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  • Writer's pictureTim Morch

Crazy Cocaleros: Caught In a Violent Protest

The drone of the bus engine that lulled my senses for the past three hours was shattered by the crash of breaking glass. A large rock, hurled from the side of the road, came to rest on the floor beside me. Several more crashed against the metal exterior of the bus sending a wave of fear down the aisle. The man whose head had been resting against the window when it shattered was visibly shaken.

The driver reacted immediately, shutting down all lights on board. Only the headlights shone to guide us along the dark jungle roadway. The assistant shot down the aisle calmly yet firmly urging the passengers to close the curtain over the window and sit low in the seat.

My first reaction was to grab my traveling companion by the back of the head and push her face into my lap. Covering her with my torso, I leaned close over to keep low in the seat. We waited … waited for the next rock to crash through a window, but it did not come. It seemed to be forever, but was more likely a few minutes, before people started to speak. I glanced at the man across the aisle and saw that in spite of glass strewn everywhere, he was unscathed. Miraculously, nobody was injured.

Bolivia, February, 2002: the cocaleros – families that have farmed coca plantations for centuries – were protesting. The US government was withholding aid money until the Bolivian Government eradicated the plantations. The Bolivian Army was saddled with the duty and the people were rebelling. Throughout the country, highways and streets were blockaded. The road between Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in the eastern lowlands, and Cochabamba, on the eastern side of the Andes mountains, had been closed for four days. As it is the only road connecting the lowlands and the altiplano of Bolivia, the buses simply waited.

Earlier that afternoon, the cocaleros announced the road would be open for 24 hours. Hundreds of stranded people rushed to the bus station to take advantage of this window of opportunity. The Santa Cruz bus station was a madhouse. In the time it took to wade through the sea of humanity and reach the ticket desk, a dozen buses had departed. An overloaded bus left every three to five minutes. Nonetheless, there was a one hour wait for the next available bus with seats.

The bus we were on followed dozens that had already departed and was well ahead of dozens to follow. Our bus, as fate would have it, was the first westbound bus to be attacked. Within a few minutes of the rock shattering the window, the driver pulled into a village lit by two dim streetlights. He informed the passengers that we would wait until it was safe to continue. I spoke with the attendant, who confided it might not be safe to move on until daybreak. I informed my traveling companion, who merely shrugged, said “okay” and lit a cigarette.

Buses were pulling in from both directions. As information filtered through the crowd, it became clear that some protestors had reneged on their pledge to open the highway. Buses arriving from the opposite direction reported that rocks were thrown at them at another bridge further west. The village where we were stopped lay between the two bridges.

Most buses had dents, broken windows or both. The drivers were irate. They had respected the closure by not trying to run the blockades. In turn, the cocaleros were to respect the drivers, many of whom were transporting the friends and family of the cocaleros. This was the strange give and take of this protest.

We soon learned the bus drivers were not the only angry party. The Bolivian army raced into the village within half an hour. Two full troop carriers with enough weapons to end a coup appeared. Nobody knew how they arrived so quickly, but people were reassured by their presence.

Following a brief discussion with the drivers, the military took charge. The first truck headed the convoy of buses moving east toward Santa Cruz. As they finished easing out of town, we were asked to board our bus and prepare to depart. Our bus was first behind the western bound troop truck as it had a bright spotlight with enough wire to run the length of a football field.

Just before the bridge, the carrier stopped and five dozen troops in full combat gear alighted. They fanned out swiftly and silently on either side of the road. A few stayed with the truck while the others advanced. After securing the bridge, they started to remove the rocks and logs the protestors used to block the highway.

With this task completed, the carrier advanced. One of the officers took the light from our bus and shone it into the black night. As we crept forward, apprehension filled the air. Just across the bridge there was a flurry of shouts. Without hesitation, the men on both sides of the road proceeded to unload their weapons into the jungle! Glued to our seats with jaws agape, we watched like kids in front row seats at a 3D action movie.

“Umm, should we be concerned?” my friend asked.

“Guns against rocks, I think we win,” I responded.

After what seemed like eons, the shooting tapered off. It’s not every night that you witness a live ammunition release program and the passengers were clearly edgy. The bus inched forward. After 800m the troops boarded the carrier, signaled us to follow and we started forward again.

Ten km distant, the convoy came to a halt at another bridge. This too had been covered with debris. The troops dismounted and repeated the bridge routine. As before, they walked alongside and ahead of the bus, covering both sides of the eerily dark jungle highway.

Once more, the bus crawled along beside the officer with the light. Shining this way and that, it filled the jungle with more light than the midday sun. Without warning, the troops started to blaze bullets into the jungle again. A narrow path was illuminated and the convoy stopped. With a quick hand signal, the bullets stop instantly and four men raced into the jungle along the track. The man in the lead cleared the way with a barrage of automatic weapon fire. The second and third covered the left and right flanks respectively while the fourth covered their back. It felt like we were in a scene from a movie, although the lighting was poor.

Suddenly, the shooting stopped and the men returned. We were once more signaled to move forward with the troops advancing alongside. Another thousand meters and they remounted the carrier and lead us onward. The bus driver followed the carrier closely for the next 30 km before we received the all-clear signal and continued toward our destination.

Although it was a restless night, we arrived without further incident. As the first rays of dawn broke, the bus stopped by the roadside not far from Cochabamba. Stepping out of the bus to stretch, the crisp alpine air raised goose-bumps on my arms. These were definitely different goose-bumps from those I experienced only a few hours earlier in the heat of the jungle action.

Cochabamba is the heart of the coca growing region. A few days prior, television news footage showed how protestors had brought the city to a standstill. There was footage of flaming barrels in the downtown sector and cars turned over and burned out. We were not sure what to expect. Thankfully, the protest was over – for the moment. That day, in contrast, Cochabamba was peaceful and welcoming.

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