US: Interim Bolivia official took bribes in tear gas deal

MIAMI (AP) — A former senior Bolivian official has been arrested for allegedly seeking at least $582,000 in kickbacks from a group of Florida-based businessmen accused of selling tear gas at inflated prices to the conservative government of former interim President Jeanine Áñez.

Sergio Rodrigo Méndez was arrested May 21 in Naples, Florida, and charged with a single count of conspiring to commit money laundering, according to a previously unreported federal complaint out of Miami.

Three alleged co-conspirators, all of them dual Bolivian-American citizens, were also detained, including the owner of Florida-based supplier of police and military equipment and his father, who press accounts indicate was charged two decades ago in Bolivia with weapons smuggling.

Méndez served as the chief of staff to Arturo Murillo, who was interior minister in the Áñez government that took power in November 2019 after President Evo Morales stepped down amid violent protests disputing his reelection to a fourth straight term.

As interior minister, Murillo led the deadly police response to pro-Morales protesters that was called a “massacre” by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He also brought charges against Morales and his allies for sedition and terrorism tied to the disturbances.

But the crackdown on Bolivia’s left backfired, and almost a year later, Morales’ ally, Luis Arce, was elected and proceeded to lock up Áñez and other officials tied to her short-lived rule, which had the support of the Trump administration. Murillo was also charged in Bolivia, but has so far evaded arrest and is believed to be living in the U.S. He is not named in the U.S. federal complaint nor has he been charged.

According to investigators, Méndez along with a “high-ranking official” in the Interior Ministry and another unnamed co-conspirator in the Defense Ministry helped a Florida-based company obtain a $5.6 million contract to supply tear gas and non-lethal equipment to the Áñez government.

The company was allegedly owned by Bryan Berkman, who purchased the tear gas in Brazil for a much-smaller sum of $3.3 million, according to an affidavit from a Department of Homeland Security agent that accompanies the complaint. Part of the profits allegedly were used to coordinate bribe payments to Méndez and his co-conspirator in the Defense Ministry, some of which were to be paid from a delivery of $700,000 in cash to Bolivia.

While the American company is not named in the complaint, Berkman is the chief executive of Taramac-based Bravo Tactical Solutions, according to Florida’s corporate registry. His father, Luis Berkman, who was also arrested and charged, runs a separate Tamarac-based company called International Defense Group.

Bolivian press reports indicate that the older Berkman was arrested on weapons trafficking charges in 2001, accused of heading a criminal ring that tried to smuggle military assault weapons to Paraguay. He was declared a fugitive in 2013 without having been found guilty, according to a Bolivian judicial filing.

The fourth co-defendant, Philip Lichtenfeld, like the Berkmans, hails from Cochabamba, Bolivia, but had been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, prior to his surrender to U.S. authorities.

According to the complaint, evidence compiled from text messages, emails and bank records show that Méndez was asked by a co-conspirator to write a letter to the Brazilian tear gas manufacturer insisting that Bolivia’s government would only purchase its products via the Berkman-owned company.

But a January 2020 wire transfer of $5.6 million from Bolivia’s Central Bank to a U.S. account belonging to the Berkman-owned company was initially rejected, prompting Méndez to send an email to the U.S. bank to try and clear the transaction.

Attorneys for Bryan Berkman and Lichtenfeld did not immediately respond to a request for comment nor did a public defender who represented Méndez at his arraignment in Tampa.

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Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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