On a jungle airstrip in northeast Bolivia, a military transport plane filled with narcotics police recently made a surprise landing near buildings that resembled those on a cattle ranch. In fact, it was a secret cocaine laboratory, and after the 50 elite commandos had stormed it they arrested two high-ranking members of the Bolivian drug mafia. “We are going to get them all,” said a police spokesman. But the raid—on which two cameramen and a Maclean's correspondent were taken along—seemed more like an exercise in media relations than a major blow against drug trafficking.
Indeed, in an interview afterward, Interior Minister Federico Alvarez Plata admitted that the raid had actually been planned for the day before, when intelligence reports indicated that 3,000 lb. of cocaine would be airlifted out of the ranch. For reasons never adequately explained, the raid was postponed, and police troops finally found only 12 lb. of cocaine, an assortment of guns, one airplane in good condition and $13,000 (U.S.) worth of crisp Bolivian pesos, fresh from the bank. Still, the government is confronting a complex cocaine problem. The process starts high in the Andes mountains, where the coca leaf, from which cocaine is extracted, has always been an integral feature of Bolivian culture. In leaf form, coca is a mild stimulant with a variety
of medical uses. For one thing, it is a remedy for altitude sickness. Just as 5,000 years ago the Indians buried their dead with bags of coca to speed them on their journey to the next world, Bolivian mountain people now chew coca to sustain them in the rigors of this one. It also settles an empty stomach in a country in which hunger is endemic and it eases pain when there is no money for a doctor.
The traditional uses of coca would have continued had it not been for the growing North American hunger for powerful drugs. By the late 1970s cocainecoca’s much more potent derivative—had become the drug of choice for millions of North Americans. Dr. Mark Gold, medical director of the U.S. National Cocaine Hotline, estimates that 22 million use it occasionally, five million regularly, and 2.5 million are addicts. As a result, the export of cocaine from Bolivia became a business three times more valuable than the country’s biggest legal export, tin. Currently, Bolivian drug lords pro-
vide more than half the world’s cocaine, directing about $500 million a year into the unbalanced national economy and almost three times that much into their numbered Swiss bank accounts.
With such large profits available, drug corruption quickly reached into the highest levels of the Bolivian government. Gen. Luis García Meza became president in a 1980 coup, which many Bolivian and U.S. observers say the drug mafia backed: García Meza allegedly received $1 million to overlook the drug trade. Now in exile in Argentina, García Meza is believed still to be involved in the drug business. His former interior minister, Luis Arce Gómez, also hiding in Argentina, used to occupy an office that many Bolivians regularly referred to as the ministry of cocaine.
The new civilian government of President Hernán Siles Zuazo came to power 18 months ago, and his countrymen generally believe that the drug trade has not corrupted him. But his administration is still preoccupied by strikes in the cities and peasant disJf satisfaction in the rural areas, food riots, inflation that reached 328 per cent last year (and at current rates, will reach 2,000 per cent in 1984) É and persistent rumors of |f coups. Such rumors have always been common because Bolivia has suffered 180 coups in its 159-year history as a republic. Western sources say that U.S. Ambassador Edwin Corr has already intervened twice in the past six months to prevent the 181st. The Siles government’s tenuous grip has prevented it from making a serious assault on cocaine, even though officials acknowledge that the drug trade seriously distorts the national economy, discourages foreign investors and erodes the social fabric.
At the same time, the leaders of the so-called Coca Nostra grow steadily richer. Little is known of the lesser families—the Razuks, the Malkys, the Chavez Rocas. But the Coca Nostra’s overlord is a figure of legend. He is Roberto Suarez, the biggest narcotics dealer in the world. The boss of all bosses in the cocaine trade, he supplies at least one-third of all cocaine entering the United States. U.S. drug enforcement officials estimate his sales at 500 kg a week, which wholesale in Miami for between $25,000 to $45,000 a kilogram. Facilitating his labors is a private army called the Fiancés of Death, which Suarez employs to intimidate police and rivals alike. To cement the legend, he is said to have served as the model for the South American drug chief “Sosa” in the recent hit movie Scarface.
Suarez is the scion of a wealthy and respected cattle-ranching family. His great-grandfather was the first Bolivian ambassador to Britain and the Suarez clan has always contained senators and other political leaders. But in the mid-1970s Suarez’s habitual gambling finally drove him into debt. Suarez quickly found that the megaprofits to be made from cocaine were the answer to his problems.
He had the help of skilled enforcers— men such as former Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, who organized the Fiancés of Death and recruited rightwing criminals from all over Europe.
The Siles government extradited Barbie last year to France, where he awaits trial for war crimes. Another Suarez recruit was Pier Luigi Pagliai, whom Italian authorities wanted for the 1980 bombing of the Bologna train station— an explosion that killed 85 people. He was a captain in the Fiancés of Death until Italy had him extradited last year. Suarez prides himself as a family man whose community work in his native Beni province, where most of the processing labs and se_
cret airstrips are located, has earned him the silence, if not the gratitude, of many impoverished local residents. Suarez declined an interview, but his son detailed for Maclean’s his father’s charities—road paving, church restoration and the provision of food and sewing machines to the poor. A federal jury in Miami recently acquitted the son, Roberto Jr., on drug smuggling charges after Swiss police had ar-
rested him with $10 million in cash on his person and undercover U.S. narcotics agents had identified him as the man who loaded several hundred pounds of cocaine onto their plane at his father’s ranch. The intermediary for the interview with Roberto Jr. was a high police official in the region.
The authorities know where Roberto Suarez is and what he does. Still, despite this knowledge by government and police officials, the drug chieftain remains free. Officials in the capital of La Paz deny that their failure to break up the Coca Nostra results from a lack of will to move against the traffickers. Col. Julio Zapata, chief of the narcotics police, claimed that his forces were simply not strong enough to attack the Coca Nostra. “Why don’t you ask the army?” he said. “The military are the ones with the power to solve the problem.” But Gen. Lucio Añez, chief of staff of the Bolivian armed forces, countered, “Constitutionally, we are not in
charge of drug enforcement.” One Western diplomat, insisting on anonymity, said of the disagreement over authority: “If that was Che Guevara [the late Communist guerrilla leader] out there, the army and police would be all over each other trying to get him. Back in 1967, when the Bolivian military was not nearly as strong as it is now, it wiped out Guevara in no time at all. If the government really puts its mind to it, it could move into Beni province and wipe out the drug mob in a week.”
But if Siles did act decisively, the drug mob would likely engineer another coup within a few days. With world sales of $45 billion a year, the cocaine trade makes it worth it. So far it seems that the Coca Nostra’s wealth and political power have persuaded both Bolivia’s police and its government to mind their own business—and keep looking the other way.
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