The seizure of a cocaine-laced package bound for Thailand at an airport in Bolivia is only the latest along a little-known drug trafficking route to south and southeastern Asia that relies on commercial flights out of Bolivia.
On January 20, drug-sniffing dogs at Bolivia’s El Alto international airport identified the package, which held 420 grams of cocaine hidden inside hammock supports on the plane’s baggage hold. It was not clear at this time whether anyone has been arrested, Erbol reported.
While it may seem like a relatively insignificant case, it points to a larger phenomenon linking the Andean nation to Asian markets.
In March 2020, authorities in India caught a Bolivian woman smuggling cocaine-filled condoms in her body, the Mumbai Mirror reported. The woman told authorities that several Nigerian men had offered to pay her $1,600 to transport the drugs. In January 2020, another Bolivian woman was arrested and sentenced to death in China for entering the country with three kilograms of drugs, according to Visor Bolivia.
Other instances of cocaine smuggling aboard commercial aircraft included the 2019 arrest of a Bolivian woman in Laos, who was on her way to Thailand, with 3.52 kilograms of cocaine in her suitcase, the Bangkok Post reported. Drug trafficking is a capital offense in Laos, so offenders may be subject to the death penalty.
In 2018, a Bolivian man was sentenced to hang to death by a court in Malaysia for transporting 450 grams of cocaine into the country. The father was struggling to find employment when a South African businessman offered to loan him money under certain conditions. His life was later spared and he was repatriated to Bolivia in 2019, according to La Vanguardia.
In December 2017, another Bolivian woman, a financially-strapped mother of eight, was sentenced to death for trying to move cocaine into Thailand. Despite diplomatic efforts to have the woman extradited to Bolivia to serve her sentence, the woman was still imprisoned in Thailand in 2019, Los Tiempos reported.
And while drug mules from Latin American countries do not currently represent the majority of those who have been executed or currently on death row in Asia, there are certainly examples, including a Brazilian man who was executed in Indonesia, 15 Colombians on death row in China and three brothers from Mexico sentenced to death in Malaysia.
Among the first South Americans to be executed for drug trafficking in Asia was a retired 72-year-old Colombian journalist who reportedly smuggled several kilos of cocaine into China in exchange for $5,000. He sat on death row for seven years before receiving a lethal injection in 2017.
InSight Crime Analysis
The recent seizure of Thailand-bound cocaine on a Bolivian plane suggests drug organizations are have returned to smuggling via commercial airlines after travel restrictions disrupted operations in 2020. It is also another indication that harsh drug policies and the threat of capital punishment do not seem to discourage drug trafficking to Asia, which has emerged as a booming market.
Latin American drug traffickers have been expanding into Asian markets for years. The Bolivia to Asia trajectory has thus far been considered a secondary cocaine trafficking route. But traffic patterns may be changing as organized crime syndicates continue to set their sights on South East Asia, where there is a rising demand for cocaine among the upper class. A 2016 United Nations report found cocaine seizures in Asia tripled over the last decade.
Notably, many of the arrests and drug seizures coming out of Bolivia destined for Asia have been bound for Thailand. While Thailand was declared "free of illicit crops" in 2002, neither its crop substitution programs nor its country’s zero-tolerance drug policies have eliminated illicit drugs. And the country has remained an important transit point for drugs headed to Asian markets.
The drug seizures and arrests made in recent years also indicate that traffickers are increasingly recruiting Bolivian women to transport drugs to growing consumer markets. For example, over the past few years, drug traffickers have recruited hundreds of Bolivian women to move drugs across the border into Chile.
Traffickers are employing different methods to disguise drugs, such as liquid cocaine, to reduce the risk of detection at airports.
Likewise, experts say traffickers will often send several mules on the same flight and will sacrifice one or two to the authorities in order to get the others through. In the end, the mules are expendable to the traffickers.