This article is part of NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order, a transnational journalistic investigation into global organized crime, its innovations, its tentacles, and those who fight it. The project, led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in partnership with Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística (CLIP), began with a leak of emails from the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office that was shared with InSight Crime and more than 40 media outlets around the world. Reporters examined and corroborated the materials along with hundreds of other documents, databases and interviews. Read the rest of the articles in this series here.
US and Colombian investigators connected Suriname’s Vice President Ronnie Brunswijk and ex-President Desi Bouterse to recent involvement in drug trafficking, according to hacked emails that suggest ongoing high-level political links to organized crime in South America’s smallest country.
The emails were among a trove of documents stolen from Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office in 2022 and provided to a consortium of journalists, including InSight Crime.
The allegations in the emails add to persistent rumors about Brunswijk and Bouterse’s role in cocaine trafficking through Suriname, for which both have been convicted in the past. They allegedly act as brokers, using their connections in Suriname’s government to facilitate cocaine smuggling in exchange for bribes.
Other information contained in the cache of stolen files highlights why traffickers are attracted by Suriname. It is conveniently located near major drug production zones, has fragile borders, and has the infrastructure to dispatch cocaine to major markets in Europe, West Africa, and the United States.
The Colombian guerrilla group known as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and dissident groups of the demobilized Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia – FARC) both sent cocaine through Suriname in recent years, according to other hacked emails.
Ronnie Brunswijk: Saving a Seized Load?
Brunswijk’s alleged ties to the drug trade surfaced in an email dated August 25, 2020, just over a month after the former rebel and current gold baron took office as vice president.
In the email, a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agent wrote to an investigator in Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office about a recent botched drug seizure operation in Suriname.
According to the DEA agent, the “Surinamese unit” — likely a reference to the local DEA unit — suspected Brunswijk of being in contact with two “bad guys”: Jayant “Alex” Roman and Gilbert Samuels, a pilot who owns an aviation company called Vortex.
“The unit suspects that the vice president has contact with the bad guys … because the operation didn’t result in any seizures or arrests,” the DEA agent wrote in Spanish strewn with spelling and grammar mistakes.
The operation took place on August 21, 2020, when Samuels returned from a flight to Suriname’s vast jungle and left Zorg en Hoop airport in the capital Paramaribo driving a van.
Two officers of the Suriname Police Force (Korps Politie Suriname – KPS) ambushed Samuels and allegedly found and stole 400 kilograms of cocaine. But they rapidly returned it after finding out that part of the drugs belonged to a criminal with important connections, local newspaper de Ware Tijd reported at the time.
A high-level Surinamese security official who asked for anonymity out of fear of retribution told InSight Crime this criminal was Brian Blue, who bribed Brunswijk to “calm the situation,” after which the cocaine was returned to Jayant Roman. Blue and Roman each owned part of the intercepted load, the security official said. The DEA email also mentions Blue as a drug trafficker connected to Samuels.
Brunswijk did not respond to InSight Crime’s request for comment. Surinamese, Colombian, and US authorities also did not respond to requests for comment. Samuels declined to comment. Attempts to contact Blue and Roman were unsuccessful.
Blue is one of the most prolific drug traffickers in Suriname, according to the security official. In 2018, a Brazilian court sentenced him in absentia to 21 years in prison for trafficking 500 kilograms of cocaine, and issued a warrant for his arrest.
In Suriname, law enforcement did not seem to consider him a high priority.
“I only met Brian Blue once at the hairdresser … but he was not on the radar of the police during my time in office,” August van Gobbel, a former police commissioner who headed the KPS intelligence bureau and later the serious crimes department during Bouterse’s terms as president, told InSight Crime.
Multiple journalists and van Gobbel said there were rumors that Brunswijk or people close to him were involved in the aftermath of Samuels’ August 2020 cocaine bust, though none had seen concrete evidence.
Before the bust, Samuels had carried out drug flights from a hamlet called Amatopo to Paramaribo’s Zorg en Hoop airport since at least the first quarter of 2020, according to the DEA agent’s email.
Located deeply in the scarcely populated jungle border region with Guyana, on the Courantyne River and next to an airstrip, Amatopo is an ideal transshipment point for anything smuggled into the country. Samuels owns a lodge here, InSight Crime found.
