My jeans are liquid with sweat a few inches above the knee, but the sack is so tightly wedged that there’s not much else I can do to make the twenty-miles-uphill-on-a-dirt-road full day’s journey any more comfortable.
Limbert, an angular man who sits to my right, sharing part of the weight of the coca sack on his left leg, rolls down the window after a short nap. At some point before we pick up Franolic, he will ask Walberto, the driver, to make a stop on the shoulder to puke. He partied hard last night, but doesn’t want El Jefe to notice.
The stop gives us enough time to reshuffle. The air jetting in blends the exhaust of urban buses with the foretelling breeze of the Altiplano, the smells of our combined perspirations, Limbert’s rancid breath, and the musky perfume of the coca leaves in the bags. (A second one has been shoved into the back of the Nissan Patrol.)
In Bolivia, the system seems to work from the bottom up. A few weeks before, I had to call the office of the Minister of Communications. I was frustrated after months of runaround, and my tone must have shown it. The person who picked up the phone hung up on me, and the next time I called, she responded in Aymara, one of Bolivia’s national languages, one that I don’t speak. Gatekeepers are central to Bolivian politics, a tradition that comes with the unions. They will grant you access or not depending on how you screen. They may or may not tell you what’s actually going on behind closed doors. They will vet you before you meet with the next level of power.
Like Walberto and his crew, Bolivians control their leaders. And right now, as I sweat in the back seat, I know that my escorts are reading me and will determine my luck.
Walberto is a good driver. In his best profile, which I spot on and off in the rearview mirror, he could pass for a bad guy in a Bud Spencer movie, a thick stripe of dark Ray-Bans separating his martial forehead from a boxer’s jaw line. He can manage the chaos of Av. Circunvalación with ease while shuffling through a catalogue of tropical music. But he always returns to “Llorando me vine, cantando me voy,” a 1975 hit single from a relatively obscure Argentine quartet named Los Bribones, with a biting Hammond as the cushion for melodies, which sound as if the Kinks had grown up playing in Bogotan bars, eating mangoes, and reading Gabriel García Márquez.
Since Evo Morales took office in 2006, unions hold the real power in Bolivia, so involving the movement in local policy is key for the MAS (Movimiento Al Socialismo, the ruling party) to keep the cogs greased and the party ready to win in the voting booths. And now, with the referendum looming in February, it’s the perfect time for an outreach.
As part of his job, Franolic Huanca and his team travel every week to the nearby towns around Cochabamba, relatively inaccessible places by anything that doesn’t move on an all-wheel transmission. El Jefe is the director de movimientos sociales for the MAS, a liaison between the state bureaucracy and the strong unions in the province.
An essential hinge in the Bolivian system, his role demands an understanding of both the rules and the people. Just like his father Casimiro, Franolic knows the technicalities of union operations and has a clear connection to the popular movement, and this dual skill has given him a negotiating position legitimate enough to assess the real needs behind the demands—and has granted him sufficient power to fulfill them.
El Jefe is waiting for us at his home, a three-bedroom rental tucked behind a red brick wall. It will take him some time to come out, so we stretch our legs on the dirt road, hiding from the sun under a lone eucalyptus tree.
Since last night I’ve been trying to picture Franolic. But every new attempt at his eyes or hands only agitates me. It’s not impatience; that I know. It’s that I’ve been anticipating this moment for fifteen years, and I’m only realizing it now.
The neighborhood spreads warm and somnolent under the mountains. It would be silent if not for a few morning birds and a milkman, delivering the goods with the outburst of a two-time engine connected to the cart by a nine-foot-long transmission rod. “Whenever he needs water, he takes it to the river and uses the engine as a pump,” Walberto explains in a duck-caller voice that doesn’t quite match his features. “People in Cochabamba are very resourceful.”
After thirty minutes, El Jefe paces his way to the front door, dressed in blue—dark shirt and jeans—opal hair draining a few driblets on the shoulders of his V-neck sweater. And as I see him, I start rehearsing in my head the exact words for when we shake hands: “I knew your father…” But before crossing the threshold, Huanca stops and looks around as if taking inventory of the crew. “We spoke a few times during the spring of 2001…” From a distance, he makes sure we brought both bags, which Limbert has arranged by the right side of the car. “He was a good man… We were going to meet in the afternoon of December 6, 2001…” They are both stamped with the seal of the Mercado Sacaba, one of the two legal markets for coca leaves in Bolivia. “And I think I may be in part responsible for his death that day…”
Within twenty minutes back on the road, someone mentions soup, and Walberto swerves the car abruptly to park. At the edge of the village of Tiquipaya, a woman dressed in a blue skirt and poncho stirs a steaming aluminum pot. Her head is wrapped neatly in a white and blue scarf, and she has arranged a metal table with a yellow plastic cover and a few chairs under a tarp on the sidewalk. We sit down for the chicken soup, served with generous portions of meat, and potatoes as soft and flaky as cod fresh out of the sea.
