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.
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."
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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.
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.
"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.