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Why Bolivia Needs the United States

8:15 AM, Jun 5, 2013 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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Morales doesn’t seem to care about alienating the U.S. government. For that matter, he probably considered it a personal victory when, on May 23, State Department official William Brownfield announced that the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs would be closing its Bolivia office. Morales has a long history of working to undermine U.S.-led anti-drug efforts, both before and during his presidency. He became head of the powerful Bolivian coca growers’ union back in 1996, and he was reelected to that position in 2012. His alliance with the cocaleros and his fierce hostility toward the United States have made it significantly harder for Bolivia to curb drug trafficking.

That is bad news for Bolivians, because their country is now facing a surge of drug-related violence, and they have never been more in need of U.S. support.

As I mentioned earlier, Morales expelled the DEA in 2008. Since then, notes a recent State Department report, Bolivia has “‘failed demonstrably’ to make sufficient efforts to meet its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.” According to U.S. figures, cocaine production in the South American country grew by 29 percent between 2010 and 2011. Along with Peru and Colombia, Bolivia is one of the three biggest cocaine producers in the world. It also shares a 2,100-mile border with Brazil, which is the world’s second-largest cocaine consumer.

Back in March, InSight Crime analyst Miriam Wells reported that Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city, was experiencing “a rising crime wave” that had prompted the governor of Santa Cruz department (which includes the city) to declare a state of emergency. A month later, the top U.N. anti-drug official in Bolivia warned that the landlocked nation was at risk of suffering “grave levels of violence linked to narcotrafficking.” Around the same time, Bolivian media outlets broadcast a horrifying security-camera video that showed a man being hunted down and shot to death on a Santa Cruz street in broad daylight.

In a subsequent New York Times article discussing the video and the crime wave, Santa Cruz department interior secretary Vladimir Peña described the full scope of the problem. “Today, what we are seeing is this: organized crime, mafias, drug trafficking, dirty money, weapons, and this undoubtedly is going to rapidly increase the levels of criminality,” Peña told the Times. “We are seeing an increase in the number of homicides on the one hand and, second, what we are seeing is the level of cruelty.”

Solving the problem will be quite difficult. It doesn’t help that Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America, is bitterly divided along political, geographic, ethnic, and racial lines. Santa Cruz lies in the eastern lowlands region, which is the wealthier and more conservative part of the country, and is home to many mixed-race mestizos and white Bolivians. It is the main power center of the anti-Morales opposition. By contrast, the city of La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital, sits 12,000 feet above sea level in the western highlands, where most indigenous Bolivians live. Many Santa Cruz residents feel that their city—and its crime wave—is being neglected by Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, who has repeatedly tried to reduce Santa Cruz’s political and economic clout.

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