Unidad Movil de Patrullaje Rural

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Unidad Movil de Patrullaje Rural (UMOPAR), better known as the "Leopards" was a special 300-member Bolivian anti-narcotics strike force, trained and equipped by the U.S. government, in the mid-1980s.

Founding and Coup Attempt

The Leopards, initially led by Lt. Col. German Linares, was formed in August 1983 in an agreement between the U.S. Bolivian governments "to crack down on the the cocaine trade."[1] In the first year, the U.S. spent $5 million to form and equip the Leopards as well as a 30-member detective squad, and the Bolivian army was to provide weapons and ammunition. Under the plan, a $58 million USAID program to help coca farmers grow other crops was to follow.

The Leopards completed training in December 1983 and were then scheduled to go to the Chapare, "the region in central Bolivia where 80 percent of the coca plants used to make cocaine are grown." However, as of July 1984, they were still in La Paz. "Because of long rivalry between the police and the military, the army refused to provide them with heavy weapons."[2] "In May, Hernan Siles Zuazo ordered the Leopards to provide security at the government's Central Bank during a strike by emplolyees [sic], and after that they had no assignments."[1]

On June 30, a group of armed men, including leaders of the Leopards, abducted President Siles Zuazo in an attempted (but failed) coup.[2] After the plot failed, Linares and "three other senior officers" fled into the Venezuelan Embassy.[2]

August 1984: Leopards Go to the Chapare

The Leopards, under their new leader, Gonzalo Sanche, finally arrived in Chapare on August 10, with both the police and the army.[3] There, they set up checkpoints on the 90-mile Chapare Highway, built with U.S. agricultural aid money 15 years before. Drug traffickers used the highway as a runway for small planes shipping cocaine paste until the Leopards arrived. With the arrival of the Leopards, the largest town on the highway, Sinahota, dropped from a population of 10,000 to under 400 and the price of 50 lbs of coca fell from $80 to $20, bringing economic hardship on the Chapare's 20,000 families that grow coca or work in other coca-related (legal and illegal) jobs. The Associated Press reported:

"A tree and plant nursery in the village, financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is covered with weeds, and $300,000 worth of rice-milling equipment is rusting from lack of use. Eight years ago, the farmers switched to coca, which provides three harvests a year and higher prices."[3]

As the Leopards arrival was announced over a week in advance,[4] most of the laboratories along the highway were abandoned by the time they got there. Without helicopters, planes, and boats, they felt unable to conduct raids in more remote parts of the region. The soldiers were to remain in Chapare for three months, after which they would be replaced by a "200-main police force" (presumably, the Leopards).

"For days before the expected army moved in, peasant unions blocked the highway. The left-of-center government's conservative opposition in Congress has criticized the crackdown, saying the United States should enforce its own drug laws and leave Bolivia alone."[3]

January 1986: Leopards Under Peasant Siege

In January, the Leopards were once again in Chapare, on orders from President Victor Paz Estenssoro. Paz Estenssoro was under pressure from the U.S., which threatened to cut Bolivia's aid in half unless Bolivia could eliminate 10,000 acres of coca cultivation.[5] The government crop reduction program began in December 1985, promising farmers $350 for each hectare taken out of coca cultivation. At the time a farmer in Chapare told reporters that he earns 10 times more from coca than he could from any other crop. After their arrival, the Leopards destroyed a 25 acre cocaine paste facility in Ivargazama, an area that police say produces 1,1000 pounds of paste a month.

On January 7, "about 17,000 farmers" surrounded the camp of 245 Leopards at Ivargazama.[5] The siege began after "two intoxicated Leopards raped a local woman," although Col. Guido Lopez, "the nation's top drug enforcement official," felt that the rape was a made up pretext for expressing the farmers' anger. Three days into the siege, the Leopards reported by radio they had enough rations to last a week.

On Friday, January 10, the government considered sending military aid to the Leopards, but by Saturday, January 11, they had ruled it out. Edgar Merwin, "a former Special Forces officer contracted by the State Department to advise and train the unit", said "fewer than 100 growers still surrounded the elite "Leopards" police camp, although roads to the camp remained blocked and farming leaders threatened violence if the police did not leave the area."[6] However, leaders of the local farmers federation released a statement to reporters that day, saying "acts of violence and confrontations may result if the Leopards remain in the area and continue committing abuses."

