Former Bolivian Drug Czar Arrested in Panama

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After the arrest of Bolivia’s former top narcotics czar Thursday in Panama, accused of running a drug-trafficking ring, attention is again focused on how deep is police and military involvement in the drug trade.

Retired police general Rene Sanabria was arrested Thursday in Panama and has since been deported to the U.S., reports La Razon. Sanabria was currently serving as an intelligence advisor to the government’s interior ministry. He is among the highest ranking security officials yet arrested on drug trafficking charges in Bolivia.

At least three other mid-ranking police officials – including a major and a captain, both part of the same intelligence apparatus where Sanabria worked, known by its Spanish acronym CIGEIN, and a colonel, the former head of anti-narcotics in Cochabamba – were also arrested Sunday for alleged involvement in Sanabria’s ring.

The group is accused of facilitating drug shipments from the Arica highlands near the Chilean border to Panama, then onto the U.S., according to La Razon. Sanabria arrived at Panama’s Tocumen International Airport on Thursday in order to coordinate his third shipment to the U.S., the newspaper says.

High-level official involvement in the drug trade is nothing new in Bolivia. Under the dictatorships of Hugh Banzer (1971-1978) and Luis Garcia Meza (1980-1981), security officials were widely understood to be in bed with drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). Garcia Meza, who came to power in what was later known as a “cocaine coup,” did much to institutionalize the drug trade among sectors of the military.

This history of military involvement in the drug trade means that the police, and not the army, is deployed to do anti-narcotics work in Bolivia. But as Sanabria’s arrest demonstrates, the police is not immune from collaboration in the drug trade, and in some ways have helped make Bolivia’s anti-drug strategy deeply unpopular. The principle arm of Bolivia’s anti-narcotics force, known by its Spanish acronym UMOPAR, has been frequently accused of human rights violations while conducting operations, including torture and illegal detentions.

In the most recent high-profile case involving a police official accused of criminal ties, former police captain Orlando Araujo was detained in May 2010, allegedly responsible for masterminding the kidnapping of Paraguayan trafficker William Rosales. In a jolt of violence that startled Bolivia last year, Rosales and his Serbian bodyguards were ambushed in a rural area, leaving six guards dead and Rosales still missing, presumably kidnapped by Araujo at the behest of Colombians who had a $1 million bounty on Rosales’ head.

President Evo Morales has acknowledged that there are drug cartels operating in Bolivia, and has even said they are “better equipped” than the national security forces. Brazilian drug trafficking organizations Red Command (Comando Vermelho) and the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) also are believed to be present in the country. But despite the history of drug-related corruption in the police and army, the Bolivian state is not as seriously threatened by powerful drug cartels as is the case for Mexico and Colombia.

While there may be remnants of international cartels like Colombia’s Norte del Valle Cartel making their presence felt in Bolivia, most of the business, including transhipment into neighbouring countries like Brazil and the processing coca into cocaine, is believed to be handled by local “family clans.” The international buyers, who maintain contact with organizations like the PCC, keep a low profile. Notably, drug-related violence, or the co-opting of government officials by DTOs, is much more rare in Bolivia than it is in other source countries like Colombia, indicating that the local DTOs do not yet feel the need to compete violently for territory.

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