‘Who Isn’t Involved?’: How Corruption Fuels Trafficking of Cocaine in Bolivia
Just as the expulsion of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration removed a check on drug-related corruption at the highest levels of Bolivia’s government, it has also created space for an alarming increase in lower-level illicit activity. Nevertheless, President Evo Morales maintains he has the market for cocaine in Bolivia under control.
On a Thursday evening this past February, two Bolivian men met at a public plaza in the country’s capital, La Paz, to discuss a major cocaine sale. Though they had been texting back and forth all week, each was wary of the other.
One of the men, Luis, was an emissary representing cocaine buyers in Europe; this author attended the meeting at his invitation. The other, Jorge, said he worked for a drug ring that produces and sells both “base”—cocaine in its basic chemical form—and “powder,” for immediate consumption.
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Jorge, the seller, was offering to supply between 50 and 100 kilograms of cocaine paste per week at $1,600 per kilogram, and cocaine powder at $2,100 per kilogram. Luis agreed that both figures were a standard market price, but added that he was not willing to pay any more. The deal also required, per industry standard, that the “cook” of the cocaine be present to consume a small portion during each transaction, so as to demonstrate its quality to the buyer.[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on Resilience in the Face of the Coronavirus Pandemic. ]
These are normal terms for transactions for cocaine in Bolivia, Luis said later. He was more interested in the total quantity the seller had available and how long the supply could last. A drug lab’s supply of coca leaf can be inconsistent, and some trafficking operations are only set up for short-term profit.
[Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series on cocaine in Bolivia, and the country's relationship with coca, funded by WPR's International Reporting Fellowship. The first installment can be found here.]
Jorge was open about the fact that he works for Oswaldo Pablo “Sacate” Justiniano Vaca, a former navy captain who was arrested in 1995 for running a trafficking ring connected to criminal organizations in Colombia. In 1997, Sacate was sentenced to 16 years in prison, though he continued to oversee trafficking operations from behind bars.
As the two men spoke, the plaza filled up with workers and college students, many of them heading to a nearby bus station. After listening to Luis’ concerns about supply, Jorge took out his phone to make a call. When he hung up, he assured Luis there was no need to worry about the length of the deal. It could be a permanent relationship if Luis wanted. There was literally no limitation on the amount of cocaine for sale.
Trafficking of cocaine in Bolivia is fueled by a lax justice system that fails to hold traffickers to account.
In the end, the deal never happened. Over messages on WhatsApp, Jorge pressured Luis for a final decision, but talks petered out. Luis said there were a handful of other sellers to negotiate with, many of whom had similar, if not better, offers to make. The market for cocaine in Bolivia is vast, and competitive.
That’s in no small part due to people like Sacate and a lax justice system that fails to hold them accountable. Just as the expulsion of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008 has left drug-related corruption unchecked at the highest levels of the Bolivian government, it has also created space for an alarming increase in illicit activity permeating lower bodies of government, especially in prisons and among law enforcement.
In 2015, approximately 60 police officers were investigated by Bolivian authorities for drug-related corruption, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report on Bolivia. “Corruption, interference by other branches of government, and insufficient judicial resources undermine due process and create delays in the administration of justice,” the report said.
The State Department’s 2017 money laundering report included Bolivia on a list of major money laundering jurisdictions, noting that the practice “derived primarily from smuggling contraband and from the foreign and domestic drug trade.” It added, “The Bolivian justice system is hindered by corruption and political interference, which impedes the fight against narcotics-related money laundering.”
The Bolivian government has brushed off such criticisms, noting that representatives of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, work with the Ministry of Justice to provide technical and legal assistance for fighting corruption in 60 municipalities around the country.
But opposition officials and outside scholars question the U.N.’s effectiveness in Bolivia. As Jimena Costa, a lawmaker in the opposition Democratic Unity party, has pointed out, the international body is not designed for armed law enforcement investigations in the manner of the DEA. Moreover, there’s always the risk that Morales’ government could kick out the U.N., much like it did the DEA.
“If they go too far and anger the government, they can be simply expelled,” says Miguel Centellas, an assistant professor of sociology and international studies at the University of Mississippi who studies political stability in Bolivia. “So I think what they’ve tried to do is find a balance so that they’re honest, but not overly critical, to the point where they can stay in the country and do some good.”
