Report

Murder and Mayhem in Suriname

How a president's son tried to help Hezbollah attack the United States.  

Dino Bouterse thought he'd struck the deal of a lifetime. It was July 31, 2013, and the head of Suriname's counterterrorism force -- who also happened to be the president's son -- had been carefully cultivating what he hoped would become a lucrative relationship with a pair of Mexican drug smugglers. They had already piloted a "line" for shipping cocaine from Suriname, through Trinidad and Tobago, and on to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but the Mexicans had in mind a vastly more profitable side venture: building a Hezbollah base in Suriname and arming the Lebanese militant organization against the Americans.

At a meeting in Greece, the 40-year-old Surinamese scion hashed out the details with one of the Mexicans and two purported representatives from Hezbollah. For $2 million cash upfront, Bouterse would provide secure facilities in Suriname where the Shiite militant group could train 30 to 60 men. He would also supply rocket launchers, land mines, and other weapons that could be used to strike U.S. targets.

"You'll fuck the Dutch, and we will fuck the Americans," one of the Hezbollah envoys said at one point.

"I'm totally behind you," Bouterse responded. Later, he sent a text message to an associate back in Suriname: "we hit the jackpot."

That couldn't have been further from the truth. A little more than a month later, Panamanian police arrested Bouterse at the airport in Panama City and extradited him to New York, where he had been indicted on drug-trafficking charges. Then, in November, U.S. authorities unsealed a second indictment that charged Bouterse with providing material support to a terrorist organization. The Mexican narcotics smugglers, it turned out, were U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informants who had been wearing wires the whole time. Their conversations and text messages with Bouterse were later made public in the unsealed indictments.

The episode was more bizarre than sinister. But it serves as an unsettling reminder that Suriname's leading political family has long been involved in unsavory, seedy, and outright criminal activities. The Hezbollah threat may have been entirely concocted by the DEA -- a clever ploy to bring down the reckless younger Bouterse -- but the willingness of Surinamese officials to accommodate a terrorist group so close to the United States should serve as a wake-up call for Washington, which still maintains military ties with Paramaribo. That Suriname is also a thriving narcostate ought also to be cause for concern.

Located on South America's north Atlantic coast and bordering Brazil to the south, the Republic of Suriname is nestled between Guyana and French Guiana, a French overseas territory perhaps best known today for its European "spaceport" and as the former site of the Devil's Island penal colony. It is South America's smallest country and is suffocatingly isolated from the rest of the continent. As noted travel writer John Gimlette wrote in 2011, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana have "never felt part" of South America. "The [three] are the odd ones out; they've never been Spanish or Portuguese; they've never known machismo, or Bolívar, or liberation theology; and they're so isolated that there's only one road that links them to the rest of South America."

But barriers -- physical or cultural -- have not kept the former Dutch colony entirely cut off from the outside world. During the Cold War, the United States, on high alert for communist mischief-making in the Western Hemisphere, worried that Suriname would enter the Caribbean Marxist-Leninist firmament headquartered in Fidel Castro's Havana. More recently, the country has been a transshipment point for drugs bound for markets in Western Europe. Porous borders, a vast interior with little government presence, and significant corruption have helped secure Suriname's position as a criminal entrepôt. According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, it ranks among South America's top five transshipment points for European-bound cocaine.

If any single figure can be held responsible for the country's recent troubles, it is Dino Bouterse's father. Desiré Delano "Dési" Bouterse has ruled Suriname intermittently for more than three decades -- twice as a result of coups he led and now as the country's quasi-democratically elected leader. Dino's criminal escapades have been a reliable nuisance for the United States. But his transgressions pale in comparison with his father's long history of drug trafficking, political violence, and human rights abuses.

The elder Bouterse, a former army sergeant who peddled imported pornography on the side, first came to power in a coup on Feb. 25, 1980 -- an occasion commemorated today in Suriname with a national holiday, the "Day of Liberation and Innovation." Promoting himself to colonel, Bouterse set Suriname on a revolutionary course influenced by Marxist-Leninist notions then in circulation across the developing world.

As he consolidated his dictatorship, Bouterse carried out a series of extrajudicial killings, the most notorious of which were the "December murders" of 1982. Early on the morning of Dec. 8, army personnel rounded up 16 prominent critics of the regime and brought them to Fort Zeelandia, near the capital, Paramaribo. A hastily assembled tribunal led by Bouterse quickly found the prisoners guilty of "anti-revolutionary" activities. Drink-sodden soldiers then carried out the death sentences in the fort's courtyard. According to one account in the Dutch press, Bouterse joined the mayhem, using a bayonet to castrate one man and shooting another in the back.

