The newly sworn-in president of Bolivia, Luis Arce, will face a number of pressing security challenges as he works to bring stability back to the country — but none is as important as setting a clear drug policy.
Arce’s landslide election win at the end of October marked a return to power for the Movement to Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo — MAS) party, which was led by former President Evo Morales before he was ousted and forced into exile after a contentious 2019 election.
A state-sanctioned crackdown on the opposition and widespread human rights abuses — including the killing of 10 coca farmers when troops opened fire on protesters decrying Morales’ departure — in large part defined the 12-month tenure of the interim government of Jeanine Áñez.
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Now, Arce is tasked with not only restoring calm to the Andean nation, but also grappling with rising drug flights leaving the northern department of Beni and allegations that Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital — PCC) may now be sourcing most of its cocaine supply from Bolivia, among other things.
Reorienting Drug Policy
Bolivia has been known for thinking progressively in terms of drug policy, including creating a legal, domestic coca market. But Áñez’s interim government quickly swung Bolivia’s anti-drug approach back to hard-line measures focused on the lofty goal of creating a country “free of drugs.”
“Our battle is destroying the very core of drug trafficking,” Áñez proclaimed at the February 2020 launch of the new strategy. High-ranking officials in her administration even went so far as calling coca farmers “narco-terrorists.”
Under Morales, the government took a different approach to drug policy and invested in a “community coca control” program. This focused on working with coca growers directly to maintain the quota on legal production — which stands at 22,000 hectares — “rather than to recklessly eradicate the plant,” according to an Open Society Foundations report.
While the government initiative faced resource constraints and struggled to entirely prevent coca from leaking out into the illicit market for cocaine production, international observers like the United Nations Development Program lauded the “innovative” approach.
“By recognizing coca cultivation as a legitimate source of income, the government has helped stabilize household incomes and placed farmers in a better position to assume the risk of substituting illicit crops with alternative crops or livestock,” the UN wrote in a June 2019 report.
The shift in focus under Áñez was backed by the European Union, which donated $12 million to the country in its fight against drug trafficking. The US government, which has for years criticized the country’s unconventional anti-drug approach, heralded the Áñez administration, saying it had made “important strides in drug interdiction” — despite little evidence — and that cooperation between the two nations had “increased.”
Arce, who served as economics minister under Morales, will have to re-position the country’s drug policy to strike a balance between supporting traditional uses of coca and curtailing drug production and trafficking in Bolivia, which is the world’s third-largest coca grower and cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru.
Thwarting International Drug Trade
Bolivia is currently seeing an abundance of cocaine circulating in the country and crossing its borders into neighboring countries like Brazil and Chile.
Between November 2019 and the end of September 2020, data from Bolivia’s Special Fighting Force Against Drug Trafficking (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico — FELCN) showed authorities had seized some eight tons of cocaine paste and nearly five tons of cocaine hydrochloride.
Throughout the whole of 2019, the anti-drug unit seized just over nine tons of cocaine paste and around six-and-a-half tons of cocaine hydrochloride, according to government figures.
While Bolivia is not home to powerful transnational criminal groups like in Colombia and Mexico, it does play a crucial role in the international drug trade.
Port authorities in Italy, for example, recently seized nearly a ton of cocaine hidden in a shipment of frozen muscles that departed Chile. Of all the drugs seized in Chile between 2015 and 2019, authorities determined about 30 percent had come from Bolivia, second to only Paraguay, according to a 2020 report from Chile’s Drug Trafficking Observatory.
As part of a six-month investigation in Brazil, federal police in southern Rio Grande do Sul state said in early November they seized four tons of cocaine from Paraguay in weekly loads ranging from 100 kilograms to 400 kilograms. Paraguay is better known as South America’s largest marijuana producer, and the cocaine likely originated in Bolivia before being trafficked through the country en route to Brazil.
“Bolivia is the origin of the cocaine transported and sold by the PCC,” São Paulo state prosecutor Marcio Sergio Christino, who co-authored a book on the PCC, told InSight Crime in a recent interview.
What’s more, then-Interior Minister Arturo Murillo told local media in a July 2020 interview that “every day there are [drug] flights that go to Brazil and Paraguay.” Cocaine-laden aircraft departing from or passing through Bolivia — especially the strategic northeast department of Beni along the border with Brazil — have also been seized as far away as Mexico this year.
Bolivian authorities will have to do a better job impeding the operations of those playing important roles in the regional drug trade, which they have struggled to do in the past.
Fernando Gustavo Álvarez Peralta, for example, a former government official who served briefly in the Ministry of Rural Development and Land under Áñez, was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in 2017. This came at the same time a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation tied him to a Mexican drug trafficking organization, but he has yet to be arrested.
Other top-level drug traffickers who had operated in Bolivia, such as Delfín Reynaldo Castedo, a former leader of the notorious Castedo Clan, was detained in 2016 across the country’s southern border in Argentina. Along with his brother, Raúl, he allegedly trafficked as much as four tons of cocaine per month from the Argentina-Bolivia border region to Europe.