Drug lords and public on collision path in Bolivia

Monday's bombing of United States Secretary of State George Shultz's motorcade seems indicative of the growing brazenness of Bolivia's drug traffickers. Bolivians - who speculate that the bombing was an intimidation tactic of the drug lords - are increasingly concerned about the coca power structure and its costs to the country.

The second-poorest nation in the hemisphere, Bolivia has made quiet progress recently in introducing radical economic reforms that have curtailed the region's most rampant hyperinflation.

But the narcotics industry remains a mainstay of the nation's economy, and to talk of eliminating its coca crop, as United States officials do, is the equivalent, says one European diplomat, of calling for total economic collapse.

Coca, the leaf from which cocaine is produced, is the nation's major export and largest source of dollar reserves. It brings in as much as $660 million annually, enough to pay the whole public sector payroll, according to US and Bolivian government statistics.

Development programs and crop substitution programs, as they stand, could not replace such a huge component of the economy, the diplomat says. Indeed the economic importance of coca is multiplied because the state-owned mining industry - once the country's largest employer - was dismantled in 1985, with the fall of the tin market.

Bolivia's dependence on coca is painfully balanced against the growing public awareness of its cost. Neighboring Colombia's bloody, and so far losing, battle with narcotics trafficking is not lost on Bolivian leaders.

``The Bolivian public is coming around to view cocaine as not just a US problem. They're seeing the potential corruption of institutions and governments,'' a US diplomat says.

Ronald MacLean, mayor of this 2.5-mile high capital city, says his biggest fear is that narco-traffickers will further infiltrate politics. His first ``shock'' came when he found that a car dealer who was laundering drug money had bribed a city official not to collect taxes from him. But the biggest surprise came when a Bolivian congressman interceded on the drug dealer's behalf.

There is public concern here, says the US official, that Bolivia has a nascent subversive movement somehow linked to the heavy financing of the drug barons as is the case in Peru and Colombia.

Although the peasant majority here faces severe underdevelopment and economic problems, it has thus far been ``remarkably'' nonviolent under the tough economic adjustments of President V'ictor Paz Estenssoro's administration, say observers.

Unemployment has soared to 25 percent. And a joint US-Bolivian coca-eradication program threatens to eliminate one of the few money-making opportunities for the peasant majority. But the President has reduced annual inflation from a raging 24,000 percent to 10 percent.

Finance Minister Juan Cariaga explains that even despite continued hard times for the poor, the reduction of inflation is the single most palpable benefit the poor have had under President Paz. This, he says, is why there has not been more public unrest over the economy.

There is international debate over just how strong an effort Bolivia can afford to make to combat coca because of its importance to the economy. But observers here say there is a ``moral awakening'' among Bolivian movers and shakers that a strong stand must be taken - no matter how difficult.

``Three years ago it was not in any sense despicable to be in the narco trade,'' the diplomat says. Narco-traffickers ``probably provided more in economic benefits and comfort than the government, and they were linked to old, established families. But that has changed.''

Mayor MacLean agrees, noting a ``new middle-class ethic,'' a realization and rising concern that the drug lords are deeply rooted in society.

Monday's bombing was the latest in a series of narcotics-related incidents that have outraged the political mainstream.

MacLean says the first public ``shock'' came in 1986 when a prominent Bolivian scientist was murdered by drug traffickers after he stumbled into their operation on a research expedition in the Amazon region.

``Narco-videos,'' says MacLean, ``were the last straw.'' In May, Roberto Suarez, the so-called ``King of Cocaine,'' unleashed a scandal with his secretly-taped ``narco-videos.'' Aired on national TV, the tapes showed prominent politicians and military figures partying with Mr. Suarez who was wanted on drug-trafficking charges. Suarez later was allowed to speak for 45 minutes, by phone, on a TV talk show debate about narcotics trafficking.

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