Bolivia: Marcela Sanchez Misses the Mark on Morales
October 2, 2010 - Andean Information Network

Written by The Andean Information Network

Marcela Sanchez' article, "Ambition's Costs -- The Ongoing Evolution of Bolivia's Evo Morales," published in the Latin American Herald Tribune comments on U.S. decertification of Bolivian drug control efforts, the draft anti-racism law, and ex-president's Jorge Quiroga's defamation sentence.  Sanchez she tries to connect these disparate issues with loose analysis and apparently little research.

In less than 800 words, Sanchez manages to misconstrue the dynamics of the drug trade, Morales' alleged manipulation of the legal system and the potential impact of anti- racism legislation on freedom of the press in Bolivia.

Misinformed on Morales' drug trafficking stance

Referring to the U.S. government's September 15th "decertification" of Bolivia's drug control efforts, Sanchez writes:

"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.'"

  • Sanchez invents "Evo's evolution." Morales has been well-versed for decades on the damage done by drug trafficking in Bolivia, often personally bearing the brunt of poorly designed, ineffective and repressive coca control programs.  From the moment of his inauguration, Morales' administration has recognized Bolivia's international commitment to work against drug production and trafficking, a problem Sanchez presents as easily solved with sufficient awareness and elbow grease.  Morales has never denied the negative influence of the drug trade. Yet, drug producing and transit nations of all political ilk face almost insurmountable challenges competing with an illegal industry whose enormous profit margin allows it to easily absorb losses and rapidly regroup to work around interdiction.

Failed to carefully read decertification document

Sanchez makes the misleading assertion that:

"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."

  • Although Sanchez concedes the certification process represents an "ugly irony," she later seems to justify its parameters. Suggesting that Morales agrees with the U.S. complaint that motivated decertification, Sanchez reveals she is unaware of the determination's multiple criticisms.  While Bolivia often uses the same standards (e.g. interdiction efforts, total coca cultivation, presence of trafficking cartels) to assess its own drug control efforts, Bolivian officials object to the U.S. government's authority to certify or decertify drug control efforts.
  • Sanchez also misconstrues the nature of the Obama administration's memorandum. The document cites multiple complaints, often using faulty arguments, asserting that Bolivia "failed demonstrably" to obtain a net reduction in the coca crop. It also mentions their perceived gap in interdiction efforts after the expulsion of the DEA, improved cocaine processing methods and "the increasing presence of Colombian and Mexican drug traffickers in Bolivia."
  • Ironically, neighboring Peru fails to measure up to the shifting yardstick that the Obama Administration chose to apply to Bolivia, yet the nation received full "certification."

Portrays coca growers as naïve

"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."

  • Although Sanchez has made progress in understanding legal uses of the coca leaf (see "Bolivia's Morales Wants to Expand Coca Use," 2006), her portrayal of Morales' understanding of coca-cocaine dynamics -- limited to that of coca production during his tenure as union leader -- is both condescending and misleading. During the period of forced eradication, coca growers suffered the collateral damage of U.S.-funded anti-drug efforts.

Imagines drug cartel presence in Bolivia

Sanchez continues to misrepresent the drug trafficking situation in Bolivia:

"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."

  • There is no evidence of drug cartels in Bolivia, although Mexican and Colombian traffickers are present.  The decertification memorandum comments on how traffickers in Bolivia have adopted more efficient coca leaf processing methods from Colombia, which has used these methods for over a decade. Processing techniques in Peru have simultaneously evolved, making more efficient processing a problem in all three Andean Countries.  Furthermore, both UN and U.S. documents comment on the increasing presence of Mexican and Colombian traffickers in Peru, which had contributed to greater violence and instability.
  • Her multiple references to "cartels," perhaps a by-product of her forced comparison to Mexico in other sections of the article, belies her lack of understanding of the dynamics of the drug trade. Although international traffickers travel to Bolivia, the bulk of trafficking and processing is carried out by smaller "family clans," which makes detection and interdiction even more complicated.
  • When asked about whether cartels operate in Bolivia, U.S. Embassy Narcotics Affairs Section Director, Susan Keogh, stated, "We don't use that term." (28 May 2010 El Deber,). U.S. and UN evaluations of Bolivia's drug control efforts make no reference to "cartels."
  • Although there is corruption at the municipal level in Bolivia, "cartels" paying off local officials is not a defining characteristic of the drug trade in Bolivia, as it is in Mexico.


"Even close personal associates [of Morales] have been affected [by the drug trade], 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."

  • Mejillones is hardly a "close personal associate" of Morales for participating in his first inauguration.  Furthermore, when police apprehended Mejillones for drug trafficking, Morales issued a public statement insuring that the he would face trial without special consideration.

Over-simplifies anti-racism bill and freedom of speech in Bolivian press

Commenting on the draft of the proposed anti-racism law, Sanchez misleading links its restrictions on the press to narcotrafficking:

"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.

