A UN representative said there are no Mexican cartels present in Bolivia, raising the question of which criminal groups do handle the Andean nation’s cocaine trade.
According to testimony delivered by a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official to the US Senate in October, both Mexican and Colombian traffickers have increased their presence in Bolivia. The DEA noted that it was difficult to identify these criminal groups, partly because the agency hasn’t had any field presence in Bolivia since 2008. President Evo Morales expelled the agency and the US ambassador from the country that year, accusing them of conspiring against his administration.
On Tuesday Cesar Guedes, representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bolivia, appeared to contradict part of the DEA’s conclusions. According to La Razon, Guedes said that drug trafficking is “managed mostly by local groups or Brazilians, Europeans, Colombians, not exactly Mexicans.” He added there was “no way of proving” the US claims.
Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera also cited the UNODC’s position when discussing the presence of Mexican cartels in Bolivia. “[Guedes] said clearly that, at the United Nations, they don’t have information or evidence of the presence of those cartels in the country,” the vice president said.
However, Guedes’ comments do not appear to be an outright denial that Mexican drug traffickers have a presence in Bolivia. Rather, the UNODC’s position looks like an extension of an argument long made by the Bolivian government: Bolivia’s cocaine trade is controlled by family clans and by foreign nationals, Mexican, Colombian and Brazilian included, even though there are no militarized, transnational criminal organizations inside the country.
The official position of Bolivia’s main anti-narcotics force, known by its acronym the FELCN, is that while there are foreign traffickers in Bolivia, none are organized or sophisticated enough to be considered a “cartel.”
The argument that there are no Mexican cartels inside Bolivia would contradict previous statements made by government officials. President Evo Morales has said that Colombian and Mexican traffickers “have an interest in harming the country” and are better armed than the Bolivian security forces. In July, the country’s top drug official said that some Bolivian groups have made contact with the Zetas.
Bolivian authorities have occasionally arrested Mexicans on drug trafficking charges. But Colombian groups appear to have a much stronger hold inside the country. Colombian traffickers have shot and killed Bolivian police while defending cocaine processing labs in the remote countryside. According to FELCN statistics from 2010, police arrested over 120 Colombians on drug trafficking charges that year.
In particular, the eastern department of Santa Cruz is thought to be a hub for Colombian traffickers. According to one estimate by Colombian intelligence, there may be up to 3,000 Colombians dedicated exclusively to the drug trade in the area. In June 2011, Bolivian police arrested the cousin of one of Colombia’s most wanted paramilitary warlords in Santa Cruz. Bolivian UN representative Guedes recently called the area Bolivia’s principal transit area for cocaine heading to Paraguay and Brazil, and the one most likely to see Mexico-style violence in the coming years if rival groups begin battling over control of the region.
The shifting technology inside Bolivia’s cocaine processing labs may also be a sign of greater Colombian influence. In the past five years, cocaine laboratories in Bolivia have increasingly used the more sophisticated Colombian methods for producing cocaine. Instead of using open-air maceration pits to produce coca paste, more labs have been found which follow the Colombian style. This involves using a greater quantity of precursor chemicals to process the coca leaf. This system is more efficient at extracting the cocaine alkaloid. Many of these mega-drug labs using the Colombian technology have been discovered in or around Santa Cruz.
This was among the evidence cited by the DEA to argue that foreign traffickers, including Colombians, have become more established in Bolivia. However, evidence for the allegation that Mexican groups have greater influence in the country just isn’t there.