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Bishops praise Bolivians who seize drug-trafficking plane at airstrip

Drug traffickers are able to operate brazenly because officials cooperate and other people turn a blind eye

Barbara Fraser, Catholic News Service

Barbara Fraser, Catholic News Service

Updated: June 25, 2020 01:38 AM GMT
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Bishops praise Bolivians who seize drug-trafficking plane at airstrip

A group of Yatiris — Aymara healers and priests — carry out a ritual to celebrate the Andean New Year on June 21 in Santiago de Machaca amid the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: Aizar Raldes/AFP)

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Bishops in Bolivia's Amazon region praised residents of a small town who seized a light plane, apparently owned by drug traffickers, that had violated their ban on landing at the local airstrip.

"Drug trafficking in Bolivia is widespread, and this situation has made that clear," Bishop Eugenio Coter of Riberalta, who heads the Pan-Amazonian Church Network in Bolivia, told Catholic News Service. "It indicates that drug traffickers have control of small communities."

In March, Bolivia imposed a strict lockdown to control the coronavirus pandemic. To help avoid contagion, residents of Bella Vista, a town of about 5,000 people near the Brazilian border, prohibited light planes from landing on the local airstrip.

When drug traffickers defied the ban, residents blocked the runway with wire fencing. The flights continued, so on June 18, a crowd marched to the airstrip, seized a light plane and rolled it to the mayor's office in the town plaza, demanding that local officials take action.

Anti-drug police later arrived to take charge of the plane and investigate. Witnesses said they detained and took away the person who was working as watchman in the airstrip hangar, but officials later denied having arrested anyone.

That indicates that police and prosecutors are not taking the case seriously, Bishop Coter said.

Worried that the residents who seized the plane will be targeted for retaliation, the 14 bishops in Bolivia's Amazon region issued a statement June 22.

They called for government officials to protect the townspeople and warned that failure to speak out about drug trafficking "makes us accomplices of those who profit from drug production at the cost of the lives and values of the next generations."

"We express our full support and solidarity with the courageous people of the community of Bella Vista, who rose up against the use and abuse of the population by the illegal interests tied to drug trafficking in the region," the bishops wrote.

"We cannot remain passive in the face of the harm that drug trafficking causes to our young people, turning some into 'peons of drug trafficking,' others into addicts, frustrating their personal fulfilment and plans for the future," the bishops wrote.

Farmers in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia grow coca, the raw material used to make cocaine, and clandestine laboratories in the three countries process the drug. The pandemic has disrupted some drug shipment routes, but traffickers are using light planes to transport drugs from Peru and Bolivia to Brazilian ports.

Residents of Bella Vista have reported as many as five flights a night, Bishop Coter said. Although the trafficking has been going on for some time, people are tired of the problems of drug addiction among young people, as well as robberies, prostitution — including of minors — and contract killings, he said.

Drug traffickers are able to operate brazenly because officials cooperate and other people turn a blind eye.

"The ruin of these young people is permitted by this passive complicity," the bishops wrote.

Nevertheless, "Bella Vista is emblematic, because it is the first town that has risen up," Bishop Coter said. "We'll see if others follow their example."

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