Bolivia's Interior Minister, Fernando Barthelemy, denied the siege took place.[7] He was also quoted as saying "growing fewer of the coca leaves from which the drug is produced could have serious results for the shattered Bolivian economy, which has become dependent on the illegal cocaine trade" because "cocaine brings in at least $450 million a year, about the same amount as legal exports."[5] In the last three years, the population of Chapare had doubled to 80,000 people.[6]

July-November 1986: Joint Raids With U.S. Military

In July, "one month after President Reagan signed a directive declaring drug trafficking a threat to national security," [8] the U.S. army returned to Bolivia, this time to assist the Leopards in a two-month effort to attack cocaine-processing plants in Beni and Chapare. The U.S. government said the troops were merely "support personnel" who are there to fly the Bolivians in their helicopters. However, the U.S. helicopter pilots were ordered to shoot back if fired upon. The U.S. military in the raids were provided with diplomatic immunity by the Bolivian government. At the time, cocaine accounted for bringing $600 million per year to Bolivia, compared to $500 million for all legal exports. The operation "[marked] the first time American troops have been deployed to combat civilians involved in the illicit drug trade."[9]

During the first few days of raids, very little was achieved. Most drug traffickers had already packed up and left before the troops arrived.[10] Columbians quoted did not expect the crackdown would reduce the amount of cocaine produced, since it is like "squeezing a balloon filled with water" - if the coca leaves were not grown in Bolivia, they would come from Peru and Columbia instead.[11]

During the U.S. troops' time in Bolivia, the price of coca fell dramatically. When it was announced that some of the troops and three of their six Black Hawk helicopters would leave October 25, the price of coca quadrupled.[12] A Cochabamba radio station said "the increase in price signaled that cocaine traffickers are preparing to gear up their activities."

As the last U.S. troops and Black Hawk helicopters pulled out November 15, the U.S. provided Bolivia with six Huey helicopters on loan to continue the drug raids. Bolivia's Information Minister, Herman Antelo, reported that "Bolivian and U.S. officials are working on a $300 million program designed to reduce coca leaf plantations from 150,000 acres to 25,000." The U.S. funded program would increase police patrols, offer farmers money to destroy coca, and purchase inputs and equipment for alternate crops. This was only expected to work if a continued crackdown on laboratories lowered coca prices so far that other crops became a better alternative to the farmers.[13]

"A product of George Bush's presidential ambitions and inter-departmental rivalry within the US government, this noisy 'collaborative operation' (six US helicopters and one Bolivian) has signally failed to decapitate the cocaine industry. After six weeks, Colonel John Taylor's troops had located seven deserted camps of the 35 listed for destruction by the DEA, captured not one gram of chlorohydrate, and detained one firm suspect - a 17 year-old passenger in a captured smuggler's aircraft whose pilot nimbly absconded into the jungle. Yet this showcase operation has succeeded in reducing the price of the (legal) coca-leaf cultivated by thousands of peasants from dollars 125 to dollars 25 a bale as well as raising fears of a future use of defoliants."[14]

In December of that year, Bolivians succeeded in destroying two processing factories, arresting three people with cocaine, money, and a car; eighteen people with either cocaine or chemicals used in making cocaine; and another 100 "suspected traffickers."[15]

1987: U.S. Army Green Berets Help Out

Beginning in about 1987, "a rotating team of about a dozen U.S. Special Forces from the Southern Command in Panama [were] based in Bolivia's Chapare region helping to train" the Leopards. For the first two years, the U.S. Special Forces remained in their base camp and were prohibited from joining the Leopards on patrols.[16] (Another article identified the troops as Green Berets[17]) In 1989, new rules allowed the troops "to go on patrols with the Leopards, but not on direct raids or attacks on drug smugglers' camps or laboratories."[18]

June 27, 1988: Massacre of Villa Tunari

On June 27, 1988, an estimated 2,000-5,000 coca growers blockaded roads and stormed the base of the Leopards and the U.S. DEA in the town of Villa Tunari.[19][20] The protest was over Ley 1008, a law that would make most of their coca growing illegal, although some sources reported that the farmers also protested rumors that the government would begin eradicating coca with herbicides. The Leopards fired on the crowd with live bullets. A total of six people died and more were injured, although at least one report said that some of the deaths were due to drowning as protestors tried to escape the police. Helicopters on loan from the U.S. were also used to fire tear gas. Some of the coca farmers claimed that U.S. DEA agents took part in the violence, a claim that the DEA denied.

1990: The Leopards Turn Military

Up until 1990, the Leopards were officially a police force, despite their training, equipping, and involvement with the U.S. military. In 1990, that changed.[21] In Operation White Spear, the U.S. sent 44 instructors from Fort Bragg, N.C. to train a battalion of 450 Bolivian soldiers for 10 weeks. According to the plan, the trained Bolivian army battalion was to begin anti-narcotics operations in July. In September, a second group of 56 U.S. instructors were to arrive and train a second Bolivian army battalion.

