Lake Titicaca, nestled high in the Andean mountains between Bolivia and Peru, has been many things to many people. The center of the cosmos, the legendary birthplace of the Inca Empire, and the world’s largest freshwater lake.
Today, it serves as a crossroads for varied criminal economies, from cocaine shipments to trafficking the frogs that live along its banks.
The governments of Bolivia and Peru have had little success in containing these, with drug trafficking and food contraband, in particular, surging through the COVID-19 pandemic. The sheer variety makes this a challenge. Fuel, mercury, cocaine, illegally captured wildlife, contraband foodstuffs, and migrants are all trafficked along the lake and its poorly monitored banks.
Below, InSight Crime looks at how Lake Titicaca stands as a criminal crossroads between Bolivia and Peru.
Lakeside Drug Trafficking
The town of Desaguadero is a focal point for cocaine and coca base shipments making their way from Peru. On the southern corner of the lake, it straddles the border, and the town is split in half by the Desaguadero River.
A September 2022 investigation by the Bolivian newspaper El Deber revealed the role that dozens of illegal docks encircling the lake play in receiving drugs and more. Many of these, such as the large La Carroñera dock, are used day and night by smugglers. Many of these are near Desaguadero and are built in areas covered in the totora plant, a water reed that can reach heights of 20 feet and provide ideal cover.
Cocaine seizures are frequent in Desaguadero, with Bolivian authorities making at least three seizures near the town in 2022 to date. While the quantities of cocaine involved are low, usually in the dozens of kilograms at a time, Desaguadero has remained a priority for Bolivian security forces.
And cocaine shipments have been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Iván Paredes, an expert on illegal economies on Lake Titicaca and the surrounding border region who wrote the original El Deber investigation.
According to Paredes, traffickers tie the drugs to small wooden boats in airtight containers, allowing the packages to pass underwater undetected by official patrols on the lake.
Coca base, used to produce cocaine, is also being moved from Peru to Bolivia. Often starting in the Peruvian department of Puno on the western side of the lake, the illicit crop makes its way by boat to the towns of Copacabana and Puerto Acosta on the Bolivian side. From there, it is moved to larger Bolivian cities such as La Paz, according to Público.
With Peru seeing its highest levels of coca leaf production in a decade and because of longstanding price imbalances between the two countries, Peruvian coca fetches a far higher price in Bolivia. As a consequence, both coca base and cocaine are moving across Titicaca. Paredes told InSight Crime that drug trafficking into Bolivia rose during the pandemic as both countries struggled to marshal resources to maintain border controls.
While Peru and Bolivia have attempted security crackdowns on Lake Titicaca to halt the flow of narcotics, the lake’s illicit economies have shown strong staying power.
Agricultural products such as potatoes and onions are frequently smuggled across the lake to the same docks that receive cocaine, El Deber noted in September.
According to Paredes, potatoes have become a contraband mainstay in the area. “They enter every day at all hours. You can see it in the markets in La Paz, Cochabamba, everywhere,” he stated.
Price and product differences are again a driving factor, with Peruvian products being sold cheaper or at an equivalent cost as their Bolivian counterparts, according to Paredes. This is not a new threat, with Bolivia making frequent complaints about the risk Peruvian contraband foodstuffs pose to its agricultural sector. In 2022, military forces posted to Titicaca seized a wide range of contraband food smuggled by water or road, including potatoes, strawberries, avocados, and more. One truck seized in September contained over 100 boxes of contraband food from Peru, valued at over $10,000, according to a Bolivian Army press release.
Over 387 tons of foodstuffs were seized as they entered Bolivia illegally from January to March 2022, according to the country’s food safety authority (Servicio Nacional de Sanidad Agropecuaria e Inocuidad Alimentaria – Senasag).
These contraband agricultural products are typically on their way to markets further east, though some end up in well-established contraband markets like Virupaya in Puerto Acosta along Lake Titicaca. Contraband beef and lamb have also been seized in the area, Bolivia’s vice minister for the fight against contraband, Daniel Vargas, told La Razón.
