Anti-narcotics police in Bolivia have discovered five "narco-airstrips" and seized close to 400 kilos of drugs in an operation that shines a light on how traffickers operate on the Bolivian leg of the Peru to Brazil cocaine air bridge.
Security forces discovered the clandestine airstrips in the province of Abel Iturralde, in the department of La Paz, near the Peruvian border, reported Bolivia's La Prensa.
Agents found four planes at the site. Upon searching the planes, they discovered nearly 380 kilos of cocaine paste, six kilos of cocaine hydrochloride, 4,000 liters of jet fuel and provisions. They then arrested the Peruvian pilot and Bolivian co-pilot of one plane, along with 10 other Bolivians, reported Opinion.
Officials told La Prensa that the airstrips were located in virgin jungles only accessible by river and footpath and that traffickers had paid locals with food and supplies to construct them.
Bolivian authorities believe the drugs originated in the Peruvian region known as the VRAEM -- the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys -- and were destined for Brazil and Paraguay.
Vice Minister for Social Defense Felipe Caceres said authorities were aware of the existence of more such strips in the region, although they did not know how many were in operation, and that there were also air strips used in the department of Pando, to the north.
According to La Razon, operations against the airstrips in the border region are still ongoing.
InSight Crime Analysis
The so-called air-bridge linking Peru to Brazil via Bolivia is now one of the region's most important trafficking routes, linking the world's biggest cocaine producer to one of the world's biggest consumer markets, which also serves as a dispatch point to another market -- Europe. Although Bolivia is also a cocaine producer country, the lower price of Peruvian product means it is principally used as a stopover and resupply point for traffickers.
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This latest seizure illustrates how traffickers operate on the Bolivian side of the border, selecting isolated territories close to the Peruvian border and relying on local Bolivian partners for logistical support. Although these trafficking networks are transnational, Caceres recently backtracked on claims of a foreign presence in the northwestern border region, having previously claimed Peruvians, Venezuelans and Colombians were producing drugs there -- something InSight Crime reported at the time.
While the Bolivian authorities have acknowledged the country's role as a transit point in this air bridge, raids such as this one remain costly and difficult, and the country's security forces lack the technological capability to track drug flights, severely limiting their ability to stem the flow of drug flights.