A peculiar international fracas between the United States, Bolivia, and two men who have now been forcibly expatriated from Bolivia is taking place in the federal courts here in Florida. In 2011, a Bolivian businessman who owns the majority of Aerosur Airlines, filed a petition for asylum in the U.S.
He claims the Bolivian government filed trumped-up criminal charges against him in an effort to silence his criticism of official corruption in that country. In August of this year, Bolivian’s anti-corruption chief came to Florida to discuss resolving the charges.
Suspicious, the businessman contacted the FBI on the advice of his attorney. The FBI had him wear a wire to two meetings with the anti-corruption chief, and the official allegedly offered to drop the charges — and charge someone else — in exchange for $30,000. The FBI swept in and charged the official with extortion. Bolivian officials have now deemed the official a “deserter,” and he now faces forced expatriation himself. He was denied bail on Monday.
Interestingly, the businessman has also brought a federal lawsuit against Bolivia, its vice president and other officials he believes are responsible for the trumped-up charges. His primary motivation for the lawsuit, however, is that Bolivia is seeking to expropriate his assets, including his 51-percent stake in the airline, which is estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars.
A conspiracy and arbitrary expropriation lawsuit being filed in a U.S. court may have motivated Bolivian officials to take action, but the Bolivian government insists that the now-former anti-corruption official acted on his own. Indeed, the man admits he was not on official business when he came to Florida.
A U.S. magistrate judge denied the official’s bond request, saying he was a flight risk. The judge pointed to the apparent strength of the FBI’s extortion case and the fact that he “either was, or is, a high-ranking official in Bolivia.” Prosecutors were unable to persuade Bolivian officials to clarify what position the man held. In any case, the judge continued, “there is a risk that he may reach out to any number of his colleagues there for help in returning to Bolivia.”
The former anti-corruption official admits to meeting with the businessman, but denies any attempt to extort him. As for the businessman, both his asylum request and his lawsuit remain pending.