In September, Vargas announced the start of bilateral operations and enhanced cooperation between Peruvian and Bolivian law enforcement. The goal is “to be able to strengthen the fight against smuggling and carry out joint control with the Peruvian authorities,” he told La Razón.
Longstanding Fuel Smuggling
This works the other way. Local smugglers have long used these routes to traffic contraband diesel and gasoline from Bolivia to Peru, taking advantage of highly subsidized fuel prices in the former country.
In October 2022, the Bolivian Navy seized 200 liters of gasoline, reported El Día Digital. The operations took place on the eastern Bolivian side of the lake and point to the continuation of a long-lived smuggling trade on the lake. In 2014, La Razón documented the existence of fuel smuggling routes originating in La Paz and ending in the border towns of Virupaya, Jankho Jankho, and Patacaile.
Markets selling smuggled fuel are reportedly open for business every Wednesday and Saturday. A wide range of illicit products is sold, but some families “work exclusively with smuggled fuel, usually diesel and liquified gas containers,” according to El Deber. Paredes told InSight Crime that the sheer lack of state control in the area has allowed small-scale groups to operate across the lake for years.
But the prevalence of fuel smuggling owes not just to a lack of border control but also simple economics. Paredes told InSight Crime that fuel smuggled from Bolivia can fetch three times its original price in Peru, if not more.
He added that the price differential is so attractive that Bolivian contraband fuel has sometimes been exchanged for Peruvian cocaine around Titicaca.
Nexus of Human Smuggling and Illegal Mining
Reportedly starting in Puerto Acosta, Bolivian women and girls are brought by local mafias to the Peruvian border. In the northwestern corner of the lake, the Juliaca-Moho highway provides a route for trucks bringing the victims across the border towards the Peruvian town of Juliaca.
Border crossings are easy for human traffickers with minimal controls on the Bolivian side. According to El Deber, vehicles carrying these women routinely do not stop at immigration controls and rapidly arrive in Peru.
Reports of human trafficking in Bolivia have increased by over eight percent between 2021 and September 2022. Women account for 63% of those trafficked, with 43% being between 11 and 20 years of age, according to figures from Bolivia’s Ombudsman.
A new investigation by Peruvian investigative media, OjoPúblico, has also revealed the full scale of mercury trafficking from Bolivia to illegal mines in Peru. In 2021, Bolivia’s Ministry of Mines and Metallurgy estimated that 26.9% of all mercury, or some 52 tons, sent to Peru was destined for illegal gold mining. Again, Desaguadero is at the heart of this trade, with mercury smugglers either using docks near the town on the lake or crossing into Peru through the Desaguadero River. Authorities in Peru told OjoPúblico they had found mercury being smuggled across by people carrying it in backpacks or in suitcases.
Frogs and Fish Under Threat
Lake Titicaca is also home to the Titicaca water frog, which is on the threatened species list and is protected under Peruvian law. However, the frog is used throughout Peru “for the preparation of broths, concoctions, and extracts because it is attributed medicinal properties that have not been scientifically proven,” wrote Inforegión, an environmental news site.
While frog trafficking does not appear to take place on a scale comparable to food or drug trafficking, it does enjoy a pervasive reach throughout Peru. Seizures of Lake Titicaca’s water frogs have been reported in Arequipa, Puno, Ate, and even on their way to international pet markets.
Last May, a truckload of 1,750 frogs was seized on its way to Lima. Crammed into wooden crates, the amphibians were found by customs officials before being handed over to wildlife services (Servicio Nacional Forestal y de Fauna Silvestre – Serfor) for rehabilitation. Serfor estimates that between 2012 and 2019, 15,000 illegally trafficked frogs were seized in total. Peru’s Ministry of the Environment reaffirmed that the Titicaca water frog is one of the most heavily trafficked animals in the country.
The lake’s fish populations, too, have been victims of heavy predation to the point of extinction and near-extinction, according to El País. While there are seasonal fishing bans, these go ignored by fishermen desperate to extract ever-dwindling fish populations in a vicious cycle. Populations of pupfish, bogue, catfish, and more besides have all been endangered. The problem is reportedly compounded by the fact that size restrictions in place to aid reproductive cycles and keep populations from shrinking too low have also been commonly disregarded.