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US sentences former Bolivian minister to 6 years for bribery

January 5, 2023

Arturo Murillo conspired to help a US based company secure a lucrative deal with Bolivia's defense ministry, the court ruled. Additionally, he faces a host of criminal charges in his own country.

Ex-minister Arturo Murillo speakes to the media during a press conference.
Former Bolivian Interior Minister Arturo Murillo has been sentenced to 6 years in prisonImage: David Mercado/REUTERS

A federal court in the US sentenced former Bolivian Interior Minister Arturo Murillo to nearly six years in prison for money laundering on Wednesday.

He served as interior minister from 2019 to 2020 during the interim government of former President Jeanine Anez.

In October, he pleaded guilty to having received $532,000 (€ 500,000) as a bribe from a Florida-based company. In exchange, he helped the firm seal a lucrative tear gas contract with Bolivia's defense ministry in 2019.

Money laundered through the US financial system

In May 2021, Murillo, his former assistant Sergio Mendez Mendizabal and three American businessmen were arrested in Florida.

A month later, Mendizabal and the three Americans — Luis Berkman, Bryan Berkman, and Philip Lichtenfeld — pleaded guilty over their role in the conspiracy.

According to investigators, Murillo and his co-conspirators helped the Florida-based Bravo Tactical Solutions company to obtain a $5.6 million contract with the former Bolivian government to supply tear gas and non-lethal equipment.

The company was run by Bryan Berkman, a dual national of Bolivia and the United States.

An affidavit from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) alleges that Berkman purchased the teargas from Brazil for $3.3 million.

The profits from the deal which paid the bribes were allegedly laundered through the US financial system. Murillo received nearly $130,000 in cash at a family member's home in Miami.

Outspoken far-right ex-minister

In 2019, following  a violent political turmoil that led to the resignation of President Evo Morales, Jeanine Anez took office.

Arturo Murillo was one of the more outspoken voices with a long history of far-right provocation in Anez's conservative government.

As a congressman, he supported a ban on abortion by telling women that if they wanted to terminate a pregnancy, they should kill themselves by jumping from a five-story building.

He referred to his political opponents as "narco-terrorists," charged the former President Morales with sedition and drew rebuke from international human rights groups for the deadly way in which he led the police to act against protesters.

In 2020, the crackdown backfired and Morales' party retook power.  Luis Arce was elected as presidentand Morales returned to Bolivia from exile.

Murillo fled as soon as his government was overthrown.

Jeanine Anez and other officials are currently serving a  10-year prison sentence for their role in what Bolivian authorities described as a coup.

Bolivia's former interim President Jeanine Anez escorted by the police to jail.
Ex-President Jeanine Anez is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence in BoliviaImage: Marcelo Perez Del Carpio/Anadolu Agency/picture alliance

Bolivian government hails the verdict

The Bolivian government has welcomed the verdict of the US federal court. Bolivian Attorney General Wilfredo Chavez told the press that "justice has spoken."

He added that this would advance Murillo's extradition proceedings to Bolivia where he faces a host of criminal charges.

The attorney general also said that the government would take legal action in demanding a payment of $532,000 as it sees itself "as a victim" of Murillo's crime.

ns/jsi (AP, Reuters)