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DEA presence ends in Bolivia

The last of the U.S. drug agents leaves on President Evo Morales' orders. The U.S. and Bolivia are in a bitter dispute over the South American country's anti-drug efforts.

January 30, 2009|Chris Kraul

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — The last U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents left Bolivia on Thursday after having been ordered out by President Evo Morales, even as Bolivian police report that coca cultivation and cocaine processing are on the rise.

Morales demanded the DEA's exit in November as part of a bitter dispute between U.S. and Bolivian officials that included his expulsion of U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg and the Bush administration's decertification of Bolivia's anti-drug effort.

The departure in recent weeks of three dozen agents ends the DEA's presence here after more than three decades. Senior law enforcement officials said it was the first time a DEA operation had been ordered out of a country en masse.

Officials in the DEA's office here declined to comment before leaving, although officials said this week that all of them would be reassigned to countries bordering Bolivia to continue monitoring the situation here.

During the agency's 35-year history, it has generally maintained good relations with host Latin American nations, which take advantage of its global intelligence network and training programs in the United States to fight traffickers.

Recent exceptions include Bolivia, where Morales has accused the DEA of engaging in espionage. Similar charges were leveled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has reduced the DEA's presence from 10 to two agents since 2005 by refusing to renew agents' work permits.

Coca cultivation and cocaine processing in Bolivia are still far below the levels seen in the 1980s before Colombia began to leapfrog Bolivia and Peru to become the leading coca farming and cocaine trafficking country. Nowadays, Colombia produces about six times more cocaine than Bolivia, according to recent international estimates.

But the trend lines have counter-narcotics officials concerned. More than 7 tons of cocaine were seized here last year, quintuple the amount in 2006. There was also a 24% increase in the number of illegal cocaine labs destroyed and 55% more pounds of coca leaf farmed over the two-year period, according to figures kept by Bolivia's anti-narcotics police force.

There has also been an alarming "Colombianization" of lab methods used to produce higher volumes of cocaine. Bolivians arrested six suspected Colombian traffickers in the city of Cochabamba in May.

New evidence that more Bolivian cocaine is finding its way to U.S. and European markets has foreign counter-narcotics officials here concerned.

Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network, a nongovernmental agency that analyzes U.S. drug policy, said the decertification under former President Bush was based on erroneous and inflated data and that the Obama administration should reconsider the decision, which cost Bolivia millions of dollars in preferential trade benefits.

"It's important to note that the U.S. State Department's Narcotic Affairs Section, the much larger U.S. governmental agency that supervised DEA activities, has not been asked to leave, and bilateral drug control cooperation continues," Ledebur said. "The Morales administration has expressed a desire to redefine bilateral relations with the Obama administration, which will hopefully provide a framework for a more pragmatic interaction."

At a news conference Wednesday, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said his government would like to renew ties with the U.S. and accept an American ambassador back into the country, now that President Obama has taken office.

Bolivian law allows the cultivation of approximately 40,000 acres of coca to supply traditional demand in this significantly indigenous country, where the chewing of coca leaves is an age-old custom. Coca tea is a common beverage used to mitigate the effects of high altitude.

But in recent years, U.S. and other foreign counter-narcotics agencies have complained that twice the amount of coca needed for traditional consumption is being grown and that the excess is used to produce cocaine.

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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