HomeNewsAnalysisTensions Rise in Bolivia's Chapare as Government Escalates Anti-Drug Operations
ANALYSIS

Tensions Rise in Bolivia's Chapare as Government Escalates Anti-Drug Operations

BOLIVIA / 8 MAY 2020 BY MAX RADWIN EN

Officials from Bolivia's interim government have stepped up drug trafficking operations over the last six months, but a focus on coca-producing communities in Cochabamba is creating tension with law enforcement that threatens to intensify.

On April 23, thirteen members of a drug trafficking ring in the city of Entre Ríos, Cochabamba, were arrested after they ambushed officers with the Mobile Police Unit for Rural Areas (Unidad Móvil Policial para Áreas Rurales —UMOPAR), Interior Minister Arturo Murillo told a press conference.

The drug traffickers were reportedly attempting to protect their drug laboratory, where 37 kilograms of cocaine were later found. Residents in the nearby towns of Shinahota, Chimoré and Villa Tunari broke quarantine rules to seek out police officers and remove them from the area. Residents said police presence wasn't necessary, as the military was also in the area carrying out similar patrols.

This was but the latest clash between authorities and drug gangs in Chapare in 2020.

SEE ALSO: Bolivia Coca Growers Fight for Control of Legal Production

In January, Bolivia’s Special Fighting Force Against Drug Trafficking (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico – FELCN) managed to destroy 15 drug labs in the Chapare province inside Cochabamba, allegedly in less than seven hours. In February, it dismantled 20 drug labs, intercepting drugs reportedly worth more than $300,000. And in March, it destroyed at least seven drug labs.

Reports of laboratory raids and cocaine seizures suggest that the interim government is taking a markedly different approach from that of former president Evo Morales, who began his career as a coca activist in Chapare.

The interim government has replaced several mid- and high-ranking officers of the FELCN and other law enforcement bodies responsible for carrying out anti-drug operations, several security experts on the ground told InSight Crime. Drug trafficking relies on corrupt officials overseeing eradication efforts, coca transportation checkpoints and the destruction of chemical laboratories, the experts said.

"Our country was becoming a paradise for drug traffickers," Murillo said in February. "Today, they are scared and trying to hide."

InSight Crime Analysis

Prolific coca production in Cochabamba, and especially Chapare, has long made it a hub for drug trafficking activity. And while the Morales government did allow some legal coca activity there, critics argue this was poorly enforced.

A 2019 US State Department report quoting UN figures said that "90 percent of the Chapare region's coca cultivation is destined for illicit coca production and not traditional consumption." Even much of the coca intended for legal consumption is reportedly "diverted" from land transportation checkpoints, where corrupt law enforcement turns a blind eye or accepts bribes.

Some of that coca arrives to drug labs before being sent through Paraguay and Brazil, and then onto Europe, Africa and other parts of the world, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

But despite the bold claims made by Murillo, the levels of coca eradication in Cochabamba under the interim government are similar to those seen under Morales.

SEE ALSO: Bolivia Investigations Target Members of Evo Morales’ MAS Party

More recently, eradication has stopped altogether, security experts told InSight Crime.

While the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to this halt, the decision is likely also political. Coca grower unions in Cochabamba are well organized and often close to Morales and his political party, the Movement to Socialism (Movemiento al Socialismo – MAS). Morales was "president in perpetuity" of the coca growers' federation in Chapare, according to the US State Department.

Sending armed officials into rural areas to destroy the crops of farmers poses political risks ahead of an election that MAS is still favored to win.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other anti-drug agencies have been tied to instances of violence, arbitrary arrest and torture in Chapare — all in the name of coca eradication.

"We are not drug traffickers," Leonardo Loza, Executive of the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba, told local media. "We are not terrorists. We are not seditious. We are humble people."

Morales and many other MAS members began as coca farmers in Cochabamba before rising through the ranks of local and regional government, creating deep bonds of trust. The interim government has not fostered these same relationships and has faced protests in Chapare since 2019.

A focus on destroying drug labs and replacing corrupt law enforcement officials may seem to make sense ahead of the election. But the expulsion of police by residents of Chapare suggests tensions are threatening to boil over.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

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.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

COCAINE / 21 JUN 2021

Misconceptions surrounding Mexico's drug trade have long been replicated in popular culture and public discourses.

COCA / 27 FEB 2019

With a well-known route through the Southern Cone decimated and authorities combing the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, drug…

COCA / 6 MAY 2015

Colombia has likely reclaimed its position as the world’s principal cocaine producer, something with profound consequences on the drug trade…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Tackles Illegal Fishing

15 OCT 2021

In October, InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) began a year-long project on illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing in…

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Featured in Handbook for Reporting on Organized Crime

8 OCT 2021

In late September, the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) published an excerpt of its forthcoming guide on reporting organized crime in Indonesia.

THE ORGANIZATION

Probing Organized Crime in Haiti

1 OCT 2021

InSight Crime has made it a priority to investigate organized crime in Haiti, where an impotent state is reeling after the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, coupled with an…

THE ORGANIZATION

Emergency First Aid in Hostile Environments

24 SEP 2021

At InSight Crime's annual treat, we ramped up hostile environment and emergency first aid training for our 40-member staff, many of whom conduct on-the-ground investigations in dangerous corners of the region.

THE ORGANIZATION

Series on Environmental Crime in the Amazon Generates Headlines

17 SEP 2021

InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute have been delighted at the response to our joint investigation into environmental crimes in the Colombian Amazon. Coverage of our chapters dedicated to illegal mining…