Thursday, March 5, 2015

E-IR: US Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy: An Analysis

"US Coast Guard's Western Hemisphere Strategy: An Analysis"
W. Alejandro Sanchez & Erica Illingworth
e-International RelationsMarch 5, 2015

On September 2014, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) published its Western Hemisphere Strategy (WHS), a document explaining the vision, objectives, priorities, and initiatives that the USCG plans to take in the immediate future, in order to protect the US and support regional partners in the Western Hemisphere, notably in the Greater Caribbean. The WHS is an important document that requires in-depth research, since the USCG is greatly involved in the day-to-day counter-narcotic operations taking place in the Greater Caribbean. In this analysis, we aim to discuss the Western Hemisphere Strategy, primarily focusing on the USCG’s current and future security-related operations. 
Security Operations
One factor which aids the increased USCG involvement in the Greater Caribbean is that regional nations generally have cordial relations with the US (Cuba and Venezuela are two notable exceptions). Moreover, Caribbean governments and security forces are also carrying out security-strategies of their own to combat illicit drug trade and actually desire Washington’s support to combat transnational crime. Hence a more comprehensive, joint-multinational approach is welcomed.
Nevertheless, in spite of more robust security initiatives, including the controversial Mano Dura initiatives in various Central American countries, drug trafficking continues to expand, and the Greater Caribbean constitutes a series of corridors through which drugs from South America travel to the US and Mexico. The term Mano Dura (loosely translated to “iron fist”) refers to   policies aimed at broadening police powers, utilizing the military for internal security operations, and instituting longer prison sentences to target individuals and organizations involved in the drug trade. Critics of Mano Dura initiatives argue that its aggressive targeting, in the name of citizen security, leads to human rights abuses by the police and military. It now takes the effort of international actors working together to battle the highly-profitable drug trade. According to the Coast Guard Compass, drug trafficking is an astonishing multi-billion dollar industry, which destabilizes countries in the Western Hemisphere; undermining the rule of law, and bringing violence to local communities.
It is in this scenario that the WHS comes to life as it delineates the service’s goals for the near future. Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Commandant of the USCG, explains that the strategy for the Coast Guard in the Western Hemisphere is comprised of three main points: combatting networks, securing borders, and safeguarding commerce. Each point is its own separate issue, but each is interconnected in how the U.S. Coast Guard will tackle transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). The WHS correctly states that “these challenges are converging as [TCOs] strengthen. If left unchecked, they could fuel a cycle of compounding loss that threatens economic growth and regional stability.”
Throughout its 60 pages, the report highlights the importance of the Greater Caribbean to U.S. homeland security. For example the WHS explains that “from 2009 to 2010, the National Drug Intelligence Center reported that cocaine along maritime routes between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands tripled, and officials have estimated 75 percent of the homicides in Puerto Rico are drug and weapons trade related.” These statistics highlight how special attention needs to be taken in the Greater Caribbean waters to combat the drug trade.
Allies: Regional and Others
In a speech given at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in mid-January 2015, Admiral Zukunft stressed the importance of international cooperation. Similarly the WHS highlights the importance of the U.S. Coast Guard cooperating not only with other US security agencies, but also with Washington’s partners in the Greater Caribbean, as well as extra-hemispheric nations operating in the region.
Case in point is the United Kingdom, the other half of the “special relationship,” which continues to maintain overseas territories in the Caribbean and has close ties with members of the Commonwealth (e.g. Belize and Jamaica). Despite significant defense-related budget cuts, the United Kingdom has arguably maintained a strong presence in the Caribbean in recent years. In July 2014, two British Type 23 frigates, the HMS Argyll and HMS Portland, made port calls to Puerto Rico. The Royal Navy is actively working with the U.S. Coast Guard to combat the TCOs and when tensions arise in the Caribbean, British presence helps maintain stability by reassuring the powers involved.
The combined efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard and the British Royal Navy in the Caribbean have already proved effective. One recent example took place on January 22, 2015, when the Royal Navy seized a 1.25 ton cargo of cocaine, which held a wholesale value of over £60 million pounds. Additionally, successful teamwork between the USCG and the Royal Navy was demonstrated, when the British naval support ship, RFA Wave Knight, and a USCG patrol aircraft forced a speedboat to stop south of theDominican Republic. The drug traffickers were handed over to the U.S. authorities off the coast of Puerto Rico. These two examples illustrate why the USCG must continue to take advantage of the assets its allies are providing in order to crackdown on drug-trafficking.