  • Sanchez provides an overly simplistic analysis of the proposed "anti-racism" law and the current tensions it has caused.  There is a public forum underway to discuss the press corps objections to this law, and thus far there are no limits to "free speech".  Morales has also promised not to change the law regarding the freedom of press.

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.

…. 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."

  • The law would in no way affect reporting on drug trafficking or crime, which will continue to receive a great deal of coverage.
  • Comparing Mexico and Bolivia is like comparing apples and oranges; they have distinct legal systems, political climates, and drug trafficking structures.  Although drugs are a problem in Bolivia, violence does not generally characterize trafficking or efforts to address.  Levels of drug-related violence in Bolivia are significantly lower than in Peru and Colombia, and pale in comparison to the endemic violence in Mexico.
  • Although corruption is a problem in Bolivia, drug traffickers do not control government structures in Bolivia at any level.
  • Although Morales frequently harangues the press, diverse media freely operate in Bolivia and are often quite vocal critics of his administration.
  • There have been attacks on journalists, especially by protestors during the Morales government, but the level of violence can in no way compare to Mexico. For example, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a source cited by Sanchez, documents 2 journalists killed in Bolivia since 1992, and none related to trafficking. In contrast, they cite 22 deaths in Mexico during the same period and many more cases of harassment.

Glorifies Quiroga as drug warrior

She goes on to negatively compare Morales' drug control efforts to the supposedly effective policies of ex-president Jorge Quiroga:

"During his tenure, [Quiroga] 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."

  • As Vice President and President (1997-2002), Quiroga focused on forced coca eradication, violating the Bolivian constitution by bring the armed forces into a law enforcement role.  During his tenure, the Bolivian government paid significantly less attention to interdiction efforts. Sanchez glorifies the most violent periods of the drug war in Bolivia.
  • In this case, being the "poster child" for U.S. counter-narcotics policies led to human rights violations in the Chapare coca-growing region, and aggravated poverty conditions among farmers who had no alternative to coca.
  • Quiroga's false successes were used to help justify Plan Colombia.   Aggressive eradication in the Chapare is only one small piece of the puzzle.  In a classic demonstration of the balloon theory, a temporary reduction in the Chapare led to more concentrated coca production in the Yungas, the other major Bolivian coca-growing zone.
  • At the same time, coca production expanded in Peru and almost doubled in Colombia, peaking at 183,000 hectares in 2000 (approximately five times the U.S. estimate for coca cultivation in Bolivia for 2009, which it deemed unacceptable). Colombia has almost no traditional coca use.  Meanwhile, coca farmers in the Chapare region faced with the failure of U.S.-funded alternative development programs to provide economic alternatives, rapidly replanted.
  • In short, Bolivia dropped from second to third place in coca production because of huge increases elsewhere. At best we can give Quiroga credit for shifting the location of production with no lasting or overall effect at a high human, economic and political cost. Quiroga can also be credited for helping to launch Morales's rise to political prominence for protesting the drug policy he authored and implemented.

Plays the predictable Chavez card

Sanchez goes on to comment on Morales' political undermining of the opposition:

"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."

  • Although the Morales administration has followed the contemptible example of previous Bolivian governments by politically targeting its opponents, Sanchez erroneously extrapolates the case against Jorge Quiroga as an example of Morales' "political witch hunt."

Unfounded claims of MAS persecution through Quiroga conviction

Ms. Sanchez closes by criticized the recent Bolivian court ruling against Quiroga:

"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."

  • The twist of fate is not so strange. Bolivian defamation and libel legislation is clear, and Quiroga merely had to retract or prove his statements to nullify the charges against him. The law used to prosecute was ratified during the Banzer dictatorship. Furthermore, USAID contractors and Bolivian officials did not feel the need to modify the sentences and terms of the articles used to prosecute Quiroga when they reformed the law in 1999. In fact, the new Criminal Procedures code, which permits Quiroga suspended sentence if he loses his appeals, became law while Quiroga was Vice President and approved by a Congress dominated by his political coalition. Morales had no influence on either of these laws.

Assumes Morales will run for third term

Sanchez concludes her article by discrediting Morales' policy changes and glossing over the current reelection controversy:

"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.'"

  • Sanchez throws out Morales "running for a third term," without discussing the current controversy on the issue, or explaining that there has been no decision.  Any followers of Bolivian politics know that it is impossible to predict what will happen within four years, when the next presidential elections are scheduled.
  • Counter to Sanchez' assumption, Jorge Quiroga has no weight as a viable political contender in future elections, nor is he considered to be an electoral adversary.  Although during Morales's first term Quiroga's party, PODEMOS, held a significant number of congressional seats, they lost support of the opposition after a call for a recall referendum that strengthened Morales position. PODEMOS currently has no representatives in Congress, or political allies on any side of the political spectrum