Monday, October 20, 2014

Bolivia: a ‘Drug Hub’ of the Americas?

While the United States criticizes Bolivia for permitting coca cultivation for cultural and medicinal purposes, authorities there have held up record-low levels of coca growth as proof that the Andean country has adopted an unorthodox but successful approach to fighting drug trafficking.  

However, critics of Bolivia’s “coca yes, cocaine no” policy have responded by pointing to the prevalence of corruption and a rise cocaine smuggling networks. In a stimulating new investigation that is sure to fuel such arguments, InSight Crime’s Jeremy McDermott asserts that the country is becoming a “center for drug trafficking in South America,” a “fertile ground” for transnational organized crime.

The InSight Crime investigation, published to coincide with Bolivia’s October 12 general election, is the result of a recent visit to the country. There, McDermott spoke with Bolivian drug czar Sabino Mendoza, who asserted that the government of Evo Morales is effectively responding to the transnational criminal threat.  A Santa Cruz trafficker familiar with the country’s underworld disagreed, however, describing the ease with which judges and police can be bribed -- even contracted -- by criminal groups.

McDermott also witnessed Bolivia’s famously porous and corrupt prison system firsthand, which he describes in gritty detail in a profile of the “maximum-security” Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz. Particularly interesting is his rundown of the prices associated with bribes for certain privileges in the prison, including “fees” like a $1 charge for overnight visitors and a mandatory $250 per month to rent a cell.

In an analysis of Bolivia’s overall vulnerability to organized crime, McDermott asserts that the country is being impacted by changing drug trafficking patterns. These include the increasing numbers of Colombian networks shifting operations to Bolivia as a result of repression in their home country, and the emergence of Brazil and Argentina as lucrative markets for Bolivian cocaine and cocaine paste. According to McDermott, Bolivia is “the major supplier” of cocaine paste to these two countries. These trends are complicated by factors like police corruption and a lack of effective border controls, which are among ten risk factors identified by McDermott.

Since its publication last week, the InSight Crime piece has begun to make waves in Bolivia. News portal Eju.tv , for instance, cross-published the investigation in Spanish. The La Paz-based daily Pagina Siete has mischaracterized the report somewhat, with a title breathlessly exclaiming that McDermott had revealed that Bolivia “is the epicenter of drug trafficking.” La Prensa has seized on the piece’s reporting on the cocaine paste market in Argentina and Brazil. And Sunday’s edition of newspaper La Razon featured an overview of the investigation, noting McDermott’s characterization of drug trafficking as a primary challenge for Evo Morales’ new term.

There appears to have been no response from Bolivian anti-narcotics authorities, but any answer would likely be predictable. Officials in the country have in recent years consistently warned that they are fighting a growth of organized crime activity due to foreign “emissaries,” even as they deny that these groups are large or sophisticated enough to resemble “cartels.”

News Briefs
  • In other Bolivia news, electoral authorities yesterday officially declared President Evo Morales the winner of the October 12 presidential election, receiving 61 percent of the vote compared to 24.5 for Samuel Doria Medina. However, La Razon reports that the breakdown of the next Congress is still in doubt, and a final tally will not be available until after voting is re-held in 44 polling centers in Santa Cruz and Oruro departments. The paper also notes that two smaller opposition parties, the Bolivian Green Party and Movement Without Fear (MSM), fell short of the minimum 3 percent of the vote required to be recognized as official political parties.
  • The New York Times has the latest on Brazil’s emerging Petrobras corruption scandal, which allegedly involved the company paying kickbacks to leading politicians, primarily of the ruling Workers’ Party. If these allegations prove true, the paper claims that the scandal would dwarf even the infamous mensalão case.
  • The Wall Street Journal notes that the drought in São Paulo state has become a campaign issue ahead of Sunday’s second-round vote, with President Dilma Rousseff blaming her rival Aecio Neve’s Brazilian Socialist Democracy Party of adopting policies that led to the crisis.
  • The Miami Herald reports that health ministers from the ALBA governments are set to meet in Havana today to discuss a coordinate response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, just as countries around the region are imposing travel restrictions and screening passengers to prevent the spread of the disease.  Meanwhile, Cuba’s leading role in sending health workers to address Ebola has earned some rare praise from Secretary of State John Kerry. On Friday, as PRI reports, Kerry applauded Cuba’s efforts by remarking: “Cuba, a country of just 11 million people, has sent 165 health professionals — and it plans to send nearly 300 more.” 
  • According to El Espectador, Colombia’s Attorney General has determined that the deaths of 34 members of the FARC-linked Patriotic Union (UP) party in the 1980s and 1990s constitute crimes against humanity, meaning that they are not subject to statutes of limitations and can still be prosecuted. Semana magazine reports that Deputy Attorney General Jorge Perdomo told journalists that the state is committed to investigating these cases.  
  • Gustavo Gorriti of Peruvian investigative news site IDL-Reporteros looks at the resurgence of Shining Path rebels in the coca-growing VRAE region. Pointing to a copy he obtained of an internal strategy document written by the guerrilla group, Gorriti argues that the Shining Path is attempting a revival of its activities based on specific lessons learned from past failures.
  • More than three weeks after their disappearance, authorities in Mexico still have not located the 43 students who went missing after clashing with police in a protest against education reforms in Iguala, Guerrero. The NYT notes that officials say at least five mass graves have been uncovered nearby, but that none of the remains have been linked to the students. According to the paper, some analysts say the search is hampered by a lack of centralized authority in the country’s rural areas.
  • Mexico’s federal police have assumed control of 13 municipalities surrounding the town of Iguala. According to Milenio, all of the towns are in Guerrero state but one, located in neighboring Mexico state.