U.S. charges former Bolivian officials, Americans in alleged bribery scheme

WASHINGTON, May 26 (Reuters) - Two former Bolivian government officials and three Americans have been charged in an alleged scheme in which the Americans paid bribes to secure a Bolivian government contract for tear gas, U.S. authorities said on Wednesday.

The U.S. Justice Department said that former Bolivian Government Minister Arturo Carlos Murillo Prijic, 57, former Bolivian official Sergio Rodrigo Mendez Mendizabal, 51, and a third unnamed Bolivian official participated in the bribery scheme between November 2019 and April 2020.

The defendants were arrested late last week in Florida and Georgia, the department said.

The Justice Department said the bribery scheme related to efforts by the three Americans - Luis Berkman, 58, Bryan Berkman, 36, and Philip Lichtenfeld, 48 - to win a $5.6 million contract to supply tear gas and "other non-lethal equipment" to Bolivia's Ministry of Defense.

A Justice Department official said Murillo and Mendez had been detained by U.S. authorities, while the Berkmans and Lichtenfeld had been released on bond.

The department said that over a six-month period, the Americans paid $602,000 in bribes to Bolivian officials for the benefit of Murillo, Mendez and the third unnamed official.

Signage is seen at the headquarters of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

The department said that the two Berkmans and Lichtenfeld laundered payments to the Bolivians through bank accounts in Florida and Bolivia and arranged cash payments of $582,000 to Murillo and Mendez.

All five defendants face charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering and could face maximum prison sentences of up to 20 years, the Justice Department said.

Murillo held the post of minister of government under President Jeanine Anez, who took over in late 2019 after former leftist leader Evo Morales resigned and fled the country following widespread protests.

Murillo played a central role in going after Morales and his key supporters with charges of sedition and terrorism and came under fire for heavy-handed military and police responses to protests, which saw dozens killed during street battles.

Anez, a religious conservative, is currently in jail in Bolivia awaiting trial on charges of sedition by the country’s socialist government, which swept into power last year under close Morales ally President Luis Arce.

No immediate comment was available from lawyers for Bryan Berkman, Lichtenfeld and Murillo. Lawyers could not be immediately identified for the remaining defendants.

Reporting By Mark Hosenball and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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Thomson Reuters

Regional bureau chief in South Latin America with previous experience leading corporate news coverage in China and as an independent film director and producer.