Under pressure from foreign allies and betrayed by a trusted nephew, the king suddenly tumbles from power. He tries mightily to recover his lost status, but in vain. His fortunes take a final plunge as he is seized by old enemies and locked away.
If it weren’t about the misfortunes of a South American drug lord, the story might throb with the classical elements of a Greek tragedy. Instead, it oozes with the sordid drama of a Mafia movie.
Pieced together by American drug investigators here, the story is about Roberto Suarez Gomez, Bolivia’s legendary “king of cocaine.” Suarez Gomez, in his 60s, was arrested July 20 and is now serving time at the penitentiary in La Paz.
The patriarch of a respected cattle ranching family, he became famous as the ruler of Bolivia’s biggest cocaine trafficking empire in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Bragged of Wealth
Suarez Gomez, known respectfully as Don Roberto, reveled in his good fortune. The Bolivian press once quoted him as bragging that he had $400 million and 40 airplanes. He owned more than half a dozen big cattle ranches and had friends in positions of influence.
Shifting his base of operations from ranch to ranch, he always eluded the police. So, when they finally caught the “king of cocaine,” it looked like a triumph of law enforcement in the war on this country’s thriving cocaine traffic.
On a visit here earlier this month, Secretary of State George P. Shultz appeared to subscribe to that view. “The capture of trafficker kingpin Roberto Suarez is a sure sign of the seriousness and skill with which Bolivia is enforcing the law,” Shultz said.
In reality, the king’s reign had ended much earlier. The arrest was more a symbolic strike than a debilitating blow against the drug trade.
That industry is now controlled by a wealthy group of younger cocaine princes who continue to evade police and provide tons of drugs for the U.S. and European markets. The leading trafficker is said to be Jorge Roca Suarez, Suarez Gomez’s nephew and one-time trusted lieutenant.
A Bolivian official said Suarez Gomez may have lost his grip on power because of a weakness for his own product.
“They say he had become a consumer of the drug,” said Jorge Alderete, the undersecretary of interior in charge of drug enforcement.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has a more detailed and dramatic version of Suarez Gomez’s fall from power. In interviews here, a DEA spokesman gave the following account:
Suarez Gomez’s organization was supplying large amounts of semi-refined cocaine paste to powerful Colombian traffickers, who further refined it into cocaine powder. He relied heavily on a group of young Bolivians, including nephew Roca Suarez, to buy paste from smaller producers and get it to transshipment points.
In 1984, the Colombians were paying $14,000 a kilogram for the paste. Then, they arbitrarily lowered the price to $9,000 a kilo. Suarez Gomez refused to sell, insisting on the higher price.
He held up shipments from a huge stash, in which he had invested heavily, while the price dispute continued. Meanwhile, behind his back, Roca Suarez and other lieutenants agreed to the lower price and began dealing with the Colombians independently.
Unable to sell his stock, Suarez Gomez took a crippling loss. His business dried up as his former lieutenants took over the trade.
Although it was not widely known at the time, Don Roberto was no longer the king. “As a trafficker, he was a has-been,” the DEA spokesman said.
Roca Suarez not only betrayed his uncle by dealing behind his back, he got his own business started with a chunk of operating capital that Suarez Gomez had entrusted to him for buying paste.
Since then, Suarez Gomez has tried to regain a piece of his former empire but has been unable to put together any important deals. Roca Suarez, in contrast, has prospered.
About 37 years old and light-haired, Roca Suarez is known by the nickname Techo de Paja (Straw Roof). He grew up in Los Angeles, living with his immigrant mother, and returned to Bolivia when he was about 20 to join his uncle in business.
“He and others had their first training as collaborators of Roberto Suarez,” the Interior Ministry’s Alderete said.
At least until early this year, Roca Suarez was known to make occasional trips back to California.
“We know he has property in L.A.,” the DEA spokesman said. “He knows we are investigating him, and he may be afraid of going back now.”
In a 1986 Bolivian drug case against Roca Suarez, files were mysteriously lost but have been painstakingly reconstructed. A warrant for his arrest has been re-issued provisionally, pending judicial approval of the reconstructed file.
Last year, when business was booming, Bolivian authorities arrested Roca Suarez’s half-brother, Roberto (Johnny) Morales, the No. 2 man in the organization and top “enforcer” whose job was to prevent cheating and double-crossing by business associates. As a result of the arrests, according to the DEA, Techo de Paja’s operations went into a slump.
But Morales has since been released, pending the outcome of his trial in the city of Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia. The half-brother, Luis Fernando Roca Ali, also is on trial in Santa Cruz.
With Morales and Roca Ali back in circulation, Bolivian and American officials say that Roca Suarez is currently the top trafficker in Bolivia. He is said to operate in league with nearly a dozen other drug lords who also got their start with Suarez Gomez. None has been arrested.
There was speculation that drug traffickers were responsible for an explosion that damaged four vehicles in Shultz’s motorcade as he entered La Paz from the airport Aug. 8. But the blast, which officials now say was too weak to have been an assassination attempt, is believed to have been an anti-American protest by leftists.