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December 8, 2013

Into the Chapare part 2 – war stories

Marcelo Ramallo, president of the Senda Beher Cocalero Syndicate in the Chapare jungle of Cochabamba, Bolivia chews coca before returning to work on his coca farm / photo by brandon c janes iv

Marcelo Ramallo, president of the Senda Beher Cocalero Syndicate in the Chapare jungle of Cochabamba, Bolivia, chews coca before returning to work on his coca farm / photo by brandon c janes iv

Monday – after a hard days work and a dinner trading war stories – my boss, Don Marcelo Ramallo, asked if I wanted to fish the river with a machete.

“You can do what you want but tonight I am going to work,” he said.

Using flashlights and the flat back of the blade we walked the creek until 1 a.m. and brought in 36 fish, most of them perch about the size of a woman´s hand.

Ramallo, 42, owns 16 hectares in the town of Senda Beher, where in January he was elected president of his syndicate, which is much like being the mayor in his town of about 700 inhabitants in Bolivia´s Chapare jungle.

The law of coca production allows each family one coca field 40 meters by 40 meters, or as they say here “my 40 by 40.”

Cocaleros can earn around $800 U.S. per harvest and they can harvest every three months.

“That $800 dollars is you bank,” Ramallo said.  “Without coca there is no life in the Chapare.”

Although $800 ($3,000 bolivianos) doesn´t buy luxury, Ramallo´s family does not spend much. Nearly everything comes from the farm. On their way back from the field, they lop off a fresh papaya, avocados, platanos, mangoes and yucca; harvest honey from the apiary, rice from the feild; last year Ramallo rented a back hoe to dig a fresh water pool where he raises pacú, a fresh water fish, for personal consumption.

Volitile fields

But life wasn´t always so peaceful for Ramallo and his family.

Before Evo Morales was elected president in 2005, the cocaleros of the Chaparte region waged a long war with the anti-coca policies of past neo-liberal presidential administrations, the Bolivian Army, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Army.

During the first term of Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez Lozada in the early 1990s Ramallo bought his 16 hectares to start earn for his family growing coca as his father had taught him.

After investing years of labor and money he and his wife had saved from years working on other farms, the Army cut down all of Ramallo´s coca farm in accordance with President Lozada´s zero coca policy. Months later disease of banana plants wiped out his only other form of income.

“The times were very bad, I didn´t have anything to feed my family so I went to work in the interior,”  Ramallo said.

Deep in the jungle he found a place to grow coca, living without food and drinking from a hole in the ground, he began to earn again from the coca. Presidents changed and so did the policies towards coca production.

After harvesting coca from the farm of the family of Ruperto Guzman in Senda Beher, Chapare, Cochabamba, Bolivia, the coca is dried on large tarps for consumption / photo by brandon c janes iv

After harvesting coca from the farm of the family of Ruperto Guzman in Senda Beher, Chapare, Cochabamba, Bolivia, the coca is dried on large tarps for consumption / photo by brandon c janes iv

War stories

In 2004, under the administration of Presdient Carlos Mesa, the government attempted to institute another zero coca policy in the Chapare.

It is recognized across the country that the power of the cocalero movement is its ability to organize. The government had agreed to meet with the six  head directors of the cocalero departments in the city of Sacaba – the capital of the Chapare Province.

The day of the meeting hundreds of cocaleros loaded into trucks and stood outside of the government building. Ramallo was one of them.

To meet them were hundreds of Bolivian and U.S. troops in full riot gear standing shoulders to shoulder, Ramallo said.

After waiting until 9 p.m. outside the building, the farmers believed their leaders to be kidnapped and began chanting for their release, he said.

“When we caught sight of one of the directors, who had escaped or maybe had gone to use the bathroom, we pushed through the police knocking them to the ground,” he said.

The scene then turned violent. Bullets and tear gas flew between the bodies. Ramallo said he saw his friend shot in the shoulder and hip and helped drag him away from the line of fire calling for ambulance.

A can of tear gas knocked Ramallo unconscious, but not until after he had climbed a wall away from the fighting. When he woke up a few minutes later he saw other young men running around to make another attack on the government troops.

“We grabbed rocks and whatever we could – I had my slingshot – whatever we could to fight,” he said.

The fighting went on for four days and eventually the government left without a resolution.

“It was a war,” Ramallo said. ” The newspapers always say how many of us died but there is no telling how many of them died too.”

War continued in the fields of Chapare as well, as Bolivian and U.S. troops attempted to eradicate the coca. Cocaleros learned to rig dynamite on the roads and ignite it as the military vehicles passed.

“We knew better than to sleep in our houses because of all of the leaders who had been picked up in the night never to be seen again,” Ramallo said.

But, now that Morales is president, the Chapare is a peaceful because the president, who everyone in the Chapare calls simply “Evo,” was a coca farmer with a biography much like Ramallo´s.

Morales´farm and modest house – which is falling over from disrepair – is located about 12 miles (20 kilometers) down the road from Senda Beher. And just as Ramallo serves his community as president of his syndicate of about 40 small farms, Morales started his public service career as secretary of sports of the syndicate of Villa 14 of September.

“We are Evo´s soldiers,” Ramallo said. “When he comes into the Chapare he doesn´t need bodyguards because we are his protection.”

