BUENOS AIRES - Among the many tales, there is one in particular that stands out in the drug kingpin's biography, sounding much more like urban legend than harsh reality:
It was in early 1982, and his oldest son had been arrested by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Having tried everything he could to have his son freed, the father decided to send a letter directly to the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. In the letter, he promised, in exchange for his son’s liberty, to pay off Bolivia’s entire foreign debt: $3.8 billion.
Nothing came of the implausible overture, but sources in the U.S. government insist the offer really did exist.
The man who penned the infamous missive was Roberto Suárez Gómez, a Bolivian drug trafficker who at one point figured out how to sell the lion’s share of the cocaine paste being consumed the world over. Many referred to him simply as the "King of Cocaine."
Unlike fellow South American drug lord Pablo Escobar, who eventually became his business partner, Suárez Gómez spent his final years in freedom, managing his enormous hacienda. He kept himself surrounded by bodyguards, even though he probably didn’t need them. In the north of Bolivia, where the Amazon jungle begins, most people were quite fond of Suárez Gómez. Few in this impoverished and downtrodden region questioned the business of drugs, which offered people what the State could or would not. In Beni, the province where Suárez Gómez was born, they called him Robin Hood.
Besides Escobar, Suárez Gómez’s list of friends and associates included Roberto Calvi, head of the Banco Ambrosiano, a now defunct Italian bank that had close ties with the Vatican. In June of 1982, Calvi’s lifeless body was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London. There was also the Cuban revolutionary hero Arnaldo Ochoa, who was later charged with drug trafficking and executed by firing squad; U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, implicated and later exonerated in the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal; German Gestapo captain Klaus Barbie – known as the Butcher of Lyon; and former military strongman of Panama, Manuel Noriega.
Global most wanted
Secrets that remained hidden for nearly a dozen years following Suárez Gómez’s death in 2000 are just now coming to light thanks to a memoir put together by Ayda Levy, the king pin’s ex-wife. In the book, entitled The King of Cocaine: My Life With Roberto Suárez And The Birth Of The First Narco-State, Levy recalls discovering that her husband, a successful and high-profile rancher, had become one of Interpol’s most wanted. “I loved him. I respected him. And when I discovered his involvement in the drug trade, I left him,” she said during a book launch held earlier this week in Buenos Aires.
Despite the separation and the pain she endured when her oldest son was killed, Levy still defends her ex-husband. “He believed blindly in social justice, in the eradication of poverty, and in human beings. He got involved in the vile business of cocaine not to get rich, but to help his people,” she said.
In the book, Levy tells the story of how Suárez Gómez financed the 1980 coup d’état led by Luis García Meza, who prevented the president elect, Hernán Siles Zuazo, from assuming power. She also explains how he built “the General Motors of drug trafficking,” as the organization was dubbed after Suárez Gómez linked up with Pablo Escobar.
“My father was the biggest drug supplier for the Medellín cartel. Businesswise, it made more sense for them to be partners,” says Gary Suárez Gómez, one of the Bolivian drug lord’s sons.
At its peak, Suárez Gómez’s Bolivian operation brought in an estimated $400 million a year. The kingpin was so well known at the time that U.S. film director Brian De Palma is believed to have used him as the inspiration for one of the characters in his film “Scarface,” which starred Al Pacino. And yet years later, when Suárez Gómez’s family asked about the fortune he presumably left behind, they were told there was no money.
“The money was spent. It never accumulated in checking accounts or in banks. It was redistributed among the poor communities in western Bolivia, like my father wanted,” says Gary, recalling how Suárez Gómez helped develop areas of the jungle by financing the construction of hospitals and housing developments, and installing drinking water and electricity.
Despite standing warrants for his arrest, Suárez Gómez moved about Bolivia freely – at least until 1988, when his flaunting ways became a source of embarrassment for the DEA and Bolivian authorities. He was charged with drug trafficking and sentenced to 15 years in jail. In 1996, after serving only half that sentence, Suárez Gómez regained his freedom and went back to the business of running the family estate. He died four years later, at the age of 65, and was buried in an unassuming little corner of Cochabamba, without pomp or circumstance.