U.S.-Bolivian operations against Bolivia's cocaine trade are working so well that the campaign is seen as a model, despite tensions between the two countries and concern that Colombians are taking over.
This year, anti-drug police and U.S. narcotics agents have seriously disrupted cocaine trafficking from the Chapare, a tropical region that produces 80 percent of the coca leaf processed into cocaine.The operation, called Ghost Zone, has used AWACS radar planes to detect flights carrying coca-leaf paste from Chapare to other regions for processing into cocaine. Hundreds of Bolivian and U.S. anti-drug agents have been mobilized to seize coca leaf, labs and processing chemicals.
As a result, traffickers are moving their landing strips out of reach of the anti-drug forces, using armies of farmers to carry the raw material to them.
"Coca leaf and cocaine production have diminished and the material cannot be transported as easily," said Carlos Saavedra Bruno, the interior minister, but added that interdiction alone will not bring victory.
"More options must be provided for the farmer who wants to quit cultivating coca leaf," he said.
Both the Bolivian and U.S. governments report a net reduction in cultivation as a result of voluntary eradication. Farmers receive $2,000 for every hectare, about 21/2 acres, of coca destroyed.
U.S. Ambassador Charles Bowers describes Ghost Zone as the biggest, most successful anti-drug operation in the Americas.
"There is less coca and more government programs in the Chapare than ever before," he said, and the Bolivians are increasingly capable of going after kingpins and traffickers.
Colombians have moved in because of the crackdown and the surrender last year of eight leading Bolivian traffickers in response to a government pledge that they would be tried in Colombia, not extradited to the United States.
"The Colombian Cali cartel is running most operations in Bolivia," said Don Ferrarone, Bolivia station chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
A representative of the Cali cartel, Celimo Andrade Quintero, was arrested June 24 in Bolivia. Ferrarone said the cartel is moving four tons of cocaine a month out of this country.
Progress in fighting cocaine has been marred by controversy surrounding U.S. military and DEA activities in Bolivia. The presence of 150 American soldiers from June to September in Santa Ana, a center of the drug trade, was widely criticized by newspapers and opposition politicians.
The opposition said the presence of U.S. troops required congressional authorization, but the U.S. Embassy said military "civic action" teams have visited Bolivia for 30 years without such approval. The press and opposition speculated that the troops had come to build a nuclear waste dump and a permanent military base.
"We did have a problem that was created by the civic action team that went into Santa Ana to build a school," Bowers said.
"It was a problem created by self-serving politicians and a press that inflamed the situation through sensational journalism. This spilled into a number of people saying Bolivian sovereignty and dignity had been affected adversely."
Interior Minister Saavedra said in an interview that "relations between Bolivia and the United States are at their best moment in recent years." The two governments agree on the need to strengthen democratic institutions, modernize the state and carry out an efficient war on drugs, he added.
Saavedra acknowledged that anti-American sentiment had grown in recent years, but ascribed it largely to lack of communication. For example, the minister said, he was not advised of the arrival of the 150 soldiers and the government did not anticipate how much trouble it would cause.
"The opposition sometimes plays a role that distorts our relations," he said. "They (try to) show the Bolivian government in conflict with the U.S., which in fact is not the case."
Raul Lema Patino, executive secretary of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, the largest opposition party, described relations with the United States as positive, but said restrictions should be put on the DEA.
He said DEA agents should not have diplomatic immunity, be allowed to carry weapons or take an active role in anti-drug operations.
Although Saavedra expressed optimism about Bolivia's effort, he also said: "As long as there are consumer nations, there will always be somebody to produce drugs."