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In Latin America, leftist leaders evict US drug warriors

Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela push back on US operations.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 10, 2008

Taking note: Bolivian soldiers attended a ceremony Nov. 1 at which President Evo Morales celebrated the eradication of some 12,300 acres of coca farms this year in Chimore.

David Mercado/Reuters

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Mexico City

Bolivia has given US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers three months to leave the country – claiming that agents were stirring up political strife in the deeply divided nation.

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This fall, Ecuadorians voted yes to a new Constitution that calls for the closure by next year of one of the most important US operations in its war against drugs.

And for the fourth year in a row, Venezuela was singled out by President Bush – as was Bolivia for the first time – for having "failed demonstrably" in antidrug cooperation.

The US has long had a presence in Latin America to stem the northward drug flow; Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia are the world's largest cocaine producers. The US still boasts strong partnerships with many countries, such as Colombia and Mexico. But in others, particularly those led by leftists who have risen in collective condemnation of Washington, leaders are increasingly severing ties.

Their push for more self-determination could represent an opportunity to improve a strategy seen by many as a failure, says Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network in Bolivia.

But Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for western hemisphere affairs, takes a dimmer view. Moves like Bolivia's expulsion of DEA agents could have an impact on US intelligence-gathering capabilities, he says, but they also appear to weaken some countries' commitment to fighting drug production. "Drug cartels and all the illicit behavior – even the damage done to the environment by drug production – is a transnational challenge that requires international cooperation," he says.

Early this month, Bolivian President Evo Morales, the nation's first indigenous leader who rose to power as head of the coca grower's federation, expelled the DEA, claiming that agents were stoking divisions in a country already violently divided over a new Constitution that seeks more state control over energy resources and more recognition for the indigenous.

"There were DEA agents who worked to conduct political espionage and to fund criminal groups so they could launch attacks on the lives of authorities, if not the president," Mr. Morales said last week

The DEA calls the claims baseless. "We go after drug traffickers.… We don't get involved in things outside our lane," says Garrison Courtney, spokesperson for the DEA. "These are really silly accusations."