- The Washington Times - Friday, November 27, 2009

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia | Narco-trafficking cartels are migrating to the Andes region in Bolivia, where a diminished U.S. presence has allowed a boom in cocaine production and the opening of new drug routes, regional anti-drug officials say.

Recent studies by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime show a steep rise in cocaine production in Bolivia and a smaller increase in Peru. They also show a drop in Colombian cocaine output, which is subject to increased anti-drug efforts by the U.S. and Colombian governments.

Potentially more significant is Bolivia’s emergence as a major hub for jungle laboratories that turn coca paste, which can be imported from anywhere in the Andean region, into refined cocaine.

“Like never before we have discovered these types of factories around the country,” said Col. Oscar Nina, chief of Bolivia’s police anti-drug unit. He added that his unit has destroyed more than 20 cocaine laboratories so far this year.

In addition, he recently warned of the increasing presence of powerful Mexican crime organizations that control drug movements.

Other law enforcement officials say Colombians connected with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a leftist guerrilla group known by its Spanish acronym as FARC, are also shifting some operations to Bolivia because of recent military pressures on rebel-held areas.

“They come directly in small airplanes and install themselves rapidly,” said a district attorney in Santa Cruz, the main province of eastern Bolivia, where much of the nation’s new drug production is thought to be concentrated.

The official, who asked not to be named because of the threat of retaliation from drug traffickers, also said the Colombians are introducing the latest technologies for refining cocaine into the finished product.

Colombia is likely to remain the world’s top cocaine producer for years to come. Despite a 33 percent drop in Colombian cocaine production since 2005, it still produces four times the 113,000 kilograms of Bolivia for 2008, according to the latest U.N. report.

Peruvian anti-drug officials say much of Peru’s coca paste is now going to Bolivia, because refining facilities there are more numerous and secure and have easier access to chemicals needed to refine the white powder.

“There exists a great refining capacity across the border in the Bolivian jungle,” said Gen. Miguel Hidalgo, the chief of Peru’s anti-drug agency.

He said his conclusions are based on interrogations of drug pilots caught flying Peru’s raw product to Bolivia for processing. From there, officials say it is shipped to other nations, such as Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

The U.N. report sites these and other nations of Latin America as the world’s fastest-growing market for cocaine as consumption levels off or declines in North America and Europe.

Production in Bolivia is also said to benefit from last year’s expulsion of U.S. anti-drug agencies by leftist President Evo Morales.

Bolivia’s deputy minister for social defense, Felix Caceres, called reports of increased drug trafficking in his nation exaggerated. He recently told reporters that Bolivia is strengthening its anti-drug efforts through bilateral agreements with Brazil and Argentina.

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