Since earlier this year, the Bolivian Government has been carrying out investigations into the multi-million-dollar business of narcotic smuggling.
Since earlier this year, the Bolivian Government has been carrying out investigations into the multi-million-dollar business of narcotic smuggling. These inquiries led to the arrests of several persons who are now serving from one to five years in prison - despite earlier demands for sentences up to the death penalty. But the problem is far from solved in the Andean country -where cocaine has for years been more a way of life than a crime.
SYNOPSIS: Some 12,000 feet (4,000 metres) above sea-level, in the Bolivian Altiplano - 'high-plain' - conditions are by nature perfect for the growing of coca. It has a constantly cool temperature, summer rains, a dry winter. Coca has grown wild here and in neighbouring Peru for centuries. But it has only become a major business in the last five years, since Turkey agreed to stop the official production of poppies, cutting the supply of opium to the international markets. In addition labour is cheap - and the native 'coyas' would hardly be concerned with the pernicious, habit-forming effects of the cocaine produced from these leaves, which they have chewed as a matter of daily habit for years.
In village markets like this one, coca leaves are sold openly. This area - only about three hours by road from La Paz - accounted for the commercialisation of more than one million kilos of coca during the first three months of this year alone. Vast sums have been made by international dealers - but not by these people, who chew the leaves for subsistence rather than exhilaration. To them it is an anaesthetic which prevents them from feeling hunger or thirst, and allows them to carry heavy loads despite not having eaten, and continue working without sleep.
On the outskirts of La Paz, police inquires brought them to the nerve-centre of one of the biggest narcotics operations ever uncovered in South America. Operating under the import-export cover of a firm called "Meryndia" the group was headed by Gustavo Roberto Troche Stiepovic - a Yugoslav-born Bolivian citizen who had twice before been tried for cocaine-dealing in Bolivia, and served a sentence in Pennsylvania (USA) for the same crime. The investigators set up their own operations in Stiepovic's luxurious home.
Apart from five houses and six vehicles, they uncovered 50 false-bottom suitcases, 10 pornographic films, 10 colonial paintings destined for the international market, U.S. dollars in cash - and above all, drug-making equipment, bales of coca leaves and jugs of hydrochloride of cocaine. Most was destined for avid markets in Guatemala and San Salvador - and a direct pipeline to the USA - with millions of dollars in return. But in a makeshift court in the prison chapel of La Paz, the end of the good life came for Stiepovic and his partners. The investigating judge - despite accusations of impending bribes and the possible involvement of high government and local officials in the narcotics ring - carried out his questioning of the suspects and produced a 365-page report which ended in the jailing of the nine ring-leaders. But the authorities know that there are still several more dealers and while coca grows freely, cocaine will continue to be a tempting and lucrative commodity.