Since transnational crime inherently occurs across borders, multinational cooperation is key to addressing such security concerns, particularly one as complex as drug trafficking. Given this premise, and given the fact that the Greater Caribbean security forces generally remain in less than optimal conditions to crack down on drug trafficking off their coasts (which will be discussed later), the USCG should continue seeking cooperation with friendly extra-hemispheric actors, such as the Royal Navy. Fortunately, Admiral Zukunft recognizes this, and made a point to stress the need for cooperation in hisspeech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The US is also working with forces within the Western Hemisphere, such as the Colombian Navy. According to the U.S. Defense Department, from January to June 2007, an estimated 70 percent of the cocaine in Colombia was smuggled out of the country by way of maritime segues. The drugs leave Colombia via go-fast vessels, fishing boats, the infamous narco-subs, and other forms of maritime transport. The U.S. Coast Guard has framed its strategy around supporting the Colombian Navy in improving its capacity to stop drug traffickers from using Colombia’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts for drug transportation. Given the history of strong US-Colombian security relations, it is no surprise that the Colombian Navy has constantly turned to the U.S. Coast Guard as an important ally. Moreover, the Colombian Navy is doing its part to promote Caribbean security. In December 2014, it carried out the 12th “International Course on Coast Guards,” in Cartagena de Indias. The course brought together naval officers from 18 countries, to learn about maritime interdictions, search and rescue operations and regional problems, such as drug and human trafficking. The naval personnel who attended the course came from Greater Caribbean nations like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Panama.
The Caribbean island-states, while addressing major security challenges with smaller budgets, have also carried out other security-related initiatives. Most notably is the case of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which inaugurated a new coast guard base in Canouan. The base was constructed with a $2 million USD financial contribution from the US government as part of the Secure Seas program(Washington also donated two inflatable boats and a pick-up vehicle).Meanwhile, Trinidad and Tobago is interested in acquiring two long range patrol vessels (likely from Spain) to support its coast guard, given ongoing problems with several of its current patrol boats.
The advantage that Washington and the U.S. Coast Guard have now is that regional nations also want to crackdown on transnational crimes. Applying this to the WHS, the authors of this research article disagree with its paradoxical statement, which argues:
Despite globalization of world economies, many regional countries are growing more politically independent and no longer rely as much on their North American partners for assistance in addressing domestic challenges. As these governments become more distant, they are cultivating non-traditional allies. Russia and China are beginning to see progress in their efforts to engage Western Hemispherenations.
Certainly several Greater Caribbean nations are looking to Moscow and Beijing for alliances and support, including arms sales (i.e. Venezuela), but this does not necessarily mean that these nations are interested in detaching themselves from US aid. For example, while Trinidad and Tobago may purchase Chinese patrol vessels for its coast guard, it is also a member of the Caribbean Border Security Initiative, which the US launched in 2009 to combat drug-related violence, trafficking, and terrorism in the region. Hence, acquiring Chinese (or Russian) security equipment does not necessarily signify that Greater Caribbean nations intend to sever their ties with the US. In other words, as the Greater Caribbean nations seek to tackle security challenges such as the drug trade, Washington is poised to remain involved as a prominent strategic partner.
Inter-Agency Cooperation
In his aforementioned speech at CSIS, the Coast Guard’s Admiral Zukunft also stressed the importance of task forces. In the strategy, he plans for the U.S. Coast Guard to continue to collaborate and team with the U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Northern Command, and U.S. Special Operations Command “to increase awareness of threats, build competencies of partner nations by maintaining and expanding international training and exercise programs, and synergize strategies and operations for identifying and interdicting threats through established task forces.” These task forces include the Joint Task Force East, which deals with border security, and Joint Task Force West, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. The WHS also stresses the importance of continuing to be a leading “partner of joint and interagency operations commands such as Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF)-South,” which is a multi-national operation targeting the illicit trafficking routes in the Caribbean.
