On the run in Latin America, ex-Nazi ‘the Butcher of Lyon,’ preferred Cuenca for R&R and secret meet-ups

Feb 1, 2021 | 3 comments

What does an out-of-work Nazi war criminal on the run from the law do for a living when he’s hiding out in Latin America? According to a documentary film, he gets into the drug trade with another notorious criminal, Pablo Escobar, and masterminds a coup for a Bolivian dictator.

Klaus Barbie on the job in France in 1943.

The film chronicles the “second life” of Klaus Barbie, a Gestapo officer known to history by the more brutal moniker, “the Butcher of Lyon,” after fleeing to Latin America in the mid-1940s with the help of western intelligence agencies following the fall of the Third Reich.

According to his memoirs and testimony from the son of the deceased Bolivian drug dealer Roberto Suárez, Barbie – known then by his adopted name of Klaus Altmann – regularly met with Suárez in the early 1980s and was also known as the key go-between with Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

Using the money generated by the cocaine trade, Barbie allegedly helped put the right-wing dictator General Luis García Meza into power in Bolivia in 1980 amid fears that the Andean nation would become a communist state like Cuba, according to claims made in the documentary.

According to testimony from Suárez’s son and letters recovered after his arrest, Barbie preferred Cuenca, Ecuador, for many of his meetings with Suárez, Meza and others, claiming it offered a “pleasant retreat from the dogs on my trail”. According to documents declassified by the Israeli government in 1998, Barbie often spent weeks at a time in Cuenca, the guest of a “prominent Spanish family with ties to dictator Francisco Franco.” The meetings were held at his hosts’ hacienda and in a popular restaurant that is still in business on the city’s Parque Calderon.

Filmmaker Peter Mueller, who was given Barbie’s handwritten memoirs by the war criminal’s lawyer, says that Barbie was instrumental in Meza’s Bolivian coup. “It is a core part of our film, the entanglement of Barbie in the so-called cocaine coup of García Meza,” Mueller said. “Barbie was the link between the military, politicians and the drugs mafia of Roberto Suárez.”

Klaus Barbie at his trial in 1987.

Mueller is part of directorial team who made “My Name is Altmann: the Second Life of a War Criminal.”

García Meza, who since 1995 has been serving a 30-year prison sentence in Bolivia, has remained quiet about his purported dealings with Barbie.

In his memoirs, the Gestapo torture master admitted to personally torturing top French resistance operatives during World War II and is estimated to have been directly involved in the deaths of 14,000 people. Following the war, he was sentenced to death in absentia in France, but evaded capture until 1983, when Meza’s regime fell apart amid an international outcry over his involvement in drug trafficking and human rights abuses.

Part of the reason that Barbie was able to avoid arrest following World War II is that he escaped Europe with the alleged help of American intelligence and was working with Germany’s BND intelligence agency. The CIA has not said whether or not the U.S. continued to support him while in South America.

“Embedded in a network of old Nazis, covered by Western intelligence agencies, he had an unmolested second career as a torture master, agent and swindler in the service of a brutal military dictator, ruthless drug barons and international arms dealers,” Mueller said. “This is an astonishing and shameful facet of international postwar history.”

Barbie eventually died of cancer in 1991, while serving a life sentence for his crimes committed in Lyon.

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