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Bolivia accuses DEA of spying, halts agents’ work

McDonnell is a Times staff writer.

Bolivian President Evo Morales suspended operations by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on Saturday after accusing the agency of aiding “criminal groups” that oppose his rule.

Morales’ move was the latest sign of the deterioration in relations between his leftist government and Washington.

“There were DEA agents who worked to conduct political espionage and to fund criminal groups so they could launch attacks on the lives of authorities, if not the president,” Morales told reporters during a visit to the Chapare region, a major production zone for coca plants, from which cocaine is extracted. “We are obligated to defend Bolivian sovereignty.”

Bolivia is the world’s third-largest producer of cocaine, after Colombia and Peru. A sizable DEA contingent has been working on interdiction in Bolivia for decades.

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A senior U.S. State Department official called Morales’ accusation “false and absurd.”

“Should U.S. cooperation be ended, more narcotics will be produced and shipped from Bolivia,” said the official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

In September, Morales ousted the U.S. ambassador after accusing him of abetting those suspected of plotting a coup against him -- an allegation denied by the Bush administration.

The ambassador’s expulsion figured in Washington’s subsequent decision to declare that Bolivia was not cooperating in drug interdiction. That move led the U.S. to eliminate Bolivian trade preferences, potentially costing South America’s poorest nation tens of thousands of jobs.

Morales, almost three years through his five-year term, faces a stiff challenge from conservative opponents in Bolivia who call him an authoritarian leader bent on amassing power and imposing a communist-style dictatorship. Opposition provinces are seeking greater autonomy from the central government in La Paz, the capital.

Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, denounces his opponents as “fascists” and “racists” abetted by Washington. He says he represents the interests of Bolivia’s long-disenfranchised masses.

The DEA is believed to have about two dozen agents in Bolivia, complemented with a support staff of analysts. The agents have no law enforcement powers, but train Bolivian anti-drug personnel and share intelligence with counterparts in Bolivia and other nations in South America.

What will happen to the DEA personnel in Bolivia remained unclear. Morales did not order them expelled.

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Apart from the DEA presence, Washington provides about $35 million a year to Bolivia in drug interdiction funds, used for training police and eradication of coca plants. Morales has suggested that Russia may be willing to fund interdiction if U.S. aid is cut.

Morales is a key ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who likewise suspended DEA activities in Venezuela after alleging that agents were working to undermine his government.

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McDonnell is a Times staff writer.

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com


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