Monday, July 16, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — International officials and diplomats are increasingly worried about a growing flow of narcotics from Bolivia, where the production of cocaine has increased sharply since President Evo Morales legalized coca farming last year.

Bolivia’s coca leaf cultivation has risen by 20 percent, according to a recent study released by the United Nations Office for Crime and Drug Prevention, which estimates a record rise in cocaine production to nearly 50,000 tons last year.

The amount could reach 100,000 tons this year, according to the U.N. agency, which concludes that the increase in Bolivia has “offset” reductions of coca production in Colombia.

“We are very worried because there is a rise in the cultivation of coca and a rise in production,” said the U.S. ambassador in Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, who complained that the amount of coca eradicated in Bolivia during the past year is the lowest in more than a decade. Speaking late last month, he warned of further cuts in U.S. aid to Bolivia, which has been slashed by two-thirds.

Bolivia’s vice minister for coca, Felipe Caceres, has dismissed the U.N. findings as “not true.” He concedes that “eradication is past history” but insists that the government has made progress in “interdiction” and “rationalizing” coca cultivation.

Mr. Morales, a former coca grower with strong backing from Andean Indians who have historically cultivated the plant for traditional purposes, won the 2005 election on a promise to stop U.S.-sponsored eradication programs.

He is still nominally the head of the Six Coca Farming Federations of Cochabamba, which opposition Deputy Ernesto Justiniano describes as “Bolivia’s new rich class of coca bourgeoisie.”

While pledging to allow some coca farming for commercial and traditional purposes — it has been used as an ingredient for soft drinks and anesthetics and has been chewed as a mild stimulant by Andean Indians for centuries — Mr. Morales promised to fight narcotics trafficking with stepped up interdiction and police measures.

But Mr. Goldberg said that to have an effective program, “it is necessary to do something against the cultivation of coca, not only against narcotrafficking.”

The United Nations says the legal market accounts for about 13,000 tons of annual coca production while an additional 36,000 tons is going to illicit cocaine production. Diplomats say they see increased flows of Bolivian cocaine into neighboring countries and international markets.

“We know that a large part of the drug from Bolivia escapes through Brazil to Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo and then on to Europe,” said Brazil’s ambassador in Bolivia, Frederico Cesar de Araujo. “This creates enormous security problems in Rio and Sao Paolo.”

Almost 80 percent of the cocaine entering Brazil comes from Bolivia, according to Mr. Araujo, who describes relations between the countries as “tense.”

Officials of Bolivia’s Force to Fight Crime and Narcotraffic (FELCN) have said a network of newly equipped cocaine laboratories has been discovered along Bolivia’s eastern borders with Brazil, including six crystallization factories, each capable of producing 220 pounds of cocaine powder a day.

“We did not have this before,” said an anti-drug analyst who thinks that Colombian and Mexican cartels have introduced new methods and technologies.

“We are facing narcotraffickers linked with international criminal networks who have turned Bolivia into a country of transit, production and consumption of drugs,” said Philip Laidlaw, the deputy director of the State Department’s Narcotics Affairs Section.

Brazilian drug traffickers have bartered Cessna aircraft for drugs, according to FELCN officials who say that almost 500 clandestine airstrips are operating in Bolivia.

“We haven’t seen this level of drug activity since the days of General Garcia Mesa,” said Mr. Justiniano, a former anti-drug official. He was referring to a 1980-82 dictator who is serving a life sentence in the United States.

The U.N. Drug Control Program estimates that there are 140,000 illegal drug producers in Bolivia grossing annual revenues of $180 million a year. Bolivia’s interior minister, Alfredo Rada, says that his government is waiting for the European Union to conduct another study before issuing an official opinion.

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