Shadow Government

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The return of South America’s narco-generals

In the Al Pacino epic Scarface, about Miami’s violent cocaine culture of the 1980s, the drug kingpin is seen as a Bolivian ensconced in a luxurious mountain villa with a handful of Bolivian generals in his pocket. It was of a piece with the times. (Bolivian dictator General Luis García Meza Tejada would later be ...

AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images
AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images
AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images

In the Al Pacino epic Scarface, about Miami's violent cocaine culture of the 1980s, the drug kingpin is seen as a Bolivian ensconced in a luxurious mountain villa with a handful of Bolivian generals in his pocket. It was of a piece with the times. (Bolivian dictator General Luis García Meza Tejada would later be sentenced to 30 years in jail for drug trafficking.)

However, through the 1990s and 2000s, successive Bolivian governments worked with the United States to cripple the drug cartels operating there, so much so that the notion of a South American narco-general seemingly had been dumped into the historical dustbin.

Well, thanks to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, the South American narco-general appears to be rising again from the ash heap. Last week, a federal judge in Miami sentenced the former head of Bolivia's elite counternarcotics unit, General René Sanabria, to 14 years in prison for arranging protection for a shipment of some 140 kilos of cocaine from Bolivia to the United States. He was captured in June in Panama in a DEA sting and reportedly controlled a network of some 40 dirty cops.

In the Al Pacino epic Scarface, about Miami’s violent cocaine culture of the 1980s, the drug kingpin is seen as a Bolivian ensconced in a luxurious mountain villa with a handful of Bolivian generals in his pocket. It was of a piece with the times. (Bolivian dictator General Luis García Meza Tejada would later be sentenced to 30 years in jail for drug trafficking.)

However, through the 1990s and 2000s, successive Bolivian governments worked with the United States to cripple the drug cartels operating there, so much so that the notion of a South American narco-general seemingly had been dumped into the historical dustbin.

Well, thanks to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, the South American narco-general appears to be rising again from the ash heap. Last week, a federal judge in Miami sentenced the former head of Bolivia’s elite counternarcotics unit, General René Sanabria, to 14 years in prison for arranging protection for a shipment of some 140 kilos of cocaine from Bolivia to the United States. He was captured in June in Panama in a DEA sting and reportedly controlled a network of some 40 dirty cops.

Such is the outcome of Morales’s decision in 2008 to expel the DEA from Bolivia, one of the largest cocaine producers in the world. Morales, a coca grower union leader, said the DEA’s presence was an offense to the country’s "dignity." Since then, the production and trafficking of cocaine has skyrocketed, with drug traffickers from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and elsewhere seizing the opportunity to expand operations in Bolivia.

This month, the State Department again cited the Morales government as having "failed demonstrably" to adhere to their obligations under international agreements to combat narcotics trafficking.

Lumped in with Bolivia and Burma as countries that have also failed demonstrably is Venezuela, where Morales benefactor Hugo Chavez relies on his own share of narco-generals to maintain power. Earlier this month, the Treasury Department added another of Venezuela’s most powerful generals, Cliver Alcalá, to its kingpin list, where he joins two others designated in 2008, the Commander-in-Chief of the Venezuelan military, General Henry Rangel Silva, and the Chief of Military Intelligence, General Hugo Carvajal. (The Treasury designation means any assets the individuals have in U.S. accounts are frozen and U.S. citizens are barred from doing business with them.)

All three are charged with aiding and abetting the activities of drug-running guerrillas in neighboring Colombia and all three were named by captured Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled as having been on his payroll and facilitated his drug trafficking operations. (Unfortunately, the Obama administration failed to pursue Makled’s extradition from Colombia, and he was sent back to Venezuela.)

U.S. law enforcement agencies — particularly the DEA — deserve great credit for following these investigatory leads wherever they have gone, considering the Obama administration’s preference to avoid confrontations with Hugo Chavez and his regional acolytes. For a variety of important reasons the U.S. government needs to keep pushing for more designations and indictments, not the least of which is to send an unmistakable signal that this regional backsliding on the counternarcotics front is a growing concern.

For example, in Venezuela’s case, Makled claimed he had videos and other documentary evidence implicating some 40 Venezuelan generals in his illicit activities. In Bolivia, opposition members believe the Sanabria case is only the "tip of the iceberg."

The Venezuela cases in particular deserve close attention, since narco-generals like Rangel Silva and Carvajal will work to spoil any democratic transition if Chavez’s health should fail him, since their protected status could not be guaranteed in a post-Chavez Venezuela. They may be presently out of the reach of the U.S. law enforcement, but the continued "naming and shaming" of the narco-generals and, even better, their indictments by the U.S. government will make them less able to carry out their nefarious crimes.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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