I was the personal photographer of Bolivian general Hugo Banzer during his 1997 presidential campaign. After he won, I asked him to send me somewhere to document something exciting. He selected the Chapare Province of Cochabamba, where I embedded with Bolivia’s Mobile Police Unit for Rural Areas (UMOPAR) from 1997 to 2001. In its heyday, the unit was a highly specialized and DEA-funded subsidiary of Bolivia’s Special Antinarcotics Force, and my assignment was to document its efficiency and success.
At the time, the region produced more coca leaf than almost anywhere in the world. This era is now known as the epoca negra—the dark age—because of the danger and bloodshed experienced on both sides. I had a lot of respect for the men tasked with cleaning up the jungle; we shared sweat, blood, and gunshots, and I lost some friends over there. I want to make it clear that these photos have nothing to do with the reality of the antinarcotics forces in Bolivia today. The funding for these types of operations has been greatly reduced since Evo Morales—a former pro-coca activist—came into power. Of course, the flip side is that higher production has lowered the cost of the final product, and it seems that the current situation is reaching a dangerous apex. Based on my experience, I think it’s very possible that the area will see an upsurge in violence over the next few years. Let these photos serve as a reminder of the destruction it may bring. One of the many search-and-destroy operations conducted by UMOPAR and the Bolivian Army near the Ichilo River in the Chapare region of Cochabamba. These cooperative antinarcotics endeavors eventually spawned three groups: The Red Devils carried out helicopter operations, the Blue Devils worked in the rivers, and the Green Devils provided logistical support. As we were wrapping up, a UMOPAR soldier turned to me and said, “You forgot your camera bag!” I replied, “I didn’t bring a bag.” We opened it and found a one-kilo ball of cocaine sulfate. A drug mule must have abandoned it on the side of the road after realizing there was a checkpoint ahead. A few “Leopards,” as UMOPAR members are known, destroy a cocaine-paste processing lab. The proprietor and his workers managed to escape during a gunfight with the troops. A cocaine-paste processing lab burns as a Leopard protects the site. Many times traffickers would return after fleeing a raided site, seeking to recover any materials and to kill the troops guarding the area. A UMOPAR soldier protects a site in Chimoré where tons of confiscated coca leaves and base cocaine paste were destroyed. Traffickers lucky enough to escape would sometimes return in an attempt to reclaim their materials and kill antinarcotics forces. These bundles of cocaine paste were found in secret compartments inside a civilian bus. They contained about half a kilo each. Large amounts of chemicals (such as acetone and ether) used to manufacture cocaine and other drugs were typically transported away from the Chapare region to the outskirts of the city of Oruro, where they were frequently destroyed with C-4.