Why is Spain’s socialist government trying to help criminal fugitives from former president Evo Morales’ government escape Bolivia and justice?
Spain’s Mysterious Ties to Wanted Bolivians
An armed Spanish security detail tries to intimidate national police in La Paz.
Spanish special-operations police, their faces covered with balaclavas and their weapons visible, attempted to force their way past Bolivian police at the Mexican Embassy in La Paz on Dec. 27. The effort failed but it left behind troubling questions about whether rogue interests inside the Spanish government are working with Mexico on behalf of former Bolivian officials, some of whom face criminal charges.
Spanish elite police had already escorted the Spanish Embassy’s chargé d’affaires and its consul to the Mexican Embassy earlier that morning. When two more cars, carrying masked members of the same counterterrorism unit, showed up later and tried to intimidate Bolivian police, it was an unprecedented breach of diplomatic norms.
All the more extraordinary is the claim by Bolivian Foreign Minister Karen Longaric on Dec. 30 that Spain’s acting Foreign Minister Margarita Robles told her the operation wasn’t authorized. Ms. Robles is also Spain’s defense minister.
So who put the operation in motion and why?
The Spanish ambassador was on vacation and not in Bolivia when his deputy and the consul went to the Mexican Embassy, where nine members of the former government of Evo Morales are holed up, seeking asylum.
Mr. Morales resigned in November after his attempt to steal the October presidential election prompted mass street protests that police and military refused to quell. He fled to Mexico, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gave him asylum. He is now in Argentina, where a new Peronist government has also granted him asylum.
Mr. Morales is on the run from Bolivia for good reason. It’s the same reason nine of his former officials have fled to the Mexican Embassy for safe haven. Mr. Morales has been secretary-general of the Bolivian coca-growers’ federation since 1996. During his nearly 14 years as president, he turned Bolivia into a narco-state and dictatorship. The federation is arguably the largest drug cartel in South America. In the early days of his presidency Mr. Morales defended coca growing as cultural heritage, but in recent years both he and the federation have avoided the issue.
With a return to democracy in Bolivia, the former coca tyrant and his henchmen could face justice for drug trafficking and other crimes. At least three of the Bolivians inside the Mexican Embassy have criminal indictments against them in Bolivia, including charges of terrorism. None of the accused have refuted the charges publicly. According to international law they are not entitled to asylum.
The biggest fish inside the embassy is Juan Ramón Quintana, who three times served Mr. Morales as minister of the presidency—equivalent to chief of staff—and was director of border control for two years. From May 2017 until January 2019 he was Bolivian ambassador to Cuba.
Sources tell me that during Mr. Quintana’s tenure in the Bolivian government, Brazilian intelligence was astonished at the volume of Bolivian cocaine that made its way into Brazil and by the flow of precursor materials for cocaine production sent by barge into Bolivia. In 2012 Brazilian journalist Duda Teixeira reported that Veja magazine, where he worked, “had access to reports produced by a Bolivian police intelligence unit that reveal, among other facts, a direct connection between . . . Quintana, and a Brazilian trafficker who is currently serving time in maximum security penitentiary in Catanduvas, Paraná.” Upon publication Mr. Morales threatened to sue Veja for libel. But he never did.
Bolivian cocaine producers are also major suppliers to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Colombian journalist Gerardo Reyes reported for Univision in 2011 on the Bolivian activities of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, once the boss of the Sinaloa cartel. The new Bolivian government alleges that the Morales government gave protection to two of El Chapo’s sons. El Chapo is now in federal prison in Colorado.
Theoretically, this should make Mr. Morales an enemy of Mexico, which has been battling narco-traffickers for more than a decade. Thousands of Mexican public officials and law-enforcement officers have lost their lives trying to keep drug cartels from taking over the country.
Yet Mexico is running interference for the wanted Bolivians. And it seems to have tried to spring Mr. Quintana and his friends with the help of Spanish government insiders.
The chargé d’affaires claims she was only making a diplomatic call at the Mexican Embassy. But to do that she didn’t need the consul, who is responsible for issuing Spanish passports and visas. It isn’t unreasonable to suspect that the Spaniards sought to smuggle the wanted Bolivians out of the Mexican Embassy, past Bolivian police, disguised in the masks of the special-forces officers who tried to enter the building.
The unanswered questions are why someone with power inside the Spanish government wants to protect the likes of Mr. Quintana and what interest Mr. López Obrador has in sheltering him and his colleagues.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.