Bolivia hardens tone on cocaine 'mega labs', signaling crackdown

By Monica Machicao

LA PAZ (Reuters) - In a break with the past, Bolivia's government has acknowledged that the country is becoming a production hub for cocaine rather than a mere transport hub and grower of raw coca leaves.

Along with Colombia and Peru, Bolivia is widely recognized as a leading world producer of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, but the government has long maintained production of consumption-ready cocaine was limited.

In a shift of tone this week, the government said it had destroyed a large number of laboratories, mostly in the tropical Chapare region, one of the main coca growing areas and a stronghold of former leftist President Evo Morales.

"In 2023 alone, our administration has destroyed more than 27 mega laboratories (there) for the crystallization of cocaine hydrochloride," Minister of Government Eduardo del Castillo told reporters, referring to the salt or powdered form of the drug.

"They are trying to turn our nation from being a drug transit country to a drug-producing country," he added and presented a drug trafficking map of some 1,804 drug factory busts since 2020, the "vast majority" in Chapare, he said.

The acknowledgement underscores the pressure the government faces abroad and at home to tackle the issue as well as tensions between socialist MAS President Luis Arce and Morales, his MAS party rival and a former coca union leader in Chapare.

The government has been prodded to act domestically, including by allies of Morales - president from 2006 until 2019 - who suggest the government has been soft on traffickers.

"In these 17 years, the MAS governments have insisted that in Bolivia there was only the phenomenon of transit of Peruvian coca to other places," Bolivian economist and former drug trafficking analyst Carlos Toranzo told Reuters.

"At the same time Bolivia has managed to transition from basic paste to hydrochloride."

Beneath the shift in rhetoric, he added, were growing tensions in MAS over who would lead it into elections in two years: Arce or Morales.

"What's going on here? It's the candidacy for 2025, each one wants to take the other out of the game," Toranzo said.

"In Bolivia we are experiencing a dispute between two factions of the MAS, each one pointing the finger at the other suggesting that they are protecting drug traffickers."

(Reporting by Monica Machicao; Writing by Daniel Ramos; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Howard Goller)