Bolivian police believe foreign drug trafficking organizations operating in the country are working with local crime families to process cocaine, a potentially ominous sign for security in this Andean nation.
According to intelligence obtained by Bolivia’s anti-narcotics police force (FELCN), foreign drug cartels have established direct links with local crime families in the departments of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz (see map), “subcontracting” them to oversee cocaine base production there. La Prensa reports that police say these drug trafficking clans have perfected large-scale cocaine processing methods, and sell the drug to Mexican, Colombian and Brazilian drug trafficking groups for as much as $1,500 per kilogram.
The report comes just days after Vice Minister of Social Defense, Felipe Caceres, announced that two drug trafficking families appear to be battling for control over drug production in Santa Cruz, which has seen a series of drug-related shootings in recent weeks.
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The Bolivian government has long treated the issue of foreign cartel presence with caution. While it has acknowledged that Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking organizations have dealings in the country, officials take care to emphasize that these are mere “emissaries,” and stress that the real power brokers of organized crime in Bolivia are traditional family-run criminal empires. Despite rumors to the contrary (drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was at one point rumored to be hiding out in Bolivia), evidence suggests that so far this has proven true, and that foreign drug cartels act mostly as clients of local cocaine producers.
This could change, however, as cocaine production in Bolivia becomes more sophisticated and demand increases. As InSight Crime has reported, United States anti-drug officials have said that cocaine producers in Bolivia are using increasingly sophisticated techniques, which has caused the country’s production drug potential to skyrocket. According to US law enforcement, production potential in Bolivia has surged to 240 tons of cocaine per year, overtaking that of Colombia.
An anonymous former police source told La Prensa that these advanced production techniques also yield high-purity cocaine paste, which is highly attractive to foreign cartels. “With the advancements in drug processing, all [the cartels] have to do is export it,” said the official.
Bolivian authorities found evidence of this increasingly large-scale production in June, when a two day operation in San German, Santa Cruz, resulted in the discovery of more than 90 laboratories, which could produce up to 450 kilograms of drugs a month.
If the foreign cartels currently buying from Bolivian suppliers seek to take advantage of this production boom, it would come at the expense of local crime families, and could potentially result in further violence. A similar phenomenon occurred in the northeastern Guatemalan department of Peten, which had until relatively recently been the exclusive territory of Guatemalan mafia families like the Mendozas and Lorenzanas. Seeing a potential way to maximize profit, Mexican cartels — particularly the Zetas — muscled their way into the area beginning in 2008, taking control over smuggling routes and clandestine air strips from local groups.
Conversely, the production boom could also lead some Bolivian crime families to seek a bigger piece of the pie, potentially developing their own international contacts in neighboring countries (Brazil, with its rising demand for cocaine, is one possibility) and smuggling them directly. This would mean that Bolivian groups would make the jump to transnational criminal organizations. Considering the rampant corruption among border officials and the already thriving contraband trade in the east of the country, this could be accomplished relatively easily. More powerful crime families like the Rosales clan, which is believed to have extensive influence over government institutions throughout Santa Cruz, may be best poised to make this transition.