Another task force with notable importance is the Joint Task Force-Bravo, which operates out of Soto Cano, a US military base located in Honduras, a Central American state known for internal insecurity, violence, and high levels of drug trafficking. US security agencies, including the task forces, are operating major security initiatives, such as Operation MARTILLO–a US, European, Central American, South American and Caribbean effort that targets illicit narcotic trafficking routes in the coastal waters of the Caribbean. The US is heavily involved in the multinational detection, monitoring, and interdiction operations. It has also contributed various US Navy and Coast Guard vessels, an aircraft from US federal law enforcement agencies, and military and law enforcement units. Combined with other Caribbean and European security units and law enforcement officers, this multinational operation aims to deny TCOs the ability to exploit transnational shipment routes in Central American and Caribbean waters for the movement of narcotics.
The cooperative strategy between the US and its anti-drug trade allies is important to the counter narcotics operations as well. For example, the relationship between the Colombian Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard, dating back to 1997 with the signing of the Bilateral Maritime Agreement, has been very important to counter narcotics operations. Between 1997 and 2005, 435 metric tons of cocaine were seized in the Caribbean. Sixty-three percent of these seizures were the results of combined operations between the Colombian Navy and the Coast Guard.
Other countries, especially those suffering from the effects of the illicit drug trade, seek the help of the US. Hence, one positive geopolitical factor that the USCG has on its side is that, unlike other regions of the world where the US is struggling to make alliances, in the Greater Caribbean, most nations desire greater US support and there are already well established US security facilities, not to mention the geographical proximity to the US itself. Contrary to other regions in the world where governments can be labeled as unreliable (e.g. Central Asia and Africa), Greater Caribbean governments, with few exceptions, have been actively engaged in cooperating with the US to combat the illicit drug trade. In addition, most of these states participate in various programs and initiatives like the TRADEWINDS program and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, which will be discussed in the following section. Despite their capabilities, having allies that want to cooperate with the USCG and other US security agencies is a strong pillar from which beneficial multinational operations can sprout.
Agreements and Cooperation
The WHS focuses on how the Coast Guard can aid US partners in the Caribbean through various programs– one prominent example is TRADEWINDS, which includes classroom and at-sea training, practice drills, and scenario-based exercises to increase TCO network interdiction and coordination between partner nations. Another program that the US has spearheaded is the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. This initiative ensures that newly acquired assets and capabilities are used optimally by applicable partner nations, which will guarantee maximum execution of combating the illicit narcotics networks in the Caribbean waters.
The annual TRADEWINDS program involves most Caribbean states in exercises that strengthen their capabilities. This operation focuses on the development of basic military skills, as well as improving their responses to natural disasters, illegal migration, and narcotics trafficking. It also allows the US to build stronger relationships in the Western Hemisphere, though one concern is that such initiatives will make Washington’s partners rely too much on the US, and the Coast Guard in particular, for vital support to combat TCOs. At a time when the US government continues to debate over its future security objectives, and the defense budget has shifting priorities, it is in Washington’s interest to not only support its Caribbean allies, but also train them so that they do not have to perpetually rely on the USCG.
The WHS also highlights the importance of the Department of Homeland Security’s international diplomatic aid and security initiatives, such as the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. Such initiatives represent the pillar of the US security strategy that focuses on citizen safety throughout the Western Hemisphere. The CBSI brings together all members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Dominican Republic, to jointly collaborate on regional security with the United States as a partner. According to the State Department, the US has provided $263 million USD to the CBSI since 2010. Nevertheless, the CBSI initiative has also been critiqued because it allows for US security agencies to get more involved in Caribbean affairs, disrespecting the sovereignty of the smaller, weaker island-states. In other words, in strengthening USCG ties with its Caribbean partners, the Coast Guard must walk a fine line to not be regarded as undermining the sovereignty of these governments, as it will invoke recent experiences of the US doing so throughout the Cold War in the name of its national interests (i.e. the US military operations in the Dominican Republic in 1965 or Grenada in 1983).
Finally, in his speech at CSIS, Admiral Zukunft expressed the importance of bilateral agreements to combat TCOs. These bilateral agreements will strengthen the U.S. Coast Guard’s interdiction capabilities by obtaining legal and diplomatic approval that will allow authorities to board vessels suspected of illicit TCO network activities. The expansion of bilateral agreements will give the U.S. Coast Guard more jurisdiction in the Caribbean and Latin American waters, allowing them to do more preventative action in the “War on Drugs.”