Doña Augustina Ramallo and her son Christian Ramallo, 14, prepare a meal in the family kitchen in Senda Beher, Chapare, Cochabamba, Bolivia / photo by brandon c janes iv

Doña Augustina Ramallo and her son Christian Ramallo, 14, prepare a meal in the family kitchen in Senda Beher, Chapare, Cochabamba, Bolivia / photo by brandon c janes iv

Women work the hardest on the coca farm

But the true hero of the Ramallo family is Doña Augustina, Ramallo´s plump chola wife, whose thick callused hands tell the story of a life of coca harvesting.

Doña Augustina was born in Sacaba into a family of seven children. She left home at age 12 to sell fruit on the street in Villa 14 de September.

She said she had to leave home after he mother grew ill because the family did not have enough money to eat. She said her father spent all his money at the local pensión drinking beer and chicha – a fermented corn drink, most often homemade and bootleg.

One of the first things Ramallo said to me when I started working for his family was that his wife works harder than he does.

Augustina gets up at 5 p.m. to cook breakfast for her husband and seven children. Only three of them live at home. Since his election as president of the cocalero syndicate, many days Ramallo does not make it to the field, stuck with duties in town.

But each day Augustina makes the trek through the forest to the family´s 40-40 with her two-year-old on her back and her thick, pleated skirt to continue the endless task of cultivating coca under the hot tropical sun.

December 1, 2013

Into the Chapare – dispatches from a Bolivian coca farm part 1

 

Newstramp writing next to his new bed in Senda Beher Town Hall

Newstramp writing next to his new bed in Senda Beher Town Hall

I have taken a job in Bolivia working  for a farmer who grows coca – the same plant used to make the illegal drug cocaine.

As far as I can tell none of the coca we are growing supports the illegal narcotics industry but I have only been here for four days and the plants are very young. My boss, Marcelo Ramallo, says they have 63 more days before the first harvest.

The almond shaped leaves are used in traditional ceremonies and chewing them is the official habit of the nation.

Coca history in Bolivia

Political debate around growing coca in Bolivia has been much like the gun control debate in the U.S.

It is a deep part of the culture here and continuing to cultivate it is seen as a right by much of the population.

However, cocaine – a product of this green leaf processed with petrolem – has caused thousands, if not millions, of deaths around the world  in the past four decades in the so called War on Drugs.

In the last decade hundreds of Bolivians have died fighting to retain their right to grow coca.

According to the New York Times,  from 1998 to 2002 60 people were killed and more than 700 were wounded in the Chapare -teh region where I am now – in violence related to coca eradication.

The government has instituted a mildly successful regulation of coca production. By licensing growers, rather than making it illegal, Bolivia´s coca production dropped by 13 percent over the past year, according to the United Nations.

Bolivia is the world’s third-largest coca producer, after Peru and Colombia, where growing coca is illegal.

In Bolivia, farmers are allowed to grow 1600 square meters (2/5 of one acre) of coca per family. For centuries farmers grew coca in the Chapare without regulation.

Thesesdays cocaleros – or coca farmers – have a large feather in their cap. Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, is the president of the national cocalero union and it was from that post he found his way into Bolivian politics.

Not only do the cocaleros have a decades-long fight against the U.S.-led drug interdiction under their belts, but they have also developed what they believe is their own brand of socialism. Morales party is called MAS – Moviemiento Al Socialismo (movement for socialism).

From one Bolivia to another in 15 hours

How to get here

Bundled up in your new thick courduroy jacket – made in Bolivia – take the 5boliviano taxi across the mountain capital of Sucre on a cold afternoon just in time to catch the overnight floata to Cochabamba.

On time for the first time, the bus stumbles out of port with passengers still stretching to get inside.

You sit at the front of the bus now, ever since that time you missed you stop at Samaipata trying to climb over 10 meters of men sleeping in the aisle.

The bus stops for dinner at a highway town where women yell the names of strange juices into the darkness. After that you return to work cultivating the perfect sleeping position between the window and the nice Quechua grandmother who has fallen asleep on your shoulder.

The floata rolls into the bus terminal of Cochabamba at a busy 4 a.m., which is good because you have got to hurry to get across town to the so called Parada Chapare, where you find a shared taxi to Villa Tunari – Chapare´s principal town – before the highway closes at 9 a.m. where the road crew is still working out a massive washout caused by heavy rains a month before. The road doesn´t open up again until 3 p.m. and you don´t want to get stuck on the other side.

Taxi man takes you right here you need to go. Reserve your seat, wander to relieve yourself in a dirt parking lot from which you can watch your bag.

You sleep close with strange men like brothers you never knew in the shared-taxi darkness and when you arrive at  9 a.m. crossing the street you began to sweat with the jungle sweat of the new Bolivia for the first time.

This trip is all about business but you take a break for a hot cup of coffee and cheese empanada in the central market among the flies.

Jungle insects have  tropical colors, wild wings and funny looking faces that suck the ground with the fervency of something not caring to waste its short little life. And as you drink your coffee black swarms of them swim through your fingers.

Breakfast is quick.

