- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Counternarcotics officials say the number of cocaine laboratories in Bolivia has almost doubled in the seven months since Evo Morales, a former coca grower and organizer of coca-farming syndicates, was elected president.

Mr. Morales, whose country faces sharp economic penalties if the United States does not recertify it as a fully cooperating partner in the war on drugs next year, insists Bolivia is committed to battling the international traffic in narcotics.

Critics say new programs allowing farmers to cultivate small plots of coca are contributing to the rise in cocaine production. Coca production is a traditional way of life for Bolivia’s Indian peasantry, who chew the raw leaves as a mild stimulant.

Legal analysts say the government has violated international agreements with decrees that allow the free sale of coca and the auction of confiscated leaf shipments.

“Evo has democratized narco-traffic,” said Omar Barrientos, a Bolivian lawyer and consultant to the U.S. State Department on drug policy. “He has taken it from the big mafias and placed it with small producers, which makes it more difficult to control.”

The CIA’s counternarcotics center estimates that Bolivian coca plantations have grown 8 percent in the past year. More disturbing are reports from Bolivia’s U.S.-sponsored counternarcotics force that cocaine laboratory activity has almost doubled since Mr. Morales took office.

The Special Force to Fight Crime and Narcotraffic (FELCN) said more than 2,000 cocaine laboratories making paste or refined powder were uncovered during the first half of this year. A total of 2,575 laboratories were discovered during all of last year.

Bolivian authorities downplay the figures. More than 100,000 Bolivians could lose their jobs if Washington decertifies Bolivia as a partner in the war on drugs, meaning its textile industry no longer would be able to export to the United States. Certification is renewed on March 1 every year.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera visited Washington last week to tell legislators and administration officials that his government hopes to reduce the acreage under cocaine cultivation by about 15 percent in the coming months.

The government also argues that the FELCN figures reflect stepped-up interdiction efforts. But agency officers point to a spread of makeshift labs, which generally are set up near coca plantations, into areas of the country where drug production had largely disappeared.

“Cocaine production is moving to six new areas between the central Chapare Valley and eastern lowlands in Santa Cruz and Beni, where it had been largely eliminated during the 1990s,” said a counternarcotics analyst who spoke on the condition he not be identified.

Sources also point to a rise of cocaine production in the Andean high plain around La Paz, where coca leaves flow in from Peru.

Mr. Morales presided in March over a congress of coca-farming syndicates in Cochabamba, which called for the expulsion of U.S. counternarcotics agencies. Although units remain in Bolivia, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is “taking a lower profile,” said law-enforcement officials, who also describe a “scaling back” of U.S.-sponsored military and police operations.

Upon leaving for Washington last week, Mr. Garcia said he hoped to open a “new era in the relations between Bolivia and the U.S.,” but his trip got off to a bad start. American Airlines would not let him on the flight because he appeared on an FBI watch list, U.S. diplomatic officials said.

The U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, David N. Greenlee, personally intervened in order to allow Mr. Garcia to travel and apologized for a “problem in the system.”

The problem is thought to involve Mr. Garcia’s role in the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army, which carried out a series of terrorist actions during the 1990s.

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