SAO PAULO — In a bold effort to find regional solutions to Latin America’s drug trafficking problem, Bolivia has signed an “action plan” with its much larger neighbor, Brazil.
Commonly known as Operation BraBo, the agreement — inked by Brazilian Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo and Bolivian Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti — was signed in late March following an outgrowth of the seventh meeting of the Joint Drugs Committee.
The two countries also have agreed to share information and train jointly, as well as establish laboratories to help combat money laundering. Another accord that links drugs and related crimes was signed between Brazil’s ambassador to Bolivia, Marcel Biato, and Bolivia’s deputy minister of social defense, Felipe Caceres.
The third agreement is based upon police cooperation between the two countries. This agreement is the brainchild of Col. Jorge Santiesteban, subcommander-general of the National Police of Bolivia, and Campos Oslain Santana, representative of the Directorate General of Brazil’s Federal Police. Under this agreement, which runs until 2013, Bolivian police will be trained in Brazil to fight drug trafficking.
On Apr. 6, one week after the agreements were signed, the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bolivia received $100,000 to implement public policies to combat drug trafficking and organized crime — an approach favored by Bolivian President Evo Morales, himself a former coca grower.
“Bolivia is doing this in its own way that may conflict with traditional policies. There’s plenty of space for successful shared responsibility,” says Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society. “But the problem is so immense, and so multifaceted. The track record is not encouraging in Bolivia. They forced legalization of coca plants, which now allows for the growing of coca. And Morales has banned the DEA. I think that there needs to be a new approach.”
No doubt Brazil — which shares a 2,000-mile long border with Bolivia — wants to keep drug trafficking under control as more cocaine is crossing that border into Brazil, bringing an increase in crime and violence.
Back in 2007, Morales began a campaign to decriminalize cultivation of the coca leaf, and pushed for changes to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. That convention aims to destroy illegally cultivated coca bushes and abolish coca leaf chewing. Morales, who is an Aymara Indian, has argued that the UN’s 1961 ban violates the rights of indigenous people in the Andean region who chew the leaf as part of traditional rituals.
Official figures show that even though coca cultivation is down, cocaine production is up. According to the United Nations’ 2010 World Drug Report, global coca cultivation decreased by 5 percent from 167,600 hectares in 2008 to 158,800 hectares in 2009. During that time, coca cultivation worldwide plummeted by 28 percent, but Bolivia still accounts for 19 percent of the world’s coca production, with 30,900 hectares under cultivation. Only 12,000 hectares are considered legal production for Andean religious rituals, says the UN report.
Yet that same report also shows that cultivation in Bolivia has more than doubled between 2008 and 2009, with Bolivian drug traffickers dramatically boosting their capacity to produce cocaine.
Meanwhile, demand for cocaine has shot up in Europe in recent years, indirectly spawning a bigger battle against drug trafficking on Brazilian soil. Cocaine consumption has fallen significantly in the United States in the past few years, which is the world’s biggest consumer of the drug, according to the UN report.
But the problem has only worsened across the Atlantic. Between 1998 and 2008, the number of cocaine users in Europe doubled from 2 million to 4.1 million, with the European cocaine market now valued at $34 billion, just short of the North American market which brings in an estimated $37 billion from the sale of cocaine, said the UN report.
And as traffickers have found new shipping routes to get cocaine to Europe, the drug’s use across South America has increased too. Bolivian authorities seized more than 28,000 kilograms of cocaine in 2008, while Brazilian authorities confiscated around 20,000 kilograms, according to the UN.
Brazil accounts for 10 percent of all illicit drugs shipped to Europe, according to the report — usually sent via West Africa. That pales in comparison to Venezuela, which made up 51 percent of all drug shipments to Europe between 2006 and 2008.
But so far, the Bolivia-Brazil agreement seems to be working. It came shortly after the two nations proved they could cooperate in fighting drug trafficking, when 35 people were detained and two tons of cocaine was seized in a large-scale raid in Bolivia.
Operation BraBo could also bring Bolivia and the United States closer together, despite the continued absence of diplomatic ties, say observers. Shortly after the accord was signed, Bolivia’s Caceres announced that his government would accept $250,000 from Washington for satellite monitoring in order to eradicate illegal coca crops. However, he made clear that no U.S. personnel would be involved in the project.
Even though this latest accord with Brazil has helped ease hostilities toward the United States, more must be done, said Pien Metaal, a researcher with the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute’s Drugs & Democracy Program.
“The region should become stronger in organizing its own agenda on drug policy as a way of dealing with structural problems that happen in these societies as a result of drugs,” Metaal said. “The time has come to define proper public policies [to fight] the region’s growing drug trade. Let’s see how effective this strategy will turn out to be before judging.”