A pastoral letter by members of Bolivia's Catholic Church has spoken out against drug trafficking and consumption in the country, controversially laying part of the blame on the nation's "corrupt" government and security forces.
The letter by the Bolivian Bishop's Conference (Conferencia Episcopal Boliviana - CEB) -- which was harshly criticized by the government -- is entitled "Today I set before you life or death" (see document below). In the 50-page publication, the clergymen express their concerns that drug trafficking has become "an increasingly alarming reality in Bolivia," where "growing traffic and consumption of illegal drugs ... are seriously affecting the Bolivian population, 'mainly young people.'"
A key topic is that of official corruption, impunity, institutional deficiencies and public distrust in Bolivian authorities.
"As it is a public issue, drug trafficking … also penetrates the state and the security forces," the letter reads. "Corruption has undermined the credibility of the authorities … responsible for drug interdiction."
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Bolivia
The letter also makes a distinction between drug addicts and drug trafficking. While consumers need to receive human and spiritual assistance, the bishops say, drug trafficking should be considered a "crime against humanity that harms people, generates violence, death and destroys families … it represents a serious sin and an offense against the God of life … For this reason, we join [former Pope] Saint John Paul II in firmly denouncing drug traffickers as 'merchants of death.'"
The pastoral letter promotes prevention and education as critical elements in the fight against the drug trade. It states the need to focus on criminal finances, including the issue of money laundering, and calls for more international cooperation between affected countries.
The bishops furthermore highlight the environmental costs of illegal cultivations, although they respect the "permitted" traditional use of coca leaf in Andean cultures.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Bolivian bishops' outspokenness on the topic of organized crime comes rather unexpectedly. While the Bolivian Church has expressed its worries and clashed with the government on the drug issue for decades, this appears to be the deepest criticism of the state's role in the narcotics industry by Bolivia's bishops in recent years.
Less surprising is the Bolivian government's bitter reaction to the letter. President Evo Morales said that it was incomprehensible that the Church should accuse members of the government of drug trafficking, and demanded the institution immediately present names of the allegedly corrupt officials.
"Be responsible with your discourse," Morales stated, adding that if the Church did not provide evidence he would assume the institution wanted to "attack the indigenous movement, like in the past."
Other officials have reproached the Church's "gaffe" for being politically and ideologically charged, and for overlooking the state's purported advances against drug trafficking.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy
Indeed, in Latin America -- a region with a very strong religious culture -- the Church's participation in the organized crime debate can be a slippery one. This is in part due to a conservative attitude that is often at odds with national and international politics. The Bolivian bishop's tough stance on drug consumption, for example, could potentially help polarize the drug liberalization debate that has steadily been gaining traction in the region.
Nevertheless, this has not stopped religious figures across the continent from making their voices heard in the fight against drugs. The Church has also been called upon to broker truces involving illegal armed groups, including the 2012 El Salvador gang truce and past peace negotiations with Colombian guerrillas -- agreements that ultimately failed.