The 2014 Western Hemisphere Strategy is an important document for the U.S. Coast Guard as it lays out the priorities for this security agency in coming years, most notably addressing drug trafficking within the Greater Caribbean. The WHS explains that the Caribbean should not be viewed as small, since it is an “incredibly diverse and expansive region includ[ing] more than 1,200 islands governed by more than 25 nations.” Thus, the challenge that persists is not merely harmonizing the security interests and priorities of over two dozen nations, but also in monitoring a large geographic area consisting of over a thousand islands. Additionally, the WHS correctly notes future developments that will affect the Greater Caribbean. For example, the expansion of the Panama Canal will change shipping routes for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, while most of the analysis and recommendations found in the WHS is relevant and realistic, the report does fall short on some issues. For example, it does not fully discuss, or praise, the role of extra-hemispheric powers whose navies are active in combatting drug traffickers in the Caribbean. The truth is that the US is not alone in countering the illicit drug trade; the Royal Navy, for example, significantly invests in helping to counter the TCOs in the region by deploying several of its warships to Caribbean waters (with positive results). Moreover, the report also tends to mostly praise USCG accomplishments within the region without giving a brief “tip of the hat” to Caribbean nations which are doing what they can to increase their coast guard services and promote regional security, such as island states acquiring new equipment to monitor their maritime territory.
Growing relations between the region and countries like China and Russia are understandably portrayed under a prism of potential problems (especially given Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine). However, the report could acknowledge that this development is natural, as Greater Caribbean nations look to diversify their relationships beyond the U.S. to secure “good deals” on weapons purchases. While it may be troubling that Trinidad and Tobago aim to purchase patrol vessels from China, if said vessels are effectively cracking down on narco-submarines and narco-speedboats aiming to bring drugs into the US, then such a relationship may have its benefits. Moreover, most Greater Caribbean nations maintain strong security relations with the US, best exemplified by their participation in the CBSI, TRADEWINDS exercises and Operation MARTILLO.
It is a worrisome development that TCOs have developed, expanded, and are now present in various, if not all, Latin American and Caribbean states. But thankfully the region, along with extra-hemispheric partners, is coming together to combat these common security threats.
Given Washington’s history with Latin America, and the Greater Caribbean in particular, it is understandable that there is a certain degree of skepticism towards US military initiatives in the region. Nevertheless, as Admiral Zukunft puts it, “It takes a network to defeat a network.” Via its Western Hemisphere Strategy, the U.S. Coast Guard seems interested in being the tip of the spear regarding positive and constructive U.S. security activities in the Greater Caribbean’s future.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any organizations or entities that they are affiliated with.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


"More Pragmatic, Less Ideological: Bringing the U.S. and Bolivia Together?"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Council on Hemispheric Affairs - Research
March  4, 2015
Originally published:

Relations between the U.S. and Bolivia have been more or less tense for close to a decade, but now the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) may be the catalyst for bringing La Paz and Washington together. This can be surmised from the January declarations by senior Bolivian government official that La Paz is open to re-start information sharing with the DEA. The goal of this potential partnership would be to crack down on drug trafficking in the landlocked country, which is becoming problematic due to domestic cocaine production as well as cocaine shipments arriving from Peru into the country.
It remains to be seen if bilateral relations are likely to improve in the near future. Should this proposal for intelligence information progress, it could provide the momentum needed for the two governments once again exchanging ambassadors or, at the very least, there could be a good-will meeting between President Barack Obama and President Evo Morales in the upcoming Summit of the Americas. For the time being, it seems that the two governments are starting to take gradual steps to increase cooperation against a common enemy: drug trafficking.
The 2008 Incident
U.S.-Bolivia relations became tense ever since President Morales’ rise to power in 2006. Noteworthy, Morales was the first ever indigenous Bolivian to become head of state. Unfortunately for Washington, Morales did not hold the U.S. government in high regard due to the dark history of U.S. intervention in his country and the rest of Latin America. Additionally, the Bolivian head of state was a close ally of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who survived a short-lived coup in April 2002.