“My dad was a kind leader, but he made our federation strong, united,” Franolic recalls as we eat. The soup is greasy and rich, and it makes the edges of his mouth glisten. “Once, talking with Evo, the president—we were both a little drunk—he told me that he had respected my father a great deal. My dad was older, and he was the one person who would stand up to Evo if he believed he was doing something wrong.”
Franolic now turns directly to me, composing the spoon next to his empty bowl. “My father told us he might die…. He was a union leader, and that was part of the job. One day, before Easter…he gathered us all together to talk about that. ‘It may happen and you need to be ready to take my place,’ he told us.”
There’s no anger in Franolic’s tone. His words flow warm and forgiving. They take me by surprise, striking such a calcified chord in my mind that I have to collect myself before getting up from the table.
On the road, we cross a small stream, part of an open-air aquifer spread across the Tunari National Park. “My dad organized the team that built, by hand, all the bridges in Chimoré. It was crazy!” Franolic turns in his seat now and looks back at me. His cheeks are full, his smile pure white. In the draft of the open windows, the hair on the crown of his head has dried into a plume of black spikes. “My dad also built the first school I ever attended,” he recalls as if for the first time. “But he really wanted people to read and write.”
In the late 1980s, when Franolic was five, a two-year drought turned his father from teacher to community organizer. Forcing him to bargain for sheep, grain, and water before Cochabamba’s government, the drought eventually pushed the Huancas away from Tapacarí, a place rich only in mountains and dirt.
There were no paved roads there, he remembers. And there were certainly very few paved roads in Chapare when they first arrived with other hundreds of thousands of miners and campesinos. But at least here, in the jungle, the land was full of promise, with long stretches of virgin rainforests extending all the way to the border with Brazil. As part of the Federación Especial de Colonos de Chimoré, which his father joined immediately, the new arrivals started opening roads and claiming virgin parcels of land. Together, the colonos—colonizers—fought the jungle for every inch of terrain and then fought the originarios, the indigenous natives of the Amazon.
By the late nineties, there were at least 650 coca-grower unions in Chapare—workers who had inherited the militant tradition of the Bolivian miners of the Cerro Madre in Potosí. Each union had between forty and 150 members, which meant that they were able to mobilize at least fifty families each to block the roads and siege any part of Cochabamba they so desired. The unions gathered into six federations. Huanca, a pacifist and a religious man, soon became the leader of the federation in Chimoré.
The power of the coca crop in Bolivia is the reason why farmers came to be so highly organized and their unions so effective. Unlike in every other coca-growing country in the region, in Bolivia there were no armed groups defending coca during America’s war on drugs. There didn’t need to be: coca itself was the most complete weapon any social movement could ask for. The unions deployed coca offensively, by giving coca growers sovereignty over their production. Incorporating farmers—the people whose livelihoods depended on the coca leaf—into the actual policing of coca growing flipped the center of power.
As we climb higher, Franolic peers toward a speck of a settlement in the distance ahead and checks one of his two smartphones. “It was only a few years ago that I came to terms with the fact that my dad would never return.” He was sixteen at the time of Casimiro’s murder. “He would have loved to see me become a lawyer.”
Or a car racer, because Casimiro Huanca was also a racing fanatic. Since the ’80s, he had been fascinated with the Bolivian driver Armin Franulic and followed the national grand prizes on radio and TV. Casimiro named his youngest son in tribute: Franolic. Like most of the road builders in Chapare, though, neither father nor son ever owned cars, or even learned to drive.
On a sharp bend, a patch of white houses with flat roofs appears in the distance, quietly nestled in the palm of a valley, four sheep roaming on the hill facing the Andean wind that blows dry and sharp as a razor.
“We built the roads,” Franolic mutters as we all lean to the left to get a better view of the little hamlet of Chapisirca. “But we never drove on them.”
