LA PAZ, Bolivia — The Bolivian government said Monday that its joint anti-drug operation with U.S. military forces has "broken the back" of the illegal cocaine industry in Bolivia, although only one laboratory has been found in four days of raids.
At the same time, opposition criticism of the presence of 160 U.S. military personnel and a fleet of six U.S. Black Hawk helicopters is rising. Oscar Zamora, the president of the Senate, called a meeting for today of a congressional commission that meets while the full Congress is in recess to discuss the presence of U.S. military forces without congressional approval.
In spite of limited results achieved by the joint operation since it was launched Friday, Minister of Information Herman Antelo told a press conference that the major cocaine traffickers are "on the run."
System 'Falling Apart'
"What we are seeing is a system that is falling apart and is totally inoperative," Antelo said. "Drug traffickers are more worried about taking down (their laboratories) or fleeing than continuing" cocaine production.
But he added that the "destruction of the bases of the drug traffickers" is going to be a "long-term operation for which Bolivia will need a lot of external help."
President Victor Paz Estenssoro, who approved the U.S. involvement, has estimated that Bolivia would need $100 million in foreign aid annually for several years to carry out the destruction of this country's cocaine production. Production of pure cocaine from Bolivia is estimated at 100 tons a year, about 25% of the world's supply.
The joint operation currently under way involves U.S. military units for the first time in a four-year effort by the United States to get Bolivian cocaine exports cut back. But the presence of highly visible U.S. military personnel and the arrivals and takeoffs of military aircraft in support of the operation have aroused considerable criticism from political opponents of the Paz administration.
So far, the results of the raids on suspected laboratories in backland regions of northeastern Bolivia have been far less than U.S. officials said they hoped for when the joint operation was being organized.
The spotty results raise questions about the quality of intelligence gathered by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and used as the basis for the operation.
Since Friday, when the operation began, six raids have been carried out in Bolivia's Beni department, where the DEA said it suspected that a dozen laboratories were producing most of Bolivia's cocaine for export.
So far, only one lab has been found. It was a big one, capable of producing up to 3,000 pounds of cocaine a week, at a ranch called El Zorro an hour by airplane north of Trinidad, Beni's capital city.
No Cocaine Found
But no cocaine has been found. The only arrest was that of a 17-year-old ranch hand at El Zorro. Contrary to an early report from the DEA, the raiders failed to arrest the pilot of a small aircraft seized on a dirt runway at El Zorro. He escaped on foot into the jungle.
Since Sunday, operations have been hampered by unseasonably heavy rainfall in the Beni region.
All the raids have been carried out by members of a U.S.-trained unit of the Bolivian national police called the Leopards, an anti-drug force whose members are also paid by the U.S. anti-narcotics mission here. The Leopards were ferried to their isolated targets by American helicopter pilots.
Targets for the operation were adopted on the basis of information gathered by the Bolivian national police and the DEA permanent mission here.
Apparently the premature disclosure of the raids--three days before they began--is not responsible for the poor showing so far. Officials say there was not enough time to dismantle laboratories between the moment the pending operation became public knowledge and the carrying out of the raids.
But they admit that some suspected drug traffickers have disappeared from their normal places of residence in Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Trinidad since the operation began and may have gone underground.
Antelo, the information minister, said that a report published in the United States by Newsweek that the current operation was aimed primarily at the operations of Roberto Suarez, a much-publicized figure in Bolivia's narcotics world, was a "journalistic speculation far removed from reality."
"Suarez is over the hill as a drug trafficker, and there are many others who are more important now," Antelo said. But he refused to identify the current big operators. "Those are whom we are going after now," he said.