The sign in front of Radio Sobernania, the voice of Bolivia´s Cocalero movement (as the sign says), located in Chipiriri, Cochabamba Department photo by brandon c janes iv

The sign in front of Radio Sobernania, the voice of Bolivia´s Cocalero movement (as the sign says), located in Chipiriri, Cochabamba Department · photo by brandon c janes iv

Radio Sobernania & the Senda Beher of Faith and Happiness

From Villa Tunari the town of Senda Beher is about 25 km. It is cheapest if you split the trip into three death-defying motorcycle taxi rides.

One town you pass is called Chipiriri, the headquarters of Radio Sobernania.

A week prior you were there talking – between broadcasts – with Walter, the voice of Radio Sobernania, who saw a good story in you and put you into contact with Ramallo, who is president of the Senda Beher cocalero syndicate.

Mi casa su casa

A white dove bathes in the same puddle as a pig. That puddle marks the driveway to Ramallo´s home from the other houses in the cocalero hamlet.

Nothing is painted here. All cinderblocks, concrete, and corregated tin, built sturdily with no frill save the political spray paint with phrases like ¨Vote for the Coca¨ splashed around town.

After waiting an hour, a girl in a red croptop tells you to walk down the road and search Ramallo´s farm.

At hot noon you find Ramallo, full of soup, sleeping on a plastic potato sack in the shade of the trees that line the brook that flows through his land. His wife and two-year-old child are half-sleeping by his side.

No one could work in this heat, and the creek is fed by a cool spring, from where now on you bathe and drink.

In the beating sun south of Ramallo´s head is his legal plot separated into about a hundred lines coca.

Propped between two rocks next to his head is a small battery-powered radio blasting Radio Sobernania´s middaybroadcast, recordings of the Morales and Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera speaking at a university in the Department of Beni.

¨The change in Bolivia will leave no children behind,…¨ Linera says. ¨…The land of Bolivia produced more produce before the Spanish arrived than it does now,…¨

Ramallo´s wife, awake now, pours water over her baby´s face and speaks soft quechua into his ears as she begins to bathe him.

¨The debate was whether the indigenous people had souls or didn´t have souls. That was the question of the Pope during the colonialization of Bolivia…¨ the vice president rolls on. ¨They trapped us like animals and now, in 2013, people continue to ask that question of the people of Bolivia, do the people of Bolivia have souls?…¨

November 11, 2013

Slaying Goliath – investigative reporting at the center of Bolivia’s drug trade

El Deber, one of Bolivia's most investigative and powerful newspapers, is located in the heart of Bolivia's | photo by brandon c janes iv

El Deber, one of Bolivia’s most investigative and powerful newspapers, is located in the heart of Bolivia’s growing drug trade, Santa Cruz de la Sierra | photo by brandon c janes iv

SANTA CRUZ DE LA SIERRA – The big story right now in Bolivia is the Aerocon plane that crashed last week in the northern amazon city of Riberalta, killing eight passengers including one eight-year-old girl.

What wasn’t immediately clear from the initial reports were the circumstances by which the victims died. Thanks to the work of journalists at El Deber newspaper in Santa Cruz – Bolivia’s most investigative newspaper – the truth soon came out.

An official investigation revealed that all of the passengers lived through the crash, which occurred during a storm at the Riberalta airport.

Later the victims were killed by flames and smoke from a fire, which started from explosions inside the downed plane, the newspaper reported.

Official statements from the Bolivian government have blamed the deaths on the pilot, who lived through the crash and subsequent fires. But El Deber’s reports point to another failure, that of the government neglecting to provide adequate fire safety at Riberalta and airports across the country.

The jungle airport, which serves a city of more than 100,000 and sees about 700 flights a month, has no fire truck, nor fire fighting equipment. First responders used mud and sticks to fight the flames.

Further investigations, which involved public information requests, revealed that among Bolivia’s airports that do have fire trucks, many are more than 35-years-old and in poor condition.

The newsroom at El Deber newspaper in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia | photo by brandon c janes iv

The newsroom at El Deber newspaper in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia | photo by brandon c janes iv

Bolivia’s other half

Leaving the dry Andean plateau of Potosí, Sucre and La Paz, I found a different Bolivia to the east, one lush and tropical, and centered around the balmy, jungle city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

There I could not get the interview that I had wanted – to speak with the reporters who broke the Areocon story – but I spoke with one of their colleagues, Alicia Bress Perrogón, an El Deber reporter with 2o years of experience in her craft.

We began talking about incident in Beni, the department where Riberalta is located.

“If there had been some sort of fire safety, at least one of the victims could have been saved,”  Bress said, as she walked me through the rows of Apple computers in the newsroom of El Deber’s central office on Santa Cruz’s second anillo.

The city of Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s most populous – around 1.6 million total population – and the center of the country’s quickly growing drug trade, due to its proximity to the long, open border with Brazil.

Traffic in the city is divided into five concentric anillos or rings. Day and night marked taxi cabs circle the rings offering shared rides around the city for around 2 Bolivianos, or 20 cents U.S.

Inside the first anillo, circling the city’s a principal plaza, several blocks of high-end clothing stores and jewelry shops sell merchandise at high prices. A men’s Polo shirt runs for about 650 Bolivianos, about $70 U.S. – a week’s pay for most Bolivianos.

But prices don’t matter so much here because, reportedly, the stores are only fronts for laundering drug money, a method I have heard is used in other drug trade centers, such as Salvador, El Salvador, or Panama City.

