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Antinarcotics Forces and Operations


Antidurg agents unloading seized cocaine in Cochabamba Department


Seizure of a cocaine laboratory in the Cochabamba Valley

Under the 1983 antidrug agreement, which established the Umopar, the United States provided an initial US$4 million to form, train, and equip (with nonlethal items) 300 Umopar members and a 30-member detective squad. In July 1984, the Siles Zuazo government undertook to dismantle the nation's billion-dollar drug industry and ensure the receipt of a United States economic aid package by declaring the nation's principal coca-growing area, the Chapare, a military zone. The government sent in up to 1,500 soldiers, including the Umopar, but withdrew the unpopular troops from the region by that September. Social scientist Kevin Healy observed that, with few exceptions, the Siles Zuazo government did not deploy police or military force to deal with the frequent peasant demonstrations against the drug war that took place throughout Bolivia during 1983-85.

The more conservative Paz Estenssoro government adopted a harder line. Following a meeting of the International Drug Enforcement Conference in April 1986, the Paz Estenssoro government requested United States military assistance in reaching isolated areas where drugs were being processed. In early July 1986, after extended negotiations, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship authorized the entry of United States troops to provide requested temporary logistical support for National Police Corps find-and-destroy operations against coca-processing facilities in the Chapare region, as well as in Beni and Santa Cruz departments. The resulting United States support operation-- called "Operation Bol-USA" in Bolivia and "Operation Blast Furnace" in the United States--got under way later that month with the arrival at Santa Cruz's Viru-Viru International Airport of a United States C-5A Galaxy transport airplane carrying 160 United States Rangers from Southcom and about 15 DEA members, along with six Black Hawk transport helicopters. The operation involved the United States Army officers--experts on communications and mechanics--in training 1,000 Bolivian soldiers from all three services in counterinsurgency tactics and special police in antinarcotics actions. The role of the United States personnel was limited to transporting police antinarcotics forces by helicopter to drug installations, all of which, however, were found to be deserted, owing to publicity about the operation.

The Bolivian government supported the operation despite negative public reaction. After about 20,000 demonstrators in La Paz protested the continued presence of the United States troops in Bolivia in late August 1986, a majority in Congress approved the United States participation in the antinarcotics operation. To receive greater logistical support for antinarcotics efforts, the Bolivian government extended the presence of the United States troops in the country for a second sixty-day period. The United States effectively ended the operation in mid-November 1986 by withdrawing its soldiers. Once they had departed, however, the coca trade flourished anew.

The Paz Estenssoro government attempted to involve the FF.AA. in the antinarcotics struggle. In late 1986, it established a unit called the Operational Tasks Command (Comando de Tareas Operativas--CTO) to coordinate police and military efforts. The government then formed the FELCN, which by 1988 consisted of 640 Umopar members. Its creation also was intended to reduce the participation in antinarcotics matters of high-ranking police officers and to downgrade the Umopar. The FELCN was envisaged as drawing recruits from the FF.AA., police, and other organizations, such as the GES. The Paz Estenssoro government agreed to pay for the maintenance of the new force's specialized troops, and the United States agreed to outfit it with US$123 million worth of helicopters, weapons, motorboats, and other equipment. Paz Estenssoro appointed a former FAB commander to head the FELCN general command and made the Umopar a subordinate unit.

In 1987 the navy leased eight Piranha patrol boats from the DEA for riverine interdiction in Cochabamba and Beni departments. The Piranhas were to be staffed jointly by naval and antidrug police personnel, with assistance from DEA agents.

FAB's involvement increased in September 1987 when it created the Task Force (Fuerza de Tarea) to provide air support for national antinarcotics efforts. The new unit's inventory included six Huey UH-1H helicopters leased from the United States after Operation Blast Furnace. The United States also provided a thirty-day training course taught by a team of twenty-eight United States military pilots and technical personnel. After forming its Task Force, FAB armed the unit's six Huey helicopters with machine guns in order to provide for the defense of law enforcement officials when they inspected drug crops. In 1987 three of the unit's Huey helicopters were deployed in Trinidad and at the forward base of San Javier, and the three others were in the Chapare.

A United States congressional report issued in 1987 alleged that corruption and indifference among the Task Force's FAB pilots made their participation counterproductive. In any event, in its first year the Task Force completed 1,200 missions totaling 3,200 hours without incident (although three members were killed in February 1989 when their Cessna 206 crashed). In April 1989, the undersecretary of the Social Defense Secretariat reported that Task Force patrols in the Chapare had "completely paralyzed" the flights of small aircraft believed to be involved in drug trafficking. The Task Force was scheduled to receive an additional six Hueys in 1989.

In 1987 a United States Army Special Forces training team began a series of five-week training courses for Umopar personnel in topics such as operations and small-unit tactics, map reading, jungle survival, and communications. The Chapare base camp in Chimoré, a town on the road linking Cochabamba with Yapacani, served as the venue for conducting a basic course; the Umopar camp in Trinidad, capital of Beni Department, provided an advanced tactics course. According to the Department of State, six such courses were provided in 1987, and an additional six were planned for 1988. By mid-1988, 340 troopers, including 7 women, had graduated from the basic course and 200 from the advanced course.

In the spring of 1988, the DEA and local authorities began a new round of antinarcotics programs called "Operation Snowcap." DEA agents in teams of fifteen to twenty-five began serving in the Chapare on a rotating basis. The operation also involved members of the United States Army Special Forces, who were confined to military camps where they trained Bolivian troops. In addition, in simultaneous attempts to interdict laboratory chemicals being smuggled into the Chapare, United States Border Patrol agents aided Bolivian police at road checkpoints, while patrol boats plied rivers in the region. By April 1988, as a result of antidrug operations mainly in the Chapare, where some 90 percent of the 300,000 farmers in the region were involved in growing coca or processing and marketing coca paste, coca prices plummeted temporarily and dozens of coca fields went unharvested.

Data as of December 1989

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