Escape from Bolivia: Mystery operation with Hollywood twist brings US man home

An American jailed then held under house arrest in Bolivia is spirited out of the country in a 'humanitarian operation' and is now back in the US – under the care of actor-activist Sean Penn.

By , Staff Writer

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    Jacob Ostreicher, a New York City businessman (l.) arrives at a court to attend a hearing in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The US State Department says Ostreicher, who was detained the past 2 1/2 years in Bolivia on suspicion of money laundering, has arrived in the United States. Bolivian government officials said Monday that they didn't know anything about him possibly leaving.
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The story has all of the ingredients of a Hollywood hit: a stealthy escape from house arrest in a foreign country, alleged money laundering and drug trafficking, and, of course, Sean Penn.  

For Jacob Ostreicher, who was mysteriously spirited out of Bolivia and back to the United States this week, these blockbuster elements were part of his reality for the 2-1/2 years.

Prior to his escape, the middle-aged American businessman had spent 18 months in a Bolivian prison and an additional year under house arrest in the country.

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Bolivian authorities arrested Mr. Ostreicher in June 2011 for alleged money laundering, though prosecutors never formally charged him.

Mr. Penn, the actor-activist, told the Associated Press that Ostreicher had been extracted from Bolivia in a "humanitarian operation" that had been mounted to release him "from the corrupt prosecution and imprisonment he was suffering."

Little is known about how exactly the father of five managed to evade Bolivian authorities, but Penn said Ostreicher is in his care in the United States. The State Department has confirmed that Ostreicher is in the US. 

Penn offered no further details about how Ostreicher left Bolivia.

"You'll never find out," Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said Tuesday. If the US was involved, "it was done through layers and layers of cover," he said.

On Wednesday, Washington denied having a hand in Ostreicher's flight to freedom.

"The US government was not involved in Mr. Ostreicher's departure from Bolivia," said a State Department spokeswoman who declined to be identified, Reuters reported. 

However, Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Romero told reporters his country "is certain that the US government participated," adding, "We think he must have had some help from the embassy" of the United States in La Paz.

Relations between Bolivia and the United States have been strained since President Evo Morales expelled the US ambassador in 2008.

US officials have attended all of Ostreicher's court hearings and have given him consular access since his arrest 2-1/2 years ago, according to White House Deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf, Reuters reported.

Ostreicher, a flooring contractor from Brooklyn, went to Bolivia several years ago to manage a rice-farming enterprise into which he had entered, along with a group of Swiss investors. Bolivian authorities then arrested Ostreicher, accusing him of money laundering in connection with his rice business. 

The New York businessman alleged that a Colombian woman running the venture skimmed investors' money and was involved romantically with a Brazillian drug trafficker. All the while he was being held, prosecutors were trying to extort tens of thousands of dollars from him to let him go, he told the Associated Press.

Ostreicher was jailed in Palmasola prison, the only American being held in a facility notorious for being ruled internally by an inmates committee, The New York Times reported. Conflicts between rival factions at Palmasola resulted in 31 deaths there in August.

Authorities released Ostreicher from Palmasola in Dec. 2012 and moved him into house arrest after Penn urged President Morales to free the American. According to the Times, Penn was contacted by an organization that aids Jewish prisoners. Ostreicher is an Orthodox Jew.   

"If it weren't for Sean Penn I would be another statistic in Bolivia and I would die in prison," Ostreicher told the AP a year ago. Penn was a frequent guest of the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, and endeared himself to Latin American leaders by denouncing US foreign policy.

After Ostreicher was moved, Morales ordered a high-powered investigation that exposed an alleged extortion ring suspected of preying on people accused of drug-related crimes. It led to the arrests of 15 people, including several prosecutors and the top legal adviser at the Interior Ministry, who had repeatedly flown from the capital to the eastern city of Santa Cruz for court hearings to ensure Ostreicher was not freed from prison.

Ostreicher had denounced the high-level extortion ring from jail, but was still kept under arrest in Bolivia.

Under house arrest, Ostreicher was required to be in his house every day from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., though he was free to carry out his activities at other times. Every fifteen days, Ostreicher was supposed to report to authorities, said Justice Minister Cecilia Ayllón, the Times reported.

The first three or four months of Ostreicher's house arrest, there was round-the-clock police surveillance, but that was eventually lifted, said Jimmy Montano, a lawyer for Ostreicher in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, according to the Times.

Bolivian authorities believe that the escaped American prisoner traveled from Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia to La Paz. From there, Ostreicher apparently slipped across the border to Peru, and then flew from Peru's capital, Lima, to Los Angeles.

"The charges against him [Ostreicher] are still in effect and undoubtedly his escape shows us that this man took part in the crimes he is accused of,” said Ms. Allyón.

The Bolivian government will ask the United States to extradite Ostreicher, Allyón said.  The United States has an extradition treaty with Brazil.

This is the second high-profile flight from Bolivia in four months, Reuters reported. A Bolivian opposition senator, Roger Pinto, fled to Brazil in August after being accused of corruption and spending a year holed up in the Brazilian Embassy in La Paz.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this article.  

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