U.S. Extradites Ex-Coup Leader 'Minister of Cocaine' to Bolivia to Serve 30-Year Sentence for Genocide, Assassinations

The United States deported a key figure in Bolivia's last military dictatorship back home Thursday to serve a 30-year prison sentence for crimes including genocide and political assassinations.

Luis Arce Gomez, 71, known as "the minister of cocaine," took part in the July 1980 coup led by then-Gen. Luis Garcia Meza and backed by drug traffickers. As interior minister, he gained a reputation for ruthlessness for personally torturing political prisoners.

Arce Gomez had been imprisoned in Miami on a 1991 drug-trafficking conviction.

A U.S. judge denied him political asylum after his November 2007 release, a decision that President Evo Morales applauded Thursday.

"I want to recognize the work of the U.S. justice system," Morales told a news conference. "It is a historic day for human rights."

U.S.-Bolivian relations have been strained since Morales, a leftist, former coca-growers' union leader, expelled the U.S. ambassador and U.S. drug agents last year, accusing them of helping incite the pro-autonomy opposition. The U.S. has denied the accusation.

A white-bearded Luis Arce Gomez was escorted by FBI agents after arriving at the El Alto airport early Thursday.

Stepping off the plane, he asked for oxygen to compensate for the 12,500-foot (3,810-meter) altitude. After a medical exam, Arce Gomez was driven to Chonchocoro prison, on La Paz's outskirts.

As Garcia Meza's right-hand man, Arce Gomez rounded up hundreds of journalists, political and labor leaders and church officials, even hiring the late Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie as an adviser.

Dozens of opposition figures accused of communist sympathies were forcibly disappeared, tortured and assassinated.

The dictatorship only lasted a year, however, and both men fled into exile.

In 1989, Arce Gomez was captured in eastern Bolivia and extradited to the United States, where he was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 30 years. Affidavits from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said he extorted cocaine traffickers while serving as interior minister.

In 1993, a Bolivian court convicted him in absentia of a series of crimes including armed insurrection and genocide. He was sentenced to 30 years without parole.

Garcia Meza, 79, is also serving a 30-year prison term at Chonchocoro prison. He was arrested in 1994 in Brazil after also being convicted in absentia. Garcia Meza has spent much of the last few years in a military hospital.