WASHINGTON — Bolivia's ambassador to the United States, denying reports that his government resisted direct American military assistance for its cocaine crackdown, has defended attacks on cocaine-processing facilities as the only practical way that Bolivia can discourage peasants from growing coca leaves.
Ambassador Fernando Illanes said at a news conference Tuesday that trying to destroy the coca leaves themselves--a strategy pushed by the United States--faces insurmountable political and practical barriers.
Crop of the Poor
Coca is grown by "the lowest of the low on the economic scale" in poverty-stricken Bolivia, peasants who probably were starving before they became growers, Illanes said. To destroy the crop, "you would have to go in with armed forces and start killing people--relatively innocent people."
"My government is not willing" to wage such a campaign, Illanes added.
He said that attacking cocaine-processing facilities--a program under way with the help of six U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters and 160 Americans, including pilots and support personnel--seeks to achieve the same result.
If the facilities for converting the leaves into cocaine paste or base are destroyed, the price of coca leaves will drop because they are bulky and not easily transportable to another country, Illanes said. The reduced prices will, in turn, dissuade farmers from growing the crop, he indicated.
Copter Use Planned
Illanes contended that Bolivia always had contemplated the use of American military helicopters and personnel to attack the sites because "the only organization in the United States that has the equipment is the armed forces."
The New York Times reported Sunday that Bolivian officials said they were surprised and distressed last month when the Reagan Administration offered to send the helicopters and military personnel.
However, when asked Tuesday if the U.S. forces were a surprise, Illanes replied: "Not to the people who knew what was going on."
Illanes, noting that only one of the raids conducted so far has achieved any results, blamed faulty intelligence concerning the production sites. The intelligence is provided by infrared surveillance and informants.
However, a U.S. law enforcement source who refused to be identified challenged this assessment.
Coordination a Concern
Instead, the American blamed Army helicopter pilots, who are following orders to avoid involvement in any ground fire and "are dumping Bolivian police miles away," thus preventing them from finding the sites. "As coordination gets better, the results will improve," the source said.
Illanes said that a "dramatic increase" in cocaine use by Bolivians was the major factor in his country's decision to attack the production facilities with U.S. assistance. He said the Bolivians face a more difficult demand problem than even the United States, because cocaine is cheaper there and people involved in the production are paid, in part, with cocaine.
Illanes said his government has reports that newly enriched cocaine traffickers in Bolivia "now buy children and use them to stage fights, instead of cockfights. That to us is the end. That is why we have acted."
Although Bolivia hopes that the United States will restore about $7.2 million in aid that it cut off because coca eradication goals had not been met, Illanes said the question of renewed aid was not a factor in Bolivia's decision to attack the production facilities.
He said the ultimate solution would be to eliminate cocaine demand.
"Cocaine will be around as long as people are willing to use it," Illanes said. But, by destroying production facilities and sending cocaine prices "sky high," the drug could be restored to its status as a product only for the rich, he said.