Suriname in the 1980s had all the raw ingredients for a Frederick Forsyth thriller: a sweltering climate, corrupt despotism, guerrilla war, and Cold War geopolitical intrigues. An armed ethnic uprising in the hinterlands, led by Ronnie Brunswijk, a former bodyguard of Bouterse, was met with savage government repression -- including the killing of 19 women and children in the remote village of Mooi Wana, an atrocity that has been called the "My Lai of Suriname."

But it wasn't what Bouterse was doing in his own backyard that worried the United States. It was his links with the Castro government, Nicaragua's Sandinistas, and the New Jewel Movement in Grenada. As early as 1982, the top CIA analyst for Latin America, Constantine Menges (nicknamed "Constant Menace" by bureaucratic enemies who had tired of his noisy anti-communism), warned his superiors in Langley of "the growing danger" posed by Suriname's leftward drift into the "Cuban orbit."

U.S. President Ronald Reagan came to share this anxiety about Suriname's apparent descent into Castroism. In a letter to Brazil's president in 1983, he pointed to Bouterse's "longstanding predilections toward Cuba and Grenada" and his entrance into the "Cuban/Soviet sphere." At the same time, senior members of his administration were mulling various schemes to remove the bothersome Surinamese leader from power. One such plan, developed by the CIA and later dismissed as "harebrained" by Secretary of State George Shultz, would have used South Korean commandos to overthrow Bouterse. Another would have deployed U.S.-based Surinamese exiles and was reportedly described by Sen. Barry Goldwater, no slouch when it came to anti-communist intrigues, as "the dumbest fucking idea I ever heard."

The U.S. invasion of Grenada in October 1983, aimed at removing a purportedly pro-Cuban regime, had a powerful knock-on effect. Almost immediately afterward, Bouterse broke all ties with Havana. Washington's fears of a communist toehold on the South American mainland abated and relations improved, though Libyan meddling in Suriname continued to trouble Reagan officials.

Not everyone shared Washington's belief that Bouterse was more of a farce than a threat. Suriname's former colonial rulers, for one, still thought he was a menace -- both to the Dutch residents of Suriname and because of his growing role as a drug trafficker. In 1986, the Dutch government, led by Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, went as far as planning an invasion of Suriname. Eight hundred and fifty Dutch soldiers, with U.S. air and naval support, would arrest Bouterse on drug-related charges. But as with earlier plots, this one fizzled out. Ultimately, Dutch leaders considered the risk of casualties to be too high. More importantly, the Americans, embroiled elsewhere in Latin America and skeptical about the mission's prospects, rejected the Dutch request to provide ships and aircraft.

In 2000, Bouterse was convicted in absentia by a Dutch court for his role in shipping a total of 474 kilograms of cocaine into the Netherlands via diplomatic pouches. Although out of power at the time -- and therefore without official immunity -- Bouterse never served his 11-year sentence because the two countries have no extradition treaty. In 2010, Bouterse's "Mega Combination" bloc won the largest number of parliamentary seats, and the former army sergeant came to power for the third time, offering the electorate "sugary promises for easy jobs and cheap housing," according to one unsympathetic Guyanese editorial writer.

Following the 2010 election, the Dutch promptly cut off security assistance, and the Dutch foreign minister declared indignantly that the new leader was not welcome in the Netherlands "unless it is to serve his prison sentence." Technically, Bouterse remains a wanted man. But the lack of an extradition treaty -- and now, Bouterse's immunity as a head of state -- makes it unlikely the Netherlands will get its hands on him anytime soon.

Few others seem to share the Dutch loathing of the Surinamese premier. Interpol withdrew its arrest order after his election in 2010, and Bouterse has traveled to Brazil, Guyana, South Africa, and the United States (for the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York). With the exception of the recent Dino Bouterse rumpus, developments in sleepy Suriname only rarely attract the world's gaze.

No one seems to have paid any particular notice, for example, to the April 2013 announcement by Brunswijk, Dési's old nemesis, that he will run for president in 2015. Bizarrely, Brunswijk revealed his candidacy on stage during a concert featuring Rick Ross, the bald, heavily bearded, American hip-hop star. Brunswijk reportedly passed out $100 bills -- and less enthusiastically received Surinamese notes -- to the audience. An influential figure within the Mega Combination, Brunswijk has more than politics in common with the elder Bouterse. Like Dési, Brunswijk was convicted in a Dutch court in 1999 for cocaine trafficking.

