The future looked dim for General Hugo Banzer Suarez back in July of 1980. While fellow Bolivians savored a rare hiatus of civilian rule, the government in La Paz was preparing to indict Gen. Banzer – whose diminutive stature accounts for his nickname, “El Petiso” – for corruption and human-rights violations during his prior dictatorship, from 1971 to 1978.
But Banzer had powerful friends. Two of them, whom he had introduced originally, were Bolivia’s incipient cocaine king, Roberto Suarez Gomez of Santa Cruz, and Herr Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief of Lyons during the Nazi occupation of France. When Barbie wound up in South America, Banzer had protected him from French war-crimes prosecutors, and Suarez and Barbie were to engineer a coup d’etat that would repay the favor: the Cocaine Coup of July 17, 1980.
This past August 4, just 17 years later, the Congress in La Paz rehabilitated the 71-year-old El Petiso by confirming him as President of the Republic. Americans, who over that same time have squandered over $1.5 billion on narcotics “control” in Bolivia – which recently overtook Peru as the world’s number two producer of cocaine – might like to know more about this president and his longstanding ties to Washington’s national-security establishment.
These ties can be traced to young Hugo Banzer’s student days in the mid-1950s at the Pentagon’s famous “School of the Assassins,” as their Panama installation, “School of the Americas,” was known throughout Latin America. (It was moved to Ft. Benning, GA, in 1984.) SOA cadets were instructed in torture, kidnapping, blackmail and the murder of dissidents through detailed texts that were not declassified by the Pentagon until 1996. Their selection of Banzer for SOA training was well-timed, because in a 1952 a rebellion, led by tin miners and the Movimento Nacionalista Revolucionario, had vanquished the oligarchy and replaced their armed forces with popular militias.
Since official US doctrine prescribed military dictatorship as prophylaxis against Communism, and Hugo Banzer matched their profile of a promising potential caudillo, the young Petiso found himself being groomed for future authoritarian rule by US Army officers at SOA and then at Ft. Hood, TX. Later he would be Bolivia’s military attaché in Washington, and the Pentagon would award him its Order of Military Merit.
The training and grooming paid off in 1971, when Banzer overthrew the left-leaning regime of Gen. Juan Jose Torres, who had offended Washington by reaching out to Fidel Castro, trading with Russia, expelling the Peace Corps and nationalizing US-owned tin mines. After a first unsuccessful coup attempt, Banzer organized his second with the clandestine assistance of an Air Force major, Robert Lundin, who put the US Air Force radio at the general’s disposal for his successful coup that August.
Banzer repaid Washington by severing ties with Cuba and denationalizing the tin industry. He also imposed a reign of terror, arresting 2,000 dissidents and dispatching CIA-style hit squads around the world to assassinate about 500 exiled Bolivians. “All fundamental laws protecting human rights were regularly violated,” observed a New York Times report, and torture was “commonly used on prisoners [who were] beaten, raped and forced to undergo simulated executions.”
But Banzer reserved his most potent venom for “liberation theology” clergy, who were then supporting the struggle against authoritarian regimes worldwide. After the Bolivian Catholic Church denounced a government massacre of striking tin miners in 1975, the memorable “Banzer Plan” was hatched. Clergymen were individually targeted, with the CIA providing “information on certain priests,” according to Penny Lernoux’s Cry of the People—“personal data, studies, friends, addresses, writings, contacts abroad, et cetera.”
Nine dictatorships in Latin America officially adopted the Banzer Plan in 1977, and before 1980, 30 theologians had been slain across the continent, with government forces and rightist civilian death squads implicated.
But the Banzer Plan was only one element in a broad repressive strategy linking Latin America’s dictatorships in a transcontinental extermination program. “Operation Condor,” designed to silence prominent opposition leaders, was conceived by the DINA secret police of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the CIA-installed caudillo running Chile. The US Senate Foreign Relations committee described Condor’s modus operandi in 1979, in a classified report eventually leaked to Jack Anderson’s column: “Special teams from member countries [are] assigned to travel anywhere in the world to non-member countries, to carry out ‘sanctions,’—including assassination—against Condor enemies.”
Among identifiable Condor targets were Banzer’s leftish predecessor, Juan Jose Torres, who had fled to Buenos Aires, and was gunned down there; and prominent Pinochet opponent Orlando Letelier, who was blown up in his car on a Washington street.
Banzer himself was overthrown, amidst nationwide strikes and political chaos, in July 1978, by an Air Force general who charged him, absurdly, with sacrificing the country to international Communism. El Petiso was hiding in Argentina when the fledgling democratic government of Hernan Siles Zuazo moved to have him indicted in 1979, whereupon coca king Roberto Suarez and fugitive gauleiter Klaus Barbie providentially provided finance and muscle for the Cocaine Coup.
To recapitulate, Barbie was spirited out of Europe after the defeat of the Third Reich with the help of the Vatican and the US Army Counterintelligence Corps. The US CIC had briefly used Barbie to oversee an anti-Red network of erstwhile Nazis like himself, but the French, recalling all the tortures and murders and concentration-camp deportations he’d engineered while running the Lyons Gestapo, were hot on his trail. So the CIC enlisted Dr. Krunoslav Draganovic, a Croatian priest running a Vatican “ratline” by which hundreds of SS and Gestapo notables escaped from Europe, to fabricate exit papers for Barbie to flee from Germany to Bolivia as “Herr Klaus Altmann.” By the time Nazi hunters tracked him down there, Banzer, the School of the Americas graduate, was running Bolivia, and he rejected their repeated requests for Barbie’s extradition.
Following the Cocaine Coup of 1980, Roberto Suarez put Gen. Luis Garcia Meza and Col. Luis Arce Gomez on his payroll as figurehead rulers, and Barbie in charge of the nation’s secret police. Thugs hand-picked and trained by Barbie terrorized political dissidents against the Garcia Meza narcoregime, and also enforced Suarez’s supremacy in the cocaine trade. Among these enforcers was Stefano delle Chiaie, a hero of the Fascist International who, in 1980, had planted a bomb in the central train station in Bologna, Italy, that killed 80 people. [This was also the regime which was personally congratulated by Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina for their anti-Communist zeal. See accompanying article.]
But like Bolivia’s 190 or so earlier dictators, narcotraficante lackeys Garcia Meza and Arce Gomez ruled incompetently, and briefly. With the country on the verge of bankruptcy in August of 1981, they were both ousted. While Garcia Meza is still at large, Arce Gomez is currently serving a 30-year cocaine sentence in the USA. Barbie died of leukemia in 1992 while awaiting his war-crimes trial in France. Roberto Suarez, busted in 1988, is serving 15 years.
Fortune has been kinder to Hugo Banzer Suarez, who during the Garcia Meza reign assumed leadership of the Accion Democratica Nacionalista party. He was briefly embarrassed in 1983, when a civil tribunal in Argentina, trying some recently deposed military torturers there, accused him of having authorized the delivery of a woman to them, who “disappeared” in the course of their interrogations. But Banzer was never extradited. In fact, shortly afterwards he returned to the School of the Americas briefly, to be inducted into its Hall of Fame.