Bolivia: Impunity and the Control of Corruption in the Fight Against Drugs

01 April 1997

The narcotics police and the secret police have been implicated in cocaine trafficking in Bolivia since the late 1950s.

The narcotics police and the secret police have been implicated in cocaine trafficking in Bolivia since the late 1950s. (1) This involvement, which in later years came to include other spheres of State power, became especially extensive once the Bolivian State allowed a US intelligence agency to operate with immunity from national laws. Rodas Morales (2) identifies this new period as beginning in the year 1964, when General René Barrientos came to power by coup d'etat.

Corruption as a method of state

Barrientos imposed corruption "as a State method learned from the North Americans", (3) "committing the army and in particular the police", to facilitating cocaine production in Beni and Santa Cruz, and thereby using the issue of involvement in drug trafficking as a theme for political blackmail.

The dictatorships that followed Barrientos -Banzer, Natusch Busch and García Meza- continued with this, handing over land, credit and "loyalty bonds", among other methods. This economic support and acceptance by politicians and police made it easier for these factions of the bourgeoisie, strengthened by drug money, to ease into Bolivian society, as a first step toward their entry into formal democracy.

The 1985 legal reforms produced by the New Political Economy, introduced by the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), provided mechanisms for legalizing "dirty" money. The networks through which cocaine producers and traffickers work in Bolivia support each other in old friendships, defining themselves as businessmen, that is, as formal, functional economic actors. They use a strategy of peaceful coexistence with the state, which has successfully guaranteed their lucrative businesses, generally without resorting to violence. As a result, anti-drug interdiction policies are usually directed towards the least powerful sectors of the coca-cocaine circuit: coca producers, processors, and small-scale transporters of the chemicals used in refining.

Intelligence in foreign hands

In July 1987, the Special Anti-Drug Trafficking Force (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico - FELCN), created by presidential decree, became the lead force in the war on drugs, supported in the countryside by its operational wing, the Mobile Rural Patrol Unit (Unidad Móvil de Patrullaje Rural - UMOPAR) and by some units of the Armed Forces. Trained and directed by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the FELCN has depended completely on US embassy officials for intelligence and planning.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that information on political involvement n drug trafficking surfaces from time to time. The control of such information allows for its tactical use for political purposes. The most illustrative example is the scandal created around the contacts and friendships of high-level leaders of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) - with Jaime Paz Zamora in the presidency between 1989 and 1993 - with two drug barons, Carmelo "Meco" Domínguez and Isaac "Oso" Chavarría. Chavarría had already been on the DEA's lists since before the Paz Zamora administration (4) and in 1991 the Bolivian authorities selectively allowed him public pardon and his subsequent exclusion from prosecution as a drug trafficker under the "Repentance Decree". At the time of these revelations, however, the US embassy was satisfied with the dismissal of Interior Minister Guillermo Capobianco. Only after 1993 did "new allegations" about "Meco" rekindle the "narco-link" scandal, this time implicating virtually the whole MIR leadership, and weakening its political credibility.

Meanwhile, a " pact of silence" reins within the major political parties regarding the "the greatest drug scandal in Bolivian history", known as "Huanchaca" - in reference to the site where an unfortunate scientist discovered a cocaine production complex in 1986 and paid with his life. Investigations into the scandal implicate the ruling MNR party and bring into question the role of high officials and US government agencies. (A connection has been drawn with the "Iran-contra" case, with the participation of Oliver North and the CIA.)

The power of the anti-drugs police

Since 1987, there have been numerous allegations against FELCN/UMOPAR officers concerning their presumed involvement in drug trafficking or their role in covering up the activities of drug traffickers. The perennial scandals nearly always result in a "purge" of the anti-drug command, without ever managing to root out the agency's involvement in new cases. Few officials are brought to trial, and those who are prosecutated are generally low-ranking.

The FELCN's long-reaching powers over other State agencies and the civilian population are most obvious in human rights issues. In July 1988 the Bolivian parliament, under strong pressure from the US, created Law 1008, which specifically dealt with coca and other controlled substances, and granted extensive powers to the FELCN. Henceforth, the FELCN has been responsible for carrying out the "judicial investigations" in drug-trafficking cases, with the findings carrying the weight of legally constituted proof in later judicial proceedings.

In cases tried under law 1008 it is common for sentencing to be based on nothing more than the accused's confession before police. In 1995 the Andean Information Network studied the cases of 255 (out of a total of 422) suspects detained under Law 1008 in the city of Cochabamba. (5) Their report describes the legal situation of the accused from the moment of detention.

