Bolivia suspends US antidrug operation amid slide in relations

Says government being undermined

By Carlos Valdez
Associated Press / November 2, 2008
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LA PAZ, Bolivia - President Evo Morales suspended US antidrug operations in Bolivia yesterday as Washington's relations with his leftist government spiraled downward.

Morales accused the US Drug Enforcement Administration of espionage and funding criminal groups trying to undermine his government.

He announced the indefinite suspension while declaring that his government has eradicated more than 12,300 acres of illegally planted coca this year - the minimum required by a 1988 Bolivian law passed under US pressure.

Coca is the raw material for cocaine, but use of the small green leaf in its less-potent natural form is common among Bolivians, who brew or chew it for its medicinal and nutritional properties.

"There were DEA agents who worked to conduct political espionage and to fund criminal groups so they could launch attacks on the lives of authorities, if not the president," Morales said.

The United States called Morales's allegations "false and absurd."

"We reject the accusation that DEA or any other part of the US government supported the opposition or conspired against the Bolivian government," State Department spokesman Karl Duckworth said in Washington.

"Should US cooperation be ended, more narcotics will be produced and shipped to Bolivia. The corrupting effects, violence, and tragedy which will result will mainly harm Bolivia as well as . . . neighboring Latin American countries, Europe, and West Africa," he added.

Bolivia-US relations have deteriorated in recent months as Morales's government limited DEA activities, including flights over Bolivia. The government later expelled the US ambassador over charges of spying and involvement in antigovernment protests in the eastern lowlands.

The United States in turn added Bolivia to its antinarcotics blacklist, causing a cut in trade preferences that Bolivian business leaders estimate could cost South America's poorest country as many as 20,000 jobs.

US antidrug officials and diplomats have denied any political involvement.

Morales's decision creates an unfortunate situation, DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney said in Washington, but added, "We will find other ways to make sure we keep abreast of the drug-trafficking situation through there."

Two DEA agents were pulled from the Chapare coca-growing region in September after Bolivian officials reported threats against them from coca growers in the area, a bastion of support for the president, who came to prominence as leader of a coca-growers union battling US eradication campaigns.

The United Nations estimates that Bolivia's coca crop increased 5 percent in 2007 - far below the 27 percent jump recorded in Colombia, a close US ally. Cocaine seizures by Bolivian police working with DEA agents had also increased dramatically during the Morales administration.

Last month Morales denied a DEA request to fly an antidrug plane over Bolivia, saying Bolivia does not need US help to control its coca crop. Morales is a close ally of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who in 2005 also suspended his country's cooperation with the DEA after accusing its agents of espionage.

Chávez, who regularly accuses the US government of plotting against him, asserted at the time that the DEA had been using the fight against drugs as a pretext to gather intelligence on his country.

Bolivia is the world's third-largest cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru.

Since taking office in 2006, Morales has pursued a policy of "zero cocaine but not zero coca," which gives tens of thousands of farmers permission to grow coca on small plots for legal uses.

Morales built his political career as a leader of Bolivia's coca growers and wants to develop legal markets for coca leaves while fighting the cocaine trade.

The United States this month suspended Bolivia's participation in the Andean trade pact, which lowered US tariffs for Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, in exchange for cooperation with the United States in the war on drugs. The suspension raises US tariffs on imports of Bolivian products.

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