The power of Brazilian gangs and local crime clans, coupled with struggling government policies, have led to Bolivia's cocaine trade rising steadily in recent years. And Bolivia's legal coca market is not enough to counter the international demand for cocaine and the violence that accompanies it.
Incidents have been adding up. From January to September, at least 29 people have been brutally killed in Bolivia, most of them in connection with the drug trade, according to police sources quoted by the Bolivian newspaper Página Siete. Sixteen of these deaths have occurred in Santa Cruz, a province bordering Brazil where that country's top gangs, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV), are fighting for control of cocaine trafficking.
In September, according to Bolivian prosecutors, a Brazilian trafficker was shot dead in Santa Cruz after allegedly importing cocaine from Bolivia to Brazil worth around $60 million.
Significant cocaine seizures have been made in the country this year. As of September, the country had interdicted 14.5 tons of cocaine in 2022 so far, the most since 2016, said Interior Minister Eduardo del Castillo.
To delve deeper into these issues, InSight Crime spoke to Joaquín Chacin, a security and drug trafficking specialist and an associate researcher at the Higher University of San Simón in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
InSight Crime (IC): How has Bolivia's coca sector, both legal and illegal, changed in recent years?
Joaquín Chacin (JC): Bolivia's coca leaf economy is characterized by having formal, informal, and illegal markets. The primary destinations have long been traditional domestic consumption of the coca leaf and drug trafficking. In recent years, there has been an increase in illegal coca being brought to market and a relaxation of state and social controls over coca cultivation.
As a consequence, Bolivia has overproduced coca leaf, far outstripping the legal limits sent by the government. And since we are also seeing an increase in Peruvian coca being smuggled in, Bolivia is flush with the raw material needed to make cocaine. This is why Bolivia has become a cocaine manufacturing hub and the leading supplier of this drug to the Southern Cone of Latin America.
IC: What measures has the administration of President Luis Arce taken to control the coca sector? What impact have they had?
JC: The current conflict over the control of the legal coca market is a real problem for President Arce. It is being fought between coca growers from Yungas, who belong to the local Association of Coca Producers (Asociación Departamental de Productores de Coca - ADEPCOCA), and coca-growing factions supporting the government. The government response has been to criminalize the ADEPCOCA leaders and confront their supporter base. But this has only deepened mistrust and hostility between La Paz and Cochabamba, one of Bolivia's main coca-producing areas.
IC: What have been the main challenges?
JC: A central challenge has been to make Bolivia's coca policy and the fight against drug trafficking more efficient and transparent. Official data does not allow us to see what lies beneath the reported achievements. If total coca production in the country amounts to around 52,000 tons per year, but the sale of legal coca is just 19,000 tons, where does all the remaining coca go?
Public policy is also deficient regarding the controls exercised in the northern Chapare region since only 10% of the coca leaf produced in that region is sold legally.
The way in which coca crops are eradicated needs to be brought under control. It is being handled in a lax manner and without any external oversight.
IC: What have been the most significant changes to the Bolivian cocaine trafficking market in recent years?
JC: Bolivia's role has changed from being mainly a producer of raw materials such as coca and coca paste to an exporter of cocaine hydrochloride. There have also been increasingly frequent discoveries of clandestine factories and laboratories in remote regions as coca cultivation increased by 44% between 2019-2020 in protected areas.
This has made it possible to diversify drug trafficking routes. Beyond traditional trafficking routes to Chile and Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay have seen increased seizures of Bolivian cocaine. The route through Brazil and Paraguay offers a great diversity of land, air, and river routes -- such as the Paraná-Paraguay waterway.
The methods of transporting cocaine have had the necessary political protection to carry larger loads via small planes, boats, and vehicles. The use of air bridges to Brazil and Paraguay, coupled with weak police control, have been the main factors in consolidating cocaine trafficking routes in eastern Bolivia.
IC: At the moment, approximately what proportion of Bolivian coca paste is processed in the country?
JC: In 2019, approximately 9.1 tons of cocaine paste and 6.4 tons of cocaine hydrochloride were seized, which represented less than 10% of Bolivia's total production potential. That same year, anti-drug trafficking forces reported that more cocaine paste processing laboratories were found than cocaine crystallization facilities. This may mean that a high proportion of cocaine paste is exported to be refined outside Bolivia.
Some amount of crystallization still takes place though. According to a chemical analysis of drugs seized in Europe in 2019 and 2020, around a quarter came from Bolivia and Peru. In 2021, over 18 tons of cocaine were seized, indicating that some cocaine processing happens here.
IC: How have the average prices of coca leaf and cocaine paste changed in recent years? How, if at all, has that differed in the various parts of Bolivia?
JC: Coca leaf prices can vary weekly, depending on their quality and origin. For example, coca leaf from Yungas is around 30% more expensive than Chapare. But in recent years, prices have fallen due to overproduction. Prices now stand at around $10 per kilogram in legal markets in La Paz or Yungas and around $7 per kilogram in Cochabamba or Chapare.
The price of cocaine paste varies from $1,200 per kilogram in Cochabamba to $1,600-1,800 per kilogram for the external market, depending on the region.
IC: How, if at all, has the supply of precursor chemicals for processing coca paste and cocaine changed?
JC: Argentina is one of the main suppliers of precursor chemicals to Bolivia. Porous borders with little state presence have allowed such access. Domestic precursors such as cement and gasoline are used, which are inexpensive and affordable anywhere in Bolivia.
Gasoline plays a particularly important role in the cocaine dynamic. Yapacaní, a region right next to the coca-producing area of Chapare, is one of the main gasoline consumers in the department of Santa Cruz. It used almost 13 million liters in 2019 despite having a population of around 10,000 people.
IC: In terms of Bolivian cocaine traffickers, who are the main local players?
JC: The family clans play an intermediary role between the production and commercialization of Bolivian cocaine through links with Brazilian, Colombian, and Mexican criminal organizations. They are also connected to local political power structures, The Lima Lobo, the Castedo, and the Rodríguez clans are clear examples of this.
IC: How, if at all, has the presence of Brazilian drug traffickers in the country changed in recent years?
JC: There is some evidence to show that a rise in assassinations carried out by hired killers in eastern Bolivia is due to violent competition between Brazilian criminal organizations. They are fighting to secure greater supplies, better trade routes, political protection, and territorial control.
The presence of groups such as the PCC and CV has been reported since 2010 and they take a majority of the cocaine produced in Bolivia to Brazil. These groups have gained control of border cities such as Cobija, Puerto Suarez, San Matias, Guayaramerin, and others.
IC: What are your predictions for the future of cocaine trafficking in Bolivia?
JC: Bolivia is facing a number of possible scenarios, including an increase in violence linked to cocaine trafficking. The expansion of criminal economies in key parts of the country is also a crucial issue that needs to be faced.
Large areas of Bolivia have been "co-opted" by illegal activities, including protected areas that contain illicit crops and Indigenous territories in which activities connected to drug trafficking have been discovered. Other impacts include deforestation, illicit coca cultivation, water contamination, illegal logging, trafficking, and land grabbing.
Similarly, Bolivia's vulnerability to drug trafficking is of concern. Recent academic studies estimate that drug trafficking in Bolivia is worth around $1.5-2 billion annually.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.