Due to some of these precedents, Morales likely viewed Washington’s presence in Bolivia with suspicion. In 2008, the situation took a turn for the worst. The Bolivian government expelled the U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, after accusing him of fomenting internal unrest as he had met with Bolivian opposition leaders, specifically, with Ruben Costas, tgovernor of Santa Cruz. “Without fear of the empire, I declare Mr. Goldberg, the US ambassador, ‘persona non grata,’ … He is conspiring against democracy and seeking the division of Bolivia,” Morales memorably declared.[i]At the time, President Morales certainly had reason to believe that a foreign power was trying to undermine him as major protests rocked Bolivia in 2008, leading to several departments, including Santa Cruz (led by the aforementioned Costas), pursued secession.
Washington replied in similar fashion shortly after the Bolivian president’s decision. “In response to unwarranted actions and in accordance with the Vienna Convention (on diplomatic protocol), we have officially informed the government of Bolivia of our decision to declare Ambassador Gustavo Guzman persona non grata,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said then.[ii] Since, the two countries have not exchanged ambassadors.
Currently, the highest-level official in the Bolivian embassy in the U.S. is the chief of mission, retired General Freddy Bersatti, a former commander of the Bolivian Army.[iii]Meanwhile, the highest-ranking officer in Washington’s embassy in La Paz is the Charge d’Affaires, Peter Brenan, who was the former Minister-Counselor for Communications and Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.[iv]
Bolivia-U.S. Relations: 2008-Present
Apart from the lack of ambassadors, there have been a number of other decisions that have affected bilateral relations. For example, apart from expelling Ambassador Goldberg, in 2008, President Morales also ejected the DEA from operating in Bolivia. More recently, in 2013, the Bolivian head of state threatened to close the U.S. embassy in Bolivia. The reason for this decision was a bizarre incident in which his presidential plane was forced to land in Austria as he was flying back from Russia, where he attended a Summit.[v] Apparently, the U.S. allegedly influenced several European governments to deny the Bolivian presidential jet from entering their air-space because it was believed that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden may have been hiding in the plane after President Morales had declared that he was considering giving Snowden asylum.
While the Bolivian government ultimately did not shut down the U.S embassy, in 2013 it did expel USAID for “conspiring” against the Bolivian government and population. It is unclear if there was a specific incident that triggered this decision, though President Morales declared that USAID was fomenting peasant communities and unions to rise up against his government.[vi]
USAID denounced the decision by La Paz in a statement that said, since 1964 “[USAID] has strived to help the Bolivian government improve the lives of ordinary Bolivians. All USAID programs have been supportive of the Bolivian government’s National Development Plan, and have been fully coordinated with appropriate government agencies.”[vii]  While USAID did have positive initiatives in the landlocked nation, these projects did not protect it from President Morales’ decision.
Nevertheless, in spite of the aforementioned incidents, the two countries have tried to “reset” relations – namely, in 2011 La Paz and Washington signed an agreement to reestablish relations.[viii] Despite the State Department supporting the agreement, little has happened since, and relations even slightly worsened in 2013 with USAID’s expulsion.
In other words, bilateral relations between La Paz and Washington have been tense for almost a decade, regardless of there being a Republican or Democrat in the White House. Meanwhile, President Morales was comfortably re-elected for a new presidential term this past October 2014, obtaining 61% of the vote, 37 points more than his closest challenger, Samuel Doria Medina.[ix] President Morales seems to have a firm hold on power for the foreseeable future. (Moreover after the 2014 elections, his political party, the Movimiento al Socialismo, has a strong control of both the Senate and Deputy Chamber).
Finally, it is important to mention that as tense as diplomatic relations may be, Washington-La Paz trade has actually flourished. Trade between the two countries reached $1.7 billion USD in 2014, three times more than in 2009. The major goods that the U.S. imports are gold and quinoa. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that some of the gold being sold is actually Peruvian, which is smuggled across the Peruvian-Bolivian border and then sold as if it had been extracted in Bolivia[x]. Additionally, the U.S. suspended Bolivia’s membership to the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) in 2008, which gave preferential treatment to Bolivian exports to the U.S., such as textiles.[xi] Hence, while bilateral trade is growing, there are outstanding factors that must be taken into account to understand which sectors of Bolivian society are benefiting from it.