“[The ETF] have a separate leader, they are under a separate regime,” Commander Hernán Caprirolo, then director of the Bolivian Joint Task Forces, told me one morning in early 2002 when we met at the military base in Chimoré.
Caprirolo’s voice was barely audible, cushioned by the roaring chop of a green helicopter landing back from maneuver practices some thirty yards away. “They are here to prevent anything that could jeopardize the eradication measures… They are our external support.”
“Anything” usually meant road blockades.
By Bolivian law, the only way to increase the number of military personnel in the country was with congressional approval. But the Executive under president Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga Ramírez bypassed the constraint by hiring 500 men who would join the Expeditionary Task Force, the ETF, funded directly by the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS), a division of the American Embassy in La Paz. The NAS also paid for American advisors stationed in the military base of Chimoré, and its budget shouldered arms, equipment, and training. During our conversation, Caprirolo wanted to make a distinction between his men and those under ETF contracts. On paper, the ETF was not meant to be in the jungle to engage in direct combat. On the field, however, it was hard to tell it apart from any other military force. All uniforms looked green, alike.
But the eradication policy, pushed with such intense military force by the government, was coming up against resistance from cocaleros in the thousands. The Chapare was already extremely volatile during Casimiro Huanca’s tenure. When I first visited the base at Chimore only a few months after Huanca’s death, things had gotten even more violent.
As soon as the helicopter landed, five men in green uniforms leapt from the cabin into a column of dust built by the propellers. My French colleague and I approached a blond, fair-skinned man who seemed to be in charge of the operation—target practice from the air with machine guns. The man said he was from “the republic of Texas” and that the helicopter had flown in Vietnam. When asked what he was doing here in Bolivia, he directed us to the DEA.
The American Drug Enforcement Administration had been in Bolivia since 1972, but its agents were banned from intervening directly in national matters. Some human rights organizations, and even the ombudsman’s office, claimed that the DEA had actively participated in, and sometimes even commanded field operations. The claims have never been substantiated.
But the increase in violations was being thoroughly documented. In 1998, Ana Maria Campero, the Bolivian ombudswoman in La Paz, had decided to create a secondary outpost in Chapare. She handed it to Godofredo Reinicke, a corpulent man with short dark hair and a voice as deep and humid as a cavern.
During his first three years in Chapare, Reinicke and his team documented over four thousand human rights violations against cocaleros and their families, fifty-three unexplained deaths, and hundreds of cases of torture and rape. Many of the abuses dated back to 1988 but the most recent ones showed a record of involvement from the ETF.
However, until 2006, none of these crimes prompted any action from a state attorney or judge, or prevented the United States from continuing to funnel money, equipment, and military personnel into its base in Chimoré.
“We even started taking photos ourselves of the people affected by the conflict,” Reinicke recalled years later. “We compiled all the information and we demanded answers from the Bolivian government.”
The photo in which I first saw Casimiro Huanca was one of these.
In 2001 Reinicke was shot at while walking in Senda Seis, a coca-growing area in the province of Chapare. He’s still convinced that the attack was orchestrated by a group of UMOPAR—the Bolivian anti-narcotics police—that also took the time to puncture the four tires of his car. The attack forced him to walk around tropical Cochabamba stuffed into a bulletproof vest.
It was only a few months after the attempt on Reinicke that Casimiro Huanca was shot and killed.
The photo is hazy, black and white, and the film is so overexposed that the grain appears to fuse the edge of the right hip to the white wall in the background. Casimiro Huanca, still alive then, lies horizontally, head pointing right, neck slightly bent backwards as if waiting for someone to come into frame and lie next to him. His right hand rests on his chest, and his cap lays close to his left shoulder on the ground. Taken minutes after José Eladio Bora, a member of the ETF, shot him twice in the groin, the photo’s most magnetic point is Huanca’s watch, stuck forever at a few minutes past 3:00 p.m. in that limbo of time in which life is still one among many possibilities.
That morning, the ETF, in charge of keeping the eradication forces safe, had received orders to clear all roads.
“But there were no actual road blockades,” Reinicke confirmed. “Just pineapples and bananas on the side of the highway.”
Reinicke was driving his car from Chimoré to the neighboring village of Ivirgarzama at exactly 3:00 p.m. Minutes later, several trucks with Bora and two hundred ETF men had no problem reaching the headquarters of the Federación de Colonos de Chimoré and storming the courtyard.