Articles and Resources

Related SourceWatch Articles


  1. 1.0 1.1 Peter McFarren, "Narcotic Unit's Involvement In Coup Attempt Slows Anti-Drug Battle," The Associated Press, July 7, 1984.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Marlise Simons, "Bolivian Plot Embarrasses the U.S.," The New York Times, July 17, 1984.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Peter McFarren, "Army Occupation Turns Coca Villages into Ghost Towns," The Associated Press, September 19, 1984.
  4. Alberto Zuazo, "Bolivian troops poised to start 'war on cocaine'," United Press International, August 1, 1984.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Peter McFarren, "Government May Send Troops to End Siege of Anti-narcotics Squad," The Associated Press, January 10, 1986.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Peter McFarren, "Officials Say Fewer Than 100 Farmers Persist In Siege," The Associated Press, January 11, 1986.
  7. Alberto Zuazo, "Bolivia denies reported police siege," United Press International, January 11, 1986.
  8. Peter McFarren, "U.S. Military, Bolivian Police Prepare Raid on Cocaine Labs," The Associated Press, July 15, 1986.
  9. Peter McFarren, "U.S. Action Marks Shift In Dealing With Cocaine Problem," Associated Press, July 16, 1986.
  10. Kevin Noblet, "U.S.-Bolivian raids no surprise to cocaine traffickers," The Associated Press, July 19, 1986.
  11. Kevin Noblet, "U.S. And Bolivian Forces in Second Day of Raids," The Associated Press, July 19, 1986.
  12. Humberto Vacaflor, "Price of coca leaf quadruples in Bolivia," United Press International, October 16, 1986.
  13. Peter McFarren, "Last U.S. Soldiers Pull Out Of Bolivia," The Associated Press, November 15, 1986.
  14. James Dunkerly, "Third World Review: The tin miners march into history / The peaceful anti-Bolivian government protest which ended in martyrdom," The Guardian (London), September 26, 1986.
  15. Alberto Zuazo, "Two cocaine factories destroyed, 121 arrested," December 10, 1986.
  16. Michael Isikoff, "Drug Plan Allows Use Of Military; Classified Directive From Bush Loosens Rules of Engagement," The Washington Post, September 10, 1989.
  17. "U.S. Role Expanding in Drug War,"St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 17, 1989.
  18. Peter Pringle, "Bush allows US troops to take part in drug patrols," The Independent, September 11 1989.
  19. Alberto Zuazo, "Officials U.S. drug agents after coca growers battle police," United Press International, June 28, 1988.
  20. Peter McFarren, "Thousands of Coca Leaf Farmers Attack Authorities; Six Killed," The Associated Press, June 27, 1988.
  21. James Painter, "Bolivians Protest US Militarization Of Drug War," Christian Science Monitor, April 15, 1991.

External Resources

External Articles

  • Peter McFarren, "Narcotic Unit's Involvement In Coup Attempt Slows Anti-Drug Battle," The Associated Press, July 7, 1984.
  • Peter McFarren, "Bolivia Reports Major Anti-Cocaine Raids," The Associated Press, August 21, 1984.
  • Joel Brinkley, "Bolivia Drug Crackdown Brews Trouble," The New York Times, September 12, 1984.
  • "Bolivia: Farmworkers on Hunger Strike to Demand Right to Grow Coca," IPS-Inter Press Service, October 30, 1984.
  • Peter McFarren, "U.S. Troops Arrive for Drug Operation," The Associated Press, July 17, 1986.
  • Peter Kerr, "Bolivia, With U.S. Aid, Battles Cocaine at the Root," The New York Times, April 17, 1988.
  • Michael Isikoff, "DEA in Bolivia: 'Guerrilla Warfare'; Coca Traffic Proves Resistant," The Washington Post, January 16, 1989.
  • James Painter, "Bolivia to Crack Down on Coca," Christian Science Monitor, July 21, 1989.
  • Michael Isikoff, "Drug Plan Allows Use Of Military; Classified Directive From Bush Loosens Rules of Engagement," The Washington Post, September 10, 1989.
  • Kevin Noblet, "Plan To Escalate Drug War Provokes Debate in Bolivia," The Associated Press, June 7, 1990.
  • Robert Collier, "Bolivia's Anti-Drug War in Tailspin," The San Francisco Chronicle, November 6, 1990.
  • James Painter, "Bolivians Protest US Militarization Of Drug War," Christian Science Monitor, April 15, 1991.