The DEA Opening and Future of U.S.-Bolivian Relations
While lacking positive developments between La Paz and Washington in recent years, the fact that the DEA could once again provide aid to Bolivian security agencies is a positive, even important, development.
In late January, Bolivian Minister of Interior Hugo Moldiz declared that his government was open to improving security relations with Washington.[xii] During an interview with the TV show “Levantate Bolivia,” aired by the Bolivian channel Cadena A, Moldiz declared “we have to move to another stage [of bilateral relations] What does this imply? We will exchange information, there is no need for the DEA to return to this country, but that does not mean, for example, that we cannot exchange [intelligence] information with other countries [and with] the DEA.”[xiii]
Because of this ample room for improvement, it will be important to monitor the upcoming Summit of the Americas that will take place next month in Panama. Currently, all eyes are on whether the Cuban government will be able to participate in the forum, as the U.S. government has historically wielded a veto against Havana from attending.[xiv] Nevertheless, there will be plenty of sideline meetings between the attending heads of state and their delegations on that occasion. Case in point, it will be important to observe if President Obama and President Morales will meet while they are in Panama City and if the two leaders will discuss exchanging ambassadors or, at least, a renewed role for the DEA in Bolivia.
Thus, the question may be: what has prompted President Morales to consider opening up to Washington and the DEA at this time? First of all, it is important to clarify that President Morales can be regarded as a pragmatist, and while his ideological convictions are strong, as is his distrust of the U.S., some kind of accommodation can be reached so that La Paz can receive the international support it needs to crack down on drug international trafficking.[xv]
Despite Morale’s significantly high-levels of popularity, this does not imply that the situation in the Andean nation is ideal. Internal security and drug trafficking remain major sources of concern to the Bolivian leadership, particularly as Bolivia is the third largest producer of cocaine in the world. During his time in power, President Morales has supported an increase of coca production, as it is a plant that has ties to the Andean region since pre-Inca times. The problem is that significant portions of coca production in Bolivia end up being transformed into cocaine. According to Minister Moldiz, Bolivia produced some 22 thousand hectares of coca in 2014, out of which 19 thousand was produced legally.[xvi] According to a 2013 report, Bolivian drug traffickers are able to produce 1 kilogram of cocaine from 317 kilograms (700 pounds) of coca leaves.[xvii]
Some examples of recent drug busts are necessary to illustrate the significant amounts of cocaine being produced. In October 2013, the Bolivian police discovered six mobile-production units of cocaine in Apolo, a coca-growing area north of La Paz.[xviii] More recently, in December 2014, the Bolivian police seized 408 kilograms of cocaine and one narco-plane in three separate operations. In just one operation in the Santa Cruz department, the Bolivian police seized the plane and 327 kilograms inside it when the pilots fled the aircraft in motorcycles.[xix] According to Bolivian police, the various Bolivian security agencies seized 1.8 million doses of cocaine in 2014.[xx]
Moreover, the problem is not just Bolivia’s domestic production of cocaine, but also cocaine smuggling from neighboring Peru. There is currently a veritable “narco air bridge” in which drug traffickers are smuggling cocaine from Peru into Bolivia, profiting from the isolated border areas that both governments cannot fully monitor.[xxi]
The recent drug busts in Bolivia can be interpreted in different ways. First, Bolivian security agencies are increasingly effective at cracking down on drug trafficking; or second, there is an increasing production and trafficking of cocaine in Bolivia, which has led to increased drug seizures, but plenty of others still go undetected.
This is not to say that the Bolivian government has been unable to combat drug trafficking; Bolivian security forces are cracking down on criminals. Moreover, in recent years the Bolivian government has acquired helicopters to act as the workhorse and cornerstone of the security forces’ anti-drug trafficking strategy. Given that the regions in which drug traffickers operate are isolated, helicopters are necessary to deploy troops. Hence, from this perspective it is a positive sign that La Paz has purchased Z-9 helicopters from China and Super Puma helicopters from Airbus, headquartered in France.[xxii]
So far it seems that the Bolivian police is the spearhead of the country’s operations against drug trafficking. This brings up the obvious concern that police officers could become entangled in drug trafficking operations, as has been the case in Mexico, to make a quick dollar (or boliviano). In an interview with COHA, Theodore Roncken of Accion Andina-Bolivia argued that he hopes that the Bolivian military will stay away from carrying out these operations so that it will not become as “contaminated” as the country’s police forces. (At the time of this writing, the former commander of the police, Oscar Nina, has been accused of being, along with his family, involved in drug trafficking).
