Pubdate: Sun, 12 Sep 1999
Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Copyright: 1999 The Miami Herald
Contact:  One Herald Plaza, Miami FL 33132-1693
Fax: (305) 376-8950
Author: DON BOHNING, Herald Staff Writer


Suriname military at focal point, reports say

On a weekend in mid-August, Brazilian police -- apparently acting on a
tip -- seized a twin-engine Seneca airplane headed for Colombia with a load
of weapons that had originated in neighboring Suriname.

Aboard the plane, according to Brazilian press accounts, police found a
rocket launcher capable of bringing down a small plane, two rockets, an
AK-47 rifle with five clips, an Uzi submachine gun and hundreds of rounds of
ammunition in a wooden box bearing markings of the Libyan armed forces.

The apparent destination, according to Brazilian authorities: Colombia's
Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), a guerrilla group that has been battling
the Colombian military for decades and is currently conducting peace
negotiations with that country's government.

As arms caches go, it was peanuts. But it dramatized what international drug
fighters believe is a flourishing arms-for-drugs trade involving Suriname's

"We've been hearing the basic rumor for 18 months or two years now," a U.S.
official said. "We don't know the volume, but we have the impression that it
is mostly small-airplane loads leaving from Suriname's interior."

Increased activity

The State Department's 1999 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report
notes that "police officials report an increase . . . in the number of
arms-for-drugs swaps, with a going `exchange rate' of one kilo of cocaine
for one automatic weapon."

The report adds: "There are disturbing reports of money laundering, drug
trafficking and associated criminal activity involving current and former
government and military officials."

"We see an emerging regional role of Suriname [in drug trafficking], whereas
in the past the drug problem seemed to be of a rather local nature," said
Jean-Luc Lemahieu, program manager for the Barbados-based U.N. Drug Control
Program's Caribbean Coordination Mechanism.

Lemahieu attributes the country's growing involvement to increased pressure
on drug trafficking elsewhere in the hemisphere, Suriname's location and the
"great and undeniable influence of the Suri Cartel on the government. It
makes it a very interesting place for international crime organizations."

Abundant evidence

There is abundant public evidence to support suspicions of involvement by
the Suriname military in such activities throughout the former Dutch colony
of 450,000 people on the northeast shoulder of South America.

Desi Bouterse, Suriname's former military ruler who retains considerable
influence within the armed forces, was convicted by a Dutch court in July of
making five cocaine shipments to the Netherlands and Belgium from 1989 to

He was sentenced in absentia to 16 years in prison. Despite that, Bouterse
is considered a likely candidate for Suriname's presidency in the next
election -- and the probable winner.

His conviction was based on evidence turned up in a five-year investigation
by a special Dutch police unit that identified Bouterse as a leader of the
so-called Suri Cartel.

The Dutch prosecutor general announced on Dutch television in April 1997
that he had sufficient evidence to charge Bouterse. The next day, Suriname
President Jules Wijdenbosh, a longtime ally of Bouterse, named him to the
newly created post of state advisor, which provided diplomatic immunity for
travel outside the country.

Passing the blame

In a post-conviction interview with the Associated Press, Bouterse accused
the Dutch of being out to get him.

"This whole thing is an ongoing fight with the Dutch," he said. "Nowadays it
is drugs. Before, you were a communist, but that is no longer fashionable."

Lt. Col. Marcel Zeeuw, another former Suriname army officer, was arrested by
the Dutch on suspicion of cocaine trafficking when he went to The Hague to
testify on Bouterse's behalf. He was released in June for insufficient

Another longtime Bouterse associate, Col. Etienne Boerenveen, who was
convicted in Miami in 1986 of conspiracy to smuggle drugs, currently serves
as chief of staff to the defense minister.

Boerenveen was deported from Florida in May 1991 after serving five years of
a 12-year prison sentence. Bouterse, then Suriname's military ruler for the
second time after staging a coup six months earlier, greeted Boerenveen when
he arrived at the airport in Paramaribo, the Surinamese capital. Boerenveen
was promoted two weeks later.

More convictions

In March 1998, Ronnie Brunswijk, a former Bouterse bodyguard who led a
guerrilla movement against him in the 1980s, was convicted on
drug-trafficking charges by a Dutch court and sentenced in absentia to eight
years in prison.

In April of this year, Brazil's TV Globo reported allegations that Rupert
Christopher, Suriname's ambassador in Brazil and a former defense minister
under Bouterse, was implicated in the drug trade with Bouterse.

A short time earlier, Bouterse's son Dino was reportedly recalled from
Suriname's embassy in Brazil after authorities found evidence that he had
been using his diplomatic immunity to smuggle drugs.

On Aug. 23, Interpol issued an international arrest warrant at the request
of Belgium for Ruben Peiter, commander of the Suriname police mobile unit.
The Belgians suspect Peiter, believed to have been vacationing in the
Netherlands when the warrant was issued, of shipping cocaine in timber

U.S. interests

With the drug traffic through Suriname oriented more toward Europe, it has
been only recently that Washington has taken a growing interest in the

A maritime cooperation agreement was finalized last month. The U.S. Drug
Enforcement Administration still covers the country from its office in
Curacao, although American officials say they hope to get a permanent DEA
presence in Paramaribo within the next year or so.

"It's a wide-open transit country, and a permanent DEA presence is
necessary," a U.S. official said.

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