Authorities claim that rising cocaine seizures along the Bolivia-Brazil border have come as a direct result of stepped-up enforcement, but such interceptions suggest drug smuggling in the porous zone continues and may even be increasing.
Between January and July, Brazil’s Special Border Group (Grupo Especial de Fronteira — GEFRON), a unit of military police based in the state of Mato Grosso, seized 6.8 tons of drugs at the nation's border with Bolivia, reported Diálogo, a US military website that covers security news in Latin America. The tally nearly doubles the 3.6 tons recorded in the first seven months of 2019.
Lt. Col. Fábio Ricas, commander of GEFRON, said the seizures mostly consisted of cocaine but also included marijuana.
In recent months, GEFRON conducted a string of drug operations in the borderland municipality of Porto Esperidião. In August, forces killed five armed men who were allegedly carrying 170 kilograms of coca paste, according to Folha 5.
In July, the unit seized 60 kilograms of narcotics from a truck. Forces on patrol in June captured three smugglers with 70 packets of cocaine. Similarly, in April, a routine patrol led to the seizure of 40 kilograms of coca paste.
Brazilian authorities have been trying to take greater control of the nation’s porous border regions, most notably through Operation Horus, launched in May 2019.
Officials said Mato Grosso’s inclusion in this initiative had permitted authorities greater financial resources and intelligence sharing capabilities to combat drug smuggling.
But rising seizures suggest that even the April capture of Gilberto Aparecido Dos Santos, alias “Fuminho,” who allegedly oversaw the movement of cocaine and firearms from Bolivia to gang-controlled territories in Brazil on behalf of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), has scarcely hampered trafficking activity.
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Although Mato Grosso has long been an integral point along well-trodden drug trafficking routes linking Bolivia to Brazil, it is likely that more cocaine is crossing the border as a result of significantly heightened production dynamics.
Bolivia is currently the world’s third-biggest producer of cocaine, and the nation’s output is close to reaching record highs. This probably explains why more of the substance’s base paste is being caught just across the border.
Still, the significant rise in cocaine seizures in Brazil gives some credence to the claims of increased enforcement efforts.
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Bolivia and Brazil share a relatively porous border, with instability and elements of lawlessness on both sides, making it an ideal zone for smuggling operations to occur largely undetected.
Historically, Mato Grosso has been a crucial point of call on cocaine trafficking routes, largely because it is strategically located between producer Bolivia and the rest of Brazil, where most of the drug eventually ends up, either for domestic consumption or transportation to Europe.
Beyond its geography and relative instability, Mato Grosso is also a PCC stronghold. Brazil’s largest and most powerful criminal organization has long maintained a presence in Porto Esperidião and other municipalities across the state to facilitate access to cocaine produced in Bolivia.
“Bolivia is the origin of the cocaine transported and sold by the PCC," Marcio Sergio Christino, a state prosecutor in São Paulo and co-author of a book on the PCC, told InSight Crime.
“The main route, which comes from the Chapare region in Bolivia and leads to Brazilian ports on to European and African nations, is dominated exclusively by the PCC," he said.
According to Christino, the PCC has been linked to specific groups of cocaine producers in Bolivia, which benefit from the PCC's logistical capabilities.
Members of the organization, such as Fuminho, have reportedly purchased rural properties across the state of Mato Grosso, to facilitate the transportation of coca base paste sourced in Bolivia. The group is also known to have purchased properties in Bolivia's Chapare region for the same end.
“The dominance of Bolivia-Paraguay-Brazil routes by the PCC is the reason for conflict between the PCC and CV. Today, the PCC tries to dominate the northern route and, thus, choke the CV,” Christino said.