Bolivia Captures Drug Kingpin, Claims Rare Victory

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Bolivian officials announced this week that they had captured the cousin of one of Colombia’s most sought after paramilitary leaders. While the arrest is a victory for counternarcotics officials in the country, several recent developments cast doubt on the institutional efficacy of Bolivia’s much criticized anti-drug efforts.

Acting on intelligence provided by Colombian authorities, Bolivia’s Special Anti-Narcotics Police (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico – FECLN) arrested Carlos Noel Buitrago Vega, alias “Porremacho,” in the eastern city of Santa Cruz on June 28. The next day, officials extradited him to Colombia, where he will be brought to trial. According to El Espectador, Buitrago has been wanted for over a decade on charges of drug trafficking, terrorism, mass murders and forced disappearances.

Buitrega’s cousin Hector Buitrago, alias “Martin Llanos,” is the former head of a right-wing paramilitary group known as the Peasant Self Defense Forces of Casanare (Autodefensas Campesinas del Casanare – ACC). At the height of its political power, the ACC was known for backing the campaign of Casanare governor William Hernan Perez, in office from 2001 to 2003. However, in 2004 the group was nearly obliterated in a series of clashes with a rival paramilitary group, now known as the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (Ejercito Popular Antiterrorista Colombiana – ERPAC). Unlike other paramilitary factions, Buitrago never turned himself in as part of the government’s demobilization process, and is said to still be active in the Casanare region.

Like his cousin, Carlos Buitraga has been linked by authorities to organized crime and drug trafficking. According to Bolivian officials, Buitrago first came to Bolivia two years ago under a false identity, with the intention of connecting Bolivian drug traffickers with other groups in South America. Since then, he set up several cocaine processing laboratories, allegedly smuggling shipments of up to 400 kilos of the drug into Brazil from clandestine airstrips at least twice a month.

Bolivian authorities, for their part, have been hailing the capture as a major achievement. As La Razon reports, Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti referred to Buitrago as a “big fish in drug trafficking and terrorism,” and said the FELCN operation took months of careful planning. While it is true that the detainee’s arrest was somewhat significant, it is likely that police in Bolivia are attempting to play it up in order to distract from the negative attention that police in the country have received lately.

Back in February Panamanian officials arrested the country’s former top counternarcotics official, Rene Sanabria, and accused him of plotting to run a drug-trafficking ring. According to the AP, Sanabria pleaded guilty this week in a U.S. federal court to cocaine trafficking charges, and promised to help U.S. drug investigators in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. Since then, President Evo Morales has accused neighboring Chile of not sharing intelligence despite the fact that officials there knew of Sanabria’s illicit activities.

Bolivia’s law enforcement took another hit to its credibility recently, when the country passed a law allowing residents to register cars which had been smuggled or stolen from other countries. Although the government has claimed the move will stop the unfair punishment of the poor, who often buy stolen cars because of their low price, EFE notes that critics are claiming the move encourages car theft. This controversy became even more heated in early June, when 14 Bolivian soldiers were arrested in Chile near the border for allegedly driving stolen Chilean cars.

In some respects, the fact that Bolivian officials remain capable of arresting suspected traffickers like Buitraga is reassuring, as it demonstrates that, despite these setbacks, anti-drug officials can still conduct high-level security operations in the country. This was echoed by Interior Minister Llorenti, who vowed to local media that the police will continue to “disrupt the entire drug trafficking network” associated with Buitrago. However, because the level of Colombian support for the operation was reportedly quite high, it is not clear whether Bolivian officials were capable of arresting druglord on their own. As InSight has reported, counternarcotics operations are plagued by a lack of resources, and the country’s  tolerance of coca grown for legal purposes often facilitates the transfer of a significant portion of the annual coca crop into the black market.

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