By Marcela Sanchez
On September 15, President Obama singled out Bolivia, Venezuela and Burma for not doing enough to combat drug trafficking. Predictably the governments of both South American nations quickly reject the pronouncement from Washington.
The ugly irony of the world’s top consumer of drugs passing unilateral judgment on the anti-drug efforts of other nations has been explored elsewhere many times. What has my attention of late is the evolution of Bolivian President, Evo Morales, on this subject.
Just last month Morales expressed “deep concerns” over the “structural weaknesses” in Bolivia that make it difficult to combat drug trafficking. Speaking to the Bolivian Congress, he acknowledged the efforts of police and military forces, but added, “drug traffickers are better equipped than the state.”
Morales, in other words, agrees with the very complaint that motivated Washington to call out Bolivia. And while he rebuffed Washington’s latest complaints, he no longer denies the growing presence and corruptive influence of the criminal syndicates that run the drug trade. “I didn’t think that drug trafficking was so big and had so much economic power,” Morales said in May.
Surely life was different for Morales as a leader of coca farmers. In that capacity, he was clearly on the side of a commonsensical truth -- farmers should be able to produce a legitimate crop, traditionally consumed as medicine and as a mild stimulant in tea. That it is also the raw material for a powerful and dangerous drug is not immediately the farmer’s problem. Rather it’s a matter left to those who convert it to cocaine, those who consume the drug and the government officials who must deal with the consequences.
As president, Morales is the opposite side of this equation. He sees firsthand the influence of the drug trade as local officials are paid off by cartels and become less and less interested in the welfare of their constituents than their own and the mafia’s.
Even close personal associates have been affected, such as Valentin Mejillones, the Aymara priest that led an inauguration ceremony for Morales in 2006. In July, Bolivian officials found Mejillones at home with two Colombians -- and 240 kilos of liquid cocaine.
Unfortunately, Morales’ candid realizations are too few and far between and haven’t prevented him from undermining the very institutions that form a bulwark against the corrupting influence of drug trade. Taking cues from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Morales has sought to undermine and discredit his critics, manipulating and weakening the independent judiciary and the press in the process.
At this moment, a new “anti-racism” bill is making its way through the Bolivian congress, controlled by Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism. The bill would allow the government to suspend the licenses of media companies and even send journalists to prison for their role in the publication of racist ideas.
A free press isn’t the first thing that comes to mind in the fight against drug traffickers, but it plays a vital role. One of the more obvious examples is occurring now in the Mexican border city of Reynosa. As the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists noted in its latest report, the Gulf cartel today “controls the local government, from major law enforcement all the way down to street vendor” permits, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the local press.
The cartel protects its interest through a combination of intimidation, violence, and kidnapping – at least three Reynosa journalists are currently missing. Its job has been made easier by a long tradition of graft in which Mexican officials have bought journalistic silence and undermined the independent media. By weakening the press in his own way, Morales is unwittingly working to the benefit of Bolivia’s cartels.
Years ago that might not have been a huge deal, but criminal organizations have grown far larger and more sophisticated than ever before. As former Bolivian president Jorge Quiroga said in an interview, combating drug traffickers was difficult back in the 1980s and 1990s, “but the size of the problem was more manageable.”
During his tenure, he helped make Bolivia Washington’s poster child for antidrug efforts. In a few years, Bolivia nearly eradicated coca from the Chapare, previously known as the world’s second largest coca producing region.
In a strange twist of fate, the former president is now facing a two year and eight month sentence imposed by the Bolivian judiciary for “defamation” after he criticized a state-owned bank. Quiroga, who is appealing the decision, says he is the target of a politicized judiciary that serves Morales’ efforts to intimidate any opposition.
When the time comes, these efforts may ensure Morales a third term as president. But at what cost?
As Quiroga observed, “I don’t think they fully understand that the major adversary in their future won’t be Mr. Quiroga, but drug traffickers.”Marcela Sanchez is one of the most respected journalists writing about Latin America, as evidenced by her work for the most important papers in the United States -- including both the New York Times and The Washington Post -- as well as the two most important newspapers in Colombia -- El Espectador and El Tiempo -- Colombia's En Vivo and QAP TV channels, and Venezuela's Daily Journal. We welcome her back to the Latin American Herald Tribune, where her hemispheric wisdom appears every Friday.