U.S.-Bolivian Drug Drive Proceeds Despite Losing Element of Surprise

Times Staff Writer

A U.S. Army helicopter team sent to support raids on cocaine laboratories in Bolivia moved Wednesday to an advance base in the jungles of northern Bolivia in preparation for raids that are expected to get under way before the weekend.

Their preparations proceeded although the Bolivian-U.S. anti-drug operation, planned for months in secret, lost the element of surprise when the Bolivian press broke the story Tuesday. Major U.S. newspapers, including The Times, then published articles about the coming operation.

Hundreds of people saw the arrival Monday at the international airport at Santa Cruz, a major city in eastern Bolivia, of a U.S. military C-5A Galaxy transport plane. They watched as it unloaded six helicopters accompanied by U.S. Army pilots and mechanics.

These helicopters and about 160 U.S. support personnel have left Santa Cruz and moved to a base on a ranch with an airstrip near Trinidad, capital of the department, or province, of Beni, in the northeast corner of Bolivia adjacent to Brazil.

100 Bolivian Officers

Also at the base camp are more than 100 Bolivian national anti-drug police officers, known as "leopards." The U.S. Black Hawk helicopters, flown by U.S. pilots, will carry the Bolivian police agents as well as agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to the clandestine cocaine factories.

It is presumed here, however, that the Bolivian drug traffickers have read local newspapers' accounts of the raid preparations and are already removing processed cocaine and key personnel from the laboratory sites that are likely to be raided.

During smaller, DEA-led raids on Bolivian laboratories, agents have rarely found large amounts of drugs or been able to arrest any of the well-known traffickers.

Destruction of the big laboratories that have been operating without interference could be costly to the Bolivian drug barons, but the raids will not eliminate the businesses, local experts say. DEA sources expect the outflow of Bolivian cocaine, which accounts for 25% of world supply, to continue from accumulated stocks.

Start of Active Policy

Bolivian government sources, while refusing to discuss the joint operation, said the raids are only the beginning of a more active anti-narcotics policy. The United States has been pressing Bolivia to step up its anti-drug efforts for four years, without much success.

The Bolivian sources said the turning point came early this year, when President Victor Paz Estenssoro concluded that the flourishing drug industry posed a political and economic threat to his government.

"If we don't destroy the money power of the cocaine traffickers now, they will take over the economy from legitimate businessmen and be able to elect the next president of Bolivia in 1989," said Finance Minister Juan Cariaga, 34, who studied economics at Dartmouth College.

The drug barons are already economic powers in Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Trinidad, where they have invested heavily in mansions, cattle ranches and commercial trading firms and banks. They use these enterprises to launder their illegal drug money.

When Paz, 78, took office last August, this country of six million people was in such precarious shape financially that it could not pay its foreign debt. Inflation was running at an annual rate of 20,000%.

Since 1980, Bolivia's economy has shrunk by 50%, according to official figures, and per capita income has dropped below $300 a year.

Cocaine a Growth Area

The official figures do not adequately reflect the one growth area of the Bolivian economy--cocaine. According to U.S. Embassy estimates, cocaine production and export bring in $600 million a year--$100 million more than Bolivia earns with legal exports.

The cocaine money maintains a vast rural economy, involving about 400,000 coca-growing peasants. It finances much of the contraband that makes Bolivia a bazaar for foreign goods that are imported without duties or taxes, such as Scotch whisky, Mercedes-Benz limousines and Japanese electronic products. It also allows illegal imports of powdered milk, textiles, shoes and other goods that threaten Bolivian manufacturers.

Paz struck boldly in his first months in office against Bolivia's economic ills. He froze wages and balanced the budget without printing money to pay government bills. The stern measures have worked. Since February, prices have risen only 3%.

Reward has started to come in the form of enthusiastic approval of Bolivia's economic program by international financial agencies. The International Monetary Fund lent Bolivia $50 million in June and has promised another $70 million later this year. The World Bank is organizing a consultative group for potential investors in Bolivia that will meet in October.

Drug Image an Obstacle

Foreign credit and new investors are being sought to stimulate economic growth, but Bolivia's image as a major drug-smuggling nation remains a serious obstacle to attracting foreign investment.

Paz and his economic advisers agreed to the joint raids after calculating the costs and benefits of Bolivia's continuing to be regarded as an outlaw international cocaine center. Cariaga said they concluded that Bolivia would gain more in international investment and economic aid by fighting the drug barons than it would earn from letting the underground, cocaine-fed economy continue to develop.

"Drugs are like inflation. They corrupt and they cannot be fought gradually," Cariaga said. "This has to be an all-out fight."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World