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.