The Brazilian and Bolivian police are starting joint anti-drug operations, an acknowledgement of the scale of the cross border problem, perhaps heralding a new direction for the Bolivians, who have resisted working closely with the United States on the drug issue.
As part of an agreement signed in 2010, Los Tiempos reports, Bolivian officials will fly to Brazil, and Brazilian police travel in the opposite direction, to pool intelligence and foment closer cooperation and integral action between the two national forces. As well as against drug smuggling, efforts will be directed against money laundering, the eradication of illicit drug crops (Bolivia plans to erradicate 8200 hectares of illegal coca in 2011) and immigration. In the sights are transnational criminal organizations.
This is a beneficial agreement for both countries. Brazil, as Latin America’s principal consumer of illegal drugs, wants to improve interdiction and attack the supply side, while being conscious of the need to reduce demand. According the latest World Drug Report issued by the UNODC, Brazil has at least 900,000 users of cocaine and some estimates put the internal market as high as 100 tons a year (as a point of reference the world’s biggest market for cocaine, the U.S., is around 300 tons). Brazil is also a transit nation for drugs going principally to Europe.
The Bolivians need Brazilian help. Bolivia is currently the world’s third-largest producer of cocaine after Colombia and Peru. According to the UNODC data, cultivation of coca represented 30,900 hectares in 2009, of which up to 20,000 hectares is legal and designed to feed the domestic market for the leaves, often chewed by the indigenous people to aid working at high altitudes. U.S. officials talk about 15,000 hectares of excess coca, capable of producing 45 metric tons of cocaine.
Bolivia has also become a transit nation for Peruvian cocaine as reports of seizures show. The processing of coca into cocaine, once done in primitive maceration pits, is becoming increasingly sophisticated, thanks to techniques imported from Colombia, which increase the yield of cocaine from the coca. Recent raids on laboratories in Bolivia show these technological improvements.
Bolivian has lost much of its drug fighting capability after the breakdown in relations with Washington and the expulsion, in 2008, of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Historically Bolivian anti-narcotics efforts received heavy funding and training from the U.S. and while there is still American aid, it is much reduced along with levels of co-operation.
So now, with President Morales’ “zero cocaine but not zero coca” policy, the Bolivian anti-narcotics police are doing much of the fighting alone. As the head of Bolivia’s anti-drugs force, Col Felix Molina, told the BBC, “We are doing the best we can, but we lack resources and we feel abandoned by the international community, and this should be a concern for them.”
So Morales is reaching out to Brazil to fill the gap, and the new levels of cooperation may signal that Brazil is ready to step up, although the regional superpower is unlikely to match the resources that the U.S. has provided in the past, not just direct anti-narcotics aid, but also social investment.