Bolivian Police Scandal Resurrects Mistrust of U.S. Agencies and Threats to Expel USAID

On March 17, MAS party legislators announced that they would make a formal request to remove USAID from Bolivian territory. “We, the legislative party leaders have decided that USAID should leave our country, due to its clear intervention in different departmental governments, their pretext of [providing] seminars, conflict resolution workshops and other excuses for political meddling.”[i]

While the MAS legislative majority’s position is clear, it is not a foregone conclusion that the executive will ratify and act on this pronouncement.  The day after MAS assembly members made their announcement, Morales complained about economic cooperation, stating that the U.S. government “blackmailed” Bolivia through the ATPDEA (Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act), suspended in 2009. He did not specifically mention USAID or its potential expulsion.[ii]

High-ranking government officials had threatened to expel the development agency in June 2010, but did not follow through, apparently due to a lack of cabinet consensus on the issue and less grassroots support than expected for the initiative. In spite of this lack of consensus, Morales officials infuriated some indigenous and social organization by accusing them of receiving USAID funding and influence.  Their heated rejection of these claims suggests that the agency maintained a negative public image among many Bolivian sectors.

Persisting friction over the role of several U.S. agencies catalyzed the recent announcements.  MAS constituents continue to mistrust the U.S. as a result past violations of Bolivia’s national sovereignty throughout the drug war and an ongoing lack of transparency in development programs.  The DEA’s role in arrest of Bolivia’s ex-head of counternarcotics police, Rene Sanabria, who until his detention had been in charge of a government ministry antinarcotic intelligence agency, has aggravated these tensions.

In late February 2011, the DEA, after a sting operation by the Chilean police, apprehended Sanabria in Panama for allegedly trafficking 140 kilos of cocaine to Miami. Although no one in Bolivia argues his innocence or advocates his release, the Morales administration resents that the Chilean and U.S. governments did not inform them directly of Sanabria’s activity, giving the impression that they condoned or even facilitated his large-scale trafficking operations. The embarrassing incident, followed on March 16 by the  narcotics-related arrest of an ex-Santa Cruz Interpol commander, has led to a change of the police high command and of other police officers implicated in cocaine trafficking.

Furthermore, the Bolivian government’s concern, already intensified by the scandal, that the DEA still maintains surveillance and contacts within Bolivia heightened with statements made this week by DEA administrator, Michele Leonhart, in a congressional hearing. The Bolivian press widely reported her comments: “Unable to operate within the country, the DEA has what we call an ‘external strategy,’ through personnel who work in offices in neighboring countries and a network of informants outside Bolivia.” Leonhart’s assertions that drug abuse in Bolivia “is already bad, but is getting worse,” and that “Evo Morales sees this situation through a different lens as leader of the coca growers,”[iii] further rankled MAS officials.


In part, MAS legislators may be resurrecting a historically successful tactic of asserting Bolivian sovereignty in order to strengthen support from traditional party constituents demanding government concessions.  Renewed threats to expel USAID come as the Morales administration faces considerable internal challenges, including widespread workers’ union strikes and protests among other diverse social groups. Executive attention to these pending conflicts may take precedence over decisions about USAID’s presence in the nation.

Although the scandal surrounding Sanabria’s arrest generated resentment about the DEA’s  past role in Bolivia and current agenda, it also provoked insecurity within the administration that their control that interdiction and drug related corruption in the police force has been less effective than they had previously believed.  Limited external funding opportunities further exacerbate these fears. Aside from limited financial cooperation from Brazil, the Morales administration has not yet secured alternative funding sources for these programs.  As a result, although the Morales administration frequently expresses frustration with conditions tied to U.S. financial assistance, it is unlikely that they are willing to risk losing U.S. drug control aid by expelling USAID at this time.

Yet, paradoxically, although the Bolivian government needs financial support for coca and drug control efforts, MAS officials expect that with announced reductions in U.S. funding over the next two fiscal years[iv], they have less to lose in expelling USAID. From a national political perspective, this tactic would also “beat the U.S. to the punch.”

[i] ABI, “Bancada del MAS pedirá expulsión de USAID por injerencia e intromisión.” 17 March 2011. <>

“Los jefes de bancada hemos tomado la decisión de que USAID debe dejar nuestro país por la clara intromisión en los diferentes gobiernos departamentales, so pretexto de seminarios, talleres de resolución de conflictos y muchos otros temas de injerencia política”, señaló el jefe de bancada del MAS en la Cámara de Diputados, Edwin Tupa.

[ii]Evo acusa a EEUU de chantajear a Bolivia con el ATPDEA.” Opinion 18 March 2011

[iii] AIN translation from Spanish. “La DEA revela que vigilaba a Bolivia con informantes.”  La Razón, 17 March 2011.

[iv] For more information see, “ Reduced U.S. Funding to Bolivia Reflects Diminishing Influence and Complex Dynamics.”