LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — A police officer on Sunday became the second member of a government eradication squad to die of gunshot wounds from an ambush by coca growers, who authorities said continued to hold eight eradicators hostage.
Ten more members of the joint military-police team suffered gunshot wounds and 10 were injured by blows in Saturday's attack in a rural area of the remote municipality of Apolo, about 90 miles north of La Paz, Interior Minister Carlos Romero said.
It was the first fatal attack on an eradication team since President Evo Morales, a coca growers union leader, was first elected nearly eight years ago.
A bullet perforated the stomach and pancreas of the police officer who died Sunday, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. It said the army lieutenant who died Saturday suffered a gunshot wound that pierced a lung.
A local coca grower leader, Gregorio Cari, told The Associated Press by phone that security forces had attacked with tear gas and gunshots. Cari said the growers were only trying to protect their crops.
"I have information that the comrades were provoked," Cari said. He said the growers took the hostages for their own security and were seeking dialogue to prevent "confrontation."
The government considers more than two-thirds of Bolivia's coca crop to be legal and dedicated to traditional uses such as alleviating altitude sickness and fatigue. Joint military-police teams eradicate unapproved coca fields, and the official in charge of the effort, Felipe Caceres, said more than 35 square miles had been destroyed this year.
Bolivia is the world's No. 3 coca producer after Peru and Colombia, according to the United Nations, and reduced the area under cultivation for two consecutive years to 98 square miles in 2012.
U.S. officials say most of Bolivia's coca leaves are nevertheless being processed into cocaine, whose main destination is Brazil, Argentina and Europe.
Morales rose to prominence as a leader of the six coca-growing federations of the Chapare region of central Bolivia.
Critics, including Cari, say the president favors his Chapare supporters over growers in other regions. However, two-thirds of coca cultivation destroyed this year was in Chapare, compared to one-third in Apolo and the Yungas region near La Paz, Caceres says.
Morales expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008, accusing it of inciting political opposition.
The U.S. government says the result has been a rise in cocaine trafficking and related violence in Bolivia that is fueled by official corruption. Effective this month, the U.S. halted all counter-narcotics aid to Morales' government.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.