Of those interviewed, 60% admitted that their confessions before the police authorities (UMOPAR, FELCN or the DEA) were taken under physical and/or psychological pressure such as beatings, or threats of torture, death or harm to their families. Furthermore, 63% admitted to having no defense lawyer present and 25% said that no prosecuting attorney was present. The 1993 Public Ministry Law, grants the Public Prosecutor the function of directing the judicial proceedings. Howeve, common practice is another matter:

"So, they asked me questions and when I didn't give the answers they wanted and they didn't accept the statement that I had already made, they started to beat me. The lieutenant kicked me and punched me, the gringo hit me on the head with a stick and the butt of his pistol. He said: 'These people are used to these things and that's why they deny it.' When I continued to deny everything, they applied an electric current to my testicles. I couldn't take any more, I had to accept. Even though I read what the report said, I had to sign, because I couldn't take any more torture". (6)

From the moment of detention, threats and beatings are commonplace, according to the responses (60% have been threatened and 61% beaten), a situation which continues during the police investigation (61% and 41% respectively). The prisoners are kept in isolation in the installations of the FELCN and UMOPAR, and in fact 65% admit to having been kept incomunicado for more than 48 hours at a time, 19% for more than two weeks, and 5% over a month). A particular allegation (in seven cases - almost 3% of those interviewed) refers to detention in an official Security House:

"After a few hours, we arrived in Santa Cruz and we were driven in circles until finally we arrived at a house where they made me get out of the vehicle. One of them guided me and when I went into the house I felt the impact of the blow of feet on my back that threw me against the wall. You're going to die here, Chuck Norris, if you don't talk.' That day they beat me until I was exhausted. I cried, and asked for a lawyer". (7)

While in detention in a Security House the prisoner is in a situation of complete vulnerability. While the location of police stations is public knowledge and access to them is possible, no one knows the whereabouts of the Security Houses. The fact that the US Embassy officials direct intelligence in the war on drugs takes on special importance in the testimonies collected:

"The DEA agents gave orders in English. They were present every day during the tortures. And they cannot say they don't know, because they were the ones paying the rent on the houses". (8)

Under the mantle of impunity

According to the conclusions of the study carried out by the Andean Information Network, "the use of violence at the time of capture and during the police investigation appears to be frequent. From subtle pressure, threats, coercion and extortion to physical or psychological torture. It could be said that the practice is accepted as a legitimate expression of authority. (...) The State Constitution and other laws in Bolivia protect civil humanrights establishing rules that assure citizens' rights and security. However, in practice many of these rules are ignored.

"(...) The Attorney General's office, which is mandated to guarantee that laws are observed, does not appear to carry out their duties conscientiously. There is no assurance of a lawyer's presence during the questioning procedure, or that he will effectively intervene to prevent the human rights of a detained person from being violated. Of those detained after the Public Ministry Law was established, 35% have reported that their defense lawyer was not present when their statement was taken. However, if their statement is used in the trial, it carries the defense lawyer's signature and approval".

These situations reflect a tendency to not interfere "too much" in police proceedings, or to leave some of the legal proceedings during the investigation process entirely up to the FELCN, when legally they should be conducted under a lawyer's guidance. (...) This means that, apart from the wide-ranging powers granted by law 1008 to the police regarding criminal charges, the reason for the frequent violations of civil rights during the police investigations, is basically non-compliance with the law.

"(...) Likewise, it should be cautioned that according to the logic of the war on drugs, ome laws take precedence over others, and the protection of some rights have priority over those discretionally considered secondary. (...) Orders referring to the pursuit, detention, investigation and trial of presumed criminals are executed, or an attempt is made to carry them out, diligently. On the other hand, the rules establishing the rights and security of those accused under these legal proceedings are not observed, or are redefined under the presumption that the violation of rights and security is valid or necessary in the fight against the crime.

"(...) The same mentality that denies or reduces, consciously or unconsciously, the full significance of human rights and their obligatory observation, keeps the resulting violations from being exposed. The responses and testimonies of those interviewed denounce the crimes of threats, abuses, torture, extortion and coercion during the police proceedings. They are crimes committed by anti-narcotics officials while carrying out their duties. However, the criminal nature of their activities is usually minimized or not acknowledged. (...) This situation ofimpunity favors the repetition of human rights violations, causing some sectors of the population to find themselves in a permanent state of insecurity, faced with the arbitrary use of State power". (9)

Even the language used in the media expresses the denial of these acts (threats, taunts, torture, etc.) as crimes, subject to judicial proceedings, deeming them "excesses","mistakes" and even "inevitable irregularities in the fight against organized crime".

