LA PAZ – Police found a cocaine laboratory in eastern Bolivia, the largest facility of its type discovered in decades, and arrested several foreigners, officials said.
The lab was located in Chiquitania, an area in the eastern province of Santa Cruz, the head of the FELCN drug enforcement agency, Col. Oscar Nina, said in a statement.
“We can say it is the biggest blow dealt to drug trafficking in recent years,” Nina said, without providing details on the number of suspects arrested or their nationality.
Bolivia’s interior minister, Alfredo Rada, traveled to Chiquitania to get a firsthand look at the laboratory.
The lab is bigger than the one found March 27 in Santa Cruz that was producing up to 50 kilos of extremely pure cocaine daily, police said.
Last month, police dismantled two cocaine laboratories and arrested eight Colombians in Santa Cruz province.
The labs were in Porongos, a town located 18 kilometers (11 miles) from Santa Cruz city, the FELCN said.
Bolivian police, according to official figures, seized about 12 tons of cocaine and more than 1,700 tons of marijuana between January and May.
In 2008, Bolivia seized 25 tons of cocaine and more than 1,135 tons of marijuana, and it eradicated more than 5,000 hectares (12,345 acres) of coca, which provides the raw material for cocaine.
The U.S. State Department’s annual report on drugs estimates that Bolivia’s cocaine production rose from 100 tons in 2003 to 120 tons in 2008.
Bolivian law permits the cultivation of 12,000 hectares (29,629 acres) of coca for legal traditional uses, and a similar arrangement prevails in neighboring Peru.
Unadulterated coca is a mild stimulant that eases hunger pangs and alleviates altitude sickness. It has been used in the Andean region for millennia in cooking, folk remedies and religious rites.
Currently, Bolivia has 27,000 hectares (66,667 acres) planted with coca, making it the third-largest producer after Colombia and Peru.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian who rose to prominence as the leader of a coca-growers union, came to office in January 2006 pledging to redirect anti-drug efforts from coca eradication to cocaine interdiction.
Last November, the U.S. government suspended Bolivia’s participation in a tariff-exemption program for Andean nations, claiming that La Paz was not cooperating sufficiently in the war on drugs.
Morales categorically rejected that assertion and cited U.N. statistics showing his government has done better than U.S. allies Colombia and Peru both in reducing coca cultivation and seizing cocaine.
In March, the Bolivian government started the formal process of removing coca leaf from the list of substances banned under the 1961 U.N. anti-narcotics convention.
Bolivia is trying to modify two subsections of Article 49 of the 1961 U.N. convention on drugs that prohibit the chewing of coca leaf.