Bolivian anti-graft officer held on extortion charge in Miami

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 06, 2013 3:58 PM
Bolivian anti-graft officer held on extortion charge in Miami

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - A senior Bolivian police official, accused of flying to Miami in late August to extort $30,000 from a prominent businessman seeking asylum in the United States, will remain in jail until a bond hearing next week, a judge ordered on Friday.

FBI agents arrested the deputy chief of Bolivia's police anti-corruption unit, Mario Fabricio Ormachea Aliaga, in a sting operation August 31 after meeting with Humberto Roca, the former president of AeroSur, once Bolivia's largest private airline.

Ormachea was identified in court documents as a police Colonel, although a top Bolivian police official denied he held that rank and said he had been dismissed from his job August 28.

The arrest could further damage already frosty U.S. relations with Bolivia's socialist president Evo Morales, only weeks after Bolivia accused Washington of trying to "kidnap" Morales when his plane was denied permission to fly over France and Portugal.

Morales is one of several leftist leaders in Latin America who have offered to grant asylum to former U.S. intelligence agency contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed secrets of surveillance programs. Russia granted Snowden asylum.

Ormachea is not the first Bolivian official to fall foul of the U.S. legal system. In 2011, Bolivia's former counter-narcotics chief, General Rene Sanabria, pleaded guilty to smuggling cocaine and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Roca fled Bolivia in 2010 saying he faced political persecution after prosecutors accused AeroSur of providing tickets to foreign mercenaries.

In December 2012 a Bolivian judge issued an arrest warrant for Roca for "illegal enrichment." Roca says the charges were politically motivated in an effort by Morales to stamp out competition to the state-owned airline.

In federal court in Miami on Friday, a judge granted a request by Ormachea's court-appointed lawyer to postpone his bond hearing until September 13. He is scheduled to be formally charged on September 17 and faces a possible five-year prison sentence.

His lawyer, Sowmya Bharathi, declined comment.

In a sworn affidavit, federal agents said that on August 29 Ormachea flew from Bolivia's capital La Paz to Miami to meet with Roca. After alerting the FBI, Roca met with Ormachea the following day. In a recorded meeting the Bolivian official "offered to dispose of the criminal charges...for a fee of $30,000," according to the affidavit.

Roca handed over $5,000 in marked bills as an initial payment. Police later arrested Ormachea and seized the $5,000 during a traffic stop.

"He told Roca that he came with the authority of Evo Morales and the vice president of Bolivia," said Roca's lawyer, Michael Diaz Jr. "He was told it was an authorized resolution of the case."

Bolivia's deputy police chief, General Juan Roberto Albarracin, told reporters that Ormachea was a "deserter" and that his U.S. trip had not been officially approved.

Albarracin also said Ormachea was not a Colonel, had been fired August 28 and was under investigation.

According to the arrest affidavit Ormachea stated "that he was not traveling in his official capacity."

Roca's lawyer, Diaz, said he has sent the FBI a copy of a government memo signed by Ormachea in May 2013 stating that he would be traveling to Miami to find Roca's bank accounts and assets.

In 2011 Roca sued Bolivia in U.S. court for illegal expropriation of his assets. AeroSur ceased operations in May facing debts of $300 million, including unpaid taxes and salaries.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Ramos in Bolivia; Editing by David Adams and Grant McCool)