Dino, meanwhile, has spent one Christmas behind bars in Lower Manhattan awaiting trial, and it doesn't seem likely that he will be a free man anytime soon. If ultimately convicted, the younger Bouterse could face a life sentence plus 15 years. But so far, neither Dino's exploits nor his father's unsavory past seem to have done any harm to Paramaribo's relationship with Washington. In 2012, the U.S. military supplied $400,000 in naval training, and last March, the Pentagon agreed to provide $500,000 to strengthen the Surinamese army -- support the United States shows no sign of withdrawing.

EPA/ED OUDENAARDEN

Report

Deserted

African asylum-seekers are done keeping quiet about the Israeli government's failure to help them. But is anyone listening?

TEL AVIV - At the start of this year, tens of thousands of African migrants staged protests against the Israeli government, demanding both rights and assistance. A handful defiantly walked away from the new "open" detention facility, Holot, which sits in the Negev desert. That was followed by mass rallies in Tel Aviv. Then, more than 10,000 migrants descended upon Jerusalem to hold what local police say looked like the largest -- and most peaceful -- protest in years outside Israel's parliament.

But no one came out to speak with them.

A month later, 25-year-old Solomon from Eritrea, who now lives in Holot -- where people can leave but must report for roll call three times a day -- wants to talk. Yet he can barely look anyone in the eye. On his way to Israel, he survived a Bedouin torture camp in the Sinai desert, where he witnessed women being raped, and was subsequently hung up, beaten, and raped himself. Another detainee, Ishak from Sudan, fears that the protests last month achieved little because, he says, Africans in Israel are simply not perceived as people in need of help.

"It's prison back home, it's prison here. Where are we going to go?" he says. "We thought Israel would help us.....No one listened."

The source of discontent is Israel's stance on asylum. All developed countries are affected to some degree by the migration of people seeking safety, but Israel argues that, because it borders an entire continent troubled by poverty, unrest, and repressive regimes, it carries a special burden. It has been resistant to allowing asylum-seekers to gain legal standing within its borders, granting refugee status to just over 200 applicants since the country was founded in 1948. Between 2009 and 2012, when the government took over the examination of asylum claims for the first time -- the United Nations had administered it previously -- more than 10,800 asylum requests were submitted, but only 20 were approved. In 2013, Israel examined just 250 out of 1,800 asylum requests and approved none, according to Haaretz, though another two were finally approved in late January 2014 amid the migrant protests.

Israel's leaders fear that granting refugee status to Eritreans and Sudanese asylum-seekers in particular, who constitute over 80 percent of Israel's 54,000 (according to government figures) illegal African migrants, will only attract more of them. But leaders also know Israel can't be seen forcing these migrants to return home to two countries gripped by some of the most brutal circumstances in Africa. So the government's plan is to prevent new migrants from getting into Israel, while convincing those who are already here to either return home or go to a third country by making them wait endlessly for assistance -- sometimes in detention.

But this plan is leading to a whole host of problems for migrants, as well as criticism from the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other NGOs. In January, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Walpurga Englbrecht, accused Israel of "warehousing" Africans, saying that the state's policies and practices are creating "fear and chaos" among migrants. The same month, as protests hit Tel Aviv, Israel's Interior Ministry announced that dozens of asylum-seekers had been transferred to Sweden as part of a "voluntary departure" scheme organized by the government. However, this was quickly followed by reports that, in fact, the U.N. had made a special request of Sweden and arranged the transfer at the end of last year.

The issue of what to do about African migrants has ignited a fiery political debate. While left-leaning politicians are working with NGOs and African protest leaders to fight for migrants' rights, those on the right accuse Africans of raising crime levels, stealing lower-wage jobs from Israelis, undermining the state's Jewishness, and degenerating urban areas, especially in South Tel Aviv -- an area already economically neglected by the government. (A Knesset report released last year disproved claims relating to crime levels, but it was pulled from the legislature's website and the author was removed from his post.)

Yet the public largely agrees with the conservative view, and that gives its political backers the upper hand. "The Ministry of Interior does everything in its power to prevent foreigners from staying," says Sigal Rozen, who works for the Israeli NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, "and they've no problem with the p.r. of their policy because the public supports them."

