Soaring cocaine prices in Africa and Lebanon are allegedly attracting drug trafficking organizations based in Bolivia, reflecting a diversification of drug markets but also raising questions over the actual level of involvement of Bolivians in transnational organized crime.
Two recent drug seizures in the city of Santa Cruz have led authorities to believe that Bolivian drug traffickers are moving to supply demand in Lebanon and Africa, reported La Razon.
On March 2, authorities from Bolivia’s Special Counter-Narcotics Police Force (FELCN) confiscated 27.2 tons of coca leaves that had been disguised as packages of yerba mate tea. The packages were set to be exported to Lebanon, with La Red 21 reporting the operation would have earned drug traffickers over $90 million.
Two days later, on March 4, FELCN agents seized 1.2 tons of cocaine chlorohydrate hidden in around 840 bags of organic fertilizer that were destined for exportation to Burkina Faso. According to La Razon, the drugs would have been worth $70 million in the African drug market.
Marcelo Flores, director of the FELCN, said the elevated prices in these countries have made them attractive markets for Bolivian organized crime groups. Hugo Moldiz, Bolivia’s Minister of Government, said a kilo of cystalized cocaine (chlorohydrate) fetches between $70,000 to $85,000 in coastal Africa or Lebanon, prices that are nearly 1,400 percent greater than the $5,000 to $14,000 per kilo in South America.
According to Felipe Caceres, Bolivia's Vice Minister for Social Defense and Controlled Substances, this was the country's first seizure of ground coca leaves destined to be trafficked to another continent. The coca would have to have been processed into coca base and then cocaine. In both seizures, Caceres said, the merchandise was to travel overland to a Chilean port, from where it would be shipped via boat to its final destination.
In July 2014, police in the department of Oruro intercepted a shipment of 123 kilos of cocaine hidden in wood boards destined for Lebanon, reported La Razon.
InSight Crime Analysis
As InSight Crime has previously reported, Bolivia has taken on an increasingly important role in the South American drug trade given widespread corruption, weak law enforcement, and its geographical proximity to centers of both drug production and consumption.
SEE ALSO: Evo’s Challenge: Bolivia the Drug Hub
Yet the lack of information on what suspected criminal groups were behind these drug shipments leaves unanswered the question of whether or not Bolivian criminal groups are becoming more sophisticated players in the transnational drug trade.
Traditionally, Bolivian drug traffickers have been a major regional supplier of coca base (sometimes also known as "cocaine paste") for neighboring Brazil (the second largest consumer of illicit drugs in the world), as well as for the growing Argentinian market, for “basuco” or “paco,” a form of crack cocaine. In contrast, Colombian groups have generally been more involved with producing and shipping cystalized cocaine to international markets like the US and Europe.
Nonetheless, if the assertions by the Bolivian authorities are true, it indicates that Bolivian groups are seeking to move beyond Latin America to become players in the transnational drug trade, in order to take advantage of high price markups in Africa and Lebanon.