Monday, October 28, 2013

Attack Highlights Bolivia's Vulnerability to Organized Crime

The recent attack on a coca eradication crew in the northern Apolo region of Bolivia has focused media attention on the intersection of drug trafficking, insecurity and Bolivia’s “coca yes, cocaine no” policy, a complex set of issues that deserves a more nuanced treatment than it has been receiving in international and local press.

The incident, in which four members of Bolivia’s security forces were killed and ten others were wounded by armed individuals protecting coca cultivations, saw an immediate and intense response by the Bolivian government. President Evo Morales announced a temporary freeze on coca eradication in Apolo and dispatched troops to the Peru-Bolivia border, where the attack took place.  Over a dozen coca growers in the area have been detained, and the administration has blamed the attack on Peruvian criminal groups.  The arrest of four Peruvians in connection with the incident last week appears to confirm this narrative.

Understandably, press coverage of the attack has focused on this angle, and on the hostility of locals to eradication efforts. Over the weekend the AFP, for instance, published a profile of local coca growers on the border which highlighted their distrust of the military and their insistence on coca growth as the only viable economic alternative.

But the attack needs to be put into perspective. While clashes between coca eradicators and growers are relatively common in Bolivia, this is the first deadly attack since Morales took office in 2006. By contrast, in Colombia five eradicators and 11 policemen were killed in 2012 alone, with 108 more wounded during coca eradication operations, according to El Tiempo. Additionally, the Andean Information Network points out that the region currently dominating headlines amounts to some 1.7 square miles, less than two percent of Bolivia’s entire coca crop.

As for the involvement of Peruvian criminal groups, this is a worrisome trend. Peru’s IDL-Reporteros recently published an excellent in-depth report on the rise of aerial routes being used to ship cocaine out of the Peruvian VRAE region and the central Pichis-Palcazu Valley.  Instead of heading north to Colombia, as these flights did in previous decades, they are increasingly going south, to Bolivia.  According to a source consulted by the news site, many of these aerial routes head through highly militarized areas in the VRAE, raising the prospect of military collusion with the drug trade in Peru.

But while Bolivia is increasingly popular for Peruvian cocaine smuggling networks, transnational organized crime appears to be on the rise throughout the country, not just along the border with Peru. As InSight Crime has reported, the eastern department of Santa Cruz has emerged as a hotspot for criminal activity, with Governor Ruben Costas declaring a state of emergency in March. Last week, Santa Cruz’s El Deber profiled an increase in small scale drug trafficking and gang violence in the department’s capital city, which the paper notes is fueled by the promise of easy money for urban youths. In a separate interview with Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime, he blames the crime wave on Santa Cruz’s status as a “very important point for drug trafficking due to the flow of drugs that pass from Peru and Bolivia to Brazil and Argentina.”

As with any discussion of drug trafficking in Bolivia, the attack in Apolo is bound to raise questions about the efficacy of coca monitoring in the country, where licensed cultivation of the plant is permitted for cultural and medicinal purposes. La Razon seems to be paving the way for this today, reporting that the sale of coca crops in the Apolo area is largely unregulated by the state, with locals and government authorities agreeing that much of it is diverted to the black market. The paper also reports that authorities found six coca maceration pits, used to make cocaine paste, near the scene of the incident.

While it is tempting to blame the presence of transnational drug trafficking groups in Bolivia on the government’s permissive approach to coca cultivation, the facts do not bear this out. According to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report published in August, total coca production in the country fell for the second straight year in 2012, a trend which the UNODC attributes to the Morales administration’s tough crackdown on illicit cultivation.

In the long run, perhaps the biggest threat that organized crime poses to Bolivia has to do with clean governance rather than the country’s legal coca crop. Bolivia’s state institutions are particularly vulnerable to corruption, a fact illustrated by the arrest of a Bolivian anti-corruption official in Miami last month who was accused of attempting to extort a extort $30,000 from a local businessman.


News Briefs
  • Guatemala’s First Chamber of Appeals, which was ordered last week by the Constitutional Court to reassess the application of an amnesty law to ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt, has not yet issued its ruling on the matter, despite reports that it would issue a decision on Friday or Saturday. Nevertheless, this has not stopped various political and judicial actors from weighing in on amnesty for Rios Montt. Prensa Libre reports that the Interior Ministry has positioned itself against amnesty, on the grounds that the decree does not apply to cases of genocide. El Periodico notes that the civil parties in the Rios Montt case have made the same argument, while his defense lawyers maintain that their client has been covered by the amnesty since 1986.
  • As predicted, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s ruling party suffered serious blows in yesterday’s midterm legislative elections, with her list of candidates losing major elections in Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Mendoza, and Santa Fe. Analyst James Bosworth points out that, in spite of media emphasis on the election as a symbolic loss (see The GuardianReuters and the Wall Street Journal), Fernandez’s party has maintained a majority in both chambers of Congress and actually picked up seats in the lower house. Still, this falls short of the two-thirds majority the president’s political coalition needs to amend the constitution and allow her to run for a third consecutive term. La Nacion has a helpful graphic of the breakdown of the new congress, showing that the ruling party still has the majority it needs to push legislation and set the country’s policy agenda.
  • Because Honduras has a ban on public opinion polls less than one month before general elections, the final polls ahead of next month’s vote have been released. Honduras Culture and Politics has an overview of the last CID Gallup poll before the November 24 vote, which shows leftist candidate Xiomara Castro statistically tied with Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party.
  • Spain’s El Pais has an interesting piece on criticism of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff from leftist sectors of her own Workers’ Party, many of which believe the recent oil rights auction in Rio de Janeiro amounted to privatization of national resources.
  • The Washington Post looks at Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s endorsement of taxes on soda and junk foods, which have put him at odds with the soft-drink industry. Opponents of the move have labeled it the “Bloomberg tax,” after billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who tried to ban sales of large sodas in his city.
  • Early Sunday morning, unknown assailants blew up at least nine power plants in towns and cities in the Mexican state of Michoacan. The L.A. Times claims there were no injuries, but notes it serves as a reminder of the strength of local criminal groups like the Knights Templar and Familia Michoacana. Animal Politico reports that some 420,000 people were left without power as a result of the attacks, and cites a Reforma report saying 18 plants were hit.
  • The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have reportedly released Kevin Scott Sutay, a former U.S. army private that the guerrilla group had detained in June, turning him over to Cuban and Norwegian officials as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, The New York Times reports. According to the AP, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry thanked the Colombian government for its efforts in ensuring the release, as well as Rev. Jesse Jackson, who the FARC named as a potential facilitator of turning over Sutay.
  • The Miami Herald profiles efforts in Colombia to re-socialize and reintegrate demobilized child soldiers in the country who fought in the ranks of the FARC and ELN. While the exact numbers of child soldiers in rebel groups are difficult to gauge, the Herald notes that roughly 25 percent of the 1,064 guerrillas who were captured or turned themselves in this year were underage.
  • Marriage equality advocates in Colombia saw a victory on Thursday after a Bogota high court revoked a previous court-ordered annulment of Colombia’s first gay marriage, arguing that the constitutional challenge to the marriage was invalid. However, celebration of this may be premature, as on Friday El Colombiano reported that Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez has said he would ask the Consitutional Court to weigh in on the ruling.
  • Reuters reports on Chilean presidential candidate and former President Michelle Bachelet, who has endorsed a series of sweeping reforms that are far more ambitious than the policies she pushed during her last administration. While the news agency notes she will likely win presidential elections after a runoff in December, her agenda will be significantly hampered if support for her doesn’t translate into votes for her coalition.