On May 21 and 22, the United States government arrested Arturo Carlos Murillo Prijic, the former minister of government under the interim government of Jeanine Áñez, his chief of staff Sergio Rodrigo Mendez Mendizabal, and three of Murillo’s long-time associates. These include Murillo’s childhood friend Luis Berkman Littman, his son Bryan Samuel Berkman, and Argentine lawyer Philip Lichtenfield. The men are charged with money laundering and corrupt practices surrounding the Áñez government’s purchase of riot control munitions.
Based on the facts laid out in the indictment (Murillo is “Co-Conspirator 1”), confirmed by prior document releases in Bolivia since June 2020, this scheme is best understood not as an arms company bribing Murillo and Mendez to secure a contract, but rather the joint effort by the men involved to interpose the Berkmans’ shell company, Bravo Tactical Solutions, into an existing arms supply arrangement between a Brazilian arms manufacturer and the Bolivian government. This was done at a substantial mark-up, generating between $2 and $3 million, some $600 thousand of which were recycled back to Mendez, Murillo, and an unnamed Ministry of Defense official.
Since the public indictment provides a detailed timeline, we now know that this corrupt scheme originated in the first week of the Áñez government, before the government was even recognized by opponents, while blood was still on the ground from the Sacaba massacre, and before the second mass killing at Senkata.
I think about this crisis moment all the time; I’ve studied it intensely to understand who did what when, how hardline officials came in with guns blazing, killing more with the police and military in ten days than Bolivian security forces had killed in the past decade of policing protests. What I had not imagined, however, was that this first week was also a time for them to think about profiteering.
Arturo Murillo’s dramatic week
The week of November 10th through 16th, 2019, was a momentous one for Bolivia and for conservative hardliner Arturo Murillo.
On November 10, a Sunday, Evo Morales had resigned under pressure from a police mutiny, the suggestions of the military high command, and a three-week tide of protest in all of Bolivia’s major cities. Overnight, supporters of Morales began to mount a backlash to his ouster, attacking police stations, public property, and the homes and businesses of political opponents in El Alto, La Paz, Cochabamba, and the Chapare, the coca-growing heartland of Morales’ political party. Among these properties was the Hotel Victoria, a hotel in Villa Tunari owned by Murillo.
On November 11, Murillo (himself an opposition senator from Cochabamba) accompanied Jeanine Áñez on a military-escorted plane to La Paz. Under a rapidly coalescing succession proposal, Áñez stood next in line to the presidency following a cascade of resignations by senior officials from Morales’ MAS-IPSP party. (MAS-IPSP leaders have claimed by contrast that the legislature could have deliberated on the resignation and named a new president of the senate to assume the interim role as head of state.)
On the night of November 12, after Añez had foregone any parliamentary debate and declared herself president of the country before a legislative chamber without any MAS-IPSP senators or deputies, she went directly to the presidential palace, an outsized Bible in hand. Murillo stood by her side, sharing the weight of the enormous tome and holding a microphone as she declared that God “has permitted the Bible to once more enter the Place, may He bless us.”
Arturo Murillo was sworn in as Minister of Government—in charge of domestic security forces—on the night of November 13. His statements to the press after the ceremony|(second source) included a raft of threats against those who might engage in sedition, who ”starting tomorrow should look out.” Either convinced or promulgating the theory that Morales’ minister Juan Ramón Quintana was behind all of the post-ouster turmoil, he declared, “We are going to begin the hunting of Juan Ramón Quintana. Why is it ‘hunting’?”—he asked rhetorically—“This is an animal who is killing people in our country and that we will not permit.”
Following up on pledges the previous night, the Ministry of Government coordinated with the Ministry of Defense on November 14 on joint police/military deployments to confront the continuing protests against the overthrow of Evo Morales. This movement was at that very moment shifting to more conventional channels of protest, including a march towards Cochabamba from the Chapare and a road blockade outside the Senkata refinery in El Alto. These two protests mobilizations would soon be the target of the deadliest acts of Bolivian state violence in eighteen years.
Sometime on November 14 or 15, Jeanine Áñez signed (and theoretically, at least, the cabinet approved) a decree authorizing the military and police to pacify the country and offering impunity for crimes committed in the course of doing so. (The decree was emitted on November 15, but its text states that it was signed on November 14.)
On November 15, the coca growers’ march was blocked by a newly installed military checkpoint in Sacaba, just a few kilometers east of their stated destination, Cochabamba. The combined police/military deployment confronted the marchers, who demanded to continue to Cochabamba, or at least to proceed into the center of the town of Sacaba. After a prolonged standoff with protesters, the police fired teargas on the march around 4pm. A half hour later, soldiers advanced to the front and began firing rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition at the crowd. According to evidence gathered by Harvard human rights researchers, this fire extended out over two hours, from 4:30 to 6:30pm. Government troops also pursued and beat fleeing protesters, including into nearby homes. At least 120 protesters were wounded and 10 were fatally shot that day.
