- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia

President Evo Morales announced Sunday during a visit to his home district of Chapare plans to dismantle the U.S.-supported military Joint Task Force charged with eradicating coca plantations.

Addressing troops stationed in the coca-growing region, Mr. Morales called the U.S. project “a failure” and said controls over coca production would be enforced by his “syndicates and social movements.”

The president wasted no time tightening his grip over Bolivia’s security services, which he has made a priority since taking the oath of office eight days ago.

He expelled 28 generals from the police, army, navy and air force after a government-appointed commission denounced high-command “complicity” in a U.S. covert operation to remove Bolivia’s anti-aircraft defenses. Reports said only two of the generals removed were involved directly in the missile case.

“We have no choice but to go home, hurt by the political manipulation of which we have been victims,” said Gen. Marco Antonio Vasquez, who was evicted from the presidential palace when he arrived with 15 other officers to protest.

Some observers think Mr. Morales is using China’s provision of surface-to-air missiles to the new Bolivian government as an excuse to get rid of officers involved in counternarcotics and counterterrorist operations directed by the United States since the 1980s.

U.S. influence spurned

“Much of the army and police apparatus that the United States has set up in Bolivia is going to disappear,” said a member of the ruling Movement to Socialism (MAS) defense transition team.

Washington gives Bolivia close to $100 million a year in military aid, which includes training, maintenance and advisers for elite units created to fight narco-trafficking and terrorism. U.S. Special Forces units at times have participated in direct-action missions in Bolivia, military officials said.

“The [Bolivian] force for the fight against narco-trafficking has become an extension of the American [Drug Enforcement Administration], with all the risk that this implies for our national security. All our organs and institutions must return to government control,” said Juan Ramon Quintana, a defense adviser close to Mr. Morales.

Mr. Quintana insisted that the government will not accept economic aid from the United States that is conditioned on the fight against narco-trafficking, and will “eliminate all types of interference in the armed forces, including joint operations.”

He said security assistance “without conditions” can be obtained elsewhere, and mentioned China as a source.

Mr. Morales announced last week that he would bring in Cuban and Venezuelan intelligence teams to clear government offices of hidden microphones and guard against “imperialist intervention.”

A sweep was made of the presidential palace hours before he held a long afternoon session with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez last Tuesday. Days earlier, Mr. Chavez had accused the United States of trying to instigate a military coup against the MAS government.

Cuba trains militia

Bolivian security officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Venezuelan intelligence officers have been operating closely with MAS for more than a year. They add that Cuban advisers manage the personal security team around Mr. Morales, which is composed largely of members of the MAS “syndicate police,” originally created to protect coca growing interests.

An estimated 10,000 MAS militants are studying in Cuba on medical and other scholarships. A Bolivian intelligence officer, until recently assigned to the Joint Task Force, said many of the Bolivian students also are receiving military and security training to form a special militia or “parallel police” that the government is creating.

Bolivia’s military is fearful the widening investigation into the missile case is turning into an “inquisition” aimed at removing politically unreliable officers.

“You shouldn’t worry that we are conducting an investigation over the disarmament of our armed forces,” Mr. Morales told military chiefs appointed last week. “I am the first to seek it, and together we will investigate this matter.”

Gen. Marcelo Antezana, the dismissed army commander, told the government commission last week that the number of shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles turned over to the United States is far higher than the 28 reported when the scandal broke just before the December elections.

Gen. Antezana said 41 surface-to-air missiles were flown to the United States for deactivation because American security agencies didn’t want them to “fall into the hands of MAS.”

U.S. account disputed

Correspondence between Bolivian defense officials and the U.S. Embassy reveal a confidential memo by Gen. Antezana dated from September in which he ordered the armed forces to “solicit the support of the U.S. Southern Command to conduct the work of demolition.”

Bolivian and U.S. officials have said the missiles were inoperable, but a November report from the U.S. defense attache’s office said some of the missiles would explode immediately after being fired and could be launched successfully but lacked reliable guidance. It said that “terrorists are not worried about the reliance of the manpads [but] in the wrong hands, they present a danger to commercial aviation.”

Washington said the missiles were transferred at “the request of the Bolivian government,” but the administration of President Eduardo Rodriguez provided no official authorization for their removal from the country.

One account given to investigators said the missiles were under the custody of Bolivia’s Joint Counter-Terrorism Force when they were driven out of their depot by U.S. personnel in civilian clothes. The account, whose source has not been identified, said the U.S. personnel presented no written authorization when they removed the missiles to be loaded onto a C-130 cargo plane.

Ten disassembled missiles have been returned to Bolivia. MAS officials said Chinese officials offered to replace them at no cost during talks with Mr. Morales in his recent visit to Beijing.

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