By Kevin Gray
MIAMI (Reuters) - A former top Bolivian anti-drug official pleaded guilty on Thursday to charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States in a case that has proved a major embarrassment for Bolivia's President Evo Morales.
Retired General Rene Sanabria is a former head of Bolivia's leading counternarcotics unit. The U.S. attorney's office in Miami said he was director of an anti-drugs intelligence unit attached to Bolivia's Interior Ministry when he was arrested in February in Panama and deported to Miami.
He had faced a life sentence if found guilty in a trial. Sentencing was set for September 2.
U.S. prosecutors accuse Sanabria of providing safe passage for cocaine shipments from Bolivia, the world's No. 3 producer, to the United States through neighboring Chile.
Sanabria pleaded guilty along with an associate, Marcelo Foronda, Sanabria's lawyer, Sabrina Puglisi, said.
Sanabria's arrest followed a sting operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) where undercover agents posed as Colombian drug traffickers.
According to American officials, a test shipment was arranged last year and a group led by Foronda shipped up to 315 pounds (144 kgs) of cocaine to Miami hidden in a cargo container containing zinc rocks.
The container traveled overland from Bolivia to a Chilean port, the officials said.
The case triggered political shock waves in Bolivia and led Morales, a leftist, to order a shake up of his top security officials earlier this year.
A vocal U.S. critic, Morales expelled the DEA from Bolivia in 2008, accusing its agents of spying and conspiring against his government.
Morales, a former coca leaf farmer leader, says he opposes cocaine trafficking but supports the harvesting of the leaf, which Bolivians use in rituals and chew for its medical and nutritional properties.
Morales frequently promotes coca's health benefits and encourages legal uses for its leaves, including promoting a new energy drink produced in Bolivia.
But Washington has accused him of not doing enough to fight drug traffickers, and the United Nations has said coca growing eventually used in drug production has expanded in recent years.
(Additional reporting by Carlos Quiroga in La Paz; Editing by Anthony Boadle)
(This story corrects Sanabria's background in 2nd paragraph)