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Why Did Bolivia's Former Interior Minister Get Arrested in the US?

BOLIVIA / 28 MAY 2021 BY PARKER ASMANN AND ASHLEY PECHINSKI EN

Bolivia's controversial former interior minister and his chief of staff have both been arrested in the United States on charges that they secured a multimillion-dollar contract for a group of Florida businessmen in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.

Former Interior Minister Arturo Murillo and Sergio Rodrigo Méndez Mendizábal, his chief of staff, were both arrested in connection to a bribery and money laundering case involving a group of Florida businessmen. Between November 2019 and April 2020, prosecutors allege Murillo and Mendizábal were paid more than $500,000 in bribes in exchange for securing a contract for the businessmen to provide Bolivia's Defense Ministry with tear gas and other non-lethal weapons.

SEE ALSO: Bolivia News and Profile

Payments made to secure the contract, worth an estimated $5.6 million, were laundered through bank accounts in Bolivia and Florida. If found guilty, the two former officials could face up to 20 years in prison.

Murillo fled Bolivia earlier this year after the Attorney General's Office issued arrest warrants for him and several other former officials -- including interim President Jeanine Áñez -- on terrorism, sedition and conspiracy charges.

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Murillo's arrest on corruption charges is somewhat ironic, given his vociferous attacks against allegedly corrupt officials from the administration of former president Evo Morales.

His associates are also well-known in Bolivia. Luis Berkman, one of the Bolivian businessmen based in Florida, fled the Andean nation in 2002 after being investigated in connection to an attempt to smuggle high-powered weapons stolen from the Bolivian Army to Paraguay, according to Página Siete, citing reports from Bolivia's Interior Ministry. Berkman was also reportedly a close friend of, and implicated in arms trafficking with, Gary Suárez Levy, the son of Roberto Suárez, one of Bolivia's most famous drug traffickers known as the "King of Cocaine."

SEE ALSO: Bolivia’s New President Faces Complex Drug Scenario

Murillo's arrest has been accompanied by several others. On May 28, police captain Ivar Víctor Gómez Bolivian was arrested for allegedly participating in the same corruption scheme. Bolivia's former migration director, Marcel Rivas, has also been charged for allegedly helping Murillo and López escape Bolivia and for issuing illegal migration alerts against political opponents.

Finally, former Defense Minister Luis Fernando López was also involved in the Florida bribery scheme, Interior Minister Eduardo del Castillo revealed on May 27. He is believed to have fled to Brazil.

The Bolivian government has officially requested the extradition of Murillo from the United States as soon as possible.

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