But this reporter, nor any I have met in Bolivia, is prepared to take on that beast.

When you cross that line

Javier Cosulich, international editor of Agencie Noticies Fides, explained to me the reasons Bolivian journalists are hesitant to develop investigative journalism in this country.

He said that in Bolivia, when you are investigating a politician or government employee for corruption, you never know to whom or to what he is connected.

“There are links between the public employees and narco-traffickers that we don’t know about, ” Cosulich said. “You may get to your car one day and find a bomb. No reporter wants that.”

The standoffish approach to reporting on both private and public enterprise, is one reason why Bolivian journalists have not suffered the fate of those in Mexico and Colombia, where murders of journalists is common.

“Since we aren’t investigating much there aren’t many journalists being threatened,” Cosulich said. “But the inability to investigate things does damage the society.”

Back in El Deber’s newsroom, Bress expressed a similar sentiment but that El Deber’s journalists were some of the first to start walking that thin line. With great caution.

The newspaper often withholds reporters names on bylines for reportages revealing narco-trafficing or corruption that could be linked to narco-trafficking.

“In a subject that we put the integrity of the journalist on the line or subjects of narco-trafficking or investigation of narco-trafficking it is best to preserve the identity,” Bress said.

“There’s always a risk and so we have to limit the information, but it is the work of the journalist to investigate these things.”

Alicia Bress Perogón, reporter at El Deber newspaper in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia | photo by brandon c janes iv

Alicia Bress Perogón, reporter at El Deber newspaper in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia | photo by brandon c janes iv

October 28, 2013

VIDEO: Evo speaks in El Alto – the city of the revolution

The city of El Alto, Boivia looks over the sprawling valley of La Paz and controls the ingress and egress of goods and transportation into the country's largest city and the seat of Bolivia's government | photo by brandon c janes iv

The city of El Alto, Bolivia looks over the sprawling valley of La Paz and controls the ingress and egress of goods and transportation into the country’s largest city and the seat of Bolivia’s government | photo by brandon c janes iv

Oct. 17 I nearly missed Bolivian President Evo Morales’ speech commemorating the 10th anniversary of Black October – the most violent episode in the country’s recent history.

In the month of October 2003 government troops – under the administration of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada – killed an estimated 80 people and injured nearly 500 in an attempt to break a weeks-long road block around the city of La Paz.

Ten years later, I was stuck behind a road block around Potosí.

Arriving by taxi in the red-brick slums of El Alto – the site of the infamous road block – I nudged my way in front of thousands of miners and indigenous farmers filling the wide Avenue 6 de Marzo just in time to see Morales proclaim Oct. 17, “the National Day of Dignity.”

The protests in 2003 began over a government plan to export Bolivian natural gas to the U.S. through Chile but quickly escalated into a demands for Lozada’s resignation and his punishment for the violence of his administration.

Oct. 17 was the day Lozada – known here as “the gringo president” – fled the country on a commercial flight to the U.S, ending the conflict. Today he resides legally in the U.S., where he has been protected from extradition by the U.S. government.

Morales ran unsuccessfully against Lozada in the 2001 presidential election and organized many of the 2003 protests. Black October was the turning point in the politician’s career and his socialist revolutionary movement.

“We will not let foreigners plan our patriotic agenda,” Morales said, during his El Alto speech. “Our agenda will never overlook our children, our grandparents and all of the Bolivian people.”

The bastion of freedom

Below the drab skyline of unpainted dusty high-rises, a heat wave passed through the streets of El Alto that Thursday.

Although the day was one of commiseration for the lives lost in the conflict, the atmosphere was festive. Nearly everyone had an ice cream.

Morales’ supporters and political groups from across the country were represented at the ceremony, as were the families of those who died during Black October.

“We are not celebrating, we are remembering those who fell,” said Johnny M. Huanca Espejo, a La Paz-based indigenous rights activist. “We want to recognize and give them their priorities and their feelings.”

Bolivians often say that El Alto is the most powerful city in the country – more powerful even than Sucre, the judiciary capital, and La Paz, which houses Bolivia’s Congress and the Palacio Quemado – the Bolivian White House.

Perched at 4,050 meters (13,615 feet) above sea level, Bolivia’s largest international airport is in El Alto.  The city also guards the ingress and egress to La Paz.

Descending nearly 600 meteres (2,000 feet) from El Alto to La Paz, one thin stretch of highway – with its easily barricaded checkpoints – gives El Alto its grip on Bolivia’s future.

Aymara women in traditional pleated skirts, shawls and english-style bowler caps sit on the street in El Alto, Bolivia after hearing President Evo Morales speak on 17 October 2013, the tenth anniversary of the Gas War | photo by brandon c janes iv

Aymara women in traditional pleated skirts, shawls and english-style bowler caps sit on the street in El Alto, Bolivia after hearing President Evo Morales speak on 17 October 2013, the tenth anniversary of the Gas War | photo by brandon c janes iv

 

Bolivia’s future

In just 30 years, the population if El Alto has swelled from 220,000 to more than 1 million residents – now larger than La Paz. The majority of the immigrants are Aymara – the indigenous culture most populous in Bolivia’s north.

The growth is due in part to El Alto’s exclusive role in the Bolivian economy.

