With the election of a new president, Suriname can finally try to put the tainted and violent legacy of Desi Bouterse behind it. But Chan Santokhi has a tough task ahead: his vice president is a convicted drug trafficker, corruption is rampant and the country is seeing bustling trade in cocaine and illegal gold.
On July 16, Chan Santokhi was inaugurated as the new president of Suriname, putting an end to the decade-long rule of Desi Bouterse.
Bouterse proved to be an extremely controversial figure who dominated international coverage of the small South American nation. He took over Suriname in a military coup in the 1980s, returned to power as a democratically elected president in 2010 and has been accused of human rights abuses and drug trafficking.
A Suriname court found him guilty of murder in 2019 on charges that his soldiers tortured and executed 15 of his opponents in 1982, although he is currently appealing the sentence. He has been tried in absentia for drug trafficking in the Netherlands and his son, Dino, is in prison in the United States after reportedly trying to help Islamist group Hezbollah set up a base in Suriname.
Conversely, Santokhi has a reputation as a crime fighter. A former police officer and justice minister, he has helped to disrupt the cocaine trade through Suriname as a driving force behind the 2006 Paramaribo Declaration, which saw a dozen countries in the Americas, including Colombia, Brazil and the United States, agree to improve their intelligence-sharing about transnational drug trafficking.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Suriname
But there are real doubts about how much room Santokhi will have to maneuver. The criminal infrastructure left behind by Bouterse is tightly woven through the country’s political and business elites, with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stating that “corruption is a systemic problem that is embedded in almost all structures, institutions, sectors and transactions.”
Suriname is also on the verge of bankruptcy. The country’s debts have skyrocketed, its credit ratings have been slashed and the Surinamese dollar is quickly losing value, with the black market price for US dollars now double the official price. And the fall in oil prices, Suriname’s main export after gold, has meant even less income for the state.
Here, InSight Crime looks at the major criminal and security obstacles facing Santokhi.
1. Willingness and Ability to Rock the Boat
In order to secure a majority of seats in Suriname’s National Assembly, Santokhi’s Progressive Reform Party (Vooruitstrevende Hervormings Partij – VHP) entered into a coalition with others, including Vice President Ronnie Brunswijk’s General Liberation and Development Party (Algemene Bevrijdings- en Ontwikkelingspartij – ABOP). While such a coalition would limit Santokhi’s power under any circumstances, the situation is made all the more complicated as Brunswijk is a former rebel, a convicted drug trafficker and a fugitive from Interpol.
This history, which also includes convictions in France and the Netherlands and a suspected role in a 2002 murder, suggests Santokhi may turn a blind eye to the criminal past of his closest colleague.
The coalition agreement between VHP and ABOP, as well as two smaller parties, speaks of measures to combat corruption. After stabilizing the economy, which is in dire straits, the new government plans to improve Suriname’s judicial track record. It has vowed to strengthen the independence of the judiciary by granting it a separate budget, boost public prosecution services and appoint special prosecutors for large-scale corruption cases, and implement the country’s existing anti-corruption law.
Drug trafficking and money laundering are not specifically mentioned in the new government’s mission statement.
And even if Santokhi does take a serious crack at reforming the country’s corrupt institutions, he will face resistance. During Bouterse’s decade in power, corruption underwrote government contracts, public works and senior job appointments. And in the absence of workable legislation against money laundering and similar criminal activity, the new president’s ability to enact reforms may well be limited.
There is also the question of what happens to Bouterse himself. No longer protected by his political immunity, he will likely face jail if he loses the appeal against his murder conviction. Interviewed in June by Dutch media BNR, Santokhi said that the extradition of Bouterse to the Netherlands was a matter for judicial authorities.
While sending Bouterse to face criminal justice abroad would likely help to reduce tensions in the country, current Surinamese law forbids the extradition of any of its citizens, Santokhi also said.
2. Tackling the Cocaine Trade
Santokhi has taken over a country that — despite its small size — moves tons of cocaine to Europe and has shown little ability to take on organized crime and its money-laundering operations. Cocaine enters Suriname over land, by sea or by air, with little risk of detection in a jungle that covers 90 percent of its territory. And recent seizure statistics seem to indicate the cocaine flow is increasing.
While reliable, long-term statistics about drug trafficking in Suriname are difficult to obtain, Krishna Mathoera, a former police officer and now Santokhi’s defense minister, told InSight Crime that seizures of cocaine had doubled under Bouterse’s rule. This may only be accelerating. In 2019, some 4,000 kilograms of cocaine was seized, a massive jump from the 750 kilograms seized in 2018, according to statistics provided to InSight Crime by the Suriname Police Corps (Korps Politie Suriname – KPS).
