Ex-Bolivian anti-drug chief gets U.S. prison sentence

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 23, 2011 4:00 PM
Ex-Bolivian anti-drug chief gets U.S. prison sentence

By Kevin Gray

MIAMI (Reuters) - A former top Bolivian anti-drug official was sentenced to 14 years in a U.S. prison on Friday in a cocaine trafficking case that proved a major embarrassment for Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Retired General Rene Sanabria, a former head of Bolivia's leading counternarcotics unit, pleaded guilty in June to charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States.

He and an associate were arrested earlier this year as they waited for a connecting flight in Panama. The arrests stemmed from a sting operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration involving undercover agents who posed as Colombian drug traffickers.

At the time of his arrest, Sanabria was director of an anti-drug intelligence unit attached to Bolivia's Interior Ministry.

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.

Morales, a fierce U.S. critic, expelled the DEA from Bolivia in 2008, accusing its agents of spying and conspiring against his government.

Sanabria's associate, Marcelo Foronda, was sentenced to nine years in prison after both men appeared before a federal judge in Miami, Sanabria's lawyer, Sabrina Puglisi, said.

According to American officials, Sanabria offered to provide protection for U.S.-bound cocaine shipments arranged by Foronda from Bolivia, the world's No. 3 producer.

In a test shipment arranged by undercover DEA agents last year, some 315 pounds (144 kg) of cocaine arrived in Miami hidden in a cargo container filled with zinc rocks that had traveled overland from Bolivia to a Chilean port.

Sanabria had men at the Bolivian border to ensure the container's safe passage into Chile, according to court documents.

U.S. prosecutors say Sanabria and a Bolivian police official requested a payment of $260,000 to be deposited in Hong Kong bank accounts.

A former coca leaf farmers' leader, Morales has said he opposes cocaine trafficking but supports the harvest of the leaf, which Bolivians use in rituals and chew for its medicinal and nutritional properties.

Morales often promotes coca's health benefits and encourages legal uses for its leaves. 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 increased under his government.

(Editing by Tom Brown and Peter Cooney)