Bolivian Senator Claims Persecution for Revealing Govt Drug Ties

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A Bolivian senator says he is being persecuted for exposing the relationship between some officials in the Morales government and the drug trade. Is this an accurate report of corruption, or political maneuvering, or both?

On May 28, Roger Pinto entered the Brazilian Embassy in La Paz, seeking political asylum, and his colleagues in the right-wing opposition Convergencia party called a press conference to explain why. Brandishing a larger-than-life cardboard cutout of the senator’s head, complete with a gag and padlock over the mouth (see image, above), they read a statement in which Pinto said he had been left with no choice but to flee from government persecution. It said that there were currently some 20 legal cases open against him — “each one more outlandish than the last” — and that each time he reported corruption, the authorities opened a new proceeding against him. He claimed he had been the victim of harassment and constant death threats.

President Evo Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party responded by accusing Pinto of seeking asylum in order to avoid standing trial on corruption charges. Brazil’s Foreign Ministry has said it is analyzing the request, and that Pinto can stay in the embassy while the decision is made. There have been conflicting media reports on whether asylum has been granted.

Pinto’s statement did not contain any information about who in the Morales government he is accusing of drug ties. To date, his most high-profile allegation was that former Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti and Vice President Alvaro García knew about the drug trafficking activities of retired police general Rene Sanabria, who is currently in US prison convicted of drug trafficking.

Sanabria was arrested in Panama in February 2011 and sent to the US to stand trial. In September he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for shipping several tons of cocaine to the US via Chile.

The case raised questions about the reach of drug corruption in the Bolivian government. Sanabria was a powerful figure who served as the country’s top anti-drug official until 2009, and at the time of his arrest he headed an intelligence office in the Interior Ministry. US prosectors said that he led a network of corrupt police officials. Three mid-level officers were arrested within days, while a police colonel·accused of being part of the ring is currently on the run.

Sanabria is cooperating with US authorities, and has reportedly made statements that back Pinto’s claims that elements of the Morales government are linked to drug traffickers. In May this year, Miami-based TV station Univision reported that Sanabria had sent the station a letter claiming that the Bolivian government was “thwarting a comprehensive investigation into public officials involved in drug trafficking.” The imprisoned former general reportedly named Llorenti as being instrumental in the cover-up. Pinto responded by calling for the formation of a Congress commission to talk to Sanabria and investigate his claims.

This followed another controversial report released by Univision in September 2011, the day before Sanabria was sentenced, which it claimed was based on Bolivian intelligence documents. According to Univision, the documents set out a picture of Bolivia as a “narco-state” where cartels from Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil carried out their business with official collusion. The intelligence reportedly named at least 40 people, including high-level police officials, lawyers, and business people who are facilitating the drug trade. The documents were not made public, however, and their authenticity has been questioned.

According to Univision, the documents said that the Interior Ministry ignored the evidence of widespread corruption at the behest of Llorenti. Pinto supposedly asked that Llorenti be investigated for failing to examine Sanabria’s links to drug trafficking, the TV station said.

After the Univision report was released, Llorenti accused Pinto of having passed the documents to the station. Pinto denied this, saying that he had indeed handed the government a document accusing the then-minister, but that he had not given this to Univision. He retaliated by accusing Llorenti of trying to deny the fact that Bolivia was becoming a narco-state. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also expressed concern over the Univision report, and said that the Bolivian authorities should investigate its allegations, noting that the drug trade is responsible for 3 to 5 percent of the country’s GDP.

In Bolivia, there have long been elements of the security forces involved in the drug trade, with the takeover of military dictator Luis Garcia Meza (1980-1981) dubbed the “cocaine coup,” for his legacy of drug corruption in the military. Bolivia’s police were thought to be less implicated in the trade, though the Sanabria case has thrown this into doubt. There has been a high rate of turnover at the head of Bolivia’s police, with six losing their posts in the last six years amid various scandals. Most notable is Oscar Nina, who was fired in 2011 amid the fallout over the Sanabria case, and has reportedly been implicated by the jailed general in his illegal activities.

Morales, however, has claimed that his enemies are using the Sanabria case to smear him, and there is no doubt some truth to this. However, this does not mean that police ties to trafficking do not exist.

While Pinto may well be correct about the existence of high-level drug connections in the Morales government, his accusations also appear to have been politically motivated. Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network told InSight Crime that Pinto’s claims have to be viewed as part of a far larger fight: “It is clear that his assertion that all these charges are an attempt to silence his denunciations about trafficking are a gross oversimplification of a protracted political power struggle.”

Aside from the political effects within Bolivia, the case could also have implications for Brazil’s efforts to work with the Andean country to fight organized crime. In January, Brazil said it would donate four helicopters to its neighbor for use in anti-drug missions, on top of a previous pledge to provide drones for crop monitoring. The issue is particularly important for Brazil, which borders on the world’s three main cocaine producers, and has seen cocaine and crack use rocket in recent years. As the WSJ points out, much of these narcotics come from, or via, Bolivia. In addition to this, Bolivia is on the point of returning some 400 vehicles stolen in Brazil, as Brazilian media have pointed out. If Brazil does grant asylum to Pinto, it could anger the Morales government and hurt these joint anti-crime initiatives at a crucial time for their development.

It remains to be seen if Pinto can substantiate his claims. The revelation that such a high-level official as Sanabria was involved with the drug trade suggests that there may be more elements in the Bolivian government and security forces that are complicit. However, the country remains far from being the narco-state that Pinto describes.

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