Former minister in Bolivia’s coup government pleads guilty to bribery and money laundering in the US

Arturo Murillo, who served as government minister in the coup-installed regime of Jeanine Áñez, fled Bolivia to escape prosecution in a series of corruption and human rights violation cases

October 21, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Bolivia’s former government minister Arturo Murillo pleaded guilty to the crimes of bribery and money laundering in the US on October 20. (Photo: Nathália Urban/Twitter)

The United States Department of Justice, on Thursday October 20, reported through a press release that Bolivia’s former government minister Arturo Murillo pleaded guilty to the crimes of bribery and money laundering.

According to the statement, “Murillo received at least $532,000 USD in bribes from a Florida-based company in exchange for helping it secure an approximately $5.6 million USD contract to provide tear gas and other non-lethal equipment to the Bolivian Ministry of Defense.” The statement added that “Murillo and his co-conspirators laundered the proceeds of the bribery scheme through the US financial system, including bank accounts in Miami, Florida.”

Murillo, who was arrested in the US in May 2021, faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. It is estimated that the sentence will be known between three and six months.

Murillo’s co-conspirators, his former chief of staff Sergio Méndez, businessmen Luis Berkman, Bryan Berkman, and Philip Lichtenfeld, pleaded guilty to their roles in this scheme in September 2021. They were sentenced to between 26 and 42 months in prison in June this year.

Murillo and Méndez had fled Bolivia to avoid prosecution in the “tear gas” corruption case along with former defense minister Fernando López.

The Bolivian justice has alleged that following the US-backed civic-military coup against the then socialist president Evo Morales in November 2019, the coup-installed de-facto government led by senator Jeanine Áñez (2019-2020) purchased tear gas and other non-lethal chemical weapons at a massively inflated price. The Áñez regime paid $5.6 million USD for the equipment to the US-based company, Bravo Tactical Solutions, which it had bought for $3.3 million USD from the Brazilian company, Cóndor.

Following the victory of Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party in October 2020 general elections, the 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” case. Before the police could arrest them, they fled Bolivia. The investigations had revealed that Murillo was in the US and López was in Brazil.

This anti-riot equipment had been used to unleash 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.

Soon after Murillo was arrested in the US, the Bolivian government requested his extradition to Bolivia to face justice in various other corruption and human right violation cases, including the Sacaba and Senkata massacres.

Bolivian Attorney General Wilfredo Chávez, in a press conference on October 20, reported that the national government recovered a “good part” of the $2.3 million USD, thanks to different “steps” taken in the United States, in addition to Murillo’s decision to plead guilty.

Attorney General Chávez indicated that once Murillo completes his sentence in the US, he will be extradited to the country so that he can respond to the more than a dozen trials against him in Bolivia.