Bolivia’s leading anti-drug official, Sabino Mendoza, is well aware of the challenges that drug trafficking and transnational organized crime present to his landlocked Andean nation. However, he is convinced that the country is on the right track to neutralize these threats.

Sabino Mendoza is the head of the National Council for the Fight Against the Illicit Trafficking of Drugs (Consejo Nacional de Lucha contra el Trafico Ilicito de Drogas – CONALTID), Bolivia’s counternarcotics agency. He is also, like President Evo Morales, a former leader of the country’s powerful coca growing syndicates. This government’s ability to work alongside the coca growers, or “cocaleros,” has been key to Bolivia’s success in reducing the illegal cultivation of coca crops, and in seeking to contain the sale of coca to the illegal drug market for the production of cocaine.

*This article is part of a five-part investigation examining how Bolivia is turning into a center for drug trafficking in South America. Read the complete investigation here or download the full PDF.

CONALTID has been the main beneficiary of more than $33 million worth of anti-drug aid from the European Union. The European Union is well aware that much of the cocaine being processed in Bolivia, or passing through this nation, is headed for the lucrative European market.

Mendoza agreed to an interview with InSight Crime about the criminal dynamics that are enveloping this nation.

How do you see the current threats in terms of criminal activity for Bolivia?

Well, for us it’s obviously a strong worry. On the one hand our country is a transit point for Peru and also Paraguay to a market that is, let’s say, Brazil. So, for us as I said it’s an enormous worry and we are working on this issue with our neighbors. We’re talking about the three countries: Peru, Paraguay, and Brazil. Above all with Brazil. Recently we’ve tried to carry out joint actions, the same with Peru, but these joint actions in my opinion should be more frequent. We started the work last year with a signed agreement, a tri-national agreement between Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil. We are waiting for the next meeting that’s going to take place in Brazil. We need this meeting. What definitely has to happen is that we first strengthen our borders, the longest of which is with Brazil.

What strategy does Bolivia have in place to meet these threats?

Well, we have a strategy that finishes in 2017, but we also have a plan that accompanies it, a plan to implement the strategy. This plan is focused on how to protect our borders. We’ve completed the first step with the law to shoot down unregistered planes or unidentified planes [Law 521, passed in April 2014]. So this is an important first step in this work and obviously the strengthening of our migration controls which are crucial for us. This is particularly relevant in [the departments of] Pando, Beni and Santa Cruz, which border Brazil. And obviously the implementation of technology, we can’t speak about the specifics of the technology, but using, turning to technology above all with the question of interdiction. This will enable us in some ways to address this issue which is a complex one. But the Bolivian state is doing the work with all of the necessary urgency.

You have talked about Bolivia being a transit nation. How important is the role of transnational organized crime in this phenomena?

According to the information we have from the Special Force (Special Counternarcotics Force “Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotrafico – FELCN) we know there are foreign “emissaries” in this country, which is the term that the Special Force generally uses. We know that these emissaries have ties with criminal clans in Bolivia. As we do the constant work of interdiction, we are identifying these people as we continue in the persecution of drug traffickers.

Many of those who have been detained in Bolivia have been Colombians, many in Beni and Santa Cruz. The notion of emissaries dates back a couple of years. But we can say is that operations have been carried out, using hard intelligence, by the Special Force. This situation could have reached a breaking point, and even got worse, but we have conducted operations to mitigate this. The key in this task, where we have been concentrating efforts recently, is on the issue of information gathering, which we have strengthened and which has allowed us to reduce the risks through the intelligence now being fed to the Special Force.

How important have Bolivia’s social movements, like the indigenous groups and coca growers been in the fight against drug trafficking?

These have always been a good ally in our work, particularly important because the Bolivian state has traditionally had weak ties to many of the rural communities in the country. The president, Evo, comes from a very poor sector, that of Cochabamba. He comes from a community with strong convictions about defending the anti-drug process and we have been carrying it out successfully, that we can say with confidence.

So there many parts of the country where strangers cannot enter without attracting attention. Communities are able to quickly identify those who may cause problems, and we do not have a culture of consuming drugs. These elements strengthen our work enormously, and the Bolivian state is seeking to strengthen these. We have the army, we have the police, we have intelligence, but if there was not this consciousness of, and work by, the rural peasant sector not to be a part of transnational organized crime, we will be looking at a very different situation in this country.

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Jeremy McDermott is co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime. McDermott has more than two decades of experience reporting from around Latin America. He is a former British Army officer, who saw active...