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Fighting the War on Drugs with Bus Stops and Law Books: USAID in Bolivia

As the Cold War died down, U.S. assistance to Latin America shifted focus to a new war: the war on drugs. For many, the TV show Narcos, the story of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the dramatic showdown that led to his demise, summarizes this new focus of U.S. foreign policy—and emphasizes the role of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Agency. But Narcos doesn’t tell the whole story.

Coca fields in the highlands in Yungas, Bolivia | Wikimedia Commons
Coca fields in the highlands in Yungas, Bolivia | Wikimedia Commons

Militarized interventions characterized the war on drugs throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but the Clinton administration attempted to shift that policy in the early 1990s. Instead of focusing on drug interdiction in the Caribbean basin, the United States would work to reduce coca production and develop anti-drug institutions in source countries like Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, even as military assistance to Latin American countries continued. Reflecting the Clinton administration’s new philosophy, though, the U.S. Agency for International Development played a strong role in promoting the rule of law and encouraging coca growers to plant alternative crops.

USAID officer Lewis Lucke was assigned to Bolivia in 1992 as a Project Development Officer working on said issues. He became Deputy Mission Director shortly thereafter, and when the Mission Director was reassigned to El Salvador in 1995, Lucke became Mission Director until he departed for Jordan in 1996. Lucke had previously worked on similar projects in Costa Rica; he later became Ambassador to Swaziland and coordinated USAID’s response to the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

Lewis Lucke was interviewed by Mark Tauber on November 16, 2016.

Read Lewis Lucke’s full oral history HERE.

Read more about military assistance to combat Colombia’s “drug barons” HERE. Read about Pablo Escobar and the siege of Colombia’s Palace of Justice HERE.

Read more about Lewis Lucke’s work in rebuilding after the Iraq War HERE and in rebuilding after the Haitian earthquake HERE.

Drafted by Kendrick Foster.

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Excerpts:

“We were doing a lot of anti-drug things and therefore there was a lot of both scrutiny and pressure.”

Moving to Bolivia: So I went to Bolivia — what a place. It was a very different country and place than I had ever been, but I liked it. But then again, I even liked Iraq once I arrived there, so maybe I have a screw loose. But Bolivia was a huge and diverse country with the Andes, jungle and everything in between….

I went as planned or hoped from being Project Development Officer to being Deputy Mission Director. Then my boss Carl [Leonard] was reassigned as Director in El Salvador so I was elevated to Mission Director. I was Mission Director for the last year and a half of my stay in Bolivia … The Director had to assure good coordination with the Embassy and the Ambassador. It was important to make the Ambassador into a supporter and an ally. We were doing a lot of anti-drug things and therefore there was a lot of both scrutiny and pressure. We, in USAID, were an important part of the Embassy team and I always remembered I worked for the Ambassador at the end of the day.

“The government probably didn’t touch the lives of the majority of Bolivians who were very poor anyway. So as Forrest Gump would say, ‘That’s all I have to say about that.’”

           
Bolivian president Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Losada | Wikimedia Commons
Bolivian president Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Losada | Wikimedia Commons

Administration of Justice: Well, a couple of things occurred to me immediately. One was we were very much involved in what we called administration of justice — basically helping the legal system and the court system work better. This was a problem in most of Latin America and it certainly was in Bolivia. A lot of the lessons we had learned because we were so involved in this sector in Costa Rica we were able to apply a lot of that experience to Bolivia. We were doing similar justice programs throughout.

Q. In terms of measuring the success of those programs, did the local population understand that things were getting better with the justice system? Was there any way to measure improved confidence in the local population?

LUCKE: Good question. We had our own internal monitoring and evaluation systems and we always had benchmarks that were established and measured. So we had, let’s call it, an internal system to be able to evaluate the results of these programs, and I think those were generally positive. Even in a place like Bolivia, a little progress in a sector, say justice, that was in such dire need of improvement, to put it diplomatically, was helpful. Whether the local population was aware or not, the people we dealt with in government and the private sector were aware of it. Whether the general population was, probably not at all. But you know the government probably didn’t touch the lives of the majority of Bolivians who were very poor anyway. So as Forrest Gump would say, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Q: How about the sustainability of the projects you completed? Obviously there were positive outcomes while you were there. Were they sustainable to the best of your knowledge over time?

LUCKE: Well, they were sustainable while I was there. I don’t know over time what really happened. The test probably really is the institutional changes, cultural changes and the training of key individuals and the many lawyers, judges and court administrators and so forth we trained. We would even donate a large number of legal books in Spanish to a lot to universities and law schools all over the country. The situation now, I am just not informed but I am hoping that much has been sustainable. But you know anybody who works in development and hangs on for decades, you are, by definition, an optimist. So I saw a lot of positive changes while I was there.

