Past exploits of the former minister of the interior would rival those of Manuel Noriega
During last week's summit in Cartagena, Colombia, George Bush diplomatically chose not to discuss the corruption of Latin American governments by the multi-billion-dollar cocaine trade. But when Bolivia's President Jaime Paz Zamora next requests a substantial increase in US aid, he will no doubt point to the recent extradition from Bolivia as one of the last decade's most notorious uniformed scoundrels.
Col. Luis Arce Gomes may not be a household name like Manuel Noriega. But in the annals of drug-corrupted governments, Bolivia's 1980-81 dictatorship - in which Arce was minister of the interior - gave even Panama's recently fallen general a run for his money.
With little fanfare, Arce was extradited from La Paz to Miami on Dec. 11, nine days before the invasion of Panama. On January 3, he was denied bail and ordered to await trial for conspiring to import and distribute cocaine in Florida.
A 1983 Miami indictment also charges Arce with creating a paramilitary squad to shake down drug dealers. Those who withheld protection money were arrested. Bolivia's five leading drug traffickers, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, paid Arce $75,000 biweekly - in a country where the per capita income was $500 a year. For a single 375-pound cocaine shipment, Arce allegedly charged $13 million.
That's only the tip of the Arce iceberg. For his drug enforcers were led by the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and included same of the biggest names in European neofascist terrorism.
Though you never heard it mentioned in eight years of Ronald Reagan speeches on the drug menace, Arce Gomez's tale makes clear just how deadly were the consequences of South America's mix of drugs with rightwing extremism.
July 1968 Coup
When Arce’s sidekick, Gen. Luis Garcia Meza Tejada, led a July 1980 coup d’état, it was Bolivia's fourth in 26 months. With $3 billion in debts, tin exports of diminishing value, skyrocketing inflation and an aggressive labor movement, instability was par for Bolivia's course.
But this particular coup, Bolivia's 189th in 155 years, had a distinctly unsavory aroma - and it was directly attributable to three contemporaneous phenomena. One was the tremendous growth in American cocaine consumption. Another was Barbie, his hit squad and their close association with Arce Gomez. A third was Gen. Jorge Videla's brutal dictatorship in neighboring Argentina.
For centuries, the coca plant had been cultivated by Bolivian and Peruvian Indians, who chewed its leave to relieve hunger and fatigue. Only in the 1970s did a rich Bolivian rancher, Roberto Suarez, organize and expand cultivation in his country and establish the crucial connections in Colombia.
It was the Colombians who, with easier access to America and chemists adept at extracting cocaine, assumed the predominant role in trafficking. Yet, Suarez still managed to build an organization that by the mid-'80s took in $500 million a year.
And when Suarez's cousin, Bolivian army Col. I.uis Arce Gomez, established a private air-taxi business in 1975, its function was to transport cocaine.
According to “The Nazi Legacy," the 1984 study of Klaus Barbie's second life in South America, by 1979 Arce hail become the head of army intelligence - which gave him control over state security and direct contact with the notorious Barbie.
Barbie recruits enforcers
Barbie, who earned the name "Butcher of Lyon" while Gestapo chief in occupied France's second-largest city, had been living in Bolivia since 1951, when US intelligence, which employed him after the war as a spy against the Communist bloc, smuggled him out of Europe. In the 1970s, he advised the Bolivian army on “psychological operations” and was given honorary rank colonel-developments of which the CIA was aware.
When Roberto Suarez encountered problems in 1978 with Colombians who stiffed him for his coca, he turned to Barbie for assistance.
Through South America's Nazi exile network, Barbie assembled an enforcement squad composed of European neo-Nazis and neo-fascists, many of them fugitives from murder charges. They saw to it that Suarez got paid.
And they soon caught the eye of Arce Gomez, who, in 1979, formally recruited Barbie into army intelligence.
Bolivia's military rulers were then playing musical chairs. Finally, in 1980, the government was turned over to civilians. In an election held June 29, the progressive Hernan Siles Zuazo won a plurality.
Three weeks later, Siles Zuazo's presidency was preempted by coup 189. Calling the shots were Gen. Garcia Meza, Col. Arce Gomez, and other officers knee-deep in cocaine.
Arce's Barbie-recruited henchmen displayed their muscle during and after the coup - the official rationale for which, as usual, was an alleged subversive threat. Some 2,500 priests, labor leaders, journalists, and other "leftists" were arrested, beaten up, and/or tortured, and hundreds were reportedly killed in a nation with no noticeable guerrilla movement.
The real forces behind the coup were Bolivia’s cocaine mob and Argentina’s military dictators. The coup’s methodical execution and aftermath were compliments of the advice of the Buenos Aires junta, which was then waging its own “Dirty War" against subversion.
The Argentines had anticipated that a democratic neighbor might provide an operational base for its own opponents. To foreclose such a development, Argentina reportedly doubled its contingent of intelligence officers in Bolivia and dispatched some 200 military personnel to assist Gen. Garcia Meza. Buenos Aires also sent La Paz’s new dictator computerized lists of Bolivian dissidents, plus a $200 million loan to tide him over.
But the Bolivian coup's initial financing had come from the cocaine kingpins, who also anticipated rough times if democratic forces assumed power. The dealers had promised and handed Garda Meza a coup bonus of $100 million.
The Barbie-assembled group became Interior Minister Arce Gomez’s enforcement squad - though they apparently remained available for hire abroad. Several of its members, most notably the Italian neo-fascist leader Stefano Delle Chiaie, were later charged in Italy with complicity in the bombing on Aug. 2, 1980- only 16 days after the “Cocaine Coup"- of Bologna's main railway station, postwar Europe's bloodiest terrorist act, which claimed 85 innocent lives.
But like most of its predecessors, the Garcia Meza government was short -lived.
Events overtake principals
Early in 1981, Arce Gomez was compelled to resign as interior minister after CBS' “6O Minutes" introduced him here as the “Minister of Cocaine." Later that year, Gen. Garcia Meza turned over power to a colleague, and, in 1982, civilian rule was restored.
Barbie was soon extradited to France, where he was convicted in 1987 of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison. Stefano Delle Chiaie fled to Argentina and was eventually arrested in Venezuela and extradited to Italy to face charges, including the Bologna train station bombing.
Garcia Meza and Arce Gomez also reportedly headed to Argentina. But their status became insecure when civilian rule was restored there in 1983, and the ring leaders of Argentina's "Dirty War" were indicted on charges of torture and murder.
In April 1986, Garcia Meza reappeared in Bolivia. But ensuing attempts to try him for sedition, armed revolt and assassination have faltered because of a shaky Bolivian judiciary - one judge has been shot - and more recently, because of Garcia Meza's disappearance.
On Dec. 10, Arce Gomez was arrested at a farm outside Santa Cruz, Bolivia. He was whisked off to Miami the next day - despite murder charges against him dating to 1980 -apparently to curry Washington's favor prior to President Bush's Latin American drug summit this past Thursday. But what Arce's trial will make clear is that what the Reagan administration liked to call "narco-terrorism" was as often as not a right-wing phenomenon.
Jerry Meldon teaches at Tufts University and is a frequent contributor to Focus.