This small, sparsely populated nation has one of the lowest homicide rates in South America. But behind this veneer of tranquility, criminal economic drive large parts of the former Dutch colony, with the involvement of government officials at the highest level.
Suriname is isolated geographically from the rest of the continent. Jungle covers about ninety percent of its surface and few roads connect it to French Guiana in the east and Guyana in the west. There is no road to southern neighbor Brazil. Its 1500-kilometer border is largely uncontrolled.
The country has large oil reserves and gold deposits. With about half the gold sector concerning small-scale mining and little transparency on who owns the gold concessions, corruption and illegality are common.
Its geography also makes the country attractive as a transit point for drugs bound for Europe, directly or via West Africa. Drugs enter via land from Guyana, or via Venezuelan fishing vessels dropping GPS-traceable packages of cocaine in international waters near Suriname’s coast. Drugs can also be flown in from Brazil with small planes that can land on one of the dozens of formal but unmanned airstrips in the jungle.
Cocaine leaves the country from its main port in Paramaribo and the international airport of Zanderij. Drugs are also transported in pleasure yachts and possibly submarines.
Suriname became independent in 1975 after almost three centuries of Dutch colonial rule.
Barely five years later, a bloodless coup led by sergeant Desi Bouterse put a military regime in place that ruled until 1987. Structural economic improvement remained absent and the regime quickly lost popular support. The murders of 15 prominent opponents in December 1982 left the country in shock and politically isolated.
The foundations for a narcostate were established in this period, with members of the military regime being involved in multiple drug-related scandals. Intentions to improve its image were damaged in 1986 by the arrest of lieutenant Etienne Boerenveen, second in command, for drug trafficking in the United States.
Suriname became an important transit point in the transnational cocaine trade during the dictatorship. Pablo Escobar visited Desi Bouterse at his presidential palace in 1983. In the 1990s, Brazilian Leonardo Dias Mendonça was the intermediary between Bouterse and the FARC in arms-for-cocaine deals. FARC leader Carlos Bolas was captured in Suriname in 2002. Guyanese cocaine lord Roger Khan, who was regarded as an ally of Bouterse by the DEA, was arrested in Suriname in 2006 and extradited to the United States.
In the 2000s, the country’s economic position improved. Resilience to organized crime increased and international cooperation was strengthened, including through the adaptation of the 2006 Paramaribo declaration by the OAS International Narcotics Control Board.
In 2010, Desi Bouterse returned to power, this time as a democratically elected president. Quantities of seized drugs that originated in Suriname doubled directly in the following two years and are now likely higher than ever, with a significant amount of drugs seized in Europe’s port coming from the country.
45 years after independence, Suriname is economically weak and unlikely to profit from its large oil and gold reserves. Deliberate mismanagement that mostly favored Bouterse’s inner circle hollowed out the state apparatus, with officials’ loyalty overruling their qualifications.
In July 2020, President Chan Santokhi was sworn into office, ousting Bouterse and his complicated legacy. Santokhi has vowed to clean up Suriname’s institutionalized corruption but he has a tough task ahead of him.
Organized crime groups are mostly involved in the cocaine trade, gold sector and money laundering.
To handle increasingly large cocaine shipments like those seized in recent years, an infrastructure is needed to take care of transport, stashing, security and dispatch. Foreign actors – Colombians, Venezuelans and Brazilians - are responsible for the provision of cocaine, as well as for specialist tasks, such as submarine construction. Within Suriname, local networks handle most of the transit process. Cultural links mean that many Surinamese traffickers partner with Dutch-Surinamese counterparts to export cocaine to the Netherlands. The country has also been used as a hide-out for international criminals on the run, and in December 2018, a raid took place as part of an international operation against the Italian Mafia organization Ndrangheta.
At the top of Suriname’s criminal hierarchy is a network of former military, businessmen and government officials who manage a large part of the cocaine and gold business, as well as laundering illicit profits. Former president Bouterse was largely dependent on their loyalty to stay in power. His exact role is unclear, but he was convicted in absentia for drug trafficking in the Netherlands in 2000. His son Dino is currently serving a 16-year sentence for crimes, including drug trafficking, in the United States. Drug traffickers Piet Wortel and Franklin Waterval were both linked to Bouterse in phone conversations intercepted by Dutch police in 2012.
There are no dominant criminal groups controlling the gold mines. Most concessions are owned by Surinamese citizens, but Brazilian miners outnumber Surinamese three to one, paying a small percentage of the gold found to work on a concession. At times, small armed groups have robbed miners in the interior. Security schemes that involve Brazilians, off-duty government forces, or private security are common. Current Vice President Ronnie Brunswijk, himself a convicted drug trafficker and former rebel, is one of the most powerful men in the Surinamese gold industry and owns a number of mining concessions, although these were reportedly placed in a trust when he took office.
Money laundering networks partly overlap with those involved in gold and cocaine. Casinos, money exchanges and second-hand car shops are commonly used, as is trade-based money laundering. Some of the most successful businessmen in the country have been prosecuted for money laundering.
Despite the military coup in 1980, Suriname does not have a strong military tradition. Its small army does not have a lot of resources and many soldiers take on second jobs to supplement their wages, such as security guards in mining areas, for which they often pay a percentage to the army commander.
The budget for the police force has decreased steadily under Bouterse and many qualified officers have left for better-paying jobs in the private sector.
There are several specialized units to combat organized crime. However, the creation of a counter-terrorism unit in 2011 was highly controversial as it was placed under the authority of the president’s office, instead of the police. Bouterse’s son Dino was made the director of this unit, before he was jailed in the US. A well-functioning unit, the Counter Terrorism Intelligence Unit (CTIU), was largely dismantled in 2018.
Suriname’s judicial branch constitutes an independent branch of the government and is partly based on the Dutch judicial system. The highest court is the Hof van Justitie (Court of Justice), whose members also serve in the lower kantongerechten (district courts) for civil cases and criminal cases. Resources and the number of judges and lawyers increased in the past 15 years.
Nevertheless, there are several flaws in the judicial system. Existing legislation is often not implemented. In 2017, the country passed a new anti-corruption law but this has never been put into action, something which new President Chan Santokhi has vowed to do.
Payments are sometimes made to obtain favorable outcomes in criminal and civil proceedings. Furthermore, judges sometimes try the different stages of the same cases, including on appeals for rulings they handed down. And even the most complicated cases are assigned to just one judge, rather than to multiple judges. The judicial branch does not have its own budget, for which it depends on the Ministry of Justice. The president can appoint nominated judges, as well as pardon prisoners, legislation Desi Bouterse used several times, including for the early release of his foster son Romano Meriba, who had been convicted of murder and robbery.
Bouterse also used his position to fight a possible conviction. The Bouterse administration changed Suriname’s amnesty legislation in 2012 to help the president avoid prosecution. The justice minister was fired in 2017 and replaced with an ally. The Attorney General at the time was also asked to voluntarily resign. Despite these efforts to undermine the judicial branch, Bouterse was convicted to 20 years in prison, against which he is currently appealing. This process demonstrates that the judicial branch, despite its flaws, is able to show resistance.
The infamous dynamics of gang control and massive overpopulation common in many other prisons in Latin America are not seen in Suriname. According to Prison Studies’ latest available data, the occupancy rate is just over 75 percent. The police cells, where many have to wait extensive periods before their trial, do tend to be overcrowded. However, facilities remain basic and in 2019, the abuse of an inmate leading to his death in the prison of Hazard, Nickerie resulted in the suspension of 17 prison guards.