LA Times Misfires in Attempt to Shoot Down Bolivian Drug Control Efforts

AIN comments on “Peru may resume shooting down suspected coke -smuggling planes” in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.

On April 26th, the Los Angeles Times published an article criticizing Bolivia’s role as an ‘air bridge’ facilitating the passage of cocaine between producers in Peru and consumers in Brazil and beyond. The article included extended commentary from Peruvian and Chilean sources and a number of accusations leveled at the Bolivian authorities, without giving them any opportunity to respond.

It is rather surprising that the article did not feature any information from or specifically about Bolivia, nor any evaluation of what Peru is or isn’t doing to address the issue.  The air bridge is nothing new.  Trafficking routes shift on a dime in response to even the best interdiction efforts with an almost unlimited budget from illegal profits. If control tightens significantly, traffickers just switch to another strategy and switch back when controls lighten.

How is it somehow Bolivia’s fault alone that around 500 flights leave Peruvian territory with cocaine paste?  This seems like a lot of oversimplification and casting of blame by Peruvian authorities, mired in their own narco-corruption morass, such as the messy Oropeza case.

It’s clear, as the story notes, that the Peruvian government has no control in the Apurimac Ene Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM). This is not at all surprising with the high levels of security force corruption and remnants of Sendero Luminoso. This isn’t a consequence of lax Bolivian law enforcement. Although Bolivian drug control is not perfect, there is no lack of political will behind it, as the unattributed quotes in the article suggest.

It’s important to look at the big picture about shifting cocaine markets and the driving role of demand. According to the DEA, Colombian traffickers and Colombian cocaine have cornered the North American markets (95% of all cocaine in the US comes from Colombia). As a result, remaining markets for Peruvian and Bolivian cocaine are to the southeast (Brazil, Argentina Paraguay, Europe and West Africa). Brazil is now the world’s second largest cocaine consuming country, after the US, and a great deal of cocaine paste stays there. The demand drives the drug trade, not lax Bolivian enforcement.

A great deal is going on in Bolivia. Coca production is down to 23,000 hectares (according to UNODC stats, and cited by the US in the last INCSR), and prices for the coca leaf have almost doubled, and are far above the price of Peruvian coca. At the same time, Peruvian coca production is more than double coca production in Bolivia (48,900 hectares according to the most recent UNODC stats), and cocaine paste production remains strong, and is at least 200 dollars cheaper per kilo than Bolivian paste. So the market rules. According to the UN, Peru is now the top cocaine producing country in the world.

With no outlet to North America and a strong market pull from Brazil, Argentina and beyond, abundant and less expensive Peruvian paste goes through Bolivia to these countries.  Bolivian counter drug authorities have been using laboratory equipment funded by the CAN and have been trained by Colombian authorities to identify the origin of cocaine paste seized.  They report that 50-60% of seizures are Peruvian in origin.  Cheaper Peruvian cocaine floods Bolivian markets, and Bolivian intermediaries make several hundred dollars per kilo transporting it through the country, by land, or by river.  The Bolivian authorities are trying to stem the flow, but it is impossible to compete economically with traffickers.

As the article notes, Bolivia’s position in the middle of this route means that it is most often a stopover for these flights to refuel.  Some shipments are converted into crystalized cocaine here, but not the majority.  A lot of it is consumed as crack or paco in Brazil and Argentina. Air transport facilitates processing outside Bolivia where key precursor materials, such as sulfuric acid, are more readily available.  Nor is there significant cocaine or crack consumption in Bolivia.  CICAD studies show annual prevalence of cocaine use in the general population has remained steady between 0.4 and 0.38% (the most recent figure is from 2013).  Most of the cocaine paste is just passing through.