One obvious question about Minister Moldiz’s comments is: why now? In other words, it is important to discuss whether there have been some circumstances that have influenced the Bolivian government into making these candid declarations regarding the renewal of negotiations with the DEA. For the sake of providing a comprehensive analysis, speculation about internal and external factors is pivotal
First of all, there could always be the possibility that sectors within the Bolivian government seek a closer rapprochement with Washington, or at least the DEA. Certainly, the Bolivian security forces could profit greatly from DEA intelligence in order to crack down on internal drug trafficking and to understand regional developments (i.e. criminal initiatives around Bolivia’s neighbors, such as Brazil and Peru). One could speculate whether drug trafficking in Bolivia has become a more serious problem than what is being reported through the country’s media. La Paz may be under pressure to obtain external support to achieve greater successes. Nevertheless, in off-the-record discussions with COHA, an expert on Bolivia explained that the Seis Federaciones del Trópico de Cochabamba, a group of coca-growing unions from La Paz and Cochabamba, are against the DEA operating in their area to crack down on illegal coca-growing.[xxiii] President Morales happens to also be the president of this amalgamation of federations. He will have to walk a fine line between obtaining foreign intelligence to combat drug trafficking without alienating some of his supporters.
There are also geopolitical events that could explain Bolivia’s decision. Namely, just this past December, Washington and Havana jumpstarted a new initiative to improve relations between the two countries. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s economy remains in crisis and popular protests continue. The Bolivian government could have realized that since its closest allies are either in internal turmoil or potentially increasing their ties with the U.S., it would make sense for a change of course and renew ties with Washington. Then again, some are skeptical as to how much relations will improve. In an interview with COHA, Jim Shultz, director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, explains that “Bolivia and the US have been talking about restored diplomatic relations for years and never seem to get to the end game.”
President Morales was never as ideological as President Chavez or other members of the Bolivarian movement. If anything, Morales has always been more of a pragmatist when it comes to both domestic and foreign policy. In an interview with COHA, Professor Kevin Healy from George Washington University explains that as early as Morales’ second presidential term, we have seen him move away from some of his more center-leftist domestic initiatives. Thus, it is perfectly logical to assume that the Bolivian government may decide to take a more realist approach towards its relations with foreign powers, such as collaborating the DEA against a common threat. This does not mean that we will see DEA agents in Bolivia in the near future, as Minister Moldiz declared that he was against this and Morales would probably assume that the U.S. agency may try to overthrow him. Nevertheless, there is ample room for short- or medium-term initiatives between the DEA and La Paz that can be mutually beneficial. Professor Healy argues that accepting DEA intelligence, should this happen, does not mean that the Bolivian government is compromising on its ideals.
Moreover, there is the question of whether new DEA-provided intelligence information will affect the Bolivian government’s ongoing initiatives against drug trafficking.  The aforementioned Mr. Roncken of Accion Andina-Bolivia argues that his main concern is that “intelligence information, instead of helping provide solutions, could end up supporting discretionary policies” which targets some aspects of drug trafficking but does not address others. For example, the Bolivian government will probably want to avoid targeting illegal coca crops in Chapare, given that the president receives significant backing from the coca unions in that regions.
Geopolitical Losers?
Finally, there is the question of whether there are any losers from a possible La Paz-DEA rapprochement as extra-hemispheric powers like the Russia and China have profited from growing anti-Washington governments in Latin America. Hence, should Bolivia and Washington begin to improve ties once again, this could isolate those governments from South America.
As for a “great power politics” approach at a potential La Paz-DEA deal, if it ever occurs, this should not be regarded as a “win-lose” situation for countries like Moscow or Beijing. Morales will probably want to continue his relations with all of these nations via various projects (i.e. China’s sale of military helicopters to Bolivia or Russia’s Gazprom searching for natural gas there), but DEA intelligence information could provide his security forces with an advantage in combating drug trafficking that the aforementioned countries cannot.
