A federal jury on Wednesday found Bolivia’s anti-corruption chief guilty of traveling to Miami to extort a rich Bolivian businessman for $30,000 in exchange for making trumped-up charges against him go away back home.
The 12-person jury in Fort Lauderdale federal court took just over an hour to convict Bolivian National Police Col. Mario Fabricio Ormachea Aliaga on two counts of extortion. Ormachea, who has been in federal custody since his arrest in August, faces up to 25 years in prison at his May 23 sentencing before U.S. District Judge Jose A. Gonzalez Jr.
Ormachea’s wealthy target was Humberto Roca, former owner of Aerosur Airlines, who fled Bolivia for the United States in 2011 after he was charged with “illegal enrichment” in his native country. During an FBI sting operation, Roca paid $5,000 in cash to Ormachea — a transaction that was videotaped on Aug. 31 by federal agents in the converted garage of Roca’s Miami Lakes home.
“He took the money,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jon Juenger told the jury during closing arguments of Ormachea’s three-day extortion trial. “You saw him count the money.”
Juenger said the anti-corruption chief used his power to threaten an innocent man for money: “That is a frightening, diabolical thing to do to somebody.”
During closing arguments, a defense attorney told jurors that the prosecutors presented their case backwards: Assistant federal public defender Chantel Doakes said Roca paid Ormachea to obtain “inside information” about the “illegal-enrichment” charges filed against him in Bolivia.
Doakes said her client did not commit extortion in the United States because Ormachea was paid “money in exchange for [his] influence in Bolivia.”
“They have failed to prove to you that Mr. Ormachea committed any of the crimes charged in the indictment,” she told the jurors. “We’re here because of a wealthy, corrupt businessman who wanted to get back at the Bolivian government.”
Prosecutor John Byrne told jurors that Ormachea’s attorney distorted the government’s case. “It’s about a man who used his position of power to get someone to give him money,” he argued. “It’s extortion.”
After Roca initially gave Ormachea $5,000 as a down payment toward the extortion demand, the colonel acknowledged meeting with Roca on two occasions last August, but denied trying to extort him, according to an FBI affidavit filed with the charges. Ormachea, who did not testify at his trial, told FBI agents that he had not traveled to Miami in his official role.
In a lawsuit filed in Miami, Roca accused senior Bolivian government officials, including President Evo Morales, of directing a campaign of political persecution against him — including seizing his company, Aerosur, which competed with Bolivia’s nationally owned airline.
On Monday, Roca testified that he obtained political asylum in 2012 after he and other members of his family fled Bolivia and settled in Miami Lakes the previous year. Roca testified that he was charged in Bolivia with taking “money that belonged to the state.”
He said Ormachea threatened that if he did not pay the bribes, the senior Bolivian police officer would pursue the illegal-enrichment charges against him and seek his extradition to Bolivia.
He testified that Ormachea contacted him by telephone to say he was coming to Miami to meet him last August. Roca’s Miami attorney Michael Diaz Jr. instructed him to contact the FBI about the extortion attempt.
The FBI directed him to play an undercover role in the sting operation, which played out in Roca’s Miami Lakes home over two days.
After the federal jury returned the pair of guilty verdicts Wednesday, Ormachea’s mother shouted at Roca’s relatives gathered outside the courtroom. The mother said that Roca had “ruined” her son’s life.
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Mayra Quiroz contributed to this report.