It is important to note that InSight Crime does not believe that Bolivia has been taken over by transnational organized crime (TOC), nor is even close to it. However, the country is vulnerable and the opportunities and potential for earnings from the drug trade are currently too high for international criminal groups to ignore.

*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.

1. Drug crops. Bolivia is not only a transit nation for drugs, but also is a coca and cocaine producing nation. While President Evo Morales has managed to reduce coca crops over the last three years, it is going to become increasingly hard to contain coca cultivation.

The reasons for this are partly due to sustained eradication campaigns in both Colombia and Peru. Colombia, the only nation which permits the aerial eradication of drug crops using glyphosate chemicals, has managed to stabilize coca cultivation at just under 50,000 hectares, although with significant collateral damage. Peru, under President Ollanta Humala, has put eradication at the center of its anti-drug strategy, eradicating more than 22,000 hectares in 2013, almost the total number of hectares of coca under cultivation in Bolivia.

The “balloon effect” — which refers to the shifting of drug production to different countries in response to repression in others — means that the pressure to grow more coca in Bolivia is likely to increase, so long as demand remains constant. At the moment, Peru exports around 200 tons of coca base into Bolivia per year, some of which feeds the domestic crack cocaine (or “basuco) markets of Brazil and Argentina, the rest of which is processed into cocaine. Should there be a significant drop in the supply of Peruvian coca base, thanks to increased eradication efforts in Peru, the likelihood is that drug trafficking operations in Bolivia will promote and increase the sowing of drug crops locally.

At the moment, Bolivia’s coca crops remain concentrated in the two traditional areas of production: Yungas in La Paz and the Chapare region of Cochabamba. However, there is evidence that some coca, destined for the cocaine market, is being grown outside of these areas, sometimes in national parks. This wider dispersion of drug crops has already been seen in Colombia, the result of eradication efforts and strategies by organized crime to move coca plantations closer to Colombia’s borders, and therefore closer to departure points and markets. This pattern could be repeated in Bolivia.

2. Corruption. There is evidence of widespread corruption within many of Bolivia’s institutions, among them the police.

In 2011, the US engineered the arrest of Bolivia’s former anti-drug czar, Police General Rene Sanabria, in Panama. Sanabria was later convicted to 15 years in prison by a Miami court after pleading guilty to smuggling cocaine.

Sources within the Special Counter-Narcotics Police Force (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotrafico – FELCN) told InSight Crime that drug-related corruption did not end with Sanabria and that elements of the police were working with drug traffickers. Jessica Echeverria, a deputy in the legislative assembly, who was an opposition politician before switching over this month to the governing party, the Movement Towards Socialism (Movimiento Al Socialismo – MAS), told InSight Crime that “the police are working with Colombian drug traffickers here in Santa Cruz.” Underworld sources in Santa Cruz confirmed this, saying that high-ranking police officials were on the payroll of drug traffickers and organized crime. (See Voices from Bolivia’s Underworld).

The criminal defense attorneys in Santa Cruz, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, insisted that the justice system is also open to bribery.

“The costs are between $20,000 and $50,000 to be able to walk free from everything apart from the most high profile cases, and that is divided up between the prosecutors and the judge,” said one of the lawyers.

A senior source in the FELCN said that there was a high level of frustration with the justice system. “Routinely drug traffickers that we have caught walk free, due to judicial inefficiency or corruption. There have even been cases where the assets and money we seize are given back by the judges to the accused, who have been caught red handed,” he said.

Bolivia’s penitentiary system is also totally corrupt. InSight Crime managed to enter Bolivia’s most notorious prison — Palmasola in Santa Cruz — simply by bribing the police at the gate (see Inside Bolivia’s Most Dangerous Prison: Palmasola). Criminals are able to operate with impunity within Palmasola, and continue carrying out illegal activities.