Perhaps the largest compromise made by the U.N. took place in 2012 and 2013, when Bolivia pulled out of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and then agreed to rejoin on the condition it be exempt from the treaty’s ban on coca chewing. Now, the UNODC actively assists the Bolivian government with commercialization of the leaf, and it helps monitor how much coca grown for the legal market ends up diverted to drug labs. In 2016, the UNODC said in a report that 16,248 tons, or 43 percent of total production, disappeared while in transit. About 90 percent of coca grown in the country’s central Chapare region—approximately 7,200 hectares in 2017—goes to the drug trade, the same report said.
Cochabamba, Bolivia, Dec. 4, 2007 (AP photo by Dado Galdieri).
In part, those diversions occur because law enforcement and other officials are subject to bribes at every step of the legal process, according to Georgina Montero Guivara, a defense attorney in the city of Santa Cruz who has been fighting against coca- and cocaine-related corruption for over a decade.
Guivara also says there is a pattern in which cocaine confiscated by the authorities goes missing. “Where do the illicit substances from each case go?” she asks. “Where are they? We know that the substances should be somewhere. When you inquire about it, they say, ‘It’s with the attorney general’s office, it’s here, it’s there.’ But where?”
Juan, a prolific drug trafficker based in La Paz who was willing to speak to this author on the condition that he be identified with a pseudonym, citing safety reasons, echoed Guivara’s claim that corruption pervades low-level government bodies, especially within the justice system. He and his partners transport several hundred kilograms of cocaine across the border into Chile each week, thanks to law enforcement officials who are involved in the operation or who accept bribes to look the other way. Some of the drugs they traffic are spread throughout Chile, but most end up at the port city of Valparaiso, for shipment to Asia.
Only six people in his operation have been arrested over the past three years, and only one has spent more than three months in prison, he says. Officers are often willing to cut a deal in exchange for some of the seized cocaine. When Juan’s partners were caught moving 130 kilograms in two pickup trucks last year, only one truck and 30 kilograms were registered by the police. A month later, they were out of prison.
Juan grew up on the streets of Arica, a city in northern Chile near the border with Peru. He started smuggling electronics in and out of Bolivia as a teenager. Later, he would switch to cars and motorcycles, before ultimately getting involved in illicit drugs—a more lucrative enterprise. Over the past decade, he says, trafficking has become easier than ever, due in part to government corruption. “Who isn’t involved in the business today?” Juan asked. “Before it was special. Now, it feels normal.”
Widespread evidence of corruption aside, Bolivian officials say their country has been unfairly maligned as unwilling to combat illicit drug activity. “We are coping with a perverse campaign that is trying to stigmatize the Bolivian state as a state tied to drug trafficking,” says Carlos Romero, the minister of government. “The illogical thing is that this current, perverse campaign is being carried out by absolutely unqualified people.”
“Who isn’t involved in the business today? Before it was special. Now, it feels normal.”
Romero says he views the United States as a key participant in this attempt to undermine Bolivia’s reputation. Since the DEA’s exit in 2008, the agency has included Bolivia on a list of “illicit drug producing countries” that have “failed demonstrably” to fight trafficking. This list of “decertified” countries consistently includes Venezuela and Myanmar. Colombia, meanwhile, somehow manages to stay off the list despite leading the world in global coca production and cocaine trafficking.
Romero says the omission of Colombia, where the DEA works closely with local law enforcement to combat drug-related crime, proves that such lists are purely political. “Decertifying Bolivia is, unfortunately, a political campaign rooted in the ideological differences they continue to have with the government of Bolivia. It is an unethical political campaign.”
Since the DEA’s exit, and despite decertification, Bolivia continues to report significant reductions in the amount of coca it grows each year. In 2008, the country was producing around 30,500 hectares, of which 12,000 was legal, according to a UNODC report. But the organization said that figure had dropped to 23,100 hectares in 2016. That’s just 1,100 hectares over the revised legal limit of 22,000 hectares passed in 2017.
Officials in Bolivia attribute this progress to a system in which communities police themselves. Under this system, wrongdoing by one coca farmer—such as growing excess coca or selling it to drug labs—jeopardizes everyone else’s license to produce. In the Chapare region, the government only allows coca farmers to grow within a 40-square-meter plot. In the western, ancestral area known as Los Yungas, where the terrain is choppy and mountainous, coca farmers are allowed to grow as much as they want, as long as they don’t stray outside of the regional border.
The UNODC tracks coca production with digital scanning of coca plantations, helicopter flyovers and in-person measurements taken during site visits by staffers. When coca farmers are found to have exceeded the limit, they are given a warning before their excess crops are forcibly destroyed.
