The Consortium

Return of Bolivia's Drug-Stained Dictator

By Jerry Meldon

A Latin American ghost from Washington's Cold War past is reappearing this summer. On Aug. 6, one of South America's most notorious drug-tainted military dictators, Hugo Banzer Suarez, will don Bolivia's presidential sash. That will make him responsible for battling cocaine traffickers in one of the world's top drug-producing nations.

The 71-year-old Banzer, a long-time U.S. favorite because of his anti-communism, forged the coalition that gave him the presidency after his Accion Democratica Nacionalista party won 22 percent of the vote in the June elections. Banzer's latest ascendancy set off alarms in Washington, despite the old Cold War ties.

A State Department spokesman warned of possible diplomatic strains if Banzer appointed Bolivian officials who "in other eras have been directly involved in narco-trafficking." In Latin America, however, the U.S. statement was viewed as an indirect reference to Banzer, who could not have survived politically in the violent world of Bolivian politics without the timely intervention of South America's drug lords.

In July 1980, for instance, while most Bolivians were enjoying a rare hiatus of non-military rule, Banzer was hiding out in exile in Argentina. Bolivia's civilian government was set to indict him for human rights violations and corruption during his 1971-78 dictatorship. But Banzer saw his political life saved when a grotesque band of old-time Nazis and younger neo-fascists -- financed with drug money and aided by the Argentine military -- overthrew the government in La Paz.

The coup was spearheaded by two men whom Banzer had introduced: Roberto Suarez, Bolivia's coca king, and Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief of Lyons whom Banzer had protected from French war crimes prosecutors. The victorious putsch -- known as the Cocaine Coup -- established Bolivia as a kind of narco-state. Saved by this mix of drug trafficking and anti-communism, Banzer returned home to resume his political career.

Still, Banzer's allegiance to the United States goes back even farther to the early days of the Cold War when Washington was worried about political developments in Banzer's land-locked South American country.

In 1952, anti-military grievances in Bolivia erupted into popular revolt. The revolutionaries, led by Bolivia's tin miners and the Movimento Nacionalista Revolucionario party, vanquished the old oligarchy. The new president, Victor Paz Estenssoro, nationalized the largest tin mines and distributed land to Indian peasants. Popular militias replaced the regular armed forces.

These developments did not sit well with the State Department. In Washington, official doctrine saw strong militaries as crucial bulwarks against communism. So, in the mid-1950s, while his compatriots were dismantling 125 years of authoritarian rule -- which followed centuries of Spanish colonial domination -- the young Hugo Banzer was under the tutelage of U.S. Army instructors at the School of the Americas (SOA).

(South of the border, the school was often called "School of the Coup Plotters" or "School of Assassins," names that gained more credibility last September when the Pentagon declassified school manuals which taught blackmail, kidnap, torture and murder of dissidents.)

But Banzer, known as El Petiso because of his diminutive stature, was a star pupil. After his SOA graduation, he received additional training at Fort Hood in Texas. His ties to the U.S. national security elite tightened even more when he was named military attache in Washington and won the Pentagon's Order of Military Merit.

Meanwhile, in Bolivia, the political terrain kept shifting. Military officers ousted the reformist civilian government in 1964 and then fought among themselves for power.

Into that turmoil stepped communist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who left Cuba with the dream of sparking a popular uprising in the mountains of Bolivia. However, aided by the CIA, specially trained Bolivian rangers hunted down Guevara's armed band in 1967. After capturing Guevara, with CIA personnel present, Bolivian officers ordered the revolutionary executed, his hands severed and his body buried secretly.

To stop other revolutionary movements across Latin America, the Pentagon encouraged collaboration among the nations' militaries. As Edward S. Herman noted in The Real Terror Network, U.S. Gen. Robert W. Porter stated in 1968 that "in order to facilitate the coordinated employment of internal security forces within and among Latin American countries, we are ... endeavoring to foster interservice and regional cooperation by assisting in the organization of integrated command and control centers; the establishment of common operating procedures; and the conduct of joint and combined training exercises."

Banzer's Rise

Two years later, however, Washington had more reasons to worry about Bolivia. Left-leaning Gen. Juan Jose Torres grabbed power and extended a friendly hand to Cuba's Fidel Castro. Torres also expanded commercial ties with the Soviet Union, nationalized US-owned tin mines and expelled the Peace Corps. In January 1971, Torres withstood a first coup attempt by Banzer, who then fled to Argentina.

There, Banzer plotted a comeback. According to a report in The Washington Post [Aug. 29, 1971], Banzer crossed back into Bolivia frequently during his exile to confer with U.S. Air Force Major Robert Lundin. That August, Banzer led a second coup attempt, which Lundin aided. When Banzer's communications broke down, Lundin made available the U.S. Air Force radio system and the coup-makers won.

Once in power, Banzer reversed policies that had angered Washington. He cut ties to Cuba and denationalized the tin industry. Banzer also launched a reign of terror, as 2,000 dissidents were arrested. The New York Times reported [Dec. 30, 1973] that "all fundamental laws protecting human rights were regularly violated" and that torture was "commonly used on prisoners [who were] beaten, raped and forced to undergo simulated executions."

But Banzer won a special note in the annals of counter-insurgency for devising a strategy for combatting so-called "liberation theology," a religious doctrine which promotes social justice for the poor. After the Bolivian Catholic Church denounced an army massacre of striking tin workers in 1975, Banzer began his move against leftist priests and nuns. According to Penny Lernoux's Cry of the People, some clergy were targeted, with the CIA providing "personal data, studies, friends, addresses, writings, contacts abroad, etc." Government agents slandered and harassed progressive clergy. Foreign priests and nuns were expelled.