In a May 2013 article, New York Times journalist William Newman described the city as an “almost total vacuum of government intervention” – an island of capitalist, free enterprise opportunity of which the poor indigenous, who make up nearly 80 percent of this otherwise socialist country, are keen to take advantage.

El Alto is also one of the few cities in Bolivia that was not built by the Spanish; It has no central plaza almost no Spanish colonial buildings – a source of pride for a population still recovering from centuries of exploitation.

“It is the first indigenous city since the colonial period,”  the article said.

“Gringo of bad luck”

After the ceremony, the Avenue 6 de Marzo quickly transformed into an open air market, where – along with other low-priced goods – merchants sold wanted posters of Lozada with detailed accounts of the events of Black October printed on the back (I bought one).

Just because El Alto is a haven for capitalism, doesn’t mean its inhabitants are friendly to the U.S.

Central to Morales’ Day of National Dignity speech was harsh anti-U.S. rhetoric, which elicited many cheers from the crowds in El Alto.

I interviewed one man who lived through Black October in El Alto and said he remembered the violence well.

“In those days the government we had was always North American – from up there,” he said. “They murdered people across all of Bolivia,.. and we still have those memories today. We are bitter. And that is why we want Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to come back here and stand up to his crimes.”

The success of El Alto has affirmed for many Alteños that placing one of their own in power (Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president) was the change this country needed.

“Now, with this government, we have many wonders,” the Alteño said. “We ourselves know how to govern best,… not with some gringo of bad luck.”

Bolivian President Juan Evo Morales Ayma is greeted by crowds of supporters in El Alto after a ceremony proclaiming October, 17 the "National Day of Dignity," 10 years after an estimated 80 protesters in El Alto were killed by the Bolivian military and police | photo by brandon c janes iv

Bolivian President Juan Evo Morales Ayma is greeted by crowds of supporters in El Alto after a ceremony proclaiming October, 17 the “National Day of Dignity,” 10 years after an estimated 80 protesters in El Alto were killed by the Bolivian military and police | photo by brandon c janes iv

October 11, 2013

Exploiting Bolivia – part 2 – sitting with the dead

"Here ends your service to the mining community," reads the sign painted on the wall of the mausoleum reserved for one of the 33 mining cooperatives in Potosí, Bolivia. The other wall reads, "Silence! here rest the men who left their lungs in the mines." | photo by brandon c janes iv

“Here ends your service to the mining community,” reads the sign painted on the wall of the mausoleum reserved for one of the 33 mining cooperatives in Potosí, Bolivia. The other wall reads, “Silence! here rest the men who left their lungs in the mines.” | photo by brandon c janes iv

Last week I participated in a wake for the martiarch of a local mining family in Potosí. The five children – four sons and one daughter – spent their savings shipping the body back from Argentina – where she had died of cancer.

The ceremony lasted until sunrise and, as is the custom in Bolivia, we sat with the body all night.

My friend Zenón Oxachoque, who invited me to the vigil, said the tradition dates back to when Bolivians did not have the technology to confirm when a body had gone completely lifeless.

“In those days they would sit 48 hours with the body,” Oxachoque said. “It was more common to be buried alive then.”

I’ve heard of similar stories in the histories of other countries, including my own, but particularly Bolivian is the nostalgic conviction not to let these forlorn rituals go out of practice.

Modern Bolivians identify with a whimsical mish-mash of cultures: takings from the sensitive peasant society of the country’s origin; the oppressive Spanish colonialism, where they get their language and some of their religion; and the smartphone revolution.

Most important for the city of Potosí – a community intimately tied to one of the most dangerous professions on the planet – is the spiritual system by which it understands death.

Death in the mines

With the eeriness of Dante’s gates of hell, someone has painted a message on the entrance of Potosí’s main mining mausoleum at the town cemetery.

“Silence! here rest the men who left their lungs in the mines,” it reads.

There are three ways to die inside a mine, Oxachoque told me. Asphyxiation – from lack of oxygen or carbon monoxide poisoning – a dynamite misfire from a fouled fuse, and a tunnel collapse.

“Death is always on our foreheads,” a miner called Chino, of the 27 de Marzo cooperative, said. “We work underneath a mountain and death is all around. But that is the value for us. It gives us power.”

In January five young miners died in one day from carbon monoxide poising inside the mountain.

Often the cause of such deaths is the rain, which moves the gases around inside the mountain, said Rolando Colque Rios, a former miner and tour guide.

Some of the miners use 1950s-style carbide lamps, which burn acetylene gas that changes color when carbon monoxide and other deadly gases enter the work area. But even that method of prevention is uncommon.

Of the more than 15,000 miners who work inside Cerro Rico, about 35 die each year due to accidents, Oxachoque said. And when an accident occurs the whole community comes together to help the family deal with the loss.

By far the greatest killer of miners is a disease called silicosis, caused by inhaling the small bits of hard dust over a long period of time.

The average life expectancy of a Cerro Rico miner is 40 years because of the disease, according to articles by the BBC and Time Magazine, who have covered Potosí’s silicosis problem.

Rios said he has heard of men who worked just four years in the mine before contracting the silicosis.

In all of my trips to the mines, I never saw one miner wearing a mask. Some of them said they use them, but only when jackhammering.

