Bolivian Counternarcotics General Arrested in Panama

Figure A: Bad, MMMMkay?

Bolivia is one of many nations that has a strange love-hate thing going on with cocaine. I wouldn’t know anything about that, since the United States is entirely of one mind about getting coked-out and humiliating ourselves in public; we clearly love it.

Bolivia is the third largest producer of cocaine in the world, after Colombia and Peru, and also serves as a transshipment point for white stuff from other South American nations. In fact, their current president, Evo Morales, was and is a militant coca grower. As an ethnic Aymara, he’s also the first person of indigenous South American origin to become Bolivia’s president. Morales was raised on a farm growing coca and became the representative to a region where coca growers thrive.

In the nineties, he became an outlaw when the government promised the United States total eradication of the coca crop in its coca zero campaign, which Morales and other Bolivians opposed because coca is considered part of the indigenous culture; he proposed cocaine zero instead, focusing on eradicating cocaine processing instead of the crops. A series of clashes between politically organized coca growers and the government began. Morales was beaten and imprisoned repeatedly by government forces, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 and again in 1996. After being elected to the presidency in 2005, Morales has aggressively campaigned for indigenous coca production to remain unmolested by the government, while illegal cocaine processing and shipment is opposed.

Morales’ pro-coca stance relies on educating the world about the non-equivalency of coca and cocaine — the former an important crop and part of indigenous culture, the latter an illegal substance, the world supply of which is currently being critically threatened by overconsumption. Morales’ government has a zero-tolerance policy toward cocaine, with the intention, counterintuitive as it seems, of supporting and defending coca growers.

Then there was the time the top Bolivian counternarcotics police general was arrested last week in Panama for allegedly trafficking in cocaine. Kind of a bummer.

Police General Rene Sanabria  has been publicly juggling the demands of cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration with the nationalistic and pro-coca Morales. The allegations are that he ran a cocaine-smuggling ring as the leader of “elite 15-person anti-drug intelligence unit within Bolivia’s Interior Ministry.”

As the Associated Press reported:

[Sanabria’s arrest] offered vindication to the DEA, as Sanabria’s alleged crimes took place after Morales expelled the U.S. agency in late 2008 for allegedly inciting his autonomy-seeking opponents in eastern provinces…According to U.S. officials, the expulsion of the roughly 30 U.S. drug agents allowed trafficking in this landlocked South American nation to spin out of control.

In the DEA’s absence, Mexican, Brazilian, Colombian — even Russian and Serbian traffickers — have taken advantage and boosted exports from the world’s No. 3 cocaine-producing nation.

Drug-related killings are on the rise and bigger, more sophisticated processing labs equipped with Colombian technology are increasing output as new actors join the trade.

…”Cocaine is resurgent in Bolivia,” said Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor who specializes in drug policy. “Morales has a big problem on his hands.”

Morales’ critics at home were quick to seize on Sanabria’s arrest as proof traffickers now have the upper hand in Bolivia.

But Morales insisted Thursday he has no intention of inviting the DEA back. He alleged “interests of a geopolitical nature” were behind the Sanabria case. “They are using police to try to implicate the government,” he said, without elaborating.


Even the Bolivian government admits that seizures are on the rise. It says 28 tons of cocaine were confiscated in Bolivia last year — twice the amount seized in Peru, which has a coca crop twice as big.

Unfortunately for Morales, he seems to be floundering — lashing out at the Unites States for running guns to the Contras in Nicaragua. That’s old news, and not very convincing to a world community — at least, outside of South and Central America — that let it slide then and probably doesn’t even remember it now.

What’s worse, this is far from an isolated incident. It’s part of an escalating series of corruption scandals in Bolivian law enforcement, including arrests at a Brazilian border town where Bolivian cops were caught replacing confiscated cocaine with flour.

[Image: Public domain photo of cocaine hydrochloride, via Wikipedia.]

As the Associated Press reported:

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