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Drug Trafficking in Bolivia: Combating Police Corruption Should Not Be the Only Solution 

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By: Eliza Davis, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

On May 24, Martín Belaunde Lossio, a Peruvian politician and businessman, escaped house arrest in La Paz, Bolivia.[1] Five days later, he was found in a small town about 100 km away from the Brazilian border. Authorities suspect “complicity” involving the police officers that were guarding his house in La Paz.[2] The Bolivian police force, the Policía Nacional de Bolivia, had first arrested Belaunde in January when he fled from Peru to the landlocked nation, after seeking asylum from corruption charges; however, the Bolivian government chose to honor a request from Lima to have him arrested and extradited, rather than granting immunity.[3]

This case has brought international attention to the endemic problem of police corruption in Bolivia, prompting swift action by Bolivian President Evo Morales. In May, shortly after Belaunde’s escape, Morales stated, “Some groups within our institutions, such as the police, are creating a bad image of Bolivia.”[4] His comments were backed by decisive action, as he proceeded to fire the police chief, his interior minister, the police officers guarding Belaunde’s house, and dozens of others suspected of involvement.[5] Furthermore, Morales has promised to take steps to write new laws to tackle corruption in the police force before the end of the year.[6]

While Morales’ expeditious action under the circumstances has been notable, international critics around the world looked beyond this individual case and expressed concerns for the role played by an incompetent police force unable to deal with cocaine trafficking in Bolivia. In recent years, Bolivian traffickers and coca growers have experienced mounting pressure to participate in the drug industry, and the government’s efforts to combat that participation have been only marginally successful.  On the one hand, Bolivia has made enormous leaps in data collection, using satellites for agrarian census reports and creating a registry for coca growers; further the UN Crop Monitoring Reports show a steady reduction of coca cultivation in Bolivia since 2010.[7] On the other, in 2013 over half of the coca produced did not go through the legal market, and almost 90 percent from the Chapare, a small coca-growing region that has the most involvement in drug trafficking, was passed to the illicit market.[8] Even though police corruption is extensive, fixing it may not be the solution Morales is looking for. Stricter laws, including harsher punishments, to tackle police corruption are certainly necessary, but this initiative may not offer the complete overhaul that Bolivia’s police force and country as a whole need to combat further difficulties with the drug trade and other forms of transnational crime.

Coca Eradication and Community Control

When Evo Morales, a former cocalero (coca grower), became president in 2006, he initiated a highly visible campaign to abolish illicit coca sale through the formalization of the “cato” program, a policy first created by his predecessor, President Carlos Mesa (2003-2005).[9] Acutely aware of the integral role coca farming plays in local economies and the importance that the plant has had in Bolivian history, the policy allows farmers to grow a subsistence amount—the amount that it takes to make a living on—of the coca leaf on plots ranging from 1,600 to 2,500 square meters.[10] According to the Andean Information Network, an independent news organization based in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the policy focuses on the supply side of coca-growing, pivoting on an “emphasis on community participation and respect for human rights.”[11] Under the policy, the community is required to police themselves, ensuring that individuals do not grow too much coca.[12]

In 2008, Morales expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from Bolivia, claiming that Bolivia did not need the assistance of the United States.[13] He blamed Washington for the growing conflicts in the Chapare region, where forced coca eradication was occurring in greater amounts.[14] Their expulsion precipitated the proliferation of the aforementioned community-based solution. Even though many have criticized Morales for rejecting U.S. support, after over five years of his cato policy, he has actually succeeded in decreasing the volume of coca cultivation in the country. According to a report by Linda Farthing and Kathryn Ledebur for the Open Society Foundationa, coca production decreased by over 7 thousand hectares between 2010 and 2013.[15] While coca eradication has increased, the amount of forced eradication has actually gone down significantly. In 2005, before the cato accord, all 6,000 hectares of coca eradication was forced, while from 2006 to 2014 a vast majority of the coca eradication was cooperative.[16] Community control has given rise to success by cooperative eradication, in spite of the absence of the DEA and its surveillance capacities.

The Cato Model’s Success and Limitations

Success has come about in part because of the country’s indigenous population, who are the primary dwellers in areas of coca cultivation. When Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006, indigenous populations that had previously been excluded from political processes finally felt that they, too, could participate in democracy. According to a report by the Woodrow Wilson Center, since Morales’s election, indigenous populations have communicated with the government on issues like “land reform, the nationalization of the hydrocarbons sector, and the implementation of a regional governance structure composed of indigenous autonomies.”[17] Morales’ policy for coca eradication plays directly into their desire for autonomy.

