Bolivia buys more arms to fight drug traffickers

Feb. 9, 2011 at 5:28 PM
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LA PAZ, Bolivia, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Bolivia is buying six Chinese combat aircraft as part of its effort to correct its image as a country that isn't doing as much as it should to cut off the narcotics trail to North America.

Political feuds between Bolivia and its neighbors and a stormy relationship with Washington hasn't helped Bolivia's campaign against drug overlords who regularly challenge the authority of the state.

Organized crime operators use aircraft to move drugs with impunity in a twin challenge to the government's control of the national airspace and its ineffectual crackdown on fearless drug traffickers in a transnational, multimillion-dollar illicit trade.

After President Evo Morales ordered the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to leave Bolivia in 2008, accusing U.S. officials of complicity in the drug trade as well as political troubles, the anti-narcotics fight fizzled out. U.S. officials dismissed both charges.

After the row with U.S. anti-narcotics officials, who are active elsewhere in Latin America, particularly Colombia, Bolivia has had even less success than before in stopping the powerful drug overlords.

The deal with China gives Beijing a lucrative entry into the Latin American arms market. Bolivia will pay at least $58 million -- most of it covered by a Chinese government loan -- for six K-8 Karakorum jets that are to be delivered by April.

The K-8 is a low-budget attack aircraft that doubles as a trainer. Also called Hongdu JL-8 or Nanchang JL-8 it is a two-seat intermediate jet initially built jointly by China Nanchang Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation and state-run Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. China's Hongdu Aviation Industry Corp. is the main contractor for the plane.

Original manufacturing plans for the plane called for some U.S.-made parts but, as difficulties arose over the inclusion of U.S. components, China and Pakistan decided to eliminate those parts and do everything themselves.

Analysts said the deal would be significant for Brazil because Brazilian manufacturer Embraer sees China as a major competitor in small multipurpose aircraft.

Bolivia operates a number of training and cargo planes but none that can face up to the technically advanced drug gangs flying their own aircraft and other paramilitary equipment.

Officials said Bolivia hopes the inclusion of combat aircraft in its anti-narcotics arsenal will discourage cocoa plantations and cross-border drug smuggling.

China has also given Bolivia 10,000 AK-47 assault rifles, cited in professional military media and believed to part of a $60 million deal.

Bolivia is also in negotiation with Russia to buy up to 10 Russian-built MS-7 cargo helicopters, possibly on easy credit terms.

Media reports calculated the government's defense acquisitions are reflected in increased defense spending, which rose by more than 120 percent during the last decade. A survey by El Deber newspaper said the increased spending on military equipment ran counter to the government's pledge to improve education and health and reduce the poverty gap.

Bolivian Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra said the increase in defense spending was also due to an increase in administrative and personnel costs and salary increases for the armed forces.

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