Voices from Bolivia’s Underworld

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It is hard not to like Pedro. He is bright, charming and speaks flawless English. He is also a career criminal, from a criminal clan. Now 40, his criminal life started at 15, and he knows the underworld in Santa Cruz intimately.

“I was always attracted to the easy money. I liked always having a roll of bills in my pocket. I liked being able to keep up with my friends from the rich families. Now I can’t do anything else.”

He worked credit card fraud and forgery before being arrested in Brazil. He has been in prison in both Bolivia and Brazil. He has now switched to microtrafficking (selling drugs in Santa Cruz) and some drug trafficking (transnational smuggling) and is currently working with Colombians in the cocaine trade. He is a walking encyclopedia of organized crime in Santa Cruz. He was happy to talk generally about the business, but no names — absolutely no names.

“Initially my gig was credit cards, working Brazil and Argentina. We had a network of guys working in high-class restaurants and boutiques, sucking down the details of credit cards. The secret is to get the credit card terminal, tamper with it then place it in a restaurant or boutique. Then you can get all the information, even the PIN. Now, however, I’ve done time for this, and am known by the banks and credit card companies. I had to make a career change.”

Pedro’s career change has been into the cocaine business. It was not a big leap, as members of his family have long been moving cocaine paste, a form of crack cocaine, into Argentina, for sale in that booming domestic market. He works for Colombian transnational organized crime. His principal role is selling high-purity cocaine in personal doses to his high-society friends in Santa Cruz. This money, earned in bolivianos, helps the Colombians with their day-to-day operational costs in Bolivia, without the need to attract attention by changing large amounts of foreign currency.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Bolivia

Pedro can earn more than 100,000 bolivianos (about $15,000) off a kilo of high-purity cocaine, produced by the Colombians in their laboratories in Bolivia. The Colombians sell some of the product in Bolivia, before moving it on to Brazil, where they sell some more, to finance transport to the really lucrative markets of Europe.

Pedro is also sometimes involved in prepping mules and small-scale shipments for export.

“One of the popular ways of moving cocaine at the moment is putting it into liquid form, which can then be sprayed on clothes. The clothes do not go stiff. Once the guy arrives at the destination, the clothes are washed in a special solution and the cocaine extracted. If you know what you’re doing, as little as 10 percent of the cocaine is lost. Moving drugs this way is really hard to detect.

“Police corruption is the key to underworld activities here in Bolivia. The police are involved in everything.”

“The Colombians run most of the crystallizing laboratories in Bolivia. They know how to produce the really high-purity cocaine. The Colombians prefer getting their hands on base from Peru, which costs around $1,400 [per kilo]. It tends to be a better quality, and is cheaper than the Bolivian, which usually goes for $1,800.

“There are three types of Colombians in Bolivia. The first is the high-level narco, who appears to be a businessman or a rancher. The second is the sicario, the killer. The third, and by far the most common, is the thief or low-level criminal. This last group are about the only ones that actually ever get arrested.

“The narcos work at the highest level, always with the police, to cover their operations. Usually there’s a Bolivian middleman who acts as the bridge between the Colombians and the police.

“Police corruption is the key to underworld activities here in Bolivia. The police are involved in everything. I personally know of a case where police were contracted to kidnap someone who had some outstanding debts. They charged $6000.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

“But it is not just the police who are corrupt. If by some miracle you actually get arrested and charged, you can buy most judges off for $20,000.”

Cocaine is also not the only drug being sold or moved through Bolivia.

“It is not just the coca base and cocaine passing through Bolivia, there is also a fair bit of Paraguayan marijuana. It costs $30 a kilo to produce in Paraguay; you can buy it at the Bolivian border for about $100. The highest quality stuff can go for over $2,500 a kilo once distributed.”

“While the Colombians are the big players here, there are Brazilians, and also some Russians and Italians handling some of the product heading to Europe. There are some Mexicans, and they now control the US market. Not even the Colombians will mess with them.”

Asked about the geography of Bolivia’s drug trade, Pedro was able to rattle off the principal centers.

“Beni [the department] is the main crossing point for cocaine into Brazil, not Santa Cruz. There is little control in Beni and less along the remote frontiers. The traffickers ‘bombard’ the drugs into Brazil. That means they often do not bother to land and unload the drugs, but throw the drugs, specially wrapped, out of the plane. This reduces the risk of interdiction and tracking. There are lots of landing strips in Beni.

