Authorities made the seizure in Ixiamas community, La Paz department, near the border with Peru. Authorities first identified a clandestine airstrip and a coca paste purification and recycling lab, which led them to find the aircraft and the drugs.
The Brazilian-registered helicopter was carrying eight bags of marijuana and four bags of coca paste. According to the authorities, the operation’s haul, including the helicopter, was valued at $750,000.
It’s the first time that counter-drug units led by the Bolivian National Police's Special Drug Trafficking Combat Force have seized a helicopter used to transport drugs. Between 2017 and 2018, the government said it had captured 38 clandestine small planes used in the narcotrafficking air bridge.
“This is a new modus operandi, involving the use of a different aerial technology for drug smuggling, by helicopter in this case,” Bolivian Minister of Government Carlos Romero told the press. The Robinson R44 helicopter can fly above 13,000 feet and cover distances of more than 310 miles.
Bolivia and Peru share a 1,047-kilometer long border, and according to the U.S. Department of State 2019 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Bolivia is one of the main transit regions for Peruvian cocaine and the third largest cocaine producer in the world.
“Undoubtedly, there are at least two air bridges that have been established between Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia: one in the northern Amazon, and another one in the southern Amazon,” Romero told the press. “From the samples collected in the lab, we can conclude that the drug was taken from the VRAEM [Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro Rivers Valley] in Peru, in the form of cocaine sulphate, and that the lab installed [in northern Bolivia] was for drug processing,” he added.
Franklin Alcaraz, a Bolivian specialist in narcotrafficking issues, said that multinational criminal partnerships operate especially in regions where governments do not have the institutional capacity to establish a presence, much less to enforce the law. Northern Bolivia and southern Peru are vast areas with almost no state control, Alcaraz said.
“If we add to this the fact that Bolivia has expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from the country, the capacity to share information between governments is extremely limited, which favors criminals,” said Alcaraz, former director of Bolivia's Latin American Center for Scientific Investigation, which studies drug consumption in the country.
In mid-2018, as part of a test phase, Bolivia started using 13 French-made radars that will enable airspace coverage. “Still, there is no solution for illegal flights that attempt to avoid air radars, but it will definitely be of great help,” Romero said. In the same period, the government announced the implementation of a control policy for Bolivian aircraft, so they can be monitored in real time along with each aircraft’s complete history.
Alcaraz believes that coordination with Brazil and Peru is essential to counter narcotrafficking and transnational criminal groups. “But the Bolivian government led by [President] Evo Morales does not show any interest in building these international partnerships,” he concluded.