Suspended for Drinking Tea?

Results from a recent random drug test revealed that Jose Alfredo Castillo tested positive for cocaine. The 21-year-old forward from Club Bolivar adamantly declares that he is not a drug user. Instead he states that the two cups of mate de coca tea he drank prior to the match was the root cause of this positive result. Derived from the coca leaf, this tea is commonly consumed because of its medicinal properties.

Even though the coca leaf has been targeted as the centerpiece of the United States’ War on Drugs in Bolivia because it is used to process and manufacture cocaine, there is a world of difference between the two. The leaf in its raw form has been used for centuries as a stimulant to counter the effects of hunger and fatigue. In present day, the coca leaf can be consumed in mate de coca tea, often utilized to diminsh the effects of "soroche" or altitude sickness. Upon arrival in La Paz, many tourists and visitors struggling with the sudden change of altitude are offered a cup. Even children regularly consume this mate, proving its safety.

Experts say that one would have to ingest between 30-40 cups of mate before its results would resemble anything remotely close to testing positive for cocaine. However, it is still not an exact science.

In 1993, Bolivian captain Miguel Angel Rimba tested positive for cocaine prior to a game against Brasil. The results were later overturned when it was discovered that Rimba had taken mate de coca.

Random testing for two players per team takes place after every Bolivian league match. Regulations state that any player who had recently drank mate de coca, should notify the administering physician. Team doctor stated that Castillo did not mention anything about drinking the tea. However, head coach Vladimir Soria indicated that Castillo did approach him after the test saying that he had in fact drank two cups of tea.

As players continue to test positive for cocaine (approximately 2-3 per year in Bolivia), the excuse of tea drinking has been convenient. Although in the past couple of years, no positive result has been overturned.

The case is still pending, with Castillo and his lawyer asking for a re-test. Facing a minimum six months suspension, his bright future could be on hold. After scoring 42 goals in 2001 with Oriente Petrolero, which earned him the distinction of the top goal scorer in the world, Castillo was transferred to UAG Tecos in the Mexican League. Returning to Bolivia in 2004, he scored a hat-trick in a historic win against Boca Juniors in the Libertadores Cup. Officials stated that the finishing touches were almost complete that would transfer him to Boca, the current holder of the Intercontinental Cup.

Perhaps fame and fortune came too quickly for Castillo. With a reported monthly salary of $25,000 playing in Mexico, he was back in a country where the minimum monthly salary is approximately 70 dollars. Earlier this year, he was suspended from his club because he did not return to training after the Easter holidays spent in his hometown of Santa Cruz. Neighbors complained about the loud party that lasted two days straight.

Past behavior and a reputation as one who loves farras may have many doubting his pleas of innocence. From a football standpoint, one can only hope that it was all a misunderstanding and that the can soon play on the biggest stage in South America. However, from a personal standpoint, one can only hope that this can serve as a wake-up call to turn his life around. The opportunity is there to be the one to turn the Bolivian National Team’s fortunes around and to make the most of one’s natural talents.

La Paz – Circa 1942

My earliest memories of La Paz as a kid were falling victim to bloody noses due to the high altitude. Trying to cross the multi-lane avenue of "El Prado" amidst the whizzing traffice reminded me much too much of the Frogger video game, except that I only had one life to spare. Needless to say, I never cared much for Bolivia’s capital city.

Fast forward to the year 2000, where my appreciation for all of Bolivia grew, and I soon began looking forward to taking the overnight bus-cama Bolivar bus from Cochabamba to La Paz (ticket 3 US dollars). Whether it was to visit my aging grandfather, catch a connecting bus towards Cuzco, go bookshopping, or watch Bolivia thrash Colombia in a World Cup qualifier, better memories replaced those of traffic paranoia and having to tilt my head back.

I’ve always equated La Paz with a bustling metropolis, where there are far too many buses, taxis and trufis that I have to hope that it will take me to my wanted destination. The steep winding roads augmented by shortness of breath and often slippery slidewalks makes getting around rather burdensome.

However, I knew it was not always like how it is now. A promotional film called ‘"Tour of Old and New in Bolivian Capital" was produced by the U.S. Office of Inter-American Affairs showing what this unique city was like nearly sixty years ago.

Those familar with the various landmarks and distinct buildings along El Prado will find this film interesting as one can see how things have changed over the course of six decades. For example, the stadium that is now Hernando Siles Stadium in the Miraflores neighborhood is shown during a league futbol match. However, back then, the stadium only had one level, where today the largest stadium in the country now has a second deck.

In the 1940s, La Paz was generally free of noisy automobiles, which generate unnecessary pollutants, most of the street traffic were well-dressed men and women and colorfully dressed indigenous women taking their wares to the marketplace. Nowadays, as more rural citizens make their ways to the urban centers to try and set up in the informal economy, the space on sidewalks becomes prime real estate.

La Paz is getting more and more crowded, evidenced by the rapid construction that climbed the mountainsides. This film, for those with broadband access and familar with La Paz, is worth a look to get a good feel of the before and after look at this very unique city.

Mayor Killed by Townspeople

In a disturbing course of events, the Mayor of the small town of Ayo Ayo, located 80 km from La Paz was kidnapped, beaten to death and his body burnt. Benjamin Altamirano was found in the main plaza, a victim of a severe and brutal case of vigilante justice.

After being kidnapped from La Paz, he was driven back to Ayo Ayo, where he ultimately lost his life. There was a long history of threats of violence spanning back to 2001, where Altamirano was under constant abuse and even registered a formal complaint with the police fearing for his life.

Townspeople say they were frustrated by the lack of public investments through the Mayorship and the disappearance of approximately 5 million dollars destined for the town’s use. This was the end of a sad chapter where he was repeatedly assaulted and his house burned to the ground, after he was cleared of corruption charges.

Already five suspects have been named by the family as possible perpetrators of this murder. The names were published in a La Paz daily. However, these types of public declarations can increase the tension. These accusations, even those of corruption, can evolve into a life of their own and become hearsay where the line between truth and hysteria can incite emotions that make this behavior seem acceptable. Without clear proof, individuals decide that they can decide a person’s fate regardless of evidence, with the backing of a mob-mentality of onlookers.

The victim’s family are sure that the murder was associated with a political, economic and power struggle, led by former town officials who want a piece of the financial action themselves. The deceased’s family has vowed that if justice doesn’t solve this case, then they will take matters into their own hands.

Everyone is denouncing this crime, including Waldo Albarracín, the Defensor del Pueblo (public ombusdman) and various government ministers. A full investigation is underway.

However, a member of the MIP party (Movimiento Indígena Pachacuti), Gabriel Bautista said he was sorry that this even happened, but reminded that this type of communal justice happens, when the legal course of action does not "work".

This is a reoccurring theme on the Altiplano. Last April a similar event occurred in the town of Ilave, Peru, where the Mayor also accused of corruption was killed and his body burned. As these events become more common, towns and entire regions can increasingly become lawless areas where the State no longer has control.

Events like this leave me frustrated and question how human beings can resort to this type of behavior. No one quite knows all of the factors that lead to this crime. Maybe he was corrupt or maybe it was political jealousy, no matter what, no reasons can ever justify this.