The Prisoner, the President and the Mafia

During Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s first administration, which emphasized the importance of foreign investment for Bolivian growth and development, Yerko Kukoc was Prefect of Potosí, and thus presided over the massacre, in November and December 1996, of eleven miners and community peasants in Amayapampa and Capasirca, which was carried out to protect the investments and pardon the environmental abuses of Da Capo and Vista Gold, North American mining corporations.

It was not surprising, then, that as Minister of Government during Sánchez de Lozada’s second and much bloodier administration, Kukoc was able to stomach the killing of eighty-one civilians in September-October 2003; anything to stay in power long enough to benefit from the export of Bolivian liquid gas through Chile to California.

As Minister of Government, Kukoc was a vehement advocate of the theory of a “narcoterrrorist” conspiracy, directed by coca growers’ movement and opposition party leader, Evo Morales, and designed to topple the government. Kukoc was perhaps the most visible Bolivian government figure in the US-led “war on drugs and terror.”

On October 17, 2003, Kukoc was on the plane to Miami with deposed president Sánchez de Lozada, and his hangman, former Minister of Defense Carlos Sánchez Berzaín (the trio narrowly escaped being lynched in public). However, Kukoc, who managed to take with him espionage equipment, donated by the US Embassy and worth $100,000, apparently failed to settle accounts before leaving, and returned after $300,000 in cash was found in the hardware store of a lifelong friend, Milder Arzadúm Monzón, in Santa Cruz on December 7.

Both the friend and the hardware store were under investigation for money laundering (El Juguete Rabioso, 21 December 2003, 8-9). Arzadúm Monzón, according to the DEA, did prison time in Panamá for trafficking, and, according to Interpol, was investigated in Bogotá in 1986 for shipping coca paste from Bolivia to Colombia, though he is not currently under investigation for trafficking in Bolivia.

Kukoc was to appear in court in Santa Cruz before District Attorney José Alfredo Añez on December 10, but the head of the Santa Cruz police, Freddy Soruco, helped make sure Kukoc never got the summons. Meanwhile, Kukoc gave press conferences from the five-star Hotel Bungavilas, and when he decided to make his move to La Paz, Soruco sent a police escort, which then accompanied Kukoc back to Santa Cruz after he had declared before General Accountant Jorge Treviño. Soruco was appointed head of police in Santa Cruz by the Mesa administration, but ex-Minister Kukoc dictated the appointment. Previously, Soruco had been the Administrative Chief under Kukoc, and therefore in charge of the “secret expenses” (los gastos reservados).

Since part of the money found in Arzadúm’s hardware store came from “secret expenses,” it is not hard to see why Soruco would want to protect Kukoc from the District Attorney; a cut of the spoils was almost surely coming to him. But a series of questions present themselves: if $141,000 came from the “secret expenses,” where did the rest of the $300,000—$80,000 of which belonged to Kukoc, and $71,000 to Arzadúm—come from? And what were public monies doing in private hands, mixed together with funds of unknown origin? Why store them in envelopes in a hardware store? Since District Attorney Añez wants answers to these and other questions, Kukoc’s house in Santa Cruz is currently surrounded by special police, waiting for Kukoc to leave so they can arrest him.

Sánchez de Lozada’s Minister of Government in 1997, Victor Hugo Canelas, recently revealed that “Goni” charged the state $7,000 per month in “supersalaries”—not subject to taxation—during his first administration. Canelas argues, “We have to fight against a real mafia, which Goni heads like a ‘Godfather’…. I’ve been in meetings in which Goni called in judges and DAs, many times to pay them off” (Pulso, January 16-22, 2004, 16). According to Canelas, as far as justice is concerned, the weakest link in Goni’s past is not the massacres of September-October, but the unprecedented degree of mafia-style corruption and payoffs that characterized both of his administrations. True to form, “Goni,” Bolivia’s wealthiest mining entrepreneur, passed New Year’s Eve in his old neighborhood, Calacoto, in La Paz, with generals and colonels and suitcases full of cash to hand around as party favors.

Then there’s Chonchocoro Maximum Security Prison, where the rains recently flooded a number of cells, especially in the isolation block, and toppled most of the outer perimeter wall to the east, leaving nothing but chain-link (and a police sniper in a parked car) between prisoners and their freedom. Colombian peasant and human rights leader, Francisco “Pacho” Cortés, accused of, but not charged with, heading up the “narcoterrorist” Bolivian National Liberation Army (ELN-B)—which has yet to make an appearance or stage an action—was arrested on April 10, 2003, and transferred to Chonchocoro on May 7—ostensibly because he was plotting escape with members of the Peruvian MRTA, as well as the two Bolivian coca growers with whom he was arrested, Claudio Ramírez and Carmelo Peñaranda.

During a break in the clouds, fighting the bite of a high plains wind, we talk about Kukoc, and Pacho laughs. At the time of the operation at Ramírez’s house on Nicolas Katari St. in El Alto, police found $4,000 (which has since been returned to Pacho), some bullets, a grenade, adhesive tape, wire, and, supposedly, flags and manuals. Kukoc posed as the leading crusader against “narcoterrorism” and warned of grave dangers to the nation, narrowly avoided thanks to the hard work of Kukoc and District Attorney René Arzabe (whose reputation places him squarely within the “Mafioso” mold).

Noam Chomsky has long argued that conspiracy theories fail to explain enduring political patterns in the relationship between state institutions and the private sector. But since Bolivia was founded in 1825, high-level conspiracy is one of the most regular of such patterns. The evidence here points to conspiracy to block peasant internationalism via police frame-up, and Kukoc fits the “narcoterrorist” profile as well as any Bolivian leader since Luis Arce Gómez (another inveterate conspirator).

While police wait patiently outside Kukoc’s house, Pacho Cortés, who’s working to set up human rights workshops in prison, continues to face threats and harassment from prisoners subcontracted by the police, who are pressured by the DA’s office. “Chucho,” a Colombian narcotrafficker who got his start with Pablo Escobar at age fifteen, and who looks after Pacho in prison (according to Chucho, Pacho knows nothing about how to defend himself against “bandits”); Chucho, who threatened his first judge and the judge’s mother in front of an immobilized army colonel; Chucho, who received no sanctions when it was discovered that he had grenade launchers, machine guns, and munitions stored in a freezer, anticipating the arrival of an artillery helicopter from Brazil; even Chucho has been feeling heat from above lately. Could it be because he keeps Pacho out of harm’s way?

It appears that Kukoc may fall. If so, he will probably try to drag the rest of the gang down with him—Kukoc is not the type to tough it out on his own. The question then becomes: how deep will District Attorney Añez go? Will Mesa be up to the task of bringing to justice the men he worked with, day in and day out, through October 2003? Can the social movements that overthrew Goni and crew force the new administration to take on such formidable criminals, whose continued plotting presents the greatest danger to the survival of Mesa’s new government?

Only once Pacho Cortés is free to organize and agitate in fields, plazas, and city streets of Bolivia, and Yerko Kukoc, Pacho’s accuser, is safely ensconced in a cell in Chonchocoro, will Carlos Mesa be complying with the promises he made, during his inaugural speech on October 17, to end impunity in Bolivia. But first, Mesa will have to confront the ‘Godfather’ and his mafia.

FORREST HYLTON can be reached at:


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Forrest Hylton is visiting professor of history at the graduate school at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. He taught for four years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín as well as three years at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and has written about Colombia for New Left Review, Nueva Sociedad (Buenos Aires), London Review of Books, Historical Materialism, Against the Current, Nacla Report on the Americas – and, last but certainly not least, CounterPunch.