In his pomp he was known as the “minister for cocaine”, a corrupt and ruthless military despot who collaborated with drug cartels and terrorised Bolivia.
Luis Arce-Gómez, interior minister in the Andean nation’s 1980-81 dictatorship, made an infamous warning to foes to “walk around with their wills under their arms”.
But when the former burly colonel returned home yesterday he was a shrivelled, white-haired figure too feeble to even walk into the prison where he is expected to end his days.
The United States has deported the 71-year-old to face justice in Bolivia after he spent almost 20 years in a Florida prison for drug trafficking.
Arce-Gómez, who once recruited the Nazi Klaus Barbie as an adviser, faces 30 years in La Paz’s Chonchocoro prison for at least eight crimes including genocide and political assassinations.
President Evo Morales thanked the US for deporting a figure whose name once inspired dread among leftists, trade unionists and journalists. “It is a historic day for human rights.”
FBI agents escorted Arce-Gómez on the flight from Miami to La Paz where upon arrival he was given oxygen to adjust to the 3,800-meter altitude, covered in a blanket and wooly hat and ferried past astonished onlookers in a wheelchair to a waiting ambulance and convoy of police vehicles.
It was an ignominious homecoming for a man who once typified the hubris and viciousness of South America’s right wing military regimes.
Arce-Gómez was an ambitious army officer when the 1980 “cocaine coup” financed by drug traffickers brought his ally General Luis García Meza to power.
Appointed interior minister, he wasted no time arresting, torturing and murdering the regime’s real or imagined foes. Records show at least 93 dead, 26 disappeared and 4,000 detained, many of them leftists and union leaders. Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon” who fled to Bolivia after the second world war, gave tips on repression.
According to the US federal indictment, Arce-Gómez turned his impoverished Andean nation into a narco-state by giving drug cartels free rein to produce and ship cocaine in return for large payments. He reportedly charged up to $75,000 every two weeks.
Traffickers who balked had their drugs seized and had to pay even higher sums to retrieve them from government vaults.
After just 13 months the dictatorship collapsed in 1981 and Arce-Gómez fled. He was captured in 1989 and extradited to the US where he was sentenced to a two-decade stretch for drug trafficking.
Upon completing his sentence a US court rejected Arce-Gómez’s asylum request and ruled he should be returned to Bolivia where he was convicted in absentia in 1993 for genocide and human rights violations. He faces 30 years without parole.
It is hoped that Arce-Gómez will identify the location of the remains of his disappeared victims, including Marcelo Quiroga, a prominent politician and human rights advocate.
Awaiting him in Chonchocoro prison was his former boss, General Meza, 79, who was caught in Brazil in 1994 and is serving a 30-year sentence.