3. No control over air space. Drug traffickers always prefer moving shipments by air if at all possible. Planes can move large consignments, and the drugs pass through very few hands, reducing the costs as well as the risks of betrayal or seizure. The Medellin Cartel’s favorite route for moving drugs to the United States was via Norman’s Cay island in the Caribbean, where fleets of aircraft arrived from Colombia to refuel and continue the journey on to the US. However, the installation of radar stations across Colombia and the deployment of fighter planes to interdict drug flights — and if necessary shoot them down — quickly closed the air bridge from Colombia.

However, Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay have little radar coverage and almost zero aerial interdiction assets, meaning the skies are wide open. This is a major factor in making Bolivia a drug trafficking hub and a huge attraction for TOC. Investigations in Peru revealed that up to 200 tons of drugs leave for Bolivia by air every year. Colonel Marcos Encinas, the sub-director of the FELCN, told InSight Crime that he believed that up to 30 tons of drugs (including marijuana shipments) transit through Bolivia every month.

Bolivia is aware of the air traffic passing unmolested over its head. On April 22, 2014, President Morales signed the “Law of Security and Defense of the Bolivian Airspace,” which allows for the shooting down of drug flights. But since Bolivia lacks the radar to track such flights and the fighter aircraft to intercept them, the law is little more than a statement of intent.

Both Brazil and Argentina have better control over their airspace, but there is still significant air traffic into both countries, some legally declared, others taking their chances. In Brazil, to minimize the risk of interdiction, some pilots entering from Bolivia employ a tactic known as “bombing.” This involves packing drugs into special, high-impact containers that can survive a drop from a plane in flight. This ensures the aircraft does not need to land to unload, significantly reducing the risk of interception and seizure of the precious cargo.

Sabino Mendoza, the head of the leading government counternarcotics body, known as CONALTID, told InSight Crime that the country is already taking measures to improve its ability to take on the transit of drugs. The government is planning to deploy several mobile radar platforms in key areas where drug trafficking is concentrated, principally the departments of Beni, Santa Cruz, and Pando. Mendoza also said the government is in talks with Brazil over the use, and potential acquisition, of drones to detect drug laboratories — these give off heat signatures due to their use of generators and microwave ovens. However, there is no firm date on the purchase of such equipment, let alone its deployment, and it would seem that the traffickers have several more years of clear skies.

4. Weakness of law enforcement against the threats presented by TOC. This is not only due to the corruption of Bolivian law enforcement agencies, including the police, the attorney general’s office and the justice system, but also due to the fact that Bolivian law enforcement simply does not have the legal instruments needed to wage an effective war against TOC.

The police lack two of the most important tools used by international law enforcement. The first is the ability to intercept communications. This is illegal in Bolivia, with no plans to pass the necessary legislation to allow for it. There is also no legislation laying out terms for the treatment of informants, meaning that police and prosecutors cannot reward would-be informants with money or with reductions in prison terms. One source in the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Colombia told InSight Crime that without these two tools to fight organized crime, the DEA would have to “pack up and go home.”

Bolivian law enforcement also does not have the intelligence capability on national organized crime, let alone TOC. For retired Police Colonel Rolando Fernandez Medina, the key opportunity for TOC came with the departure of the last DEA agents from Bolivia, expelled by President Morales in 2009. This ended three decades of DEA presence in Bolivia. With the agency’s exit went all of the strategic intelligence on TOC, as well of most of the intelligence gathering capability within Bolivia. While the European Union and the Brazilians have been supplying counternarcotics aid, they simply do not have the same experience or intelligence of the DEA.

5. Lack of money laundering controls. Money laundering is also relatively straightforward in Bolivia. Global watchdog the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) removed Bolivia from its “grey list” of countries that aren’t doing enough to combat the crime in 2013, after Congress passed basic anti-money laundering legislation. However, there are almost no controls over the banking system. There have been only a handful of money laundering investigations opened and even fewer convictions.

“Pedro,” a drug trafficker in Santa Cruz, told InSight Crime that he had witnessed international criminals arriving at construction companies with suitcases full of cash, and that laundering money in Bolivia was often that simple.

