With illicit coca production on the rise in Bolivia, the eastern department of Santa Cruz is becoming a hotspot for criminal activity in the country.
As Bolivia’s La Razon reports, Santa Cruz has been the site of at least 20 drug-related shootings so far this year, three of which took place in the last month alone. During this same period, police arrested a number of individuals in the department who allegedly have links to foreign drug trafficking organizations. In late June, Bolivia’s Special Anti-Narcotics Police (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotrafico - FECLN) arrested Colombian drug trafficker and ex-paramilitary Carlos Noel Buitrago Vega, alias “Porremacho,” in Santa Cruz city. After this operation, an anonymous Colombian intelligence official made headlines by claiming that there are as many as 3,000 Colombian drug traffickers in Santa Cruz, many of whom have been there since 2006.
Just two weeks later, on July 20, Bolivian authorities arrested several alleged drug traffickers in the department with alleged ties to Red Command (Comando Vermelho), one of Brazil’s most notorious drug trafficking gangs. Intelligence resulting from the arrest led Bolivian officials to announce that elements of Red Command and other drug gangs had fled the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo to Santa Cruz to take refuge from escalating pressure from Brazil’s federal police.
Taken together, these separate incidents lend weight to concerns that Santa Cruz may be becoming a haven for transnational organized crime. La Razon cites Gonzalo Quesada, director of the FELCN, and Vladimir Peña, secretary of the interior for Santa Cruz, as having expressed concern about the role that the region plays in fueling drug trafficking in the country.
According to Quezada, Santa Cruz is a “necessary stopping point” for the Bolivian drug trade, because it represents a corridor into neighboring Brazil and Paraguay, which he says is used by Peruvian cocaine manufacturers to export their product to West Africa and Europe. Peña presented an even darker outlook for the region, telling the paper that he believes Santa Cruz is “part of a drug highway” which connects the Cochabamba tropical region (a major coca-producing area) to the rest of the world.
Some in the region have blamed the rise in crime in Santa Cruz on President Evo Morales, claiming that until the government addresses the problem of illicit coca production, drug-related activity will continue. Herland Vaca Diez, director of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz (Comite Civico de Santa Cruz) is one such critic. As Pagina 7 reports, Vaca Diez has called on the government to abandon its permissive attitude towards coca growing, and has even proposed a mandatatory minimum sentence of 30 years’ imprisonment for anyone growing the leaf. Limited coca production is currently legal in the country, due to the plant's cultural importance.
While organized crime is a serious problem in the Santa Cruz region, it should be noted that this is not a new phenomenon, nor can it be entirely blamed on the Morales administration. Bolivia was struggling against rising corruption and organized criminal groups before the current president came to power. Indeed, in recent weeks Morales has attempted to address the epidemic in Santa Cruz by stepping up drug raids in the region. Over the weekend of July 16-17, Bolivian police carried out a “mega-operation” in Santa Cruz, shutting down 281 cocaine processing labs and seizing large amounts of drugs and cash. Federal Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti called the move “one of the hardest blows that drug trafficking has felt not only in the last few years, but in the last few decades as well,” and vowed that more would follow.