As reports of the massacre came in, the Áñez government convened an emergency cabinet meeting. Communications Roxana Lizárraga has recently spoken out about Arturo Murillo’s reaction to the deaths, then estimated at five.
”Mr. Murillo, in a cabinet meeting—and everyone [there] most know this—when they said five dead, Mr. Murillo came and said, ’Why were we called in, were we disturbed, for five deaths? We have so much work and they call us in for this.”
“El señor (Arturo) Murillo, en una reunión de gabinete -lo tienen que conocer todos- él cuándo se dieron los cinco muertos, el señor Murillo llegó y dijo ´cómo es que nos llaman por cinco muertos, nos agitan, tenemos tanto trabajo y nos llaman por esto´”, detalló Lizárraga.“Lizárraga cuenta detalles de actos de Murillo a horas de la masacre de Sacaba.” Página Siete, September 22, 2020. https://www.paginasiete.bo/nacional/2020/9/22/lizarraga-cuenta-detalles-de-actos-de-murillo-horas-de-la-masacre-de-sacaba-268981.html.
Lizárraga remembers responding indignantly.
”At that, I had a reaction, and the [other] ministers were witnesses to it. I said to Mr. Murillo that to start with, one cannot speak of Bolivians in this way … and that all of the ministers need to know all about what happened.”
“Ahí yo tuve una reacción y son testigos los ministros, que yo le dije al señor Murillo que para empezar no podía referirse de esa manera a los bolivianos y que si tenía que hacer conteo de muertos no lo iba a hacer en Palacio de Gobierno, lo iba a hacer en su ministerio, y que en este tema todos los ministros teníamos que conocer todo lo que sucedía.”
After that meeting, Presidential Minister Jerjes Justianiano began circulating the lie that the Sacaba protesters were victims of gunfire from other cocaleros.
And on November 16, a military intervention force landed in the Chapare and recovered five of Murillo’s family members who had fled into hiding following the arson of the Hotel Victoria. In a single press conference, Murillo both touted the rescue and propagated the conspiracy theory that cocalero protesters had shot one another in Sacaba. By this time, the death toll stood at nine.
The timeline of the Murillo – Berkman plot
And yet, this public record leaves out one more activity undertaken by Arturo Murillo during this historic week for Bolivia: launching a plot to steal at least two million dollars through a corrupt contract for anti-riot munitions.
Here’s what happened on November 16, according to the indictment:
On or about November 16, 2019, SERGIO RODRIGO MENDEZ MENDIZABAL, using email address rodrigo@[XX].com, sent an email to BRYAN SAMUEL BERKMAN at bryanberkman@[XX].com (the “Bryan Berkman Personal Email Account”), attaching a letter from Co-Conspirator 1 [Arturo Murillo] addressed to BRYAN SAMUEL BERKMAN, in his capacity as a representative of Intermediary Company [Bravo Tactical Systems], seeking quotes for tear gas and other non-lethal equipment.
On or about November 16, 2019, BRYAN SAMUEL BERKMAN sent a WhatsApp text message to SERGIO RODRIGO MENDEZ MENDIZABAL requesting a letter from the Bolivian government stating that a competitor of Intermediary Company (the “Competitor”) had been “banned” from selling Brazil Company’s tear gas to the Bolivian government: “Uncle, this [Competitor] guy is telling the [Brazil Company] people he still has an entry with the government to be able to sell the gases. The only means of ensuring support for [Brazil Company] is for a letter to be sent to [Competitor] stating that it has been banned and for a copy to be sent to me so I can confirm it with [Brazil Company]. The issue is that [Competitor] has sold a lot of gases on behalf of [Brazil Company] over the last three years, so they’re obviously being very careful as to how they try to take the matter forward.” (Translated from Spanish).
On or about December 19, 2019, Intermediary Company executed a contract with the Bolivian Ministry of Defense to supply tear gas and other non-lethal equipment in exchange for approximately $5,649,137 (the “Tear Gas Contract”). BRYAN SAMUEL BERKMAN signed the Tear Gas Contract on behalf of Intermediary Company.Criminal Complaint, United States v. Luis Berkman et al. — Italicized insertions mine.
So within twenty fours of complaining about being summoned to a cabinet meeting for just five deaths, Murillo wrote a letter offering a major contract to a friend with a shell company, presumably with the spoken or unspoken promise of a monetary kickback to himself and his chief of staff.
The chutzpah involved in this juxtaposition speaks volumes about Murillo and the Áñez government, and their attitude to governing and public funds.