On August 14, 1947, three men met for drinks at a cafe in American-occupied Memmingen, Germany.
One of them was Kurt Merck, a former officer in the Nazi Germany military intelligence agency Abwehr. He was now on the payroll of American intelligence.
The second man sitting at that table was Lieutenant Robert Taylor, an officer in the Army's Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC).
The third man at the table was the subject for this meeting. His name was Klaus Barbie, also known as The Butcher of Lyon. The reason for the meeting was to recruit Barbie and put him on the American payroll.
Barbie was an early member of the Hitler Youth and officially joined the Gestapo (SD) on September 26, 1935.
Early in the war Barbie was in charge of massacring Jews in Holland before he was transferred to the Nazi mobile death squads on the eastern front, massacring many more Jews and Slavs. He personally gave the order for the deportation of 44 Jewish orphans to Auschwitz in 1944. In November of 1942 he was assigned to Lyon, France as section chief. One of his first actions there was to build torture chambers for captured members of the French Resistance, where he gained a reputation of being sadistic even by Gestapo standards. He was so successful that he managed to capture and torture to death the head of the French Resistance, Jean Moulin.
When the allied armies were approaching in 1944, Barbie gave the order to machine-gun the remaining 109 Jewish prisoners, and another 120 resistance members, before withdrawing to Germany.
It has been estimated that below his command 7,500 people were deported, and 4,342 were murdered.Barbie was the worst of the worst. He was a creature so vile that it shouldn't be allowed to live.
In 1952 and 1954, military tribunals in Lyon found Barbie guilty of torture, executions, deportations, and looting. Barbie was sentenced to death in absentia.
So why was the CIC trying to recruit him in 1947? What possible reason of critical national security was so important that all morality and humanity could be tossed aside?
That reason had to do with the fact that Barbie had been cooperating with British Intelligence for over a year. The CIC wanted information about British interrogation techniques and the identity of former SS officers that the British were looking to recruit. In other words, we were willing to sell out our humanity and decency in order to spy on our closest allie.
For the next several years Barbie worked for the CIC, writing reports on both the British and French intelligence and helping the CIC in "interrogations". Then in March 1950, the French learned that the Americans were shielding Barbie and they insisted that he be turned over to them.
Eugene Kolb, an Army intelligence officer who worked with Barbie wrote in his report: "Due to his long association with C.I.C., Subject [Barbie] knows more about C.I.C. targets, modus operandi, etc., than most C.I.C. agents. Subject also knows the identity of most KPD [German Communist Party] penetration sources used by this office, due to the fact that he either handled those sources . . . or because he recruited or turned such sources."
The CIC refused to turn him over to the French, and instead used a "rat line" to get him out of Europe to Bolivia. The Vatican connection in this rat line was Father Krunoslav Dragonovic. Dragonovic was also a Nazi-affiliated war criminal who assisted the Ustashi puppet government and has been linked to the deaths of 10,000 Jews and Serbs in Yugoslavia. Somehow Dragonovic managed to remain in good standing with both the Vatican and the Red Cross. Those contacts made him a valuable asset of the CIA in the Cold War, despite Yugoslavia's repeated demands to have him extradited for war crimes.
Father Krunoslav Dragonovic
Draganovic demanded the CIC pay him $1,400 for each war criminal he smuggled out of Europe. There were a lot of payments.
The CIC's explanation to the French of why they never turned over Barbie was "the allegations of the citizens of Lyon can be disregarded as being hearsay only."
Klaus Barbie wasn't the worst Nazi war criminal on the American payroll. For instance, we had working for us Adolf Eichmann's right-hand man, Baron Otto von Bolschwing. He had personally directed the extermination of Jews in Bucharest, and helped Eichmann develop the "Final Solution".
But what makes the case of Klaus Barbie so despicable is what happened after America helped him escape to Bolivia, where he changed his name to Klaus Altmann.
Just like old times
It didn't take Altmann/Barbie long to find and make friends with other escaped Nazis. Nor did it take him long to return to his past occupation.
Within a few years he was hired as a consultant with the Bolivian government for "matters of internal security". By 1957 he had become a Bolivian citizen, something that would help prevent him from being extradited for decades.
In 1964 the CIA determined that the Bolivian government wasn't sufficiently anti-communist. The man they picked to lead the coup, General Rene Barrientos Ortuno, just happened to be a close friend of Barbie. Barbie's reward for helping with the coup was his appointment to the internal security forces where he planned counterinsurgency operations. Barbie incorporated all of his highly developed skills at Nazi torture methods into the Bolivian security practices.
Rene Barrientos Ortuno
Barbie was also able to advance his philosophy on eugenics. It seems the tin miners, who were predominantly indians, had been striking for better wages and working conditions. Barbie considered indians to be genetically inferior, and so the security forces were unleashed upon them with bloody results.
The CIA was heavily involved with setting up this new military government and they repeatedly turned to Altmann/Barbie for information. The CIA also pored millions of dollars into Bolivia in the form of bribes and military aid. Barbie was also correctly positioned to take advantage of this opportunity.
Barbie had become partners with Frederich Schwend, Hitler's master forger during WWII. Together they created the Estrella Company. It started by selling local commodities and assault weapons. However, when Barbie created the Transmaritania shipping company (with CIA agent and Bolivian Interior Minister, AntonioArguedas Mendieta), his primary capitalist product changed - to guns and drugs.
Barbie's source of weapons was giant German conglomerate Merex, a company founded by the Nazi stormtrooper to who rescued Mussolimi from prison. Barbie sold Merex weapons to right-wing regimes all over South America, including Bolivia.
All during this time France was searching the world for Barbie. The CIA repeatedly told the French that they didn't know where he was.
In 1967 the CIA discovered that Che Guevara was in Bolivia and stirring up a rebellion among the oppressed indians. The CIA turned to Barbie as a conduit for information with the Bolivian military. For the next decade Barbie and the CIA would remain in almost constant contact. Barbie almost certainly played a key role in the torture and death of Che.
After Barrientos died in a helicopter crash in 1969 (the same helicopter that the CIA gave him earlier), a Bolivian nationalist became president and revoked lucrative oil contracts with American companies. The CIA responded by plotting another coup in 1971, led by Hugo Banzer Suarez, yet another friend of Barbie. Banzer's coup was bloody even by Bolivian standards. Barbie, for his help in the coup, became an honorary colonel. He also became a paid consultant of both the Ministry of the Interior and infamous Department 7, the counterinsurgency wing of the Bolivian Army. Both institutions were funded by the CIA.
Hugo Banzer Suarez
One of the most important aspects of Barbie's work was advising Banzer on how to adapt the military effectively for internal repression rather than external aggression. Many of the features of the Army which were later to become standard were first developed by Barbie in the early 1970's. The system of concentration camps...became standard for important military and political prisoners.The Bolivian government paid Barbie $2,000 a month for his consulting services. But Barbie's wealth came primarily from arm sales to the Bolivian military, much of it purchased with military aid sent from America.
Under Barbie, they [the Bolivian military] learned to use the techniques of electricity and the use of medical supervision to keep the suspect alive till they had finished with him."
- CIA report on Barbie
The 1970's were a heady time for Barbