Ex-top drug cop in Bolivia charged with cocaine trafficking

A former Bolivian antinarcotics chief has been charged in the US with conspiring to provide top-level protection for cocaine shipments to the United States.

The indictment unsealed Wednesday by a federal judge in New York also accuses Maximiliano Dávila-Perez of a related weapons offense involving the possession of machine guns. The Justice and State Departments also offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his conviction.

FILE: Police escort former police colonel Maximiliano Davila as he was presented to the media at a Bolivian Police Command office, in La Paz, Bolivia, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022.
(AP Photo/Juan Karita)

Bolivian authorities arrested Dávila-Perez last month on suspicion of money laundering as he was allegedly trying to flee to Argentina.

“Instead of rooting out drug trafficking in that country, Dávila-Perez worked in partnership with Bolivian drug labs and sought to send more than a thousand kilograms of cocaine to the United States,” US Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement.

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Dávila-Perez served as antinarcotics chief in the final months of Morales’ presidency, which ended abruptly in November 2019 when the former coca farmer resigned amid street protests following the announcement that he had won election to an unprecedented fourth term.

Police launch tear gas to disperse demonstrators during a protest against President Evo Morales' re-election, in La Paz, Bolivia, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

Police launch tear gas to disperse demonstrators during a protest against President Evo Morales’ re-election, in La Paz, Bolivia, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.
(AP Photo/Juan Karita)

Morales expelled the US Drug Enforcement Administration from Bolivia in 2008, accusing it of plotting to overthrow his government at a time rising commodity prices and a wave of leftist politics throughout South America was challenging longstanding US influence in the region.

The drug investigation that led to the charges against Dávila-Perez was started by the DEA’s Special Operations Division in 2017, according to court records in a related case.

As part of the probe, criminal informants working under the DEA’s direction recorded conversations in which a co-defendant of Dávila-Perez bragged of having access to an MD-11 military cargo plane to transport 60 tons of cocaine into the US

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The co-defendant, Percy Vasquez-Drew, said that “he and other traffickers had been able to operate with impunity in Bolivia because the DEA and the CIA had been kicked out” and remaining anti-drug officials in the country were easily bribed, prosecutors said in court filings.

Vasquez-Drew was later arrested in Panama on a US warrant. He pleaded guilty in 2020 to a single count of conspiring to smuggle more than 450 kilograms of narcotics into the US and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

Bolivia is the world’s third-largest producer of cocaine. But despite the claims of high-level government support there for drug trafficking, only a small sample shipment of 10.4 kilograms of cocaine, contained in bricks labeled “SOD” stashed in luggage aboard a commercial flight to Miami, were ever seized as part of the DEA sting.

FILE: Former Bolivian President Evo Morales waves upon arrival to Mexico City, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.

FILE: Former Bolivian President Evo Morales waves upon arrival to Mexico City, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.
(AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

US prosecutors allege that Bolivia’s antinarcotics agency is rife with corruption and say that Davila-Perez was the top antidrug cop at a time Morales’ resignation created a power vacuum which fueled a rise in cocaine exports.

Dávila-Perez, a 57-year-old former police coronel, was removed as antinarcotics chief by Morales’ successor, interim President Jeanine Anez, and was reassigned to lead the police in Cochabamba state.

It’s unclear how close he is to Morales. But the two appeared together in an October 2019 photograph celebrating Morales’ birthday standing next to several cakes decorated with coca leaves. Also in the picture was the former head of Bolivia’s national police.

While the DEA has arrested numerous Bolivian drug traffickers over the years, including one of Dávila-Perez’s predecessors, Morales himself has never been accused of drug trafficking. He has vociferously denounced the US-led drug war in Latin America and defended traditional uses of coca — the raw ingredient of cocaine.

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Foreign Minister Rogelio Mayta said his government would evaluate the US request that Dávila-Perez be extradited to face trial. President Luis Arce is a close ally of Morales.