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US-Bolivia relations further strained as cocaine smuggling charges fly

Embittered relations between the United States and the new military junta in Bolivia are showing signs of souring still further. The latest dispute is over charges that an international cocaine smuggling operation is bankrolling the military regime that overthrew the country's civilian government last month.

The military wrested control of the country July 17 from interim President Lidia Gueiler Tejada after it became apprent that Hernan Siles Zuazo, a left-of-center politician, would probably become president. Mr. Siles, now believed in hiding, had received a plurality of votes in a June election.

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Amid growing fears that the South American country could become a refuge for the growth and sale of narcotics, United States Sen. Dennis DeConcini called Aug. 12 for a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee investigation into the allegations of the junta's connection with illicit drug traffickers.

The Arizona Democrat echoed earlier press reports alleging that drug traders underwrote the military takeover, dubbed by some the "cocaine coup," and continue to exert control over the regime of Gen. Luis Garcia Meza.

The drug allegations complicate the Bolivian junta's already deteriorating relations with the US well as neighboring Andean Pact countries, a State Department spokesman says. The Organization of American States (OAS) also has condemned the new regime.

Washington has been slowly pulling out part of its 120-member embassy staff in La Paz. About 80 staffers new remain. The administration also has cut off all military aid to the country, and is searching for ways to legally chop its $ 120 million in economic pledges.

The State Department has protested what it calls "widespread" violations of human rights by the Bolivian armed forces, which are believed to be holding hundreds of opponents. UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim has called for an end to the summary executions of government dissidents.

Bolivian authorities did release on Aug 12, a US journalist arrested about a week earlier and accused of defaming the government. The freelance reporter, Mary Helen Spooner, was expelled from the country. Another 20 Americans who had been detained after the coup have also been released.

The charges of Bolivia's involvement with the lucrative drug trade spotlight the huge flow of narcotics into the US from South America as a whole.

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Some 47 percent of all illicit cocaine seized in the US the past few years originated in South America, according to William Deac of the Drug Enforcement Administration. An estimted 33 tons of the white powdery substance were smuggled into the US last year, up from the 1978 figure of 24-27 tons (worth more than $16 billion).

Bolivia and Peru are the world's two major growers of coca leaves, the source of cocaine. Drug traders in Bolivia -- most of them centered around Santa Cruz -- are believed to net "hundreds" of millions of dollars each year in illicit narcotics trafficking.

Much of the coca finds its way to Colombia, the world's largest producer of "finished" cocaine, where it is refined and smuggled into the world market.

Efforts to control the growth of coca in the region have been making some headway in recent years, particularly in Peru. Drug enforcement officials have been substituting cash crops for coca plants and enforcing bans on illegal harvesting.

In Bolivia officials had also been trying to set up a board to control the legal growth of the plant. But the military takeover there has raised fears that enforcement efforts may be thwarted and that the country may become a safe haven for narcotics growers and traffickers.

It has also sparked concern that the growing of coca, now confined primarily to two areas of the country (the Chapare valley and Yungas region), may spread to other areas.

There may, however, be one consolation in the latest disclosures of drug trafficking in Bolivia: It could spur neighboring South American countries to crack down on the illicit narcotics trade

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