6. Culture of informality and illegality. Well over half of Bolivia’s economic activity is carried out in the informal, and often illegal, sector. Smuggling has long been the lifeblood of communities along Bolivia’s five porous borders and this illegal industry employs far more Bolivians than the drug trade. Indeed, smuggling is a tolerated illegal industry. Smuggled cars — many stolen in Chile — make up a high percentage of those driving along Bolivia’s roads.

This culture means that there is little to no reporting of economic activity, illegal or otherwise, to the authorities. Many local communities, not just along the frontiers, live off the informal or illegal sector. This means that these communities have a vested interest in protecting the black economy, making the work of law enforcement extremely difficult. There have even been examples of local communities taking on the security forces that attempt to clamp down on drug trafficking activity. In the community of Yapacani, in Santa Cruz department, there were sustained protests against the building of an anti-narcotics base.

7. Open borders and lack of migratory controls. Bolivia’s long, porous borders (at 3,420 kilometers, the border with Brazil is more than 200 km longer than the frontier Mexico shares with US) and lack of migratory controls ensure that Bolivia is a smuggling center and therefore extremely attractive to TOC. The porous borders mean that not only can drugs move in and out of the country, but so can the precursor chemicals and foreign manpower needed to process them. International criminals, even those with national arrest warrants, can also move in and out of Bolivia with consummate ease.

The head of Bolivia’s migration authority, Cosset Estenssoro, revealed that Bolivia does not have information on national arrest warrants, only those international warrants registered with Interpol. This means that Colombian drug traffickers with national arrest warrants can enter Bolivia with no fear of detention, something confirmed by underworld sources in Medellin.

InSight Crime was offered a real Bolivian passport by underworld sources in Santa Cruz for $5000, suggesting that getting false papers in Bolivia for wanted drug traffickers is not a huge challenge either.

8. Lack of state presence in many rural areas. Bolivia, with over 1,000,000 km² of territory and a population of under 11 million, has vast tracts of the country with little population and no state presence. This provides a plethora of opportunities for TOC. Many of the laboratories where cocaine is processed are situated in remote areas, with clandestine airstrips providing not only the drugs, but the chemicals, personnel, and supplies needed to process them. This significantly reduces the risk of laboratories being found and destroyed, and ensures that drugs can be processed and transported with relative ease. This also means that international criminals, perhaps on the run, can hide out in remote ranches and farms with little fear of discovery.

9. Lack of transparency, politicization of state institutions and restrictions on media coverage. The political environment in Bolivia is one of great polarization, something which has continued, if not worsened, under President Morales. InSight Crime spoke to several high-ranking police officers, all of whom were afraid to go on the record, who stated that promotion within the police force at the higher ranks is dependent on political affiliation, not merit. Sources in three other ministries said that the same phenomenon was present in their government institutions.

There are almost no statistics made available by the government. Investigations by InSight Crime suggest that this is not because the government is seeking to hide information, but because data is simply not being collected. This means there is little indication of the challenges to national and citizen security, let alone the information necessary to make meaningful analysis and design detailed, integral policies.

There is also little tradition of investigative journalism on the subject of organized crime, and there have been incidents of the government pressuring journalists. In 2010, Morales enacted a law meant to address the portrayal of indigenous people in media, but which has been used to pressure media outlets into towing the official line. 

10. Lack of an integrated strategy to tackle transnational organized crime. CONALTID, under Sabino Mendoza, is seeking to put together a strategy to take on the international drug trade. While some measures are being put in place, including the reactivation of the Bolivian Observatory of Drugs (Observatorio Boliviano de Drogas – OBD), an integrated counternarcotics strategy — one that includes realistic levels of funding — is still in its infancy. 

The European Union has thrown its support behind the Bolivian government, seeking to make up some of the shortfall with the loss of USAID money. InSight Crime spoke to EU representative Nicolaus Hansmann in La Paz, who said that the EU had adopted a “diverse, country specific, evidence-based approach,” which includes crop substitution, the training of police and support for financial investigation.

However, this process too is still in its early stages, and it is clear that there are currently few serious obstacles to the operations of TOC in Bolivia.

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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...