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Arrested: June 3, 2011
Jacob Ostreicher’s case is significant because it highlights the risks that Americans abroad face if they are perceived to economically threaten networks of power and influence in foreign nations. In 2011, Ostreicher’s business produced the largest harvest of rice in Bolivia’s history, and he planned to sell it at a rate that would fundamentally disrupt the market value in Bolivia. Perceived as a threat to the economic order, Ostreicher was subsequently arrested on trumped-up charges of money laundering and drug trafficking. He was detained on house arrest for two years without trial.
Ostreicher’s case, and the fundamental decay of the judicial system in Bolivia, garnered widespread media attention. It sparked the involvement of US government officials and even Hollywood actor, Sean Penn. Despite Penn’s personal rapport with the Bolivian government, and public statements by US Government officials, this high-profile involvement was not enough to sway the Bolivian courts to exonerate Ostreicher.
Ultimately, Ostreicher decided to attempt escape rather than languish on house arrest. In an effort to save face, Bolivia’s president stated that the act of fleeing was equivalent to admitting guilt. The Bolivian Foreign Minister announced that they would pursue him and force his extradition. To date, however, Bolivia has declined to pursue him and Ostreicher remains free.
Jacob Ostreicher, is an American Orthodox Jew who was arrested and imprisoned after being accused of money laundering and drug trafficking. In addition to being held in a Bolivian prison for 18 months, he and his fellow investors had $25 million in property illegally seized by the Bolivian government.
Jacob Ostreicher is a flooring contractor from Brooklyn who owned a family business selling and installing flooring for commercial properties in New York City. The 2008 construction downturn in the U.S. caused a dramatic decrease in business for Ostreicher. He was informed by Andre Zolty, a family friend in Switzerland, about an opportunity growing rice in Bolivia. Ostreicher, with several other investors, invested his life savings into the project. Zolty hired his legal intern, Claudia Liliana Rodriguez, to move to Bolivia in order to manage the project. When the group of investors suspected Rodriguez was stealing money from them, Ostreicher traveled to Bolivia to investigate the situation. He found the money had not gone to hiring and managing the operation like it was supposed to. Instead Rodriguez had disappeared with millions of dollars of the investor’s money. Power of attorney was transferred to Ostreicher, who stayed in Bolivia to rectify the situation.
A parcel of land in the eastern region of Santa Cruz Rodriguez bought was from drug trafficker, Maximiliano Dorado. Dorado and Rodriguez were arrested in 2010 for money laundering and drug trafficking. Ostreicher was arrested in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on June 3, 2011 for suspicion of money laundering and criminal organization in connection with Dorado. Upon his arrest, Government officials took the rice from Ostriecher’s ventures and sold millions of dollars of equipment Ostriecher had on his property. The property was soon after converted for the cultivation of coca. Pres. Morales was a coca farmer before becoming president. Ostreicher was held in Palmasola prison for eighteen months. He was not told why he was arrested nor was he formally charged during those eighteen months of detention.
“The family spent over $250,000 in the first few months on attorneys that were unable to make headway in the case.”
During his first bail hearing, prosecutors alleged several false allegations without proof. Despite this, Ostreicher was denied bail. During a second bail hearing, Ostreicher’s lawyer presented evidence refuting the prosecutor’s false theory. As a result, the judge ordered bail to be set at US$14,500. However, a week later, the judge reversed his ruling. He later confessed he had been threatened with arrest if he did not reverse his decision. Ostreicher’s own attorney had to remove himself from the case due to threats from the prosecutors. Following this, nearly twenty hearings were scheduled and subsequently cancelled or postponed. Two judges recused themselves and multiple lawyers accepted the case only to recuse themselves shortly thereafter. Altogether, the family spent over $250,000 in the first few months on attorneys that were unable to make headway in the case.
On June 11, 2012, a new judge ordered the hearing to go forward. This provoked prosecutors to threaten the judge with a criminal investigation unless he recused himself. He did not recuse himself; instead, the judge sent his ordered recusal to an appellate court for review, thus delaying Ostreicher’s hearing once again.
“As an actor I have been in good movies and I have been in bad movies. I have never seen a worse movie or more arch villainy… as I witnessed in that courtroom.”-Sean Penn
Relations between the U.S. and Bolivia have been strained since Bolivian President Morales expelled the American ambassador in 2008. However, Sean Penn, a known critic of U.S. foreign policy, had positive relations with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. These were endearing qualities to President Morales. Penn was able to convince Morales to order an investigation exposing an extortion ring that preyed on those accused of drug-related crimes. Fifteen people, including prosecutors, government officials, and one of Ostreicher’s judges were arrested for participating in the extortion ring. Penn also advocating on Ostreicher’s behalf in front of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs saying,“As an actor I have been in good movies and I have been in bad movies. I have never seen a worse movie or more arch villainy on such a caricature-ish and humanly diabolical level as I witnessed in that courtroom.”
The year he was arrested, Ostreicher’s anticipated crop was 50,000,000 pounds, almost as much as the country’s combined production. Morales, a big proponent of socialism, had vowed to make Bolivia self-sufficient in rice production over a course of many years. However, Ostreicher’s capitalist venture accomplished this in just three years.
CURRENT STATUS / AFTERMATH
After eighteen months of imprisonment, Ostreicher’s case was sent back to a lower court for reconsideration. He was released from prison on $14,000 bail and placed under house arrest.
Ostreicher spent a year under house arrest with no change in his case. In December of 2013, Ostreicher escaped Bolivia with the help of Sean Penn. Ostreicher was able to flee, undetected, to Peru where he caught a flight to Los Angeles. Details of the escape have not been published.
Since Ostriecher’s escape, Bolivia’s government has stated it considers Ostreicher a fugitive and will ask the United States to extradite him. President Morales stated Ostreicher’s act of fleeing was equivalent to admitting guilt, such comments are often made by leaders in an effort to save face.