To curb the flow of African migrants, many of whom walk by foot from their home countries, Israel began building a fence some five meters tall along the border with Egypt a few years ago. Completed in December, the fence reduced the number of people crossing illegally from 10,000 in 2012 to fewer than 45 last year. Israel has also carried out illegal "hot returns," sending migrants who've recently arrived back through Egypt or turning them away at the border. In 2012, 20 Eritreans were left exposed to the heat and cold, huddled on the other side of the fence for over a week -- before being forced to go back the way they came. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have also been known to go into the Sinai to deter people before they even reach the border.

When migrants do manage to enter Israel illegally and are noted by authorities, they are detained in desert prisons in the south. For a while, "they would be released after a month or so and given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv," recalls Natasha Roth, a researcher working with the NGO African Refugees Development Center (ARDC). After 2009, however, the government turned up the heat. Within three years, Israel had amended its immigration policy, called the Anti-Infiltration Law, so that undocumented migrants could be detained for three years without trial.

At the end of last year, however, Israel's High Court declared protracted detention to be a violation of human rights and told the government to either release the migrants or figure something else out. The government's response was to amend the Anti-Infiltration Law so that migrants can now be held for a year in closed facilities -- mainly in the Saharonim desert prison -- followed by indefinite detention in the new open facility of Holot.

Today, Holot holds several hundred African migrants; another 3,000 are expected to eventually join them, according to Knesset Member Michal Rozin, who heads the government's Committee for Foreign Workers and is working to protect the rights of asylum-seekers. Some detainees at Holot were transferred straight there from Saharonim, but others who have lived relatively freely are now arriving after summons and arrests on the streets of Tel Aviv and elsewhere. And Holot's "openness" isn't all it's cracked up to be: Because detainees have to report to roll calls, it's very difficult for them to leave the desert, travel to any Israeli city, and return in the same day.

Rozin says she's been told by another member of the government that detainees "will stay in Holot until they understand they have to leave by their own will, or until Israel has a solution such as a third country that will accept them."

In addition to its detention policy, Israel is using diplomatic loopholes, so to speak, to pressure migrants to leave without forcing them to do so. The Ministry of Interior, for instance, argues it has done well to at least grant Eritreans and Sudanese "group protection," which allows them to stay in the country until further notice without proving prima facie their individual asylum claims. But, as Roth explains, "the government just issues them a 'non-deportation' license, allowing them to remain in the country, but without any rights." This temporary status, which the ARDC describes as "unstable" and "short-term," effectively holds the migrants in limbo, with no way of proving their cases and helping themselves.

The government has also tried to avoid dealing with asylum-seekers by claiming most of the Africans are actually economic migrants. "It's not just Israel. This is an international tactic used to undermine asylum-seekers," Roth says.

Israel's efforts to force African migrants to leave seem to be working, at least to a degree. Mutasim Ali from Sudan, who has been helping organize protests against the government, says inmates at Saharonim are starting to return home "because they've become so desperate through imprisonment, without their asylum claims being acknowledged." What awaits them could be dire: In Sudan, for instance, anyone returning from Israel, which Khartoum deems an enemy nation, is immediately in danger of detention and up to 10 years of imprisonment.

Government figures also indicate that African migrants are leaving: Some 2,600 did so "voluntarily" last year, according to authorities. There has been speculation that some departing migrants are being sent to another African state, namely Uganda, in exchange for military and economic incentives. In mid-February, a senior government official told the press that dozens of migrants have indeed been offered a one-way ticket and money to go to Uganda, and that several have accepted and left. Uganda, however, has denied that this is true.

Starting in late 2013, authorities began offering migrants $3,500 in cash handouts to leave the country and "return home." The Interior Ministry reported on Feb. 18 that, to date, more than 1,700 have already taken the offer, and that several hundred more are expected to do the same by the end of this month.

Ali says some detainees at Holot have taken the deal because "they'd rather return home and die a free man in their own country. The hope is gone from their eyes."

"I expect thousands more will leave soon," he adds.

Out in the Negev desert, for Soloman and Ishak, the prospects of a permanent home in Israel look bleaker by the day. Solomon says that, having escaped persecution and imprisonment elsewhere only to end up detained once more has disturbed his already tortured mind.

Yet there are signs of hope -- or, at least, of migrants and their advocates refusing to give up without a fight. Many migrants ordered to go to Holot are refusing to show up, and some judges in local and high courts have recently canceled summonses, citing the government's failure to grant hearings and examine the individual circumstances of asylum-seekers. And public demonstrations continue: On Feb. 17, several hundred asylum-seekers from around Israel arrived to protest outside Holot. They risked their lives to get to Israel, only to be greeted by deaf ears. What now, they say, is there to lose in demanding recognition.

Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images