Nor is Santa Cruz a major drug trafficking hub. This was true in the early eighties. Now there is capital from trafficking invested there and economic transactions take place, but trafficking and small paste production sites are dispersed throughout the country. Rural areas of the Beni department, largely inaccessible by road, especially during rainy season, are in vogue for refueling of drug flights because of its location between the VRAEM and Brazil. Some pilots and planes are Bolivian, others are Paraguayan, Peruvian, Colombian or Argentine. When there is a lot of money involved, no nationality corners the illicit market.

It seems clear that US drug control reports such as the Memorandum of Justification cited in the article, and the INCSR (which came out on March 18, 2015) are far from objective.  Looking at the statistics that the US quotes, one can see that Bolivia has performed well according to US yardsticks of coca reduction, seizures, detentions, destruction of production sites. That is not to say that these yardsticks are accurate, but the cool reception with which the US greets Bolivia’s performance compares oddly to their glowing praise for Peru.  The most recent decertification caused discontent among international authorities here. In response EU ambassador, Timothy Torlot stated, “For me, the work we’ve done has been successful; you can see the results in the successful and sustained reduction in coca production in the country. Interdiction has also been successful.  There’s always more to do, but as I said, the European Union’s experience has been very positive. My experience working with the Bolivians is that the government is takes it seriously and gotten results.”

Bolivian drug control is far from perfect, but they are working to address the issue, and that deserved some mention in the article. The Bolivian government just announced the purchase of 20 additional fighter planes to complement the K-8’s they purchased in 2012. Their main purpose will air interdiction, as well as other trafficking issues. They take the fight against drug trafficking extremely seriously.

Here are some other important points:

  1. Bolivia passed its own shoot-down law a year ago in response to concerns about the air bridge. Like the Peruvian bill, full implementation of this policy could lead to errors, human rights violations, and bilateral friction. They are in the process of purchasing and installing radar at key border areas from a French company.
  2. In response to research on the Bolivian-Peruvian border, suggesting Peruvian authorities were doing little to control trafficking in the region, Bolivia and Peru signed a series of agreements for stronger bilateral counterdrug cooperation, including intelligence exchange and joint patrols on Lake Titicaca.
  3. As a result, DINANDRO has been sharing information with the Bolivian FELCN on flights departing Peru to or through Bolivia for the past four months. During that time, the Bolivian anti-drug police have seized approximately 30 planes. Peruvians have seized at least six.
  4. International organizations recognize this effort. Last month, the UNODC Director in Bolivia, Antonino de Leo, told the press“The UNODC congratulates Bolivia for its achievements in drug control and for intelligence exchange with Peru that has made eliminating the air bridge used by international trafficking organizations possible.
  5. Bolivian authorities are in the process of converting small seized planes for state use. For example, last week, the administration presented five reconditioned planes to be used as air ambulances in the Beni region.
  6. The information on Bolivian pilot schools is speculative, inaccurate, and easily refuted. Of course, more importantly, pilots flying small drug laden planes don’t actually need licenses; they aren’t going through airports and formal controls. They just need to know how to fly the plane from one rural area to another.  That said, the requirements for a pilot’s license are easy to find, and course and flight hour requirements are monitored.  You need 160 hours of instruction and 115 flight-training hours. You also need a background check from the anti drug police.  Not possible in a week.  (Requirements here.) Courses for a private pilot’s license have gone up in price from about $5,000 to $6,000 in the last five years, about on par with the increase of the cost of living in Bolivia.  There are ten schools in Santa Cruz, four in Cochabamba and one in Trinidad.  The suggestion that expensive flight courses are evidence of drug trafficking could go either way–cheap classes could also be considered as facilitating drug flights.  In the end, the argument cites inaccurate information and only one potential interpretation.
  7. Bolivian containers are subject to multiple Chilean inspections—at the border, by customs authorities, and agricultural control officers from SAG, Servicio Agricola y Ganadero. They also check trucks in response to any denunciations.  The treaty with Bolivia doesn’t exempt them from that. The article shows that Chilean officials are inspecting containers from Bolivia, suggesting the Bolivian government supports this.