LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — BOLIVIA'S 60,000 coca producers, the Roman Catholic Church, and all opposition parties are stepping up protests against 117 United States Army instructors being sent, for the first time, to train two Bolivian infantry battalions to enter the drug war. In an operation known as White Spear, 44 instructors from Fort Bragg, N.C., will arrive next week to start training the Rangers battalion in a US-built camp 35 miles north of the eastern city of Santa Cruz. Twelve instructors are already in the country.
US officials in La Paz say they want the Army in the drug fight to act as logistical support to the 1,000-strong special police force known as the Leopards.
Coca growers and opposition deputies fiercely criticize the need for the Army's participation. They argue the emphasis should be on finding alternative crops to coca and not on ``militarizing'' or ``Colombianizing'' the drug fight.
Many opposition deputies are particularly afraid the Army would be corrupted.
After a 10-week course, the 450-strong Army battalion is due to start antinarcotics operations in July. Another contingent of 56 US advisers will arrive in September to train a second battalion.
NONE of the US Army personnel will take part in antidrug operations, and they will leave once the training courses are completed.
President Jaime Paz Zamora's acceptance of the trainers stems from an agreement signed last May with President Bush. The US government offered $33 million in aid to the Bolivian military, if Mr. Paz Zamora would accept a role for the Army in the drug fight. Until now, the war on cocaine has been almost exclusively up to the Leopards.
Most of the aid package has been released for the Navy and the Air Force, which already have a support role in antinarcotics operations. Two Hercules C-130 cargo airplanes, four helicopters, and new patrol boats have been sent since the May agreement. But more than $14 million for the Army had been held up pending the presidential decision.
After two months of delay, the Bolivian Congress finally approved sending advisers after a heated debate April 4. All opposition parties walked out of the chamber before the vote.
Ernesto Machicao, a deputy from the center-right National Revolutionary Movement, cited a November report by the US House Committee on Government Operations, which is critical of involving the Bolivian Army in the drug fight.
``The government antinarcotics efforts [in Peru] against coca producers gave the Sendero Luminoso insurgents the perfect opportunity to build a peasant base,'' Mr. Machicao and the report contend. Leftist deputies also attacked Paz Zamora for bowing to the dictates of the US.
Just five hours after Bolivia's congressional decision, 90 tons of ammunition for the Army were being unloaded from a huge US C-5 Galaxy plane parked at the La Paz airport.
``The Army will operate only in the tropical areas where cocaine labs are located,'' says Gustavo Fern'andez, the minister for the presidency. ``They will not carry out actions against peasant producers of coca.''
About 50,000 Bolivian farmers cultivate coca, the raw material for cocaine, in the Chapare, the world's second-largest coca-producing region. Despite government assurances, the coca grower unions fear violent clashes with the Army are inevitable.
``Sooner or later, the Army will attack us directly,'' says Segundino Montevilla, a leader of the peasant union, the CSUTCB.
Coca unions have also warned that they will consider forming self-defense groups if the Army enters coca-growing areas. ``We will defend our coca with our lives,'' says Evo Morales, a Chapare coca growers' leader.
Robert Gelbard, the US ambassador to Bolivia, maintains that Bolivia has become the world's second-largest producer of cocaine after Colombia.
Coca growers and opposition deputies fiercely criticize what they call the ``Gelbard thesis'' on the need for Army participation.
``We are sending the instructors because the Bolivian government has decided to commit its Army units,'' says Bruce Wharton, US press attache. ``We believe they can play a constructive role.''