Two days after Samuels was stopped by the KPS, he was arrested. A canine unit sniffed his plane and van, and a positive reaction suggested there had been cocaine, de Ware Tijd reported. Nonetheless, his case was dropped three weeks later after a judge found a lack of evidence. The outcome of an internal police investigation into the officers who allegedly tried to steal the cocaine has not been made public.
InSight Crime asked former and current KPS leadership what had happened to the internal investigation but did not receive a reply.
Desi Bouterse: Still in the Game?
Allegations of Bouterse’s continued involvement in the drug trade appeared in a different hacked email between officials in Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office.
In the email, dated May 6, 2022, another investigator at the Attorney General’s Office briefed a superior about an informal source’s report that Bouterse helps traffic cocaine from Colombia via Suriname to locations in the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe.
“I respectfully request the assignment of a preliminary ruling in order to verify the aforementioned information and carry out the judicial activities that may arise in order to clarify the people who are linked to these events,” the investigator wrote.
Bouterse was Suriname’s dictator between 1980 and 1987, a period in which he allegedly used his control of the military to traffic drugs. In 1999, he was convicted in absentia for drug trafficking by a Dutch court.
He was elected as Suriname’s president in 2010. In March 2015, his son Dino was convicted for drug trafficking in the United States. Nevertheless, a couple of months later, Bouterse was reelected as Suriname’s president for a second term and served until 2020.
The investigator’s source said Bouterse was in contact with a Surinamese drug trafficker whose network also included a Colombian trafficker who tried to get a private plane customized to carry between 1.2 and 1.5 tons of cocaine, according to the informant.
The unverified claims of the informant contradict what most sources told InSight Crime during a visit to Suriname in October 2022 — namely, that Bouterse, who turns 78 in October, has retired from both his political and criminal career.
Bouterse did not respond to InSight Crime’s request for comment.
The plane allegedly used by Samuels to smuggle cocaine under the protection of Brunswijk in 2020 also had a link to Desi Bouterse. The six-person Cessna C206 had been bought by Samuel’s company Vortex in 2017 in coordination with then-President Bouterse. Several unnamed sources told local media United News that the plane had been purchased with state funding for drug trafficking, something that Samuels denied.
The details of Bouterse’s alleged involvement in these schemes is unclear. In previous cases, such as his 1999 conviction, and the case against his son Dino, evidence showed the Bouterse family used their powerful position in Suriname to provide goods and services like arms and visas to foreign criminal partners.
ELN and Ex-FARC Mafia: The Colombian Suppliers
Other hacked emails suggest that Surinamese drug traffickers work with Colombian guerrilla groups to source cocaine using clandestine flights.
Relations between Colombian guerrillas and Surinamese traffickers go back decades. Desi Bouterse for example exchanged arms for cocaine with the FARC in the 1990s, according to a 2000 Brazilian parliamentary inquiry.
The hacked emails show that Colombian guerrilla groups still supply Surinamese traffickers with cocaine.
The ELN‘s Eastern War Front transported cocaine with vehicles from San Vicente del Caguán, in Colombia’s Caquetá department to an airstrip in Arauca, close to the Venezuelan border. Next, pilots flew the cocaine to Suriname. From Suriname, the drugs were exported to Europe.
The ELN was paid in Suriname with US dollars, which were then moved back to Colombia and exchanged for pesos, according to a statement of a former ELN collaborator to the Colombian military part of the email hack.
Another document, shared with the Attorney General’s office by a member of Colombia’s National Police, alleges drug trafficking from Colombia to Suriname by the Ex-FARC Acacio Medina Front.
The front trafficked between 1 and 2 tons of cocaine a month from clandestine airstrips in Maroa and Yavita, two hamlets in Amazonas, Venezuela, near the border with Colombia, to Central America, Mexico, and Suriname, according to the 2017 document.
While the hacked emails describe dynamics around 2016, the cocaine air bridge from the border region of Colombia and Venezuela to Suriname continues until today. In August 2023, Suriname’s President Chandrikapersad Santokhi told radio station ABC that drug planes still land on a daily basis in Suriname’s interior.
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