“We would put our concrete ‘bus stops’ on the straight portions of the roads and planes would land and have their wings knocked off. They quit trying that after a while. We had a running joke with some of the DEA guys after our ‘bus stop’ successes, you know ‘USAID 3, DEA 0.’”

Alternative Development: A second [priority] was what we called “alternative development,” basically trying to help farmers in the coca growing areas develop legal crops to replace coca. Many people would not believe tropical fruit could compete with coca, but in fact, those making money from coca or cocaine were much further up the production chain than the simple campesinos. So, we were working on research and being able to provide alternative crops for the farmers mostly in the Chapare, which is the coca growing zone south of Cochabamba in the Amazon basin. Crops like hearts of palm, star fruit, passion fruit, mangoes, black pepper, bananas and so forth could be grown and marketed successfully in Santa Cruz or even as far away as Argentina.… So a good number of the farmers were actually making good money and they were very happy to not be on the wrong end of the law. Other parts of the Embassy, like DEA, were working on the interdiction side, but USAID was involved in “alternative development” and its moving parts like rural roads, financing, cooperatives and so forth. It was pretty successful.

Q: And there were enough farm to market roads and so on to be able to get their crop.

LUCKE: Yes, we helped improve a lot of those roads and built some of them. In fact, we were ahead of the DEA in terms of taking down narco planes because we built “bus stops” out of concrete on some of the rural roads that were sometimes used as landing strips for the narco planes….

We would put our concrete bus stops on the straight portions of the roads and planes would land and have their wings knocked off. They quit trying that after a while. We had a running joke with some of the DEA guys after our “bus stop” successes, you know “USAID 3, DEA 0.” We were involved in a lot of different kinds of programs and it was a creative time. We had clear channels of communication and pretty good cooperation from the government which was absolutely essential. You don’t have that now in Bolivia and the current President — who was a coca union leader in my time there — threw USAID and DEA out of Bolivia some years back….

Another aspect of our work at the time was a balance of payments programs, economic policy reform just like I had been in Costa Rica and later in Jordan. We hold out the prospect of balance of payments assistance to help the government pay off its external debt to the IMF and the World Bank. An equivalent in local currency was made available and those funds were programmed for additional development activities. We would also pay the government for the eradication of coca, which was controversial as that really didn’t act as a permanent incentive to get out of the coca growing business. So I was involved in all that.

“President Goni Sanchez de Lozada had actually been raised in the States. Goni and his brother Tony spoke Spanish with an American accent which always used to crack me up. They were easy to work with and their people were good too.”

           
Flag of Bolivia | Wikimedia Commons
Flag of Bolivia | Wikimedia Commons

The Mission and the Embassy: There were always internal issues to deal with within the Mission. We moved to a new building. We hired more staff; we continued our programs; we developed new programs — all challenges but part of the deal. We had real good relations with the government at the time. The president was elected [in the middle of] my tour there. President Goni Sanchez de Lozada had actually been raised in the States. Goni and his brother Tony spoke Spanish with an American accent which always used to crack me up. They were easy to work with and their people were good too. It was a friendly and productive relationship for the most part.

I mean you always have issues in difficult times. We were physically separated from the Embassy but spent a lot of time there in meetings and coordinating. I think there was a bit of inevitable resentment by the State folks vis a vis USAID. We had so many external activities and spent money — we had a checkbook they didn’t have so maybe there was some resentment there. This was before State more or less assumed control of USAID’s budget which happened in about 2005-2006 I think. But we were always very aware that we were one team and had to work together. Everything we did was communicated to the Ambassador and DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission]. Neither were shrinking violets but I liked them both and I recall several instances when USAID stepped to the plate with resources, people and creativity to help solve some important Embassy issues. It was very important for me to show that USAID could work cooperatively with the rest of the Embassy and succeed together. By the time I left, I know Ambassador [Curtis Warren] Kamman was very satisfied with USAID. We supported each other and it worked out well for the Embassy’s effectiveness as a whole.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in Global Studies, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill 1970-1974
MBA, Thunderbird School of Global Management 1976-1977
Joined USAID 1978
La Paz, Bolivia — Deputy Mission Director, USAID 1992-1995
La Paz, Bolivia — Mission Director, USAID 1995-1996
Baghdad, Iraq—Reconstruction Coordinator, USAID 2002-2004
Swaziland—Ambassador 2004-2006