El Tío of the San Miguel Mine, operated by the 1 de Abril Cooperative, inside Cerro Rico, Bolivia. The photographs is overexposed in post-production to show the details of the statue. Notice the bottles of liquor, traditional Bolivian paper flags and the god's large member | photo by brandon c janes iv

El Tío of the San Miguel Mine, operated by the 1 de Abril Cooperative, inside Cerro Rico, Bolivia. The photographs is overexposed in post-production to show the details of the statue. Notice the bottles of liquor, traditional Bolivian paper flags and the god’s large member | photo by brandon c janes iv

The devil inside

Most Bolivian miners believe that the only thing standing between themselves and death is an underground god called El Tio, the foil of the aboveground Quechua goddess Pachamama or Mother Earth.

Each mine has its own clay or concrete Tio, placed in a quiet recess, shielded from any possible stray dynamite blasts. Most of the figures resemble a devil with horns and a large, unclothed penis and testicles – a source of pride for the miners.

A week after my first visit, Oxachoque and I visited a Tio that he had made in the San Miguel Mine, operated by the 1 de Abril Mining Cooperative.

Sitting next to the statue, the miners acted quiet and restrained.

I watched as one miner in a Cleveland Indians hat and a dusty soccer jersey quietly placed a lit cigarette in Tio‘s mouth and then sat down to sip alcohol with a thick plug of coca leaves stuffed into his cheek.

Coca – mixed with petroleum products – is the active ingredient in the illegal drug cocaine. However, the unprocessed, leaf form is the essential Bolivian habit – both legal to possess and consume here.

Miners will work for up to 24 hours in the mine, taking nothing more with them than a bag of coca for nourishment.

Miners drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and chew coca - which is legal in Bolivia - before heading into the mines | photo by brandon c janes iv

Zenón Oxachoque (center) smokes a cigarettes and chews coca with two other miners of the 27 de Marzo Mining Cooperative in Cerro Rico, Bolivia. The green bags in the miners’ hands hold their coca rations for the day | photo by brandon c janes iv

Oxachoque’s apartment

The night of the wake we went by Oxachoque’s apartment to pick up some candles and bottles of alcohol. Since his mother died in January, Oxachoque wears black clothing and will continue for one full year of mourning.

“It’s obligatory,” he said.

Down the street, inside the downstairs living room of a back alley home, the wake had already begun.

In the center of a floor scattered with coca leaves and cigarette ash, stood the woman’s coffin, covered in colorful flowers, photographs and her favorite meal – a tomato lentil dish, which had long since gone cold.

All night her sons roamed around the room, holding back tears and offering trays of coca leaves, cigarettes and a hot drink called té con té – the Bolivian hot toddy – an infusion of cinnamon, coffee bean husk and potable alcohol.

Every hour the brother of the dead would rise and say a prayer in mixed Quechua and Spanish. When he was through, we would pour a sip of our drinks on the floor as an offering to the Pachamama.

By 5 a.m. – through hours of rich conversation, coca and endless cups of alcoholic tea – we had celebrated a life.

VIDEO: Exploiting Bolivia – part 1 – “the riches that made us poor”

October 8, 2013

VIDEO: Exploiting Bolivia – part 1 – “the riches that made us poor”

The gate to the Bolivian Mining Corporation's Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill, sports a photograph of the nations current president Evo Morales | by brandon c janes iv

The gate to the Bolivian Mining Corporation’s Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill, in Potosí, Bolivia sports a photograph of the nation’s current President Evo Morales | by brandon c janes iv

Nothing tells the story better than the facts: Potosí, the capital of the poorest department of the poorest country in South America, cradles what was once the richest mountain on earth.

During the Spanish colonial era of the 16th and 17th centuries, indigenous and african slaves extracted veins of pure silver two-meters-wide and several kilometers long straight from the surface of Potosí’s famous mountain Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill – making it the richest city in the world at the time.

A common saying here is that the silver exploited from Cerro Rico could have built a bridge from Potosí all the way to Spain.

Today – nearly 500 years after the mining began – Potosinos have little to show for it.

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano captured the plight of Potosí in one line of his book, Open Veins of Latin America.

He writes, “Our wealth has always generated our poverty through nourishing the prosperity of others.”

Today, the mountain of Cerro Rico is collapsing after nearly a century of haphazard attempts by the impoverished Bolivian miners to find the final stores of aggregate silver and tin left inside.

Outside the mines, peasant women in dusty shawls and Spanish bowler hats rummage through the tailings, looking for coals left over from five centuries of flame.

An old woman, a Quechua – the indigenous culture of the Central-Bolivian Andes – told me that each rock has a soul just like a man and that mountains are the greatest of all living things.

“The mountain is dying,” she said. “And to us that is like a man dying.”

Dark devils and (barely) potable alcohol

The 27 de Marzo Mining Cooperative is a warren of small mud-brick cabins stuck into the mountainside around the entrance of a muddy mine shaft overlooking the city of Potosí.

Most days 27 de Marzo is a place of work, where men prepare to enter into a mountain of sweltering, 120-degree Fahrenheit (50 degree Celsius) temperatures, collapsing tunnels, dynamite blasts and odorless, poison gas floating around like the angel of death.

However on the last Friday of every month – my first visit to the mines – the Bolivians are not working. They are worshiping their gods and bring their own poison to the ceremony.