Chasing Huanca and another cocalero, Fructuoso Herbas, into the building, Bora and three unidentified ETF men shot tear gas cans through the main door, and then, with gas masks on, charged inside. The mayor of Chimoré, Epifanio Cruz, testified that he heard four gunshots and, after that, he and a couple of journalists ran to the back courtyard where Huanca lay in agony.
Cochabamba’s Governor Iván Canelas, then working for the Bolivian paper La Razon, helped carry Huanca into a van that belonged to the local parish, and took him to a first-aid outpost. He was with Huanca when he died.
“I heard that Governor Canelas helped my father,” Franolic told me. “No dijo nada.” He had no last words.
Later that day Bora took a small portion of the $100 US monthly salary he received from the Narcotics Affairs Section of the American Embassy in Bolivia—which also paid for his housing and food—and headed to one of the eighteen brothels scattered along the road that connects Villa Tunari with Chimoré. In the parlor, run by a man nicknamed “el Negro,” he bragged to a woman about having shot and killed Huanca that afternoon. The woman would spend the night with him.
A military tribunal later that year tried Bora for the assassination, concluding that the soldier had acted in self-defense.
No charges were filed.
Huanca was unarmed.
After Huanca’s death, Reinicke’s office requested the implementation of the Leahy Amendment, which prevents the American government from funding security forces whose members are credibly implicated in human rights violations. In the following years, human rights organizations would request the enactment of the Leahy Amendment at least three more times. The flow of American money toward the war on drugs in Bolivia was stopped entirely in 2009, when Morales finally expelled the DEA. A few years later he would do the same with USAID.
But although it was Morales who finally broke diplomatic relations with the United States, the process had been set in motion with the assassination of Huanca, a pacifist leader, a beloved one. His death in Chimoré, and the lack of justice that ensued, ignited the unions’ rage like nothing had ever before in el trópico, and served as a confirmation to the coca-growers that no agreement between them, the government, and the American embassy would ever hold, as long as the political power was not fully in their hands. The two shots against Huanca awoke a distant echo that had been resonating through the Andes since early colonial times: the only way to deal with the invaders is to revolt and subdue them. It was an imperative whose time had come: the unions, and the power structures they had built on ancient indigenous ones in Bolivia, could finally take control of the political machinery in the country.
For the government, Huanca was a perfect victim. His assassination was set to unleash a peasant insurgency, an armed revolt that could have justified a military crackdown in el trópico. Instead, Huanca’s death became the coalescing force behind the cocaleros‘ relentless march to power, and a path toward their victory in the general elections of 2005.
Morales’s ascent was the result of a system that had been put in place long before his presidency. The ropes of this Andean democracy had always been tied to every meeting, at every ampliado across the country. And Morales’s defeat in the February 2016 plebiscite would only come to prove it.
Two semiferal dogs are knotted in a fight in front of the blue metal gates, a sign that cannot possibly bode well for the meeting. The road to Chapisirca had bent on itself so many times that when we reach the main road and park in front of the school it is already three in the afternoon, more than two hours behind our schedule.
The locals, some 250 men, women, and children who have walked the whole morning for the ampliado, are already starting to drift into other activities. A group of youths in blue overalls plays soccer in the field across the street; three older men have gathered with a few children around the PA system to listen to Andean music, loud and shrill. Four women in green and blue skirts with felt hats walk around carrying baskets full of strawberry ice-cream cones arranged like roses. Maybe because of the dryness, or the altitude, they don’t seem to melt.
As we enter the courtyard, nine thousand square feet of tamped soil framed by stretches of shed-style classroom buildings, the sun burns the last clouds out of the sky. Three women bestow Franolic with a necklace made of white and red potatoes, coca leaves, and yellow wildflowers. Next to the PA system, the microphone is set up for a procession of speakers who will stream on stage over the course of four uninterrupted hours. The president of agricultural engagement, the vice president of farms and crops, the director of the civic union, the interim vice president of cultural affairs, they all come forward; climb the three chipped concrete steps; receive the microphone, a tepid round of applause, and a plastic cup with Pepsi; and start their address with an invariable “compañeros y compañeras” (“fellow men and women”). By the end of the afternoon, almost everyone present seems to have had something to say.
Around the country, on any given weekend, hundreds of thousands of ampliados like this one bring together communities around music, food, and the practical needs of the people. This is the core of the Bolivian democracy, a long-rooted tradition inherited from the Federative Union of Bolivian Miners, one of the strongest and most radical unions in the history of Latin America.