The late-January statement by Minister Moldiz regarding potential DEA cooperation with Bolivia via intelligence-sharing likely opens the door to a wide array of interpretations regarding the future relations of the two governments. Nevertheless, cool heads must prevail and one must not make the assumption that bilateral diplomatic relations will dramatically improve in the near future.
Nevertheless, the December 2014 announcement of renewed U.S.-Cuba relations came as a surprise, so it is conceivable that a breakthrough could also occur between Washington and La Paz in the near future, particularly if the two presidents meet in Panama. Providing DEA intelligence to combat drug trafficking as well as generally positive trade relations could help ease the way for improving diplomatic relations between the United States and Bolivia. If nothing else, this potential opening highlights that Latin American geopolitics are hardly “ideologically-obsessed” and that there will be ample room for pragmatically-motivated decisions.
By: W. Alejandro Sanchez, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
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[i] Jeremy McDermott. “Bolivia expels US ambassador Philip Goldberg.” The Telegraph. September 12, 2008
[ii] Associated Press. “U.S. expels Bolivian ambassador; Chavez joins fray.” USA Today. September 11, 2008.
[iii] “Chief of Mission.” La Embajada. Plurinational State of Bolivia – Embassy in Washington D.C. +
[iv] “Peter M. Brennan. » Embassy of the United States – La Paz, Bolivia.
[v] Agencies in Cochambaba. “Evo Morales Threatens to close US embassy in Bolivia as leaders weigh in.” July 4, 2013.
[vi]  “Evo Morales expulse a agencia de EE.UU.” La Primera Digital. May 2, 20134.
[vii] “Bolivia.” USAID. Press Release. June 18, 2013.
[viii] EFE. “EEUU y Bolivia firman hoy un acuerdo marco para restablecer la cooperacion.” November 11, 2011.
[ix] “Declaran presidente reelecto a Evo Morales en Bolivia. “ BBC Mundo. October 18, 2014.
[x]  “En Peru sospechan que el oro sale de contrabando a Bolivia.” Pagina Siete. December 4, 2014.
[xi]  “Bush deja sin ATPDEA a Bolivia; la medida rige desde el 15 de Diciembre.” Economia. Los Tiempos. November 27, 2008.
[xii] “Bolivia plantea intercambio de informacion con la DEA en la lucha antidroga.” Pagina Siete. January 29, 2015.
[xiii] “Bolivia plantea intercambio de informacion con la DEA en la lucha antidroga.” Pagina Siete. January 29, 2015.
[xiv] Christopher Sabatini. “Giving Cuba a Seat at the Table: The 2015 Summit of the Americas.” / December 16, 2015.
[xv] W. Alejandro Sanchez and Larry Birns. “The Architectonics of Bolivia’s Foreign Policy.” In: Gian Luca and Peter Lambert (eds). Latin American Foreign Policies: Between Ideology and Pragmatism. Palgrave Macmillan. February 2011.
[xvi] Loren Riesenfield. “Bolivia open to working with DEA: Minister.” InSight Crime. February 2, 2015.
[xvii] Agencias. “Descubren seis fabricas de producción de cocaína en Bolivia.” Mundo. October 29, 2013.
[xviii]  Agencias. “Descubren seis fabricas de producción de cocaína en Bolivia.” Mundo. October 29, 2013.
[xix]  “Bolivia: decomisan 408 kilos de cocaine y una avioneta en tres operaciones.” RPP Noticias. Internacional. December 9, 2014.
[xx] “Bolivia: decomisan 408 kilos de cocaine y una avioneta en tres operaciones.” RPP Noticias. Internacional. December 9, 2014
[xxi] “ONU: Narcos usan Puente aereo entre Bolivia y Peru.” La Estrella del Oriente. December 9, 2014.
[xxii] “El ejercito de Bolivia recibe seis helicopteros H425 fabricados en China.” September 16, 2014.  . Also see: “Bolivia ya cuenta con modern helicopter Super Puma, llegaran 6 en total,” ATB Red Nacional. YouTube video. August 1, 2014.
[xxiii] “Presidente participa en Ampliado de las Seis Federaciones del Tropico en Cochabamba.” January 24, 2015.