The anti-clergy strategy became known as the Banzer Plan and was adopted by nine other Latin American dictatorships in 1977 at a meeting of the Latin American Anticommunist Confederation. Over the next two years, 30 progressive clergymen were slain across Latin America, with government forces and rightist death squads implicated in the majority of cases.

But the Banzer Plan was only one element in a program linking Latin America's military dictatorships in a transcontinental campaign to exterminate leftists. The underlying program of violence, according to Scott and Jon Lee Anderson's Inside the League, had four main points:

Operation Condor

This united strategy led to Operation Condor, a plan for cross-border executions of dissidents. According to a classified 1979 Senate Foreign Committee report excerpted by Jack Anderson [WP, Aug. 2, 1979], it included "formation of special teams from member countries assigned to travel anywhere in the world to non-member countries to carry out 'sanctions' -- including assassination -- against Condor enemies."

One of those "enemies" was Gen. Juan Jose Torres, the Bolivian military reformer who resided in Buenos Aires following his ouster by Hugo Banzer. As Argentina's security forces were launching their "dirty war" against leftists in 1976, Banzer's military attache in Buenos Aires threatened Gen. Torres's life. A few months later, Torres was gunned down in the streets of the Argentine capital.

Though one of Banzer's principal rivals had been eliminated, Banzer still had enemies. Amid strikes and political chaos in July 1978, Bolivian Air Force Gen. Juan Pereda Asburn overthrew Banzer, in the name -- oddly enough -- of saving Bolivia from "international communism." El Petiso fled again to Argentina.

Two years later, the Bolivian government prepared to indict Banzer on charges of human rights violations and corruption. But Banzer's remarkable luck held out. His friends, coca king Roberto Suarez and Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, provided the money and muscle for the "Cocaine Coup."

Barbie, in particular, was already deep in Banzer's debt. After World War II, Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyons for his work in Nazi-occupied France, was hired by the US Army's Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) to run a spy network of ex-Nazi officers. But French intelligence agents -- seeking Barbie's arrest on charges of torture and murder -- picked up his scent. The CIC then contacted Dr. Krunoslav Draganovic, a rightist Croatian priest who ran a Vatican "ratline" which helped hundreds of Nazi SS officers escape from Europe. Draganovic arranged papers and transportation for Barbie to flee from Germany to Italy and then to Argentina and Bolivia.

When French Nazi hunters were closing in again a quarter century later, Banzer and other Bolivian officers stepped forward as Barbie's protectors. During his 1971-78 dictatorship, Banzer repeatedly rejected French requests for Barbie's extradition. Barbie returned the favor in 1980, recruiting a mercenary army of neo-fascist terrorists, including Italy's Stefano delle Chiaie.

Friends in Need

The 1980 coup put Generals Luis Garcia Meza and Luis Arce Gomez into the top offices. But Banzer's longtime allies -- Barbie and Suarez -- were the powers behind the throne. Suarez put Garcia Meza and Arce Gomez on his drug payroll. Meanwhile, Barbie kept his goon squad in place, terrorizing Suarez's rivals in the narcotics trade as well as the regime's political opponents.

But the generals proved incompetent leaders, soon bringing Bolivia to the brink of financial ruin. Garcia Meza and Arce Gomez were chased from office in August 1981 and found themselves in legal hot water. Garcia Meza today is a fugitive from a 30-year sentence in Bolivia for abuse of constitutional power, corruption, looting the national treasury and murder. Arce Gomez was extradited to Miami and now is serving a 30-year sentence for drug trafficking.

Banzer's other allies got nailed, too. Drug lord Roberto Suarez was arrested in 1988 and is serving a 15-year sentence for narcotics trafficking. Barbie was extradited to France in 1983 where he was sentenced to life for crimes against humanity. He died in 1992, at the age of 77, of leukemia.

Fortune was much kinder to Hugo Banzer. He returned to Bolivia following the Cocaine Coup to resume leadership of his party, Accion Democratica Nacionalista (ADN). He briefly found himself in trouble when Argentina's new democratic government accused him of delivering a woman to the Argentine military who then "disappeared" her. But Banzer avoided extradition. Instead, he remained in Bolivia and brokered ADN's normal one-fifth popular vote into participation in several coalition governments.

He also adopted a more nationalistic political posture, mildly defying his old mentors in Washington. Before the June election, he opposed Washington's demands for strict enforcement of "neo-liberal" economic strategies. In an interview with Argentina's La Nacion [June 4, 1997], Banzer complained that "privatization" of major national industries had caused poverty and unemployment. Though favoring modern capitalism, Banzer said he wanted to "humanize the neo-liberal model."

In his new-found populism, Banzer seems to be playing to the anti-American sentiments of Bolivia's 300,000 coca growers, an important political force in a poverty-stricken country of eight million. Many Bolivians -- not just drug traffickers -- were offended by heavy-handed American pressure to pass a draconian anti-drug law in 1989. The law mandated long jail terms for accused drug traffickers, even if the evidence was flimsy. Until a recent change, even acquitted defendants could be kept in prison pending government appeals.

As Bolivia's new leader, Banzer now will oversee the spending of $50 million in annual narcotics control money supplied by Washington. Most of that money is ticketed for Bolivia's anti-narcotics units long renowned for their brutality and readiness to take bribes.

Washington soon may learn again in Bolivia how much loyalty $50 million can buy -- and how deep a government official's pockets can be. ~

(c)Copyright 1997

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