The detection of a facility building submarines for Colombian criminal groups in 2018 further showed the extent to which drug traffickers have operated with impunity in the country.
Suriname is also an attractive money-laundering destination. The lack of any real legal framework has limited investigations, allowing for illicit cash to move through real estate, casinos, currency exchanges, restaurants and second-hand vehicle sales, August van Gobbel, deputy head of the KPS’ serious crimes unit, told InSight Crime.
The number of casinos in Suriname has risen from a handful in the 1990s to over 30 now, in a country with a population barely exceeding half a million people and with little tourism. Prominent casino owners have been convicted for money laundering in the past.
Another emblematic case of alleged money laundering regards dozens of millions of euros sent by Suriname’s central bank in cash as cargo to Hong Kong via Amsterdam Airport, where it was deposited into accounts and moved back to the Netherlands via Germany. One of these shipments of almost 20 million euros was seized by Dutch authorities in December 2019 on suspicions of money laundering but it had to be returned due to the sovereign position of the central bank.
Santokhi may gain some temporary relief, however. Container shipping to Europe, a common method for hiding drugs, has decreased due to a sharp reduction in banana production. The port of Paramaribo is introducing stricter security measures and barely any flights are leaving the country due to the coronavirus pandemic.
3. Regulating the mining and trading of illegal gold
Gold is the pillar of Suriname’s economy, accounting for over 70 percent of exports. But the sector is rife with illegality, with the country’s interior hosting criminal groups from Brazil profiting directly from mining as well as smaller gangs extorting or violently robbing miners. The country’s security forces have even been deployed to protect legal, private concessions.
Apart from two large mining companies, extraction is carried out in small-scale mining pits. While the mining itself is generally legal, plenty of illegal practices are used, such as the commonplace importing of illicit mercury, according to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature – IUCN). The handing out of mining concessions is often non-transparent and many of Bouterse’s inner circle have received large concessions worth millions of dollars.
The new government has vowed to better regulate the small-scale mining sector, in order to reduce environmental damage and increase tax income. The issue of mining concessions has not been addressed.
This will be further complicated by the fact that Ronnie Brunswijk, the newly inaugurated vice president, is one of the most powerful men in Suriname’s gold industry. Brunswijk owned at least six gold concessions prior to being elected as Vice President although they have now been handed over to a foundation. While there is no conclusive evidence these were obtained illegally, Dutch journalist Jeroen Trommelen documented in a book on Suriname’s gold industry how Brunswijk was allegedly gifted a number of gold concessions, including some in natural parks, as political favors by Bouterse’s government.
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The Kaloti Suriname Mint House, which certifies all gold mined in the country, also needs to be reformed. It has operated under the protection of Bouterse, who has financial interests in the company, according to a report by IBI Consultants. The mint house is involved in a raft of illegal activities related to gold, including certifying non-existent exports and laundering gold coming from Venezuela as originating from Suriname, according to the report’s findings.
4. Reducing Entrenched Corruption
Drug trafficking, illegal gold trade and money laundering are all facilitated by a political system in which corruption is widespread. In its coalition agreement, the new administration stated that “democracy and good government have failed” due to “the increasing corruption…and the lack of accountability by the government.”
Key security institutions are barely equipped to tackle organized crime. Suriname’s practical ability to apprehend and prosecute drug traffickers remains inhibited by drug-related corruption, bureaucratic hurdles, and a lack of financial and material resources, according to the US State Department’s 2019 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Suriname did have a counter-terrorism intelligence unit, which oversaw anti-narcotics operations. But it was dismantled in 2018, allegedly for having played a key role in the dismantling of the submarine facility.
The incentives for public officials to engage in corruption are high.
Public sector jobs, especially at the lower end of the spectrum, are often barely sufficient to meet living costs. Customs officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime that there is hardly any resistance to bribes from drug gangs. One former customs officer was quoted by De Ware Tijd, a newspaper in Suriname, as saying that corruption was so institutionalized in the organization that only an extreme measure, such as firing all customs officials, could make it healthy again.
In the higher ranks, many key security positions went to individuals who proved their loyalty to Bouterse. In June, Santokhi stated that the outgoing government had made numerous last-minute moves to place loyalists within ministries and state companies.
Any attempt to clean up this system will be hindered by the fact that anti-corruption legislation, passed by the National Assembly in 2017, has not been implemented. There are other substantial challenges facilitating corruption, including a lack of regulation for party financing.
Santokhi made implementing this anti-corruption law one of his electoral promises, as well as the creation of a dedicated corruption task force within the Attorney General’s Office. These are promising steps but rooting out such deep-seated corruption may prove to be the new president’s toughest challenge.