The poison of Potosí is clear liquor with a name so plain as “potable alcohol” – noventa y seis grados, they brag; 96 percent pure alcohol.

It comes in a white 1-liter bottle, costs 15 bolivianos (or U.S.$2.17) and tastes like something with which you would clean medical utensils. In fact, Potosinos use it to clean their feet.

Three miners of the 27 de Marzo Mining Cooperative in Potosí, Bolivia argue inside of one of the mining camp huts | photo by brandon c janes iv

Three miners of the 27 de Marzo Mining Cooperative in Potosí, Bolivia argue inside of one of the mining camp huts | photo by brandon c janes iv

At around 9 a.m., sitting together on a 2-by-6 set over some muddy buckets outside the mine, a barrel-chested miner named Alejo wrapped his arm around me, and – inebriated beyond comprehension – began mumbling his Quechua prayers to the Pachamama – the Quechua Mother Earth.

Then he poured a little of his drink – half-water, half-potable alcohol – twice onto the earth and drank the rest in one draught.

Alejo, a father of four, said he knew mining Cerro Rico was unsustainable, both for the human casualties – reportedly 35 miners die each year inside Cerro Rico and many more contract the deadly lung disease silicosis – and for its waining resources.

The miner said he had felt some of those pains before, when his group of about eight miners went without striking minerals for almost a year. The group receives health benefits, childcare and retirement through the cooperative but paychecks only come if they crack into silver, tin or zinc.

“If we don’t find mineral we don’t make any money,” Alejo said.

He said mining for him is a sacrifice, to give his children the opportunity to study something greater.

“For me there is no room for this anymore,” Alejo said. “I hope that nobody will continue this work.”

He wasn’t alone in feeling that Potosí’s mining boom had ended. It seemed to me that there is nothing left but to wait for the mountain to fall and this city of 240,000 people to fall with it.

But what I really wanted to know was how such a culture could let a mountain of treasure slip through its hands, leaving itself nothing but silicone dust in the lungs and empty rituals.

Exploiting Bolivia – part 2 – sitting with the dead

October 2, 2013

Bolivia playing dead: when the only power is the power to do nothing

Jhonny Llally Huata, president of the Potosí's Comité Cívico, holds up the flag of the Department of Potosí in his office in Potosí | photo by brandon c janes iv

Jhonny Llally Huata, president of the Potosí’s Comité Cívico, holds up the flag of the Department of Potosí in his office in Potosí | photo by brandon c janes iv

During the 24-hour strike in Potosí Wednesday, Jhonny Llally Huata, president of the Potosí Comité Cívico, answered a call from an assistant to the Governor of the Department of Potosí at the desk of his second floor office.

“This is not for me, this is for Potosí,” he said and hung up before giving the caller a chance to respond.

Then he turned to me and said, “There are always critics.”

Llally is kind of like the John Boehner of Potosí, Bolivia. Frustrated with his country’s executive government – and trying to make his mark on politics – this nighttime taxi driver, daytime politician has used his power with local transportation syndicates to stage a shutdown of all the roads in Potosí.

For 24 hours Wednesday traffic going to and from Potosí was blocked by 18-wheelers, taxi cabs and buses spreading their chassis across the major highways and gates of the city.

In the narrow cobblestone streets of Potosí organizers placed bricks, rocks, bundles of wire, torn-down street signs and telephone poles to keep cars from driving on them.

As a result this city of about 240,000 inhabitants did nothing for a day. All businesses were closed – except the bank – children played soccer in the street, families went for walks together, but only around 20 residents had the time to attend the rally, held by Comité Cívico or COMCIPO at the city’s central market.

COMCIPO’s demands were not simple.

On Tuesday, when two ministers from La Paz visited Potosí to try and stop the strike, Llally gave them the committee’s laundry list of grievances: Where was the international airport promised to the city in 2010? and the concrete factory? the preservation of Potosí’s famous mountain Cerro Rico?

Silver mines in Cerro Rico – which is today a UNESCO world heritage site – bankrolled the Spanish colonial empire for nearly 200 years. Many of the over 100 mines in Cerro Rico are still working today and the mountain is one of few attractions in the Bolivia’s fledgling tourist industry.

Trucks blocked the entrance to the city of Potosí during a 24-hour strike on Wednesday | photo courtesy of El Potosino

Trucks blocked the entrance to the city of Potosí during a 24-hour strike on Wednesday | photo courtesy of El Potosí

Bolivian Federalism – not what it sounds like

Latin Americam governments are known for concentrating power over their presidents, much more than other democracies, such as the U.S. In Bolivia, departments – equivalent to states in the U.S. – have little say in the policies which most affect their residents.

On Wednesday – the same day of the strike – a commission led by President Evo Morales’ MAS party in La Paz eliminated a senator from each of the western Departments of Potosí, Beni and Chuquisaca, and gave three new senatorial seats to the fast-developing eastern Department of Santa Cruz, where President Morales has his political stronghold.

Talk of the cutback was curiously absent from the chants of the COMCIPO in Potosí’s central market Wednesday.

Instead Llally chose rally behind what he called “Federalismo Potosino” – a term which means the opposite of federalism in the U.S. Llally wants the Department of Potosí to have more autonomy from the federal government – more like the power that states have in the U.S., he said.

