Bolivia’s former government minister Arturo Murillo arrested in the US

The former government minister and his chief of staff are accused of receiving bribes from a US company in exchange for a multi-million USD contract with the Bolivian government and using the US financial system to launder those funds. Both are fugitives from Bolivian justice in the same case, among others

May 28, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
Sergio Méndez with Arturo Murillo and Jeanine Áñez. Photo: Kawsachun News

The United States Department of Justice, on May 26, reported through a press release that it arrested former Bolivian government minister Arturo Murillo and his former chief of staff Sergio Méndez in the states of Florida and Georgia, along with three US citizens, on charges of bribery and money laundering. According to the statement, they “are accused of receiving bribes paid by a US company and individuals to secure a Bolivian government contract, and then using the US financial system to launder those bribes.”

The US justice department said that businessmen Luis Berkman, Bryan Berkman and Philip Lichtenfeld paid 602,000 USD in bribes to Murillo, Méndez and one more Bolivian official to secure a 5.6 million USD contract for their Florida-based company of providing Bolivia’s defence ministry with tear gas and other non-lethal equipment. According to the statement the deal was struck between November 2019 and April 2020.

The five men are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. If convicted, they face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Both the former officials, associated with Jeanine Áñez’s coup-installed regime, are fugitives from Bolivian justice in the same case, among others, along with former defense minister Fernando López.

Following the victory of Luis Arce and vice-president David Choquehuanca of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party in October 2020 general elections, the democratically elected government opened investigations against several former coup government officials for their role in various corruption cases, massacres, incidents of violence and human right violations committed during their one year in office.

On November 16, 2020, arrest warrants were issued against Murillo and López in the “tear gas” corruption case, related to the purchase of the non-lethal chemical weapons from a Brazilian company, Condor, at a massively inflated price. The coup regime paid 5.6 million USD for the equipment having a value of 3.3 million USD, and the surcharge of 2.3 million USD was pocketed by the regime officials. The acquisition was made through the US-based company, Bravo Tactical Solutions. Before the police could arrest Murillo and López, they fled Bolivia. The police investigations had revealed that Murillo was in the US and López was in Brazil.

After the investigation by the justice and the police in the US became known, Bolivia’s government minister Eduardo del Castillo announced that the Bolivian government will seek their extradition from the US through Interpol. “We are sending the corresponding notes so that these people are held accountable to the Bolivian people,” said Castillo in a press conference. He added that Murillo and Méndez “took advantage of the opportunity to sow drug trafficking and corruption in our country.”

Murillo was considered Áñez’s right-hand man. He played a key in attempts to prosecute ousted president Evo Morales and his supporters on charges of sedition and terrorism, following the coup d’état in November 2019. He was also complicit in unleashing brutal police and military repression to suppress the social protests carried out in rejection of the coup, in which 36 people lost their lives in different regions of the country.

On October 14, 2020, Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly censured Murillo for failing to report on the purchase of tear gas with a surcharge. On October 19, he was removed from his position and was sworn back in by Áñez on October 20.

Following Murillo’s indictment in the US, Áñez stated that she never accepted corruption in her government. In a tweet, she wrote “corruption is an issue that I never accepted in my government, unfortunately there were officials who distanced themselves from all ethics. Nobody chooses collaborators to corrupt themselves, and these acts have to be punished with the full weight of the law, because they make the country look bad.”