“For money laundering, Santa Cruz is the big center. There’s plenty of money here coming in legally from Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. There are no bank controls; nobody asks where the money comes from.

“There are plenty of laboratories in and around Santa Cruz, but for the Bolivians, the big place is San German, in the district of Yapacani in Santa Cruz department.”

A Coca Base Producer Speaks Out

The following are extracts of an interview conducted by Sin Letra Chica, a TV program by Carlos Valverde, with a member of a Bolivian criminal clan based in San German. The extracts are reproduced with the permission of Carlos Valverde, and with InSight Crime’s thanks.

Where does the coca that you process into drugs come from?

The coca arrives in the greatest quantity from Chapare, from Bulo Bulo (Cochabamba), Entre Ríos (Tarija) and Ivirgarzama (Cochabamba). The flow is constant. We’re talking during a normal week, just talking about my group, they deliver coca to us every Saturday and Sunday. There are brokers who are permanent suppliers, and others who deliver stuff occasionally. The coca arrives in packets [huge bags of coca known locally as “chanchos”], 70 minimum, but with those coming from the area of La Paz there are between 350 and 400 packets in each trip. Some of the packets have the markings of the DIGCOIN [General Directorate of Coca Leaf and Industrialization – Dirección General de la Hoja de Coca e Industrialización, which means the coca has been legally registered], especially those from La Paz, while the rest are illegal.

You just produce coca base, or also refined cocaine?

We just produce coca base; other groups refine the cocaine. 

How are the drugs moved to the market? 

“We’re talking about 25 to 30 minutes, the time it takes us to load up the planes.”

Aircraft land in the zone. And while we, the workers, are loading up, the men who arrived in the aircraft, who we have often seen before, get into waiting vehicles to go and speak with our bosses. Those we have not seen before, they tend to be Brazilians. We’re talking about 25 to 30 minutes, the time it takes us to load up the planes. While this is going on, there is a group guarding the entrance to the area and another group much closer.

What do you do if one of you, for any reason, is detained by the police?

If it is someone from our group, and if he is detained here in the zone of Yapacani by the police, he is freed the moment they know that he is from our group. If, however, he is detained by the FELCN [the anti-narcotics police] in another part, it usually takes two days to arrange for his release. Sometimes one of us is detained, say for fighting, for being drunk or whatever, or in some cases for selling small quantities of drugs; we are talking about 300 to 500 grams that you can sell in Yapacani. If the police find that, then you are detained and taken to the police station. That is when our boss calls the colonel, and the colonel makes sure we are freed.

Is there any control over you moving around the zone? Can you go freely?

We cannot leave. The form of control is that now one person watches us, a Colombian who moves about on a motorcycle. When we are not working he passes by my house, and the house where the majority of us in this group work. He passes in the morning and we have to be there, so he can see us. He doesn’t say anything, he just passes by, and he returns in the afternoon and we have to be there then as well so he can see us.

And if you are not there?

They have told us that if we are not going to be around we have to say where we are going, and who we are going to be with. We can go out with others of our group, but only for a short time, say a day, and when we do that, they provide us with a vehicle. They’ve told us that if we are not around, they could punish us in different ways. They have threatened us, saying we could disappear, that they could kill us, that we would not receive any money.

And so how do you feel about that?

Afraid, afraid that they could take things out against me and my family. I’m frightened at the moment because there are problems between two groups, and the Colombians who are managing them, they have lots of control and there are people that say they will kill you. There have been cases of people that have gone fishing, and have been killed on the banks of the river.

You have said there are four big groups that control this zone, and you’ve mentioned that sometimes there are problems between them. How many people make up these groups? How much product are they producing?

Well, two of the groups I know about number maybe 600 between them, although that can depend on the amount of work there is. Let’s say there may be 450 to 500 workers, most of whom are from around here. Those that are not, they rent rooms in the houses here. As far as production is concerned, on a good week each group can produce between 600 and 800 kilos.

You have said that there are four people that command the groups here, and one who is above them.

Yes, there is one above them all, and he usually only comes once, maybe twice, a year to the zone.

Does he have some political, administrative or official position?

Yes, he has a political position, he is some kind of minister. We have only seen him from a distance, but we know what he looks like from the television.

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