World News

Bolivian priest who blessed Morales found with cocaine

LA PAZ (Reuters) - The Aymara priest who blessed Bolivian President Evo Morales at an inauguration ceremony four years ago has been arrested in possession of 530 pounds (240 kg) of cocaine, police said on Thursday.

Anti-drugs police in the Andean country found a cocaine laboratory in the home of priest Valentin Mejillones. His son and a Colombian couple were also detained. The stash of liquid cocaine seized in the raid was valued at $240,000.

Mejillones told local media he had been tricked by the Colombians, and Vice President Alvaro Garcia said Morales had not chosen the priest to preside at the traditional swearing-in ceremony at the sacred Tiwanaku ruins.

“He was a person who moved within the Andean religious structure,” Garcia told reporters. “Whether he’s a priest or not, if he’s committed a crime, he won’t get any kind of protection when he faces justice.”

Morales, an Aymara Indian and former coca farmer, was sworn in as Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006.

On the eve of his inauguration at the presidential palace, he donned a ceremonial red poncho as Mejillones presented him with a staff of command representing the 36 nationalities of Bolivia’s indigenous majority.

Bolivia is the world’s third-biggest cocaine producer, but limited coca cultivation is legal and leaves of the plant are commonly chewed or brewed in a tea to ward off the effects of altitude.

Reporting by Carlos Alberto Quiroga; writing by Helen Popper; editing by Mohammad Zargham