Controversial Bolivian Highway May Increase Cocaine Corruption

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Protests against a planned highway cutting through an indigenous reserve in Bolivia’s Amazon have focused on the environmental impact, but it is also worth considering the project’s potential to increase the opportunity for drug smuggling and corruption.

The administration of Bolivian President Evo Morales has been pushing forward with plans for a controversial highway linking the border region of Beni to the coca-growing region of Chapare, via the national park Territorio Indigena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure (Tipnis). The region suffers from poor infrastructure, but indigenous leaders from Tipnis oppose the project’s route through the park’s center. Activists argue that the highway will destroy the park’s ecosystems and communities while clearing land and markets for illegal coca growers.

Allegations of drug trafficking have smeared all sides, with authorities accusing community leaders of petty refining and trafficking. David Herrera, the head of the coca growers’ Comite Impulsor, which lobbies for the highway, was arrested last month after anti-narcotics agents allegedly found a maceration pit, used in the cocaine-manufacturing process, on his property. The Morales administration refused to negotiate with indigenous leader Bertha Bejarano because she was arrested in Brazil in 2007 carrying cocaine capsules in her body. Bejarano openly acknowledges the episode and maintains that she was forced into small time trafficking to support her family; she became an activist after leaving prison. Herrera has not talked with the press since his arrest, but the Comite continues to lobby for the highway because it would reduce the transportation costs of their crops.

While many Bolivians believe that coca and cocaine interests are behind the highway project and that the road will increase coca cultivation, Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, argues that the project would in fact make trafficking more difficult. “Drug traffickers want hundreds of miles of unmarked and unpatrolled territory and that’s what they have now,” she says, “With a road, you can bring in troops, you can bring in state control.” Ledebur added, “That road will be the one patrolled route in the region, you’re not going to traffic through there while you can still put a kilo [of cocaine] on a canoe in an uncharted river.”

The Brazilian government has been pushing the project in conjunction with the Morales administration. It was initially financed by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) and the Morales administration contracted a Brazilian company to construct the road. Brazil supports the project because it facilitates regional economic integration by improving the links between Brazilian frontier markets and the Bolivian interior. However, many if not most of Bolivia’s imports are unregistered, contraband goods ranging from stolen cars and fake medicines to more mundane products such as sugar and phone chargers. Cheap contraband goods have decimated some domestic industries. When detained, smugglers provide customs agents with a steady flow of bribes. The Bolivian Customs issued spy pens to its agents earlier this year in an attempt to monitor conversations between the public and agents and thus clamp down on bribes, but the project has yet to have a clear impact. Increased economic integration between the Brazilian and Bolivian frontier regions will likely bring more contraband into Bolivia, which in turn provides a steady source of bribes to officials.

By putting more troops and other state personnel in a region rife with drug trafficking, the highway could increase the opportunity for officials to ask for bribes and traffickers to offer them. Ledebur argues that using the proposed highway to increase Bolivian troops and police in the border region will not significantly impact the quantities of cocaine trafficked through the region. Instead, “militarization creates a potential scenario for abuses and bribes. Bolivian soldiers and police make nothing compared to traffickers, and traffickers will try to buy them off.” The Bolivian National Police ended a six-day mutiny in June after the federal government offered a raise of about $13 per month, bringing monthly pay to roughly $207. The force has been plagued by corruption and scandal, and the Bolivian military and counternarcotics force enjoy only marginally better reputations and salary. Introducing more poorly paid personnel into a region that counts cocaine refining and smuggling as major economic activities could be a recipe for corruption.

Brazil increased drug interdiction cooperation with Bolivia this year, and has placed troops and drones along the intermittently-marked border. Furthermore, the Morales administration has stepped up surveillance and eradication, particularly of crops planted in national parks. The government has set itself a target of removing all 10,000 hectares of illegal crops in 2012, bringing the country’s coca cultivation down to the 20,000 hectares allowed by Bolivian law.

In its current form, the road will strengthen the economic, political and infrastructural ties between the Beni province and the rest of Bolivia, increasing government presence in Beni and making the area a viable market. Bolivia and neighboring governments hope that increasing state presence in Beni will reduce the presence of organized crime. While opposition to the highway focuses on the road’s environmental impact, authorities and activists should also scrutinize the possible unintended consequences in terms of corruption, drug trafficking, and contraband smuggling.

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