Mérida Interview: María Mercedes Moreno of Mama Coca 2/21/03

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Based in Paris and dividing her time between France and her native Colombia, María Mercedes Moreno is the coordinator of Mama Coca (http://www.mamacoca.org), an international consortium of academics, activists and researchers studying the illicit crops of Latin America. A political scientist with an advanced degree in ethnology, Moreno is an instructor in the French national university system. DRCNet spoke with Moreno by phone from her home in Paris before the conference began.

Week Online: What is Mama Coca? Who is involved?

María Mercedes Moreno: Mama Coca began as a loose network mainly of academics concerned with coca production in Colombia. People working in the field found that we needed to network to exchange information, and so much material was coming through that we started a journal. It really started with Plan Colombia, the US drug war policy in that country, but now it has grown to encompass Peru, Bolivians working with Evo Morales, and we are even forming relationships with Brazilian President Lula da Silva and his Workers Party.

Our first mission is to stop the chemical warfare in Colombia. The fumigation of crops there is only becoming more intense. President Uribe wants more and more spraying; he's said so himself. And it's not only the spraying with glyphosate. They're doing biological warfare experiments on the Ecuadorian border, testing the fungus oxysporum.

WOL: The US has become increasingly involved in Colombia. How is it going?

Moreno: Things are getting worse. President Uribe is working to create new paramilitary forces, the so-called self-defense forces. He is legitimizing the paramilitaries because the dialogue now is with them, not with the guerrillas. These self-defense forces basically protect the oligarchy from social protests, land reforms and guerrilla extortion. Uribe is in effect creating a counter-agrarian reform. And Uribe is legitimizing the paramilitaries with the acknowledgement of the US. The US says, "Carlos Castano [paramilitary leader], we can't talk to you because you're a drug trafficker," so Castano says okay, he's not a trafficker anymore. It's like a game.

The paramilitaries are using the money from the drug trade to buy land -- that is a key element of the counter-agrarian reform. When the government wants to fumigate, first they send in the paramilitaries, who "cleanse" the land, they assault the people and push them out, because otherwise the guerrillas could shoot down the spray planes. But the paramilitaries also want the land for cattle-raising. They either buy it or take it. Part of the problem is that the Colombian army is so corrupt that it is hard to win a war with them. That's why they need the paramilitaries. The army doesn't want to fight the guerrillas, but the paramilitaries are in it for the land and they're willing to go in and do what has to be done. That is why the US accepts the paramilitaries.

We are seeing increased human rights violations, increased violence. By using the paramilitaries, the government is privatizing the violence, and of course, the US government is in on it. This is not left-wing conspiracy talk; this is what the researchers and academics are reporting. It sends the helicopters, it pays for the spraying, it has troops now in Colombia protecting an oil pipeline. And Uribe has this pending referendum that includes an article against drug trafficking and addiction, but it is hallucinatory. It is all directed at small producers and consumers and really says nothing about large-scale trafficking. There is no mention of seizing traffickers' assets. Instead he is talking about recriminalizing drug possession. In Colombia, smoking a joint is like having a glass of wine. They think they can turn this back.

There is also a very dangerous concentration of power in the Uribe administration. Uribe's people tell me he is determined to be a strong leader, although he is certainly not autonomous when it comes to the US. Likewise, his right-hand man, Fernando Londono, is now both Minister of Justice and Minister of Government. Londono has said that the people who oppose fumigation are with the guerrillas, they are subversives. This is a very repressive sort of mini-dictatorship.

WOL: Does Mama Coca take a position on legalization and regulation of the trade?

Moreno: Funny you should ask. We attempted to get some funding from the Tides Foundation, but they said we needed to form a legal association, but when we did we got a call from French intelligence saying, "What is this all about?" French law doesn't allow you to make propaganda in favor of drugs. So Mama Coca as an organization has as its main objective defending human rights and exposing how this war on illicit drugs attacks the human rights of many people.

Personally, most of us favor legalization, but Mama Coca is a pluralist organization. We publish people from the left, the right, but what we publish is people who specialize in the subject. And the politics can get strange. For example, the Colombian Minister of Agriculture holds the same position as most of us, but he is a member of repressive rightist regime. What is most important is that a debate on the topic of legalization take place.

WOL: Do you see any possibility of a unified Latin American or Andean approach to the political economy of coca and cocaine?

Moreno: It's funny, when we try to talk with our Peruvian and Bolivian friends about coca cultivation in Colombia, even they are thinking in terms of the narcotraffic. "Who profits from this?" they want to know. But they know the profits from this trade go to the States and Europe, and what stays in Colombia goes to buy land and to consolidate the counter-agrarian reform. People think the indigenous people in Colombia have no right to grow coca; even Colombian researchers say it is not traditionally a coca-growing country. Mama Coca is the first group to defend coca-growing as a traditional right in Colombia.

But there is much we don't know, and the Peruvians and Bolivians have helped us greatly. We are hoping to work with people there, as well as with countries that are not big producers, like Ecuador and Brazil. All of these Latin American countries share common concerns, we're all interested in food safety and the environment. But in Colombia the peasants are dying. You can't make a living off the land when it has been fumigated for coca. All the crops get killed. The food crops get killed. But our concerns are broader than Colombia alone, and I'm certain that we can get together to change things. We are growing fast and have so many connections now. We will overcome misperceptions and stereotypes. We will find a common voice.

WOL: What do you hope to see at the Mérida conference? [Ed: This interview was conducted before the conference.]

Moreno: It sounds great. Everyone is saying, "See you there." In Mérida, I would hope that we could at least reach a common stand regarding plants. How can you make a plant illegal? I hope we can all agree that poppy and coca and marijuana are nature's plants and we refuse to accept that they are illegal. We want them off the UN Conventions. The Europeans are behind this. This is not really anyone's domestic issue anymore; this belongs to all of us. My expectation is that we can stand firm on the plants, that we can all agree on that. I'm not sure what else we can agree on, but at least we should respect nature.

I also want to meet these people from all over, and I want to learn about what is going on elsewhere, especially in the States.

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Issue #275, 2/21/03 Out from the Shadows: First Latin American Anti-Prohibition Summit Convenes in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico | Mérida Interview: María Mercedes Moreno of Mama Coca | Mérida Interview: Luiz Paulo Guanabara, Brazil, Executive Director of Psico-Tropicus | Rosenthal Verdict Fallout: Angry Jurors, Media Attention, a New Bill in Congress | Victory for Bolivian Coca-Growers Imminent, Reports Say Government Will Allow Coca in the Chapare | Thailand War on Drugs Turns Murderous, 600 Killed This Month -- Human Rights Groups Denounce Death Squads, Executions | Peoria Needle Lady Busted in Pekin, But Charges Later Dropped | Drug Czar's Office Masks TRUE Costs of War on Drugs in Federal Budget | Newsbrief: DEA Kills 14-Year-Old Girl in San Antonio, Claims Self Defense | Newsbrief: US Spooks Killed, Captured in Colombia | Newsbrief: French Cannabis Activist Faces Jail for "Encouraging Drug Use" | Newsbrief: Corrupt Cop of the Week I | Newsbrief: Corrupt Cop of the Week II | Newsbrief: Oklahoma Report Urges Sanity in Sentencing | DC Job Opportunity at DRCNet -- Campus Coordinator | The Reformer's Calendar

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