LA PAZ: Bolivian ex-dictator Luis García Meza, who was serving a lengthy prison sentence for crimes committed after his 1980 military coup, died on Sunday in a La Paz hospital at the age of 88, his attorney told local media.
García Meza died of cardiac arrest and respiratory failure at the COSSMIL military hospital in La Paz, where the former general had spent more than a third of his 30-year prison sentence, attorney Frank Campero said.
García Meza took power in a violent military coup in July 1980, near the end of the period of military dictatorships in Latin America.
Scores of people, including socialist leader Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz, were killed as his forces seized power. Quiroga’s body was never found.
A fierce anti-communist, García Meza tortured opponents and launched a sweeping crack down on leftist dissenters. The regime even sought advice from Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, who helped set up a death squad.
In one notable case, eight leaders of Bolivia’s leftist MIR party were tortured and murdered by paramilitary operatives in the Sopocachi neighbourhood of La Paz in January 1981. The sole survivor, Gloria Ardaya, escaped the slaughter by hiding under a bed.
The regime, however, was also characterised by rampant corruption and its close links to drug trafficking. The dictator’s interior minister, Luis Arce Gomez, was so closely linked with narcotrafficking that he was nicknamed the “minister of cocaine.”
García Meza was deposed in August 1981, after 13 months in power.
In April 1993 the ex-dictator was sentenced to 30 years behind bars for the killings and abuses during his time in office, but he avoided prison by fleeing the country.
Authorities caught up with him in Brazil in March 1995. He was quickly arrested and extradited to Bolivia, where he was sent to a maximum-security prison.
Arce Gómez, also sentenced to 30 years behind bars, first served time in a US prison on drug trafficking charges. In 2009 he was returned to Bolivia to serve the 30 year sentence.
With García Meza’s death “we have lost highly valuable information to solve crimes against humanity,” said Julio Llanos, a representative of a rights group representing dictatorship victims.
Another rights group, Asofamd, posted an angry message on Facebook.
“We regret that JUSTICE has not been done!” the group said. García Meza “died protected by the army, sheltered in the care of COSSMIL,” the military hospital, the statement read.
Attorney Campero said that in 2009 his ailing client left two letters, one addressed to his family and the other to the nation. Two reporters also filmed a documentary that was placed under embargo until his death.
The letters and the documentary state “that he did not kill, that he did not rob his country,” Campero said.
García Meza and Arce Gómez were also among the defendants in a lawsuit filed in 2015 by an Italian judge against 30 Latin American ex-military and civilians for the death of 43 opponents from Italy.
In January 2017 eight of the defendants, including the two Bolivians, were sentenced in absentia to life in prison for their role in Operation Condor, the network that South American military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s set up to track down each others’ leftist dissidents.