The United States is offering the new government of Bolivia about $140 million in aid to be given as the South American nation cracks down on its narcotics producers and traffickers, and turns over to American authorities a Bolivian whom U.S. officials allege is a major international cocaine dealer.
The aid package, according to U.S. officials, includes $30 million to pay for narcotics enforcement and agricultural redevelopment to replace the growing of coca leaf in Bolivia's Chapare region. Although the Bolivian economy is on the verge of collapse, the country of 5.5 million people is the source of billions of dollars of illegal cocaine.
The remaining $110 million in economic aid also is tied to progress that the Bolivian government makes in agreeing to economic reforms sought by the International Monetary Fund and the major banks to whom Bolivia owes money.
The U.S. aid offer comes at a time when the newly elected, democratic government of President Siles Zuazo in La Paz is beginning to do something about Bolivia's illegal drug business, according to American officials who said last week that the aid is contingent on Bolivia accomplishing specified goals in narcotics control and economic reform.
Efforts at narcotics control within the United States have had almost no impact on the rapidly growing use of cocaine, according to American officials, prompting the Reagan administration, as part of its well-funded, highly publicized war on drugs, to seek to cut off the Bolivian supply.
The United States undertook a similar, widely publicized effort in Turkey 10 years ago, where that government banned the growing of poppies and distributed $35.7 million in American aid to growers who switched to other crops.
Chapare, a barren highland in eastern Bolivia, is ideal for cultivation of the coca plant. The small bush's leaves are dried and crushed into a brown powder, or coca base, a process that takes place in the Beni, a desolate part of northern Bolivia. The sophisticated laboratory work of turning the coca base into cocaine usually is done in Colombia.
Since 1977, when the U.S. cocaine market began growing rapidly, Roberto Suarez, a former cattle rancher in Bolivia, organized growing and harvest of the coca leaf in the Chapare and turned it into a multimillion-dollar trade, according to officials of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
In 1980, DEA carried out its biggest international "sting" operation, concluding with indictments of Suarez, his son, and two others, Marcello Ibanez and Alfredo Gutierrez, on a charges of consipiring to bring 854 pounds of cocaine worth $9 million into the United States. Ibanez and Gutierrez have pleaded guilty to these charges and are in prison. The younger Suarez pleaded not guilty and now is on trial in Miami.
It is the elder Suarez that U.S. officials want from the Bolivian government.
Pieced together from government filings in federal court and interviews with State Department and DEA officials, the allegations about Suarez provide one of the best examples of how drugs and diplomacy may sometimes intertwine.
Suarez is described as a member of one of Bolivia's foremost families who has, under Bolivia's past military governments, controlled -- like a warlord -- vast areas of the Chapare and Beni regions with a well-paid, mercenary army.
He became the object of a DEA undercover operation when the agency learned he was looking for coca buyers outside Colombia. The government alleges that in 1979, after a long series of negotiations with Ibanez, a group of DEA undercover agents agreed to buy the first of what was to be a monthly purchase of 500 kilos of coca base for $9 million.
The DEA borrowed $9 million, in cash, from a Federal Reserve Bank and stored it in safe deposit boxes at the Commercial Bank of Kendall in suburban Miami, so that it could be shown to Ibanez.
Ibanez came to Miami on May 15, 1980, and the negotiations began. The DEA wanted the pickup to take place in Brazil or Colombia. But Suarez, in a series of phone calls with Ibanez, insisted the Americans fly to Bolivia and load the cocaine base at a jungle airfield in territory he controlled, a DEA agent close to the investigation alleged.
Half the money, $4.5 million in cash, was to be paid to Gutierrez in Miami when word was received from both the Americans and the Bolivians that the plane had taken off with the cocaine base. The final payment would be made when the shipment arrived in Florida.
The agency bought an old, twin-engine Convair and manned it with three agents who also were pilots. A tough-talking DEA agent named Richie Fiano was assigned to go along as the negotiator.
After two delays en route, the DEA plane with its crew and Suarez' nephew arrived at the northern Bolivia landing strip.
There they were met by Roberto Suarez Jr., 22, a graduate of Texas A&M, Fiano said. He had flown to the air strip shortly after the DEA Convair arrived and watched the loading of the cocaine powder, according to Fiano.
While the plastic black garbage bags of cocaine were being loaded on the DEA plane, the younger Suarez and Fiano carried on a conversation and one of the other DEA agents, who was acting as a pilot, took some still pictures.
The loaded plane then took off, just clearing the trees. When it crossed into Brazil, the crew radioed the message to Miami that was to trigger payment of the first half of the money.
In Miami, the Bolivian agent collecting the money was Gutierrez, owner of a fleet of air taxis in Suarez' home town of Santa Cruz.
On May 22, as Gutierrez was about to pick up the money in the bank vault, DEA agents arrested him. The case was presented to a federal grand jury which, on June 3, 1980, returned indictments against Suarez and his son, and Ibanez and Gutierrez. The only one in U.S. hands, however, was Gutierrez.
Many Bolivian officials immediately came to Gutierrez' defense, including one former president and the minister of defense at the time. Nonetheless, bail for him was set at $3 million, but later reduced to $1 million.
Gutierrez' son paid $500,000 in cash and the two of them then fled this country and returned to Bolivia.
Less than two months after the DEA "sting" was carrried out, there was a political coup in Bolivia.
An army leader, Gen. Luis Garcia Meza took power, and almost immediately cooperation with U.S. officials in Bolivia on drug control all but ceased and several military officers associated with the cocaine trade joined his administration. One of them, the new minister of interior, was Col. Luis Arce Gomez, a cousin of the elder Suarez and alleged by DEA officials to be a drug trafficker in his own right.
Suarez' business flourished.
Washington responded to these events by refusing to recognize the new government, removing the ambassador and military mission, cutting economic aid substantially, and halting new programs. Prior to that time, U.S. aid had averaged about $10 million a year.
Growing economic difficulties, heightened by America's refusal to help, finally led to another coup in September, 1981.
After the new government arranged for Gutierrez and Ibanez to return to this country to face trial, the United States dispatched a new ambassador, who continued to withhold economic aid while pressing for tougher anti-drug measures and return of the Suarezes.
Then, in early December, 1981, a major breakthrough took place: the younger Suarez was arrested trying to enter Lucarno, Switzerland, from Madrid using a false Colombian passport.
According to government papers filed in federal court in Miami, he was carrying $250,000 in cash. Reports at the time said $10 million, and said he was there to put the money in a Swiss bank.
American officials moved to have him extradited to face trial on charges of conspiracy to import cocaine.
Several months later, in great secrecy, he was flown to Miami. The elder Suarez charged in a Bolivian newspaper ad in September that his son was kidnaped from Switzerland by the United States and had committed no crime.
On Aug. 19, the younger Suarez pleaded not guilty to the 1980 charges stemming from the "sting".
Ibanez and Gutierrez, meanwhile, pleaded guilty and were sentenced earlier this year. Ibanez got 12 years in prison, Gutierrez five years.
In addition to giving DEA agents information about the operation, Gutierrez agreed as part of his guilty plea to testify against other defendants in the case.
The money-rich drug trade is increasingly violent inside Bolivia and the new La Paz government is finding it more in its interest to try to stop it. The government also is concerned about former military men, such as Garcia Meza and Arce Gomez, who now live in Argentina.
Against that background, Washington's pressure appears to be having some success. An army court has called upon Garcia Meza and Arce Gomez to return to Bolivia to stand trial because they have "stained the honor of the armed forces," according to press reports.
Now, the officials believe, it may only be a matter of time before a plan is worked out to capture Suarez.