LA PAZ – Coca growers’ leader Franklin Gutierrez called in an interview with EFE for unity in Bolivia, urging his countrymen to set aside their differences in the wake of the departure from office of President Evo Morales, with whom he clashed, a move that landed him in prison.
Gutierrez, who spent more than a year at the prison in San Pedro, said that he considered himself the first “political prisoner” released after Morales went into exile in Mexico.
In La Paz, Gutierrez is the leader of a group of coca growers who are opposed to the growers in the Chapare, a region on the other end of Bolivia.
The coca growers in the Chapare are allies of Morales and have been staging protests against the administration of interim President Jeanine Añez.
Gutierrez was arrested for allegedly murdering a drug enforcement agent in an ambush in Yungas, a coca-growing region located north of La Paz.
The coca growers’ leader was released from prison on Nov. 14, two days after the interim government took power, with television cameras capturing the emotional scene as Gutierrez gave his daughter a toy castle, a present he had promised to give her when his nightmare behind bars ended.
“These have been very difficult times that we Bolivians have lived, as president of the ADEPCOCA of Yungas, I was unjustly imprisoned by the government of Evo Morales, who did all of this to get me out of the leadership and also as a presidential candidate,” Gutierrez said.
The 35-year-old Gutierrez and the Departmental Association of Coca Growers of La Paz (ADEPCOCA), which he has led for some time, were allies of Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party.
Gutierrez, however, distanced himself and his group from the MAS and the Morales administration, saying that their actions were dividing Bolivia.
The country needs “unity” more than anything now and to set aside political differences for the good of the nation, the ADEPCOCA leader said.
This is the message that Gutierrez is spreading in the aftermath of Morales’s resignation on Nov. 10 amid pressure from the armed forces.
Gutierrez said he was “unjustly imprisoned” and blamed Morales, saying the former president did everything he could to remove him from the ADEPCOCA leadership and stop him from running for president of Bolivia.
The ADEPCOCA leader said he and his inner circle considered that the former administration’s actions had converted him into “a political prisoner.”
Gutierrez announced his candidacy for the failed Oct. 20, 2018, presidential elections, but he was prohibited from running following his arrest.
Regarding a possible run in the 2020 presidential elections, the coca growers’ leader said he was ruling that out for now and planned to focus on his family and ADEPCOCA.
“With everything that has happened to me, like the loss of my son, my family ... the suffering I endured in prison, I’m more focused at this time on trying to lift up ADEPCOCA as an institution, to become much more united,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez’s 2-year-old son died in November 2018, when the coca grower was spending his third month in prison.
The ADEPCOCA leader said Morales “just divided us, fractured us, created parallels of different organizations at the national level, now we have to unify and think not about the welfare of one, but of all Bolivians, and to have clean and transparent elections.”
Gutierrez said he hoped Bolivia would have a future government that was made up of “honest people, who work for the good of the entire community,” supporting the work of ADEPCOCA and the people of the Yungas region.
Gutierrez criticized the Chapare region’s coca growers’ association, whose leadership Morales never surrendered during his 14 years as president, for continuing to stage protests.
“The coca from the Chapare, of Evo Morales, is never chewed, it’s no good for derivatives, exclusively for narco trafficking,” Gutierrez said.
Coca is the raw material used by drug traffickers to produce cocaine.