Everyone here speaks Aymara sprinkled with a few Spanish words, so it’s easy to discern what’s going on, but I will later confirm my interpretations with our driver Walberto, who by now has dragged over one of the pink burlap bags with coca. The central courtyard is left for the children; the adults have taken shelter from the sun on three sides of the quadrangle, under the straight edge of the building’s eaves.
Walberto opens the sack and heaves it along the line of attendees. To accept the coca, some men present their open hands in front of their chests as if waiting to receive the sacrament, while others offer up a pouch or nylon bag to be either newly filled or replenished with leaves. The women spread their skirts to cradle the leaves, then raise them to their chests. At some point in the afternoon, there isn’t a single person who is not chewing.
The main issue for Franolic is the February 21 plebiscite, which will open the road to modifying the new constitution so Morales can run for a fourth consecutive term. Some of the speakers argue in favor, others sound skeptical. But discussion quickly turns to more pressing, local matters. Promises were made of a better water system, and road improvements, a man in a blue overall screeches through the golden caps in his teeth, but little of that has been delivered so far. He is a potato farmer, and his union needs better access to Cochabamba if they are to stay in business and feed fifty families. Others raise their concerns, and all eyes rest on Franolic, who will take the stage as the final speaker.
The vegetal pendant still hanging from his neck, Huanca approaches the mic, teeth of pristine white beaming left to right across the courtyard. His posture has suddenly sharpened, and the five-foot-seven frame—the same height as his father—seems to stretch now to six foot two. The voice in the amp sounds thunderous and clear. Like a snake in spring, his vocal cords have shed an old skin, and there’s nothing left of the thin thread I first heard on the phone. I wonder if his father, had I met him, would have changed, just like this, before my eyes.
Franolic has come to Chapisirca on behalf of the governor of Cochabamba, who had carried his father’s body into the van the day he was shot and killed. But he is here also on behalf of Casimiro, and his people, and Morales. He talks about the revolution, compañeros y compañeras, that his father started with Evo, and all the pain and loss that the Bolivian people have suffered. “Fifteen years ago,” he says, “we would have gathered here to plan a march, to protest a massacre, to plot a picket or a strike. Today we ask for a better life, more water, longer roads, better schools. And this is our victory. Now we can ask for more. But the past needs to continue in our minds, and for that we need young leaders.”
In his words, I suddenly realize something new. No leader can ultimately take full credit for the success of Bolivia. Yes, during Evo’s mandate, the country doubled its GDP, reduced the number of its poor by half, tripled the minimum wage, and quadrupled its international reserves, all while keeping the conservative business class content with bottom-line-friendly initiatives and averting a virtual civil war. The greatest success story of Bolivia is that its endurance is not dependent on one leader; Morales will pass, but the people will remain. Morales gets all the praise in the media, in the international spotlight, and in the official narrative of the country. And he sometimes tries to take control of this narrative through vertical acts of power. But each time around, from the ground in the Altiplano to the dirt roads of Chapare, the unions have brought him back to reality: he is a face among many. The dominance of coca ensures it.
And maybe this is what I’ve been after all along. Not closure, but something larger than what I could grasp in the short term, in a headline. When I look at Franolic, there’s a continuation that stretches beyond me and any connection I may have to this place. Beneath the shock waves of 9/11, people like Huanca were preparing the ground for the gradual transformation of their society.
After the speech, we are escorted to a small brick house with a tin roof in the back, where there’s cold mutton stew waiting. We sit on stumps and buckets at a table improvised out of two wooden doors and covered in a red and white plastic cloth. As we eat, Franolic stares silently at his plate. I ask him what’s wrong. Today’s audience was difficult, he says, and starts picking at the stew.
“I don’t think we are going to win here,” Limbert confides to me as we get in the car to begin our journey back. For the first few miles, nobody says a word. But soon Walberto starts playing his music again and Limbert takes out a bottle of mint liquor, iridescent green, and we pass it around. The sun is setting in the mountains ahead, and the night will hit us in the high plateau.
At a summit, when the air is thin and the light is almost gone, we pull over and climb a few feet onto a boulder crowned with green grass. Standing in a circle, the last of the sun beaming in his face, Franolic shares the bottle again, just a sip, and then pours some drops on the ground. Opening his other hand, he sprinkles the earth with a few leaves of coca.
“For the mountain,” he says. We are all silent for a moment, and then jump back in the car.