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Bolivia Plans Crackdown on Cars-for-Cocaine Trade

Bolivian police examine a seized stolen vehicle Bolivian police examine a seized stolen vehicle

The Bolivian government has vowed to crack down on the thriving trade in vehicles stolen in neighboring countries and trafficked into Bolivia, which is a major source of funding for criminal groups in the region.

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On October 17, the head of Bolivia’s anti-auto theft office, Jorge Saravia, announced that the country was coordinating a “mega-operation” with Argentina, Chile and Brazil to crack down on transnational automobile theft.

"We are working to address the problem and deepen the fight against transnational mafias who steal vehicles in those countries and have connections with other criminal organizations," Saravia said. He added that he would meet with Argentine officials in the coming days to work out the plan.

Although the official did not elaborate on the details of this proposed international operation, he later announced that law enforcement officials in Bolivia would conduct a series of raids to seize cars with unregistered or copycat license plates in the country.

Bolivia has become a hub of transnational car theft in South America in recent years, a development which was only made worse by the government’s decision to grant a window of amnesty to the owners of unregistered vehicles (many of them likely stolen) in June-July 2011, allowing them to pay a moderate fee to get legal documents. The amnesty had an immediate impact in neighboring countries, with officials in Chile, Brazil and Argentina complaining that the move caused an uptick in robberies.

InSight Crime Analysis

The issue is about more than just transnational car thefts in the region, or even Bolivia’s lax approach to vehicle registration. It provides a window into the state of organized crime in Bolivia, where powerful crime families dominate the country's underworld, and may be forming closer transnational ties.

As InSight Crime has reported, analysts believe that the Bolivian crime syndicates who purchase these stolen vehicles often directly exchange cocaine for cars. According to Brazil’s former Security Minister Jose Vicente da Silva Filho, a quality car stolen in Brazil can be exchanged in Bolivia for about 10 kilos of the drug. Argentine and Chilean officials have also reported that car traffickers exchange the vehicles for cocaine from Bolivian groups.

While little is publicly known about the structure of the networks behind Bolivia’s thriving trade in stolen vehicles, the profile of those identified by the government as the main perpetrators of the trade seems to match the domestic drug trafficking clans. On October 17, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera told reporters that many of those responsible for the trade in stolen vehicles in the southern city of Challapata were “multimillionaire family networks” which manage “extensive resources.”

At the very least, the fact that vendors of stolen cars operate in the south along the borders with Chile and Argentina points to the existence of networks for moving cars and drugs within Bolivia. As a map compiled by InSight Crime indicates, most coca base in the country is produced in laboratories the central highlands and the eastern department of Santa Cruz.

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