IVIRGARZAMA, Bolivia — Here in the Chapare, a tropical tract the size of New Jersey, prosperous cocaine traffickers are the lords of the jungle. Their only major rivals are the "Leopards," a special Bolivian police unit with a notoriously spotty record.
The Leopards receive U.S. government support, including the use of helicopters equipped with machine guns. But the traffickers have legions of peasant farmers on their side and irresistible amounts of cocaine money at their command.
It is an unequal rivalry in which Leopard officers have been known to forget, for a price, which side they are on. As a result, the drug trade flourishes throughout the Chapare, making this area of central Bolivia a major source of the cocaine that flows into the illegal American market.
The flow slowed to a trickle for a four-month period last year when 170 American troops and six Blackhawk helicopters were in Bolivia to help crack down on cocaine production and traffic. But since the American military mission left in November, the drug traffic has flourished anew, and fresh signs of corruption have surfaced.
According to published reports and informed sources, the corruption has reached high levels of President Victor Paz Estenssoro's government. Last month, Paz accepted the resignation of Interior Minister Fernando Barthelemy, who had been accused of receiving payoffs from cocaine traffickers in exchange for official protection.
The Interior Ministry is responsible for the national police, including the Leopards. Maj. Ciro Jijena, a Leopard officer, told a Bolivian congressional committee last year that another officer collected protection money for Barthelemy from drug traffickers in the Chapare.
Sources close to narcotics control efforts in the Chapare said that several other Leopard members confirmed Jijena's story. One source said U.S. officials had asked that Barthelemy be removed.
Barthelemy has denied receiving any bribes. His resignation was officially described as part of a routine reorganization of Paz's Cabinet.
Anti-drug sources name numerous police officers who, they say, have also received payoffs from traffickers. According to two sources, the major who until last month was in charge of the Leopard post at the jungle village of Ivirgarzama was once seen meeting in his headquarters with Jorge Roca Suarez, one of Bolivia's top drug overlords.
The major was transferred out of the Chapare and is said to be the subject of an internal police investigation. Some Leopard officers have been suspended for suspected corruption, often at U.S. insistence, but none has been put on trial.
"Many people think we come here to make money, but that is a lie," said Maj. Oswaldo Veizaga, the current commander of the Ivirgarzama post.
In a conversation with visitors, Veizaga said he had been in charge of the remote post for 15 days. He complained angrily about shortages of uniforms, boots, medical supplies and housing for his men. He said the unit has only two working vehicles and not enough gasoline to operate effectively.
Planes Transport Drugs
Meanwhile, according to Veizaga, planes used to move unrefined cocaine take off and land on roadways in the area, flying within sight of the Leopard post.
"The planes come by low," he said. "They pass right over us."
As Veizaga spoke, one of his unit's pickup trucks rolled into the post compound carrying a squad of policemen and two civilian prisoners. The squad had raided a pit where coca leaves were being converted into paste, an unrefined substance that contains the essence of cocaine powder.
The squad leader said the two prisoners were small fry. The owner of the paste got away.
One of the prisoners, a sullen young man in a striped sport shirt, was chewing coca leaves. The greenish residue of mashed coca leaves covered his feet. He was a "treader," hired to make paste from coca leaves by mashing them with his bare feet in a solution of kerosene, sulfuric acid, lime and water.
Some Coca Is Legal
Later, a teen-age boy came by the post walking a bicycle loaded with two large bags of leaves.
"That is coca," Veizaga said. "It is for legal consumption. They have authorization."
Waist-high coca bushes produce the small, heart-shaped leaves that Bolivian Indians have chewed for centuries as a legal stimulant and hunger-suppressant.
The government allows each farmer in the Chapare to grow up to two hectares, or nearly five acres, of coca bushes. Experts estimate that about 90,000 Chapare farmers are cultivating a total of at least 280,000 acres of the leaf.
Legal consumption of coca in Bolivia amounts to a small fraction of the estimated 275,000 tons produced annually in the Chapare.
Immense Carpet of Jungle