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The situation sounds bad, but reality could be far worse

Bolivia and the Drug Cartels


By —— Bio and Archives--April 22, 2014

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Since 2006, Evo Morales has been the president of Bolivia. As an active campaigner against the war on drugs, a coca grower himself, and an admirer of Che Guevara, controversy has swirled about his administration.

Morales promoted international decriminalization of the coca leaf and has expelled US counter-narcotic agents, leading senior international officials to express concern that the nation is vulnerable to drug cartels and could be becoming a narcostate.

The concerns appeared to be validated by reports emerging from this South American nation in late 2009. Rival drug factions were fighting over smuggling routes and the cartel-linked gangs were developing more advanced cocaine production facilities—including mobile labs. Even the Bolivian police acknowledged that removing the US-DEA may not have been the best choice. According to Colonel Oscar Nina, the director of the anti-narcotics police, “the withdrawal of the DEA has affected our work, they provided fast, direct access to a certain kind of information.” Nina also admitted the Mexican cartels were moving in rapidly, both financing and directing operations in his country, possibly with the assistance of the Colombian FARC and other cartel-related groups.

The head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UN-ODC) in Bolivia stated that the Morales government simply isn’t investigating the cartels, and that since Morales took office, “drug trafficking has spread in Bolivia ... the processing of coca into drugs is taking place all over the country.” According to Nicholas Kolen, the Caribbean and Latin America section chief of the US-DEA’s Office of Global Enforcement, “everyone in the country is getting rich off drug production ... It’s starting to eat at the fabric of the country, and it’s not going to be long before these trafficking organizations can hold the government hostage.”

Latin American nations coming increasingly under the cartels’ influence

As with other Latin American nations coming increasingly under the cartels’ influence, government corruption is on the rise. In May 2010, a police officer was arrested in connection with the murder of drug lord William Rosales Suarez’s associates at a fake police checkpoint. Other active and former police officers were suspected in the homicides. Suarez was kidnapped during the attack, likely in response to a million dollar bounty against him from the Bolivian drug cartels. Three of the murdered bodyguards were from Serbia, highlighting growing drug cartel connections between the two nations.

Demonstrating an astonishing failure of foresight, by mid-summer of 2010 Morales was already asking for the same type of international assistance in tackling the cartels that he had fought against when he kicked the US-DEA out in January 2009. While the US-DEA is not welcome in Bolivia anymore, the European Union (EU) is. The EU is currently financing an anti-drugs center valued at $1.3 million in a coca producing region.

The problem isn’t just the export market. Domestic drug abuse also poses a major threat to civil society in Bolivia

The problem isn’t just the export market. Domestic drug abuse also poses a major threat to civil society in Bolivia. Rates of abusing opiates, cocaine, cannabis, and amphetamines are between two to six times higher in Bolivia than in its neighbor Peru. Much of the Peruvian drug exports transit Bolivia, and join up with Bolivia’s own illicit narcotics exports on their way to Brazil and eventually the European, Asian, African, North American, and Australian markets. A significant South American market for Bolivia’s drug exports also exists in both Brazil and Argentina.

During the first four years of Morales’ rule, Bolivian coca cultivation increased over 35 percent and potential pure cocaine production increased 70 percent. Between 2006 and 2011, the nation’s homicide rate jumped more than 48 percent, motor vehicle thefts are up 67 percent, rates of sexual violence have increased almost 70 percent, rape has nearly doubled in frequency, robbery rates have increased almost 30 percent, and assaults are up 14 percent. Violent crime is clearly escalating under Morales. Despite repeated government denials in late 2011 that cartels are operating on Bolivian territory, all serious international bodies disagreed with this naive or erroneous view. Within a couple months, the Bolivian government finally admitted that the cartels were established, including those from Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, and Paraguay. Bolivia recently signed an agreement with Colombia to fight Colombian cartels operating in Bolivia.

