As questions arise over the integrity of its police force, the Bolivian government is attempting a major purge of its corrupt elements.
In the last three weeks, the government has arrested five former police chiefs, all with alleged ties to organized crime. The latest came this week when authorities took into custody Colonel Robert Valdez Ponce, onetime head of the Bolivian Interpol section.
Responding to the arrest, Bolivian Justice Minister Sacha Llorenti told the government’s official news agency that it is part of a broader campaign to purge the police of criminal infiltration.
"The capture of the ex-police official in Santa Cruz does not weaken the police force,” said Llorenti. “On the contrary, it only makes it stronger.”
The crackdown comes after the embarrasing arrest on February 24, of the former director of the country’s anti-drug police, General Rene Sanabria, who taking into custody in Panama and extradited to the United States on charges of running a drug trafficking ring while in office.
The arrests in Bolivia appear to be part of a concerted effort to fight international perceptions of corruption. Last week, Bolivian President Evo Morales fired his National Police commander General Oscar Nina, replacing him with Colonel Ciro Farfan.
Upon appointing Farfan, Morales told Bolivian press that he was giving him a period of 90 days to perform three tasks: end corruption within the police (especially in the form of bribes), single out police officers with criminal ties, and ultimately to punish them.
This process had already begun. According to the Bolivian newspaper La Opinion, between January and February the government permanently discharged 144 police officers for acts of corruption and ties to drug trafficking. Morales said last week that at least 40 of these police officers are in prison, most for links to drug gangs.
Still, some remain pessimistic about anti-drug operations in the country. Rene Justiano, a former Bolivian drug czar turned opposition figure, told the Wall Street Journal recently that the Morales administration’s drug policy has been misguided ever since the president’s decision to eject the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from its territory in 2008.
"Controls on the police which were exercised by the DEA have disappeared," said Justiniano. "Police have lost their fear of getting caught."
This allegation is backed by the US State Department’s 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, which states that incidents of corruption among Special Counter-Narcotics Force (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico - FELCN) officers have increased since President Morales expelled the DEA.
Morales himself has dismissed this claim, and even insinuated that General Sanabria's arrest in Panama could be part of a U.S. plan to discredit him. In a statement last week, the president said the DEA was merely "an instrument the US uses to blackmail those countries who don't comply with imperialism and capitalism."