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Tension in Bolivia may boost illegal drug sales

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia

President Evo Morales is leveling a barrage of accusations against the United States and expelling U.S. officials in the waning days of the Bush administration, steps that opponents fear foreshadow a big increase in drug trafficking.

Though Mr. Morales' charges have not been substantiated, they reflect the degree to which his government relies on anti-American sentiment to maintain its popularity.

"First it was the U.S. ambassador, then it was USAID, then it was the DEA and now it's the CIA," Mr. Morales said recently, referring to the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

"We are going to go after them the same way that they have been after me," said Mr. Morales, who accused the CIA of giving money to Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas to finance a regional revolt.

Mr. Morales made the charges last week as his government prepared to fire 700 police officers in a purge of the national security services.

He did not go as far as his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez, who claims the U.S. wants to assassinate him.

But the charges potentially affect any American who lives in or plans to visit Bolivia.

"CIA agents are entering the country disguised as American tourists," said Juan Ramon Quintana, a top Morales aide who holds the title "presidency minister."

Mr. Morales arrived at U.N. headquarters in New York Monday with yet another defiant message for the United States.

He said he wants improved relations with President-elect Barack Obama but will never allow the DEA to return to his country, accusing it of "political aggression."

He said his government is setting up an intelligence operation to fight trafficking itself, but that Bolivia would wage a campaign to remove the coca leaf from the U.N. list of prohibited drugs.

Coca leaves are used to make cocaine. Peasants in the high Andes also chew the leaves or drink tea brewed from the leaves to stave off hunger and to cope with high altitude.

Mr. Morales had been under growing pressure from peasant groups and syndicates of coca farmers, who form the grass-roots base of his ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, to terminate U.S. anti-drug operations.

In May, the threat of violence by coca growers from the Chapare region against USAID forced aid workers to leave.

Since then, Bolivia has expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, closed its airspace to anti-drug flights and expelled all agents of the DEA.

With each step, charges by Mr. Morales and his aides have sounded a familiar refrain: The U.S. is conspiring with Bolivia's domestic opposition to oust Mr. Morales.

The U.S. State Department calls the charges "false and absurd."

"We reject accusations that the DEA or any other agency of the U.S. government has supported the opposition or conspired against the Bolivian government," the department said after the expulsion of DEA agents was announced earlier this month.

Mr. Morales described the move as a "personal decision," adding that it was necessary "to defend the dignity and sovereignty of the Bolivian people."

U.S. programs, which range from police training to crop substitution, have been cut from $100 million to less than $30 million, with most of the cuts coming after Mr. Morales took office as Bolivia's first Indian president in early 2006.

A suspension of trade preferences by Washington also threatens tens of thousands of factory jobs, mainly in textiles exported to the United States.

Opposition leaders charge that the moves presage a surge in illegal cocaine exports.

"What really worries the government is that anti-drug investigations were getting too close to the MAS leadership," said former Bolivian drug czar Ernesto Justiniano, who is now an opposition congressman.

Three MAS leaders holding government positions have been indicted recently for narcotics trafficking.

Gen. Luis Caballero, the former commander of Bolivia's anti-drug police unit, FELCN, fears that Bolivia is becoming a "free zone for narco traffickers."

Gen. Caballero also warned that the DEA's expulsion will open the country to international drug mafias from Mexico, Colombia and Brazil.

"The DEA manages a database linking up intelligence on individuals connected with international organized crime and which is essential to interdict the cross-border movement of drugs," he said.

The U.N. Office for Crime and Drug Prevention estimates that Bolivia's coca cultivation has increased nearly 50 percent from 2001 to 2007, though much of the increase came before Mr. Morales took office.

The latest U.N. statistics show a 5 percent increase in coca cultivation from 2006 to 2007, well below the 27 percent for the same period in Colombia, a staunch ally of the U.S. in the war on drugs.

Felipe Caceres, the vice minister for social defense, says that Bolivia is committed to fighting drugs and will seek help from Russia and the European Union to compensate for the loss of U.S. assistance.