Bolivian Military Leader Questions DEA's Role In Drug Bust Gone Awry
LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — THE largest antidrug operation in the history of Bolivia failed to capture any of the country's top cocaine traffickers, but instead has sparked a fierce polemic over the role of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and the conduct of the US ambassador to Bolivia.Gen. Jorge Moreira, the commander in chief of the Bolivian armed forces, has called recent alleged abuses by DEA officials an "affront" against the military. He has also demanded the expulsion of the officials from the country, if they are found guilty by a government investigation. The incidents allegedly took place during a huge antidrug operation called "Safe Haven," carried out June 28 against the town of Santa Ana, 250 miles northeast of the capital of La Paz in the Amazon basin. More than 600 antidrug police, backed up by DEA agents and forces from the US Coast Guard and Border Patrol, took part in the raid. Drug officials regard the town as the largest cocaine-producing center in Bolivia. A DEA official is accused of participating in an incident during the raid in which a Bolivian Navy lieutenant was bound, gagged, and left in a ditch. In an earlier incident, another DEA official was charged with breaking into an Army plane to test it for carrying cocaine. The US Embassy in La Paz has denied any knowledge of participation by DEA officials in the incidents, but has accepted the investigation. "The DEA should stick to giving intelligence and advice," says General Moreira. "It's not convenient for them to act directly in interdiction." Government sources, however, deny rumors that the Bolivian government is reconsidering the role of DEA officials, thought to number about 40, in antidrug operations. At present, a 1987 bilateral agreement allows the DEA to provide intelligence, planning, and assessment. Officials of the Interior Ministry privately admit this permits DEA officials to accompany, but not actively participate in, antidrug operations. Numerous eye-witness reports by journalists, however, maintain that it is DEA officials who often give the orders. The DEA has also been accused several times of committing abuses against Bolivians, but no DEA official has ever been found guilty and expelled from the country. What may have prompted Moreira's anti-DEA reaction, analysts say, were recent accusations of corruption leveled at the armed forces by US Ambassador Robert Gelbard. The ambassador, who is not known for any reluctance to speak out on Bolivian politics, said the Navy lieutenant in Santa Ana was "corrupt" and the town's whole Navy contingent was "involved in drug trafficking." Mr. Gelbard, who finished a three-year term as ambassador to Bolivia last week, also blamed a government employee for tipping off local smugglers and thereby causing Operation Safe Haven to fail to capture any of Bolivia's top traffickers. Gelbard's comments prompted Vice President Luis Ossio Ganjines to accuse him of "meddling" in internal affairs. Union leader Carlos Camargo called the accusations "an aggression against Bolivia's sovereignty" and described the ambassador as "Bolivia's alternate president." Even Presencia, a liberal Roman Catholic newspaper, editorialized that Gelbard's period as ambassador left "a bitter taste of such recalcitrant interventionism that at times it took us back to the politics of the 'big stick. Western diplomats say the timing of Gelbard's remarks was unfortunate, coming minutes before he received the Condor of the Andes, the highest civilian award for service to the country. Local newspapers speculated that Gelbard's outspokenness may have been caused by his disappointment with the Santa Ana raid. US officials say the operation achieved its main aim of setting up an antidrug police presence in the town, and "reconquering it for Bolivia." But the raid failed to capture three of Bolivia's top traffickers - Hugo Rivero, Erwin Guzman, and Oscar Roca - who own luxury houses in Santa Ana. "Santa Ana was a base for Bolivia's most aggressive traffickers," says Bruce Wharton, the US Embassy press attache. "They are the people most interested in producing Bolivian cocaine, rather then just producing base for the Colombians, and the people most interested in expanding independent networks into Europe and the US." The DEA says Bolivia has recently become the world's second-largest producer of cocaine after Colombia. Previously Bolivia only produced coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine, and cocaine base, for Colombians. But an estimated 30 percent of total coca output is being processed into cocaine within the country. US officials say the Colombians maintain control of bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles. But in the last three years, the sources add, Bolivian traffickers have set up their own distribution networks through Mexico and Central America into smaller US cities like Houston. In a separate development, the US government for the first time formally asked Bolivia to extradite three suspected traffickers to the US. The mother, brother, and sister of Bolivia's No. 1 suspected trafficker - Jorge Roca Suarez, who was arrested last December in Los Angeles - face cocaine trafficking charges in California. The Bolivian government has long resisted US pressure to sign a new extradition treaty. Government officials say an extradition treaty of 1900, combined with a multilateral convention signed in 1988, are sufficient. The US government has cited the terms of these two agreements to test the mechanism, analysts say.