The Comeback of Suriname’s ‘Narco-President’

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The president of the tiny Caribbean nation Suriname has been charged with murder, convicted of drug trafficking, and accused of leading an international drug cartel. So why is he in power?

A recent New York Times report looks at the checkered history of President Desi Bouterse, who regained power in August 2010. He previously ruled for seven years as head of a repressive police state, after taking power in a coup in 1980.

As well as murdering opponents, Bouterse is accused of masterminding the growth of drug trafficking through Suriname in the 1990s.

According to reports, he worked with Brazilian traffickers who would pick up weapons in Suriname and smuggle them into Colombia. In a deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the Brazilians would swap weapons for cocaine, some of which was then trafficked onwards to Europe from Suriname.

One report says that a witness claimed the weapons were stolen from the Surinamian army. Others say arms were smuggled from Florida by the Russian mafia.

Bouterse’s alleged role in this, as a still-influential figure in Suriname’s politics even after his first period in power ended, was to allow the Brazilians to land in the country. In exchange he received a share of the cocaine to sell on.

Together the Brazilians and Bouterse were known as the “Suri Cartel.” Many of the key players in this operation were arrested, including its founder, Brazilian Leonardo Dias Mendonca, who was captured in a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operation in 1999.

However, the Caribbean country has remained a key transshipment country for drugs destined for Europe, says the U.S. State Department’s 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. The report notes that in 2010 the Caribbean country seized more than 340 kilos of cocaine, and almost 33 liters of liquid cocaine.

Suriname may also still be of strategic important for the FARC. Documents seized from computer disks in a FARC camp in 2010 detailed operations to send and receive goods to and from Suriname.

Bouterse may have been involved in the drug trade as recently as 2006, according to unreleased U.S. diplomatic cables seen by the Dutch media.

Peculiarities of country’s legal system played a role in Bouterse’s comeback — a Dutch court found in 1999 that Bouterse had masterminded the shipment of two tons of cocaine to Europe, but the former leader avoided his 11 year jail term because Suriname has a law against extraditing citizens. The presidential immunity he gained last year puts him in an even safer position.

Another factor was the absence of credible political alternatives. Ronnie Brunswijk, his main rival and now coalition partner, has also been convicted of cocaine trafficking by a Dutch court.

But the real question here is how a convicted narcotics smuggler could win a nation’s presidency. Not untypical for the Caribbean, the answer seems to be money — in a poor state with a weak democracy, his fortune has made Bouterse one of the richest men in the country. His power and influence, as well as the name recognition that is crucial in South America’s dynasty-dominated elections, allowed him to form a coalition and gain enough votes in parliament to claw his way back to power.

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