LA PAZ – Twenty-six Bolivian police and soldiers were wounded Tuesday when they were ambushed by coca growers in a lowland region of La Paz province, officials said.
About 150 growers fired guns and hurled dynamite and Molotov cocktails at the troops and police, Deputy Social Defense Minister Felipe Caceres told a press conference.
The violence took place near the town of Palos Blancos as security forces were eradicating illegal plantations of coca – the raw material of cocaine.
One policeman was badly injured and 16 of the attackers were arrested, Caceres said.
Authorities seized one gun and found infrastructure used in processing coca into cocaine, according to the deputy minister, who is in charge of Bolivia’s counternarcotics efforts.
Bolivia, like neighboring Peru, allows cultivation of coca in limited amounts for legal uses in cooking, folk medicine and Andean religious rites.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, who came to prominence as the leader of coca growers in the Chapare region, has largely moved away from forced eradication while stepping up efforts against drug traffickers, with record seizures of cocaine.
He has also sought to promote additional legal applications for coca, which in its unadulterated form is a mild stimulant comparable to caffeine.
Even so, Bolivian authorities acknowledge that roughly half of the country’s coca crop is diverted by drug traffickers.
Caceres said the task force attacked Tuesday had already destroyed 300 hectares (more than 600 acres) of coca in northern La Paz province and planned to eliminate another 80 hectares despite opposition from some area residents. EFE