Smuggling Scandal Shakes Bolivia
By MARTIN AROSTEGUI
The scandal broke Friday when U.S. agents and Panamanian police arrested retired-general Rene Sanabria, the former head of Bolivia's main anti-narcotics unit for smuggling up to 315 pounds (144 kilograms) of cocaine to the U.S., Bolivian officials said. Mr. Sanabria, who was serving as a top intelligence adviser to the country's Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti at the time of his arrest, was deported to Miami.
Mr. Sanabria's state-appointed lawyer, Christy O'Connor of the Miami public defender's office, told reporters Tuesday that Mr. Sanabria could face a life sentence if found guilty.
Felipe Caceres, Bolivia's top antidrug official said Tuesday Mr. Sanabria's security unit "was riddled" with corruption. Mr. Caceres said that 15 other police officials were in the process of being detained for complicity in the drug-smuggling operation. Bolivian police have been rounding up Mr. Sanabria's subordinates in the Interior Ministry's counter-intelligence section as well as ex-district police chiefs for the capital of La Paz, and the city of Santa Cruz, the country's largest city, both of whom are alleged to be part of Mr. Sanabria's smuggling network.
Mr. Caceres said Bolivia was cooperating fully in the probe. But he complained the government was never informed about the international arrest warrant issued against Mr. Sanabria.
"We had no information from the State Department or the DEA," said Mr. Caceres at a news conferenceTuesday where he requested Mr. Sanabria be repatriated to face charges in Bolivia.Mr. Sanabria's arrest was the result of a two-year investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which detected that Bolivian police officials had been shipping drugs to Miami from ports in neighboring Chile since 2009, said Sacha Llorenti, Bolivia's Interior Minister. Opposition critics have jumped on the scandal to criticize the government for alleged permissive policies on drug trafficking. Mr. Morales expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from Bolivia in 2008, saying its agents were conspiring against his government during a bloody regional rebellion in eastern Bolivia.
"This is a serious stain on the government," said opposition Senator Marcelo Antezana, a former army chief of staff, who demanded Mr. Llorenti's resignation.
Other opposition leaders said the scandal was the fault of Mr. Morales's expulsion of the DEA three years ago.
"Controls on the police which were exercised by the DEA have disappeared," said Rene Justiniano, a former antidrug czar turned opposition leader. "Police have lost their fear of getting caught."
Police internal-affairs units set up under U.S. tutelage were dismantled following Mr. Sanabria's appointment to head the antidrug police in 2007, a Bolivian law enforcement officer said.
Government officials say Mr. Sanabria's arrest is U.S. retribution for Mr. Morales's kicking out the DEA. The U.S. "took Sanabria to the U.S. because the DEA is hurt that we had the sufficient capacity and political will to expel them," Mr. Caceres told a rally of coca growers Monday. Mr. Llorenti, the interior minister, has denied that Mr. Sanabria exercised major intelligence responsibilities in the government, saying his intelligence unit was just one of several Bolivian government security agencies.
Mr. Morales, the leader of Bolivia's main union of coca leaf farmers, was elected president in 2005 on a pledge to revoke an agreement with the U.S. putting a ceiling on coca cultivation. The agreement permitted Bolivian farmers to grow up to 10,000 hectares of coca for the country's domestic market, where the leaf has traditionally been chewed as a mild stimulant or brewed in tea.
But following the expansion of coca cultivation during the past five years, Bolivia's cocaine production has also surged—jumping 50%, according to a 2009 United Nations report. Today, Bolivia is the world's third-largest cocaine producer following Colombia and Peru.
Mr. Morales claims that his government has conducted a record number of drug interdictions, intercepting drug shipments into neighboring countries and dismantling cocaine processing labs in Bolivia's eastern jungles. Mr. Morales has defended coca as a medicinal and nutritional plant, sacred to many of Bolivia's indigenous people while insisting that his objective remains "zero cocaine."