LA PAZ, Bolivia – A senior Interior Ministry official who recently headed Bolivia's counternarcotics police has been arrested in Panama and sent to the United States to face charges he ran a cocaine trafficking ring.
The arrest of retired police Gen. Rene Sanabria on Thursday and the related arrests in Bolivia of at least three other senior police officers were widely seen as an embarrassment for leftist President Evo Morales, who expelled U.S. drug agents three years ago.
A former coca growers union leader, Morales has promoted traditional uses of coca leaf while professing zero tolerance for cocaine trafficking.
"In the coming days we are going to arrest everyone (involved) and bring them to justice," Bolivia's deputy minister social defense, Felipe Caceres, said Sunday.
The arrest of Sanabria, who headed the FELCN counternarcotics police in 2007-2008, along with a second Bolivian man was announced Saturday by Interior Minister Sascha Llorenti.
Sanabria was named chief of the Center of Intelligence and Information Generation in the Interior Ministry in 2009. Bolivian officials did not explain what led to the arrests or the nature of their cooperation in the investigation that precipitated them.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press on Sunday that Sanabria was arrested at Washington's request and had an initial federal court appearance in Miami on Friday.
The official, who spoke on condition he not be further identified due to political sensitivities, would not offer further details on the investigation.
He did say, however, that the other suspect was expected to appear in court in Miami on Monday. That man has been identified in Bolivian press reports as Marcelo Foronda.
The police officials arrested as alleged members of the trafficking organization were identified by Bolivian authorities as Col. Milton Sanchez Pantoja, Maj. Edwin Raul Ona Moncada and Capt. Franz Hernando Siles Rios.
Caceres said the intelligence center that Sanabria ran was comprised of 15 officials, most of them police officers.
Opposition lawmaker Andres Ortega called the case "a very clear signal that drug trafficking has deeply infiltrated the Interior Ministry."
When Morales expelled U.S. drug agents along with U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg in 2008, he accused them of inciting his political opponents. That same year, according to Bolivia's government, the country's police confiscated a record 27 tons of drugs.
Relations between Washington and La Paz have since been tense, with Washington decreasing aid to the poor Andean nation.
Bolivia is the No. 3 cocaine-producing country after Colombia and Peru. According to the United Nations, its overall coca cultivation was 30,900 hectares (119 square miles) in 2009.
U.S. and Colombia counterdrug officials tell the AP that without a DEA presence in Bolivia drug traffickers from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and elsewhere have been operating with increasing impunity in Bolivia.
Until relations with the United States soured, the FELCN was a bulwark of U.S. influence in Bolivia. Its counterdrug units were Bolivia's best-equipped cops, with Washington providing them with everything from gasoline to junge boots.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Lima, Peru.