LA PAZ – Bolivian police are investigating a prominent coca grower and his associates, suspected of being behind an ambush that left one officer dead and seven wounded, the force’s commander said Monday.
Gen. Faustino Mendoza told reporters that he has deployed an operation aimed to find the prime suspect, Franklin Gutierrez – leader of the Adepcoca growers association – as well as four people who work for him.
Bolivia, like neighboring Peru, allows the cultivation of coca – the raw material of cocaine – in limited quantities for legal use in Andean religious rites and for medicinal purposes to counteract altitude sickness.
Mendoza described the five wanted men as the “masterminds” of last Friday’s ambush, although he admitted that authorities are still working on amassing evidence.
The ambush was just the latest in a series of incidents involving Gutierrez, the general said, including several previous shootings and the discovery of cocaine laboratories in the area.
Authorities are also looking into accounts from residents, who say that the Colombian nationals participated in the attack.
Police showed a video last Friday in which members of the Umopar rural constabulary were surrounded.
Lt. Daynor Sandoval was killed in the ambush near La Asunta, some 200 km (120 mi) northeast of La Paz, while seven officers were wounded.
President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state, first rose to prominence as leader of the coca growers union in the Chapara region of Cochabamba province and he remains the nominal head of that organization.
While seeking to find new uses for coca, the Morales administration has made record seizures of cocaine.