Bolivians will go to the polls this month to vote for a new president for the second time in less than a year after the resignation of socialist strongman Evo Morales for electoral fraud. While Morales will not be on the ballot, his socialist party leads the national polls before a pivotal election that could determine whether Bolivia could be a partner to combat regional criminal activity or remain a significant hub for criminal networks.
In his nearly 14 years as president, Morales had a firm stance against the United States, favoring those leaders such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba, while disengaging from regional security and counternarcotics initiatives. Central to such alignment is his support for coca farming in Bolivia, which has cultural uses inside the country, but it also fuels the international cocaine trade. Under Morales, Bolivia saw the spread of a variety of criminal threats, including human trafficking, drug trafficking, and illegal mining, as the government decided to reduce law enforcement efforts and to curb its international alliances.
The soft stance on criminal activity led to the blacklisting of Bolivia by the State Department for a failure to meet minimum standards to combat the illicit drug trade. In 2008, Morales ended the war on the drug trade in his country along with a presence of the Drug Enforcement Agency. He also removed restrictions on coca cultivation and used an eradication system relying heavily on enforcement from the farmers to maintain cultivation numbers within legal limits to meet the domestic demand.
Insufficient oversight of legal coca markets has made it a source for drug traffickers. The United Nations estimates that 27 percent to 42 percent of coca ends up in illegal drug markets. Beyond domestic coca production, some serious security threats related to illegal narcotics have developed in Bolivia because of the insufficient controls and enforcement. Peruvian officials estimate that nearly half of Peruvian cocaine runs across Bolivia, making the landlocked country a hub for illicit drug routes.
Bolivia also has ties to other illegal networks, including the rise of illegal mining beyond its borders. Bolivia now plays a role in the contraband of illegal gold by laundering and exporting it because far fewer restrictions exist. Countries around Bolivia complain of such insufficient action and enforcement to combat illicit gold flows. As governments around South America have enacted strict controls for the sale of mercury, a chemical used for illegal gold, weak regulations in Bolivia have also made it a hub for the illicit flow of mercury to illegal mining in the region.
Bolivia was blacklisted by the State Department for a failure to meet the minimum standards to fight human trafficking, and while some positive developments led to its delisting last year, a recent report finds that the challenge is dramatic, with 72 percent of human trafficking victims not receiving attention and protection from the government.
The security stance in Bolivia has also improved over recent months under the interim government of Jeanine Anez with some renewed enforcement efforts and work with the United States against crime networks, including the drug trade and human trafficking. But both this narrow mandate and transitional nature of the interim government have limited the extent with international alliances. The election in Bolivia next month could also bring an unfavorable reversal in the security across the country.
Statements by the top candidates from the center and right indicate they could be more willing to engage with the United States on security issues. It still remains unclear whether a new president from the socialist party of Morales would replicate his dubious stance over criminal activity. But his unrivaled political influence suggests that backsliding is a real possibility. Given that Bolivia is a hub for regional illicit networks, American officials must focus on diplomatic talks and security work with the next leader of the country, no matter the results of the coming election.
The case of success with Lenin Moreno of Ecuador shows that the United States can make a difference. To bolster regional security, Washington can leverage its support at multilateral lenders and the potential integration of Bolivia into the wider efforts to realign supply chains. All the opportunities are incentives for any leader dealing with the economic downturn with the pandemic. Continuing Bolivia along the path to international enforcement standards will have invaluable effects on regional security.
Andres Martinez Fernandez is a senior research associate focused on Latin American policy issues at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.