Thus, we see repeated patterns whereby Morales’ government initially denies there is a drug cartel problem, and is then forced to reverse course in short order and request international assistance. The hypocrisy of the Morales administration’s position on the drug trade is palpable. Coca growers were named to key law-enforcement posts and the government advocated for increases in the land available for coca growing up to levels many-fold in excess of that needed to supply the indigenous traditional demand for chewable coca. As the Wall Street Journal reported in January 2012, “Valentin Mejillones, the shaman who swore Mr. Morales into office and acted as his personal spiritual guide, was arrested in 2010 with more than 500 pounds of liquid cocaine in his home.” The sisters of Morales’ former girlfriend, who was tasked with drafting a section on coca growing for a new Bolivian constitution, were caught with 300 pounds of refined cocaine in 2008. In 2011, the head of Bolivia’s anti-narcotics agency was arrested in Panama—and is currently in a US jail—as he prepared to ship over 300 pounds of cocaine to the USA. So much for the “coca yes, cocaine no” policy, despite the positive spin some media outlets provide.

It is cocaine deja vu for Bolivia. During the 1980s, the nation was a major international source of cocaine. Then the DEA helped the Bolivian police crack down on production and exports. This led to cocaine production shifting into Colombia, where the DEA then focused their attention and has worked with Colombian authorities to achieve a dramatic reduction in cocaine production and trafficking over recent years. The cocaine network needed somewhere to go, and Morales’ weak stance on international drug enforcement put up the open-for-business flag for the cartels. And in they moved, allowing them to transfer the production and trafficking capacity out of Colombia and other areas under DEA scrutiny, and back into Bolivia. Far from being the eco-utopia that environmentalists portray it as, Bolivia’s protected lands are under threat as coca production expands into virgin territory.

Some regional leaders in Bolivia fear that their cities will become another “Ciudad Juarez.” Ruben Costas, governor of the department of Santa Cruz, has accused high government officials—including Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera—of being involved in drug trafficking. Bolivian Presidency Minister Juan Ramon Quintana has been linked with Brazilian drug lord Maximiliano Dorado Munhoz. Also reported is that “two drug trafficking families appear to be battling for control over drug production in Santa Cruz,” reminiscent of the source of Mexico’s drug-related violence. The distinction between Bolivia’s family-run criminal enterprises and the international cartels is only a fine one, as the former is undoubtedly working closely with the latter.

There are claims that “the country’s unorthodox measures are working, with a significant drop in coca plantings and without the violence associated with many aspects of the US war on drugs.” The data do not appear to support this assertion. Since Morales kicked the DEA out in 2009, the homicide rate has increased 44 percent. Much media attention was given to the slight drop in illicit cultivation of coca bush in Bolivia from 31,000 hectares in 2010 to 27,200 hectares in 2011 as discussed in the UN-ODC World Drug Report 2013. A more recent UN report indicates a further drop in 2012 to 25,300 hectares.  But a closer look at the available dataset for Bolivia, which dates back to 1999, shows that illicit cultivation levels in 2012 were still at the same level as before Morales took office, and more than 73 percent higher than in 2000.

The cartel’s increasing influence in Bolivia under Morales’ leadership

Coca cultivation area can also vary widely from year-to-year (e.g., from 1999 to 2000, there was a 33 percent decline before production began to increase again for the next few years), so several more years of data will be required before we will know whether illicit cultivation is actually on the decline. Measuring the area under cultivation is also challenging. With more than 36 million hectares of agricultural land in the country, reported illicit coca cultivation makes up only 0.07 percent of this total and only 0.02 percent of Bolivia’s total land mass. Finding illegal coca fields can often be analogized to a needle in a haystack.

The cartel’s increasing influence in Bolivia under Morales’ leadership is reflecting in its governance rankings. The nation is falling behind the international community in terms of controlling corruption and delivering a quality regulatory system. It is ranked as one of the more corrupt countries on the planet. There is also an absence of press freedom, with Bolivia ranking 94th on the latest Press Freedom Index. No press freedom plus rampant and institutionalized corruption is a recipe for an information void on the true state of Bolivia’s relationship with the cartels. As bad as the situation appears from the available media reports, the actual state could be far worse.



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Sierra Rayne -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Sierra Rayne holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry and writes regularly on environment, energy, and national security topics. He can be found on Twitter at @srayne_ca


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