A major anti-drug operation at an aerodrome in Bolivia has drawn attention to the role private air facilities play in the cocaine trafficking corridor through the country.
On March 27, agents of Bolivia’s anti-corruption police were met with gunfire when they raided La Cruceña aerodrome, just east of the city of Santa Cruz, according to El Deber. A total of 38 people were arrested, of which at least three had criminal records for drug trafficking. The arrestees were Bolivian and Brazilian.
According to a statement by government minister Eduardo del Castillo, the raid targeted 29 hangars, containing 66 aircraft. Some of the planes were found to have cloned license plates, while others had their passenger seats removed, leading authorities to suspect they had been used to carry drugs or fuel. Firearms, ammunition, aviation fuel, communications equipment and unspecified chemical substances were also seized.
This was the third raid on the La Cruceña aerodrome. In July and November 2019, the facility – then known as Mundaka – was raided twice, during which 15 people were arrested and several aircraft seized. On both occasions, the investigations stalled when Bolivia’s anti-narcotics police (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico – FELCN) did not pursue prosecutions.
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Poorly regulated private aerodromes such as La Cruceña add a further dimension to Bolivia’s struggle to control clandestine airstrips used for drug trafficking.
A week before the latest raid, El Deber reported that 81 private aerodromes are registered in Bolivia, and highlighted that they operate with little oversight from the civil aviation authority. While most aerodromes are used by agribusiness, opposition party Creemos has warned that scant controls mean they are vulnerable to abuse by drug traffickers. Bolivian authorities have previously denounced cocaine trafficking through local aerodromes used by air taxi services.
Furthermore, these operations may once have enjoyed official protection. According to documents seen by El Deber, the July 2019 investigation into La Cruceña was shut down on the orders of Maximiliano Dávila Pérez, then head of the FELCN. Dávila was arrested in Bolivia in January 2022. US prosecutors subsequently indicted him on drug charges, alleging he used "his position to safeguard aircraft used to transport cocaine," according to US State Department news release.
Although it is unclear how much cocaine moves through Bolivia’s private aerodromes, the modified planes found in La Cruceña suggest they could also play a logistical role in supplying fuel to clandestine airstrips. Bolivia discovered 46 such strips in 2021. Mostly located in sparsely populated areas in the eastern departments of Santa Cruz and Beni, the airstrips allow drug planes to rapidly load or refuel before continuing to Brazil or Paraguay.
This route serves as a vital corridor for cocaine produced in Bolivia or Peru to reach the Atlantic. Recent international anti-drug operations Turf and A Ultranza PY have revealed massive transatlantic cocaine trafficking networks with supply lines through Bolivia. In its 2021 Report, the International Narcotics Control Board highlighted the increasing use of the Bolivia air bridge during the COVID-19 pandemic, in response to stricter controls on land travel.