A federal judge sentenced Bolivia's former top anti-narcotics police chief to 14 years in prison Friday for cocaine trafficking, saying she intended to send a message against corruption to all foreign government officials involved in the never-ending U.S. war against drugs.
U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro said the sentence reflected 54-year-old Rene Sanabria's leadership role in the cocaine plot, which was really an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation with agents and informants posing as Colombian drug lords.
"It is hard to conceive how he could have offended the interests of the United States more than by his conduct in this case," Ungaro said at a sentencing hearing. "It seems very appropriate, I believe, for a lengthy sentence in order to deter similar conduct by officials in other countries."
At the time of his August 2010 arrest, Sanabria was head of an elite Bolivian anti-drug intelligence unit, having been hand-picked by Bolivian President Evo Morales. He had earlier retired with the rank of general as chief of the Bolivian anti-narcotics police force, the capstone of a 32-year police career.
Sanabria's attorney, Sabrina Puglisi, sought no more than the required minimum 10-year sentence for cocaine trafficking conspiracy. Puglisi said Sanabria had a spotless police career and had never been arrested before.
"In all the years that he served, he did a lot of good for his country," Puglisi said. "Unfortunately, like so many people, he fell to the lure of money."
Another conspirator in the case, 43-year-old Marcelo Foronda, was sentenced Friday to nine years in prison.
Prosecutors said Foronda and another man made a deal with the DEA undercover agents to smuggle more than 300 pounds of cocaine by truck from Bolivia to a Chilean port, and from there aboard a ship to Miami. Sanabria's role was to use his influence to guarantee the shipment made it to Chile unmolested.
Sanabria and another top Bolivian police official were to be paid $260,000 for their protection, with the money wired to bank accounts they controlled in Hong Kong.
Transcripts of conversations recorded by the DEA show Sanabria bragging about how he could bring in other Bolivian officials if necessary to protect the cocaine load.
"At any time, we can resort to other people at the top," he is quoted as saying. "I mean, from the command structure to the highest in the institution, or any political group that will allow us to get it done."
The arrest of Sanabria was a major embarrassment for Morales, who in 2008 banished the DEA from Bolivia for supposedly helping his political opponents. The sting bruised Morales' policy of zero tolerance for cocaine; Bolivia remains the world's No. 3 producer behind Colombia and Peru.
The conspirators had other plans if the first load went through, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Dobbins. They discussed on the recordings using Bolivian airline passengers to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. personally and using air cargo holds to transport the drugs.
Dobbins said officials like Sanabria are key to traffickers throughout Latin America.
"Without this kind of corruption, this drug problem within Bolivia would not be nearly as bad as it is today," he said.
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