Additionally, the indigenous population’s spiritual connection to the coca leaf, combined with its reliance on outside revenue, provides even more incentive to follow the cato system. In the aforementioned report by the Open Society Foundation, a Bolivian coca grower declared that, “It’s very simple. The cato lets us feed ourselves.”[18] A plot of coca incentivizes following the rules because it provides a livelihood for families. Furthermore, indigenous populations have a profound respect for the coca leaf and consider it sacred. While temptation to sell the product for drugs exists, many in Bolivia use it in the traditional way, as a mild stimulant to help with altitude sickness and as an essential element in religious ceremonies. Even eminent outside visitors to Bolivia have resorted to chewing coca. For example, on his recent visit to Latin America the Pope considered using it during his trip to the landlocked nation.[19] Indigenous growers support Morales’ system because it allows them to continue their cultural traditions. According to Sabino Mendoza, an anti-drug official in Bolivia, “We have the army, we have the police, we have intelligence, but if there was not this consciousness of, and work by, the rural peasant sector not to be a part of transnational organized crime, we [would] be looking at a very different situation in this country.”[20] The determination of the rural population to remain honest is something that Morales has managed to capitalize on with this revolutionary policy.

Morales’ policy has received attention from other countries in Latin America, who have noticed his success. In 2014 the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group made up of world leaders and intellectuals, issued a report that insisted, “All-out militarized enforcement responses have, counter-intuitively, undermined security in places like Afghanistan, Colombia and Mexico.”[21]  This has caused governments in Latin American to question the “war on drugs” approach and consider adapting de-militarized and de-criminalized policies like the cato program instead.[22]

Morales’ plan has managed to decrease the amount of coca grown in the country; however, coca is still being illegally exported from Bolivia to be made into cocaine (the country is the third largest producer of cocaine in the world, after Peru and Colombia). Open Society reports that a black market industry still exists because “continued demand and cocaine profits [compels] intermediaries to divert legal coca to cocaine.”[23] Even though the cato program is novel and has proved successful from the supply-side, it is no match for the massive influence of the drug trade from the demand-side. The latter preeminently contributes to Bolivia’s potential for increased involvement in transnational organized crime.

Bolivia: A Drug Hub?

In the last few years, Bolivia has allegedly become a “hub” for drug trafficking, acting as the middle-man between a few of its neighbors, namely, Peru, Argentina and Brazil.[24] Insight Crime, a news organization that reports on organized crime in the hemisphere, describes Bolivia as a “major supplier” to both Argentina and Brazil. Traffickers provide the cocaine paste to syndicates in the two countries to fuel the growing demand for “basuco” or crack cocaine.[25] While Bolivia does not actually produce the drugs themselves, the country plays an indispensable role in early levels of production and transport.

In March, La Razón, a major Bolivia-based newspaper, reported suspicions of Bolivian traffickers’ involvement in the growing drug markets in Lebanon and Africa, having been tempted by the higher prices to be had in those regions.[26] Just in the last few months there have been a series of successful police busts that demonstrate how Bolivian drugs are making their way to these markets. On March 2, officials in Bolivia’s counter narcotics division discovered a shipment of 27.2 tons of cocaine cargo destined for Lebanon.[27] A few days later, officials found one ton of cocaine hydrochloride hidden in bags of fertilizer on its way to Africa.[28] Prices for coca in Africa and Lebanon are over 1,400 percent greater than those in South American markets, making these new, lucrative areas attractive for traffickers.[29]

Insight Crime worries that Bolivia’s increasing involvement in Latin America, as well as their expansion into other markets, will lead to more “sophisticated” involvement in transnational organized crime.[30] They describe Bolivia’s involvement as an example of the cockroach effect: “When the lights are turned on in a room, the cockroaches scurry to the dark corners.”[31] Recently, officials have cracked down on drug production in Colombia: the lights are on. For example, on June 14, Colombian officials confiscated 214 kilograms of cocaine from an ambulance.[32] In response, drug traffickers have moved their operations to other regional countries like Peru and, now, Bolivia where light has yet to shine—despite the fact that efforts by the Morales Administration to combat aspects of the drug trade, like the eradication of coca, have been successful.