But a trafficker based in Beni department, in northern Bolivia, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, says there are numerous ways to get around UNODC and government oversight. The best, and perhaps most effective, one is to take advantage of the legal system already in place. This means that in addition to frequently paying off law enforcement and other government officials, she also operates her own legal coca plantation. Because it’s registered with the Bolivian government, as is her license to transport the product, she has her own regular supply. But instead of entering the legal coca market, her crop ends up at her drug lab, where it is turned into a paste and loaded onto one of two weekly clandestine flights to Paraguay.
in the Peruvian jungle that police say was used to smuggle cocaine to Bolivia,
July 28, 2015 (AP photo by Rodrigo Abd).
Though the UNODC has methods for tracking this kind of activity—and has no problem admitting, along with the Bolivian government, that it’s a problem in need of fixing—an agency spokesman says it isn’t monitoring who purchases coca legally, and for what. That means drug traffickers could be skipping the hassle of diverting crops and simply purchasing their supply of coca over the counter at any regular store.
For this reason, the U.S. has claimed that the UNODC’s methods of monitoring coca production and transit aren’t adequate. Its own crop-scanning efforts, which are based on satellite imagery and crop yield studies, reveal there is actually far more coca being grownin Bolivia than the UNODC is reporting—around 37,500 hectares in 2016. That would mean coca production has actually increased since the DEA’s exit in 2008, contrary to official statistics.
Again, though, analysts say U.S. figures on coca production may be too politicized to take at face value.
“U.S. critics of Bolivia, at times including U.S. government representatives, have with some regularity characterized Bolivia as a ‘narco-state.’ Such a charge is nonsense when applied to the Evo Morales years,” says Robert Albro, a research associate professor at American University’s Center for Latin American/Latino Studies.
And Bolivian authorities insist they are committed to fighting trafficking. This year, for example, the government plans to test new radar technology along the border with Peru so as to better track clandestine flights arriving into the country.
“Organized crime is an enemy of unity, and that is why we have expressed a common and shared responsibility,” Romero says. “We have formulated not only a nationalized strategy against drug trafficking, but also a regionalized one. We are absolutely convinced that the isolated efforts that are made in some countries do not have an impact on the whole.”
To Romero, ongoing regional collaboration is evidence that Bolivia’s anti-trafficking efforts are not only legitimate, but effective. Anti-narcotics agents from neighboring countries like Peru and Paraguay, he says, carry out joint investigations with Bolivia and share intelligence about emerging drug routes.
Officials in Argentina and Brazil did not reply to requests for comment concerning the strength of those relationships. A spokesman for the Peruvian National Police, or PNP, said officials there weren’t willing to discuss the issue, or the blame that Bolivia puts on the country for its cocaine activity. Peruvian officers who work along the border explain that it’s a sensitive, politically charged topic.
There is no doubt in Bolivian officials’ minds that the decision to expel the DEA was a good one.
“There is no officer that will tell you it is easy to work with Bolivia,” says one officer who works under the direction of the PNP’s anti-drug czar, Gen. Hector Loayza Arrieta. “They have a political discourse—that they’re very efficient in the fight against drug trafficking. But it’s only discourse. They say, ‘After the DEA, there aren’t any problems.’ But it’s not the case.”
‘All Together, We Will Fight’
For its part, the Bolivian government remains confident about its fight against drug trafficking and its control over the legal coca market. There is also no doubt in officials’ minds that the decision to expel the DEA 10 years ago was a good one.
As for everyone else, their positions remain largely unchanged regardless of what has or has not happened on the ground. The U.S. contends that the U.N. has overstated the gains made against Bolivia cocaine trafficking under Morales. The U.N. claims that areas where Morales has empowered coca farmers continue to supply major drug trafficking schemes. And the farmers themselves stand by Morales.
In no place is this clearer than Chimore, the jungle town in central Bolivia where Morales presided over a rally in February that turned into a celebration of the government’s coca policy. Many who attended said they continued to harbor negative sentiments toward Washington and the DEA, as well as toward the notion of coca regulation in general. Regardless of any future restrictions that might be put in place, they have no plan to stop growing coca, and their devotion to the crop is a point of pride.
“Thousands of years have passed and we continue chewing as part of our coca culture and tradition,” go the lyrics of one song that played out over the speakers during the event. “Now they want to exterminate you like they did to our brothers. No, no, they can’t. All together, we will fight. The Andinos will continue to live and coca will live forever.”
Max Radwin is a writer and journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Follow his reporting on Instagram @max.radwin.[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on Resilience in the Face of the Coronavirus Pandemic. ]