CHIMORE, BOLIVIA -- Maj. Gonzalo Ramirez stood in a muddy lane here and compared the lifestyle of Bolivia's U.S.-financed antidrug police with that of the country's cocaine traffickers.
"The drug dealers own big ranches and have private jets that carry them to and from discos in Rio and Miami," he said. "And look at how we live here," he adds, sweeping his arm around the unit's primitive jungle base.
Ramirez, commander of the 450-man base in the Chapare, a New Jersey-sized tract of jungle that is Bolivia's biggest coca-growing zone, earns $220 per month, $70 of which is paid by American taxpayers. Enlisted men earn $150 per month. "The drug traffickers earn in a day what I earn in a month," he said.
But according to diplomats, Bolivian congressmen and coca growers here in the Chapare, many rank-and-file policemen and top police officers have succumbed to the overwhelming temptation to try to narrow the income gap.
These sources charge that police officers have regularly received payoffs from cocaine traffickers to provide official protection, while Bolivian pilots flying U.S.-loaned Huey helicopters have tipped off traffickers about upcoming raids. Enlisted men have sold rather than burned cocaine they have seized, these sources add.
Corruption is nothing new in Bolivia. So many top officers in the 1980-81 military government, including the man who headed it, Gen. Luis Garcia Meza, have been accused of taking bribes that both foreign and Bolivian officials call it "the cocaine government." In contrast, the same sources have said the government of current President Victor Paz Estenssoro is largely corruption-free.
However, few people think corruption can be rooted out as long as drug dealers offer large sums of money. "We're fighting a very uneven war," said a foreign official.
The principal antidrug forces are known popularly as the Leopards. The unit is to receive $6.45 million in U.S. funds this year. Its boss was Interior Minister Fernando Barthelemy until he resigned in February. A congressional committee in La Paz has accused him of being on the drug dealers' payroll.
Barthelemy has denied receiving payoffs. British antidrug official David Mellor said that last year Barthelemy told him drug traffickers offered the minister $500,000 per month to leave them alone.
Corruption apparently has infected the judiciary system as well. The supreme court recently ordered the suspension of several judges after they ordered the release of top drug traffickers, and it is investigating others.
Many congressmen and diplomats concur that the payoffs have crippled Washington's effort to challenge Bolivia's flourishing cocaine business.
Col. Freddy Reyes of Bolivia's antinarcotics police denied that any Leopards have received payoffs. A U.S. Embassy spokesman commented: "The government of Bolivia, especially the Interior Ministry, has made and continues to make serious attempts to deal with corruption."
Maj. Ciro Jijena, a Leopard officer, told a Bolivian congressional committee late last year that his colleagues often were paid to leave an area unattended in the Chapare while small airplanes landed at clandestine airstrips and flew away with millions of dollars' worth of coca.
Another congressional committee has substantiated Jijena's charges and will soon demand the suspension of many Leopard officers, said Congressman Roger Cortez.
Carlos Quiroga, president of a civic committee in Cochabamba, the only big city near the Chapare, said he knew of one ex-Leopard officer who acquired three automobile dealerships within two years of quitting. "How is it possible for a police officer to do that if it weren't for drugs?" he asked. Congressmen cite other similar examples of enrichment.
Pilots flying the two Chapare-based Hueys tipped off drug traffickers about planned raids until the crews were no longer told beforehand where they would fly, informed sources said. The pilots then reportedly put radio transmitter devices in helicopters so drug dealers could track their flights.
Even drugs that the unit reports as having been seized have disappeared. Cocaine worth more than $20 million in the U.S. market was unaccounted for in both 1985 and 1986, the La Paz newspapers Presencia and El Diario said.
That the Leopards are tainted by corruption is not surprising, considering how far up in Bolivia's government the payoffs have gone, said diplomats, lawmakers and others.
Jijena testified that a fellow Leopard officer collected protection money from Chapare drug traffickers for Barthelemy when he was interior minister. A congressional subcommittee said Barthelemy protected the operators of the Huanchaca cocaine factory, which was capable of producing more than $20 million of cocaine per week.
After a Bolivian scientific team inadvertently discovered the laboratory last September, Barthelemy delayed a military raid by one day. When the site was finally hit, the cocaine and traffickers were gone.
"Barthelemy didn't have anything before," said a former minister who served with him in the Cabinet, "and all of a sudden he had a couple of BMWs and other expensive items."