Problems in The Police

One of the reasons that Bolivia is considered a hotbed for transnational organized crime is the corruption and perceived incompetence of the police force.[33] Transparency International’s report on corruption in the Andean nation labels the police as one of the three most corrupt institutions in the country and insists that in 2012 one in three Bolivians admitted to having paid a bribe in the past year.[34] In a country worried about an increase in crime, those numbers are alarming. If Bolivia wants to prevent the transformation of honest coca growers to drug traffickers, they need to make sure to have an effective police force, one that will refuse to accept bribes in exchange for a drug-trafficker’s freedom. Morales’s proposal to rewrite laws to eliminate corruption provides hope.

However, corruption is not the only problem plaguing Bolivia’s police force. In 2010, the U.S. State Department reported an “absence of effective police and judicial presence in many urban and rural areas.”[35] According to the World Bank, in 2014, Bolivia had a population of 10.85 million, and of those, 3.5 million lived in rural areas.[36] With almost a third of the population living out of the cities, law enforcement presence in rural areas becomes extremely important. To aid with rural areas, the Bolivian armed forces participate in joint counter-narcotics operations with the police.[37] Their support is crucial to everyday police operations, however, the Andes, the world’s longest mountain range, cuts directly through the country, making Bolivia’s terrain exceedingly difficult to travel, even for the military. Having police in every rural area would take excessive resources, especially since many areas cannot be accessed by road. In the last year Bolivian police have been trying to upgrade their vehicle fleet. In Cochabamba in June of 2014 the police bought 104 motorcycles with GPS and cameras and 15 patrol cars.[38] Additionally the Bolivian government purchased their first helicopter in August 2014 to try to reach drug traffickers in the mountains without a need for roads.[39] Still, these additions are just small steps forward. Resources to buy more of the necessary equipment are something that the Bolivian government simply does not have. Thus much of the population remains unchecked by the police.

Rewriting Laws Won’t Fix It All

Carlos Romero, the interior minister, has promised that, by the end of 2015, the government will rewrite Ley 101, de Régimen Disciplinario de la Policía Boliviana (Law 101, Disciplinary Code of the Bolivian Police), and modify the Ley Orgánica de la Policía (The Organic Police Law). He claimed that the goal of the changes was to eliminate corrupt police officers by incorporating polygraph tests, amongst other measures.[40] Because it remains unclear how the laws will be re-written, it is impossible to determine, for the time being, how effective the changes will be. Given corruption’s current hold on the Bolivian police force, it is unlikely that the problem will be completely eradicated with the adjustment of two laws, however thorough the changes. Still, the formation of new laws is a step in the right direction. As Morales’s policy for coca eradication has proved remarkably successful, his future legislative changes should not be underestimated.

The bigger concern is that even if the laws are successful and shut down corruption completely (which is an unrealistic scenario in the near future), concerns about a rising drug trade will not abate. Thus far, the most effective policy in regards to the drug trade is the cato program, but it relies on communities for self-regulation, not police officers. Police themselves have little to do with this process, so fixing corruption of the police forces will not have much influence on the policy’s overall effectiveness. Furthermore, the program is limited by constant temptation to growers for the high demand and high prices associated with illicit sale of coca and, since coca must be grown at high altitude, police have no way of intervening. Their lack of presence in rural communities is not a problem that anti-corruption measures will fix – more well-trained law enforcement personnel in addition to more vehicles are needed.

While the international pressure that has come from Belaunde Lossio’s recent arrest has led to positive changes in the Bolivian government, the police still face a lack of resources in a country with difficult terrain and mounting demand from the drug trade.  An anti-corruption law must be complemented by holistic social policies to build up policing structure in rural areas. Limitations of the cato program will be a cause for increasing concern if Morales does not move forward on other policies to combat illicit coca sale and cocaine paste production. His new plan to fight police corruption could be successful, but his administration must be wary of the fact that the changes he has proposed will not represent an all-encompassing solution to the problems of the drug trade, illicit coca sale, inadequate resources for technological advancement, and rural law-enforcement.

By: Eliza Davis, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.





[8] Ibid, pg 46.


[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.



[14] Ibid.


[16] Ibid.





[21] pg 23.


[23], pg 48.


[25] Ibid.


[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.