President Evo Morales' drug-fighting efforts have taken a big hit after the arrest of Bolivia's top counternarcotics cop in Panama last week.
The retired police general, Rene Sanabria, was arrested on charges he ran a cocaine-smuggling ring while leading an elite, 15-person anti-drug intelligence unit within Bolivia's Interior Ministry.
Sanabria's alleged crimes offered vindication to the DEA because they took place after Morales expelled the U.S. agency in late 2008 for allegedly inciting his autonomy-seeking opponents in eastern provinces.
According to U.S. officials, the expulsion of the roughly 30 U.S. drug agents allowed trafficking in this landlocked South American nation to spin out of control.
In the DEA's absence, Mexican, Brazilian, Colombian — even Russian and Serbian traffickers — have taken advantage and boosted exports from the world's No. 3 cocaine-producing nation.
Drug-related killings are on the rise and bigger, more sophisticated processing labs equipped with Colombian technology are increasing output as new actors join the trade.
This week, the U.N. International Narcotics Control Board criticized the Morales government for letting Bolivia's crop of coca, the basis for cocaine, grow to 119 square miles (30,900 hectares), the most since 1998.
U.S. State Department figures released this week put cultivation even higher: at 135,000 square miles (35,000 hectares).
"Cocaine is resurgent in Bolivia," said Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor who specializes in drug policy. "Morales has a big problem on his hands."
Morales' critics at home were quick to seize on Sanabria's arrest as proof traffickers now have the upper hand in Bolivia.
"The DEA should come back," Ernesto Justianino, who as deputy social defense minister was in charge of Bolivia's counterdrug operations from 2001-2002, wrote in a newspaper column. The DEA "kept police, prosecutors and judges accountable," he said.
But Morales insisted Thursday he has no intention of inviting the DEA back. He alleged "interests of a geopolitical nature" were behind the Sanabria case. "They are using police to try to implicate the government," he said, without elaborating.
His vice minister of social defense, Felipe Caceres, suggested earlier in the week that Sanabria's arrest was the DEA's revenge for being expelled.
The president also hinted at U.S. hypocrisy, recalling reports — denied by U.S. agencies — that American agents ran guns to Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s with the proceeds of cocaine sales in the United States.
However, Morales acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press in September that Bolivia alone cannot stop the traffickers. And he has not yet found a suitable partner to match the U.S. either in funding or manpower.
In July, Morales told foreign diplomats that traffickers routinely intercept government communications but Bolivian authorities don't have the technological means to eavesdrop on criminals.
Yet Morales spokesman Ivan Canelas defended Bolivia's efforts this week, saying police have "arrested major narcos and encountered big drug labs without the DEA." Last year, the government reports, 3,054 people were arrested for drug trafficking and 28 tons of cocaine seized. That's twice the amount seized in Peru, whose coca crop is twice as big as Bolivia's.
Bolivians are expressing doubts.
In several recent high-profile cases, police officers have been jailed on drug trafficking charges. In one, a prosecutor and two police officers were jailed in a town on the Brazilian border in June, charged with replacing confiscated cocaine with flour.
Sanabria headed the 1,700-strong FELCN counterdrug police agency from 2007 to 2008. A police officer who has been on the force for a decade told the AP that in the wake of Sanabria's arrest "people have stopped believing in us."
"When we're out on missions they yell at us, 'There go the traffickers,'" said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. "You lose your authority."
Sanabria pleaded not guilty Wednesday in a Miami, Florida, federal court to drug trafficking. He is accused of accepting a quarter of a million dollars from undercover DEA agents posing as Colombian buyers in exchange for protecting Miami-bound cocaine. Sanabria was ordered held without bail pending trial, and could face life in prison.
U.S. prosecutors allege Sanabria and others — Bolivia has arrested three police officers who worked closely with him — made a deal in August with the undercover DEA agents to receive $250,000 for 220 pounds of cocaine that was shipped to Miami in November hidden inside a container of zinc rocks from neighboring Chile. They say agents wired the money to bank accounts in Hong Kong.
The DEA mounted the operation without official Bolivian cooperation and without informing the Morales government, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition he not be further identified due to the political sensitivity of the case. The official would not say whether the U.S. had information to suggest corruption in Morales' administration reached higher than Sanabria.
He said Sanabria was trafficking for at least five months, but the DEA knows little more because it had no cooperation from or contact with Bolivian authorities.
Sanabria's arrest is sure to damage efforts by Morales, the longtime president of Bolivia's coca growers' union, to promote traditional uses of coca leaf, a mild stimulant that Andeans have chewed for centuries to stave off hunger and counter altitude sickness.
Ever since his December 2005 election, Morales has been lobbying hard for an amendment to a 1961 U.N. treaty that compels signatories to prohibit coca chewing. He has also insisted that Bolivia's legally permitted coca crop be expanded from 46 square miles (12,000 hectares) to 77 square miles (20,000 hectares).
The FELCN anti-drug agency was until recently a bulwark of U.S. influence in Bolivia and was despised by Morales and other coca growers for its coca eradication campaigns in the central Chapare region near Cochabamba.
"Cocaleros" frequently scuffled with FELCN agents in the 1980s and '90s and Morales says they beat him multiple times, once leaving him unconscious.
The FELCN remains Bolivia's best-equipped police force, receiving everything from helicopters and C-130 airplanes to gasoline, jungle boots and uniforms from Washington.
That is changing, however.
U.S. counterdrug aid to Bolivia plummeted from about $50 million a year when Morales took office to $16 million this year.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.