“A minister said that Potosí can’t live without Bolivia,” Llally said before his crowd of supporters. “But what we say is Potosí can support Bolivia for more than 100 years, because we have the riches.”

After the speeches Wednesday, I followed Llally into his office at COMCIPO. He picked up my camera from his desk and asked how much it cost.

I said around $1,000.

“You know, I don’t think I will ever be able to buy one of these,” Llally said.

Although the seats on the COMCIPO are elected, Llally confirmed Wednesday that the nonpartisan organization has no money and no real power to influence public policy, outside of staging strikes and public demonstrations.

“The power comes from me,” Llally said.

“When the government doesn’t attend to things, doesn’t do what it is supposed to do, the city puts on a strike and organizations are obligated to obey.”

September 30, 2013

Eyes open, mouth closed: Bolivia’s history of fear and silence

The five members of the Comite Civico, in Potosí, Bolivia asked that their photos not appear in this media | by brandon c janes iv

The five members of the Comite Civico in Potosí, Bolivia asked that their photos not appear in this media | by brandon c janes iv

A wise editor once told me, “Names make news.” Without names you have no sources, and without sources you have no story.

This story has no named sources, because there are not many people in Potosí – the poorest region of the poorest country in South America – who are willing to put their name next to an opinion about the government.

Even the editor of the local newspaper, El Potosí, refused to be a source in my articles.

However, that Bolivians do not feel safe speaking publicly about their government, reveals more about this country than any source ever would.

“Bolivia is going through a lot of changes, and it is a delicate time. That is why people do not want to talk,” the editor of El Potosí said.

Nom de guerre

President Evo Morales, who is up for reelection in 2014, currently has no legitimate opposition. His party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement towards Socialism) or MAS party,” also controls the Bolivian Congress.

On Friday, I met with an old Potosino man to learn the history of the country’s fear of retaliation – which is based in a long history of violence, corruption and secrecy. After more than two hours of explaining what he called Morales’ “democratic dictatorship,” he said he could only gave me his nom de guerre, “Juan,” out of fear for his family.

Juan lived through Bolivia’s civil war in 1949, the Bolivian revolution in 1952, the nationalization of the mining industry in 1952 and the military dictatorship which began in 1971. He told me about the many violent shifts in government, false imprisonment of community leaders and scores of murders in Potosí, which is the birthplace of South America’s mining industry.

President Morales, who began his political life as a leader of the cocaleros, or the coco growers union, maintains his political strength though connection with the peasants who work their fields in rural areas of Bolivia, Juan said.

“They say he is one of the country people, that’s why we can’t talk bad about him,” Juan said. “The farmers will load up in their dump trucks, come to the city and strike.”

The street out side the Comité Cívico de Potosí, a private, non-partasin group that organizes demonstrations to push the agendas of local citizens | photo by brandon c janes iv

The street outside the Comité Cívico de Potosí, a private, non-partisan group that organizes demonstrations to push the agendas of local citizens | photo by brandon c janes iv

The public soapbox: Comité Cívico

In Potosí, there is one place where citizens feel the freedom to express their opinions about their government: the Comité Cívico, an elected assembly which organizes strikes and road blocks to push the agenda of the local community.

I attended one of their town hall meetings on Wednesday in a large Spanish colonial house, on the steep hill below Cerro Rico, Potosí’s famous silver and tin mine.

It was a rowdy night and the meeting was standing room only.

The agenda comprised strictly local issues, a new concrete factory coming to town and a highway to the airport, which was taking too long and costing too much money. Cell phones rang constantly and cigarette smoke made it hard at times to see the dais.

After the announcements were made, the citizens were given a turn to address the group.

Speaking about the concrete factory, one man said, “We need to have a position before the government, companeros, right now, we need to present them with these conditions and ensure that they meet them, companeros.”

Dramatic speeches from these men, many of them politicians in training, went on for hours. After it was all over, we filed out of the committee chamber and onto the steep cobblestone streets of Potosí, where I spoke with some of the community leaders, representatives of the university, transportation cooperatives, the hospital and other city entities.

The group’s unity is what gives it its power, one man said. The ability to shut the city down if the committee’s needs are not met.

Civic committees – which are found in most major Bolivian cities – have no political persuasion and often do not function unless the committee president is popular among all entities.

At last, the city of Potosí seemed ready to go on the record about their government. But even these men, who had been so outspoken against their government moments before, were not willing to give me their names for fear of violent retaliation.

Learning from recent history

Historically protests organized by civic committees or labor unions have played key roles in the dramatic shifts in politics in Bolivia.

In 2003, a proposal by the capitalist Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to export natural gas reserves to U.S. through a port in Chile led to violent protests in the city of El Alto, just outside of La Paz.

More than 60 people died in the unrest – which involved armed conflicts between protesters and police. The protests, led by Morales (then just a cocalero organizer), laid the foundations for reforms in Bolivia’s government today – the nationalization of major industries, such as hydrocarbon and petroleum, and anti-U.S. coca eradication policies.

After allegations that he issued brutal force against his own citizens, Lozada resigned his presidency and fled the country on a commercial flight to the U.S. Lozada’s exile in the U.S. remains a thorn in the side of international relations between the U.S. and Bolivia.