It is a smoke-and-mirrors saga fit for Hollywood, complete with a major movie star, murky reports of a kidnapping and a US fugitive sneaking across the border of a far-away nation unfriendly to Washington.
Little is being revealed about Jacob Ostreicher’s flight from house arrest in Bolivia and into the care of actor-activist Sean Penn.
The New York businessman arrived in the US on Monday after an ordeal that began more than two years ago when he was detained as part of a money laundering probe into a rice growing venture. His Orthodox Jewish family, associates in Bolivia and the US Department of State are all expressing a mixture of relief and surprise, but not much else. No one is saying how the 54-year-old fled, or who helped him.
“You’ll never find out,” Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said on Tuesday.
If the US was involved, “it was done through layers and layers of cover,” he added.
Penn, who last year traveled to La Paz to appeal to Bolivian President Evo Morales to free Ostreicher, said a “humanitarian operation” had been mounted to extract the American “from the corrupt prosecution and imprisonment he was suffering.”
However, his statement in an e-mail to reporters gave no details on how that was done.
The State Department was equally circumspect and family members said they were being kept in the dark.
However, the Bolivian government is talking, its officials expressing outrage and issuing warnings that they may seek extradition.
Analysts said the chances of returning Ostreicher to Bolivia are slim since he won media attention by denouncing an extortion ring that reached into the upper levels of the government while in jail. Due to this, some speculate that his flight might have enjoyed La Paz’s quiet consent. Bolivia has made no inquiries into the escape as of Tuesday, the US State Department said.
His whereabouts are not known. In his e-mail, Penn said only that Ostreicher was safe, doing well and receiving medical attention at an undisclosed location.
Ostreicher spent 18 months in a Bolivian jail without charge. He was held as a suspect in a money laundering investigation tied to efforts to revive the rice business he entered into with Swiss investors. Ostreicher alleged that the Colombian woman running the venture skimmed investors’ money and had ties to a Brazilian drug trafficker.
His plight attracted international attention in 2011, when he accused prosecutors of trying to extort tens of thousands of dollars from him in exchange for being let go.
With US-Bolivia relations strained since Morales expelled the US ambassador in 2008, Penn was one of the few people Ostreicher could turn to. The actor was a frequent guest of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and is a sharp critic of US foreign policy — two qualities that endear him to Morales and other leftist leaders.
After Penn intervened, Morales ordered a high-powered investigation that exposed an extortion ring that preyed on people accused of drug-related crimes. It led to the arrests of 15 people.
Ostreicher was let out of jail in December last year, but barred from leaving Bolivia. A frustrated Penn vowed not to abandon him.
“If it weren’t for Sean Penn, I would be another statistic in Bolivia and I would die in prison,” Ostreicher told reporters a year ago, after efforts by US diplomats and lawmakers to free him failed.