Former dictator Luis Garcia Meza, who took power in this nation's notorious 1980 "cocaine coup," was nowhere to be found Wednesday when the Supreme Court sentenced him to 30 years in prison for crimes including genocide, murder, armed uprising and corruption.
Some politicians and human rights advocates accuse officials of making little effort to arrest Garcia Meza, 63, since he went into hiding in 1989, while the sluggish case against him dragged on.
The proceeding was dubbed here the "trial of the century," and its conclusion added judicial condemnation to widespread disdain for the man who ruthlessly ruled this South American nation from July, 1980, to August, 1981. That period is infamous for widespread violations of civil freedoms and human rights, government corruption and an unbridled surge in cocaine trafficking. Traffickers are said to have secretly backed Garcia Meza's bloody coup.
His 30-year sentence is Bolivia's maximum penalty. About 50 of his former collaborators, including many of his Cabinet ministers, also were convicted and sentenced.
Among them was former Col. Luis Arce Gomez, who was in charge of police as Garcia Meza's interior minister. Arce Gomez, captured in 1989 and turned over to American authorities, is serving a 30-year sentence in Florida for cocaine trafficking.
When Garcia Meza went into hiding in 1989, he was free on recognizance but was prohibited from leaving the city of Sucre, the seat of the Supreme Court.
Since then, the Bolivian press has reported occasional sightings of the fugitive. On Tuesday, the newspaper Hoy said he was seen two weeks ago at a party for his son in the city of Santa Cruz. Hoy quoted unnamed sources as saying that Garcia Meza will not be arrested because several of his former collaborators hold high positions in the elected government of President Jaime Paz Zamora.
Garcia Meza, Arce Gomez and others were convicted of genocide in the massacre of eight members of Paz's Movement of the Revolutionary Left in January, 1981.
When Garcia Meza's coup overthrew civilian President Lidia Gueiler, paramilitary groups began a series of harsh actions aimed at neutralizing potential opponents. During the regime, at least 50 people were killed and 22 others disappeared without a trace after being detained.
According to evidence presented in the trial, Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie acted as an adviser to Arce Gomez in organizing the paramilitary groups. Barbie, known in France as the "Butcher of Lyon," lived in Bolivia under the alias of Klaus Altmann until 1983, when he was extradited to France.
Washington never gave diplomatic recognition to Garcia Meza's government. He resigned after 13 months, and the armed forces restored civilian rule in 1982.