Immunity of foreign officials

A recent Human Rights Watch/Americas report (July 1995) prepared following a fact-finding mission to Bolivia, concludes that the impunity in which anti-narcotics authorities operate constitutes a central problem in the war on drugs. The report emphasizes the generally indifferent attitude among government officials regarding the complaints of abuses by Bolivian authorities (10) and the lack of an open and responsive system capable of investigating the actions of the DEA agents. (11)

The attributions and mandate of DEA agents are identified in official documents such as Supreme Decree No. 2329 (August 20, 1992), establishing that foreign agents in Bolivia are prohibited from participating, in person or through intermediaries, in the receipt of declarations, detentions or any other form of denial of freedom, the pursuit or confrontation with presumed criminals, raids, confiscations, and any other act contrary to Bolivia's laws and Constitution.

In practice, little has been done regarding repeated complaints alleging that these US "diplomatic" officials enjoy much greater freedom of action. The April 1994 kidnapping and illegal deportation to Costa Rica of Edgar Fernández Nuez Lazcano, the "key witness" in the case against MIR leaders (the "narco-link" case), was criticized, but finally accepted without judicial or diplomatic consequences. The US embassy denies allegations of misconduct and readily protects its officials, at times withdrawing them from Bolivia to avoid possible reprisals (as was the case of DEA agent Bryan Donaldson in 1987 who, while drunk, wounded a Bolivian citizen in a nightclub).

DEA authorities are officially obliged to report on their Bolivian colleagues if they encounter human rights abuses. However, Human Rights Watch/Americas cites a DEA official who acknowledges that DEA agents prefer to close their eyes to the beatings given by UMOPAR individuals, since they (the DEA agents) as "guests in the country" are "not responsible for making criticisms". (12).

It appears that the Bolivian anti-drug authorities have learned to take on as their own this concept of "camaraderie". When in August 1994 coca producer Felipe Pérez was assassinated by a shot in the mouth at close range, investigations revealed, after great public pressure, that police agent Jorge Mamani was responsible. When his version of events, claimin that Pérez had attacked him, was not backed up by the autopsy results, Mamani "fled with the complicity of his colleagues" and remains at large.

Corruption and impunity: Tools for political control

In August 1996, after two visits to Bolivia by Human Rights Watch/Americas, the US embassy and the Bolivian Interior Minister signed an agreement making a commitment not to assign US funds to anti-drug forces that fail to take appropriate measures against officers within their ranks who are found responsible for human rights violations.

Clearly, however, within a Democracy excesses that result in the open questioning of the use of public power cannot be tolerated. It is noteworthy that the above-mentioned agreement was not published in the Bolivian press, and human rights organizations in Bolivia only discovered its content (in the English version) through their contacts in the United States.

Those who control intelligence control corruption. Those who control corruption do nothing to fight it. They make use of corruption for their own ends. The involvement of the CIA in the "Narco-coup" of ex-dictator García Meza is already public knowledge. In democratic times, the mechanisms of coercion become more sophisticated and complex, due in part to the number of actors involved.

The scandals that hurt the images of public officials and force the major political parties into a constant state of alert, serve to keep these political players and Bolivian policy in general in line with the demands of the US models. Likewise, those in charge of the repressive apparatus are easier to manipulate if they have been slapped on the wrist for "errors" that could have been judicially prosecuted. Those Bolivian collaborators closest to the US embassy generally have skeletons in their own closets.


1. Eduardo Gamarra, "Entre la droga y la democracia", ILDIS, La Paz 1994, p. 20.
2. Hugo Rodas Morales, "Modelo político-empresarial y fracción burguesa de la cocaína en Bolivia (1985-1993)", Graduate Thesis, UMSA, La Paz 1995, p. 62.
3. Ibid., p. 67.
4. El Diario, 18-08-91.
5. Gloria Rose Marie de Ach, "Violaciones a los derechos humanos civiles durante la investigación policial en casos de detenidos bajo la Ley 1008", RAI, Cochabamba 1996.
6. Red Andina de Información "El peso de la Ley 1008", Cochabamba 1995, p. 5-6.
7. Ibid., p. 92.
8. Ibidim., p.79.
9. De Ach, p. 87-97.
10. Human Rights Watch/Americas, "Bolivia: Human rights violations and the war on drugs", New York-Washington 1995, p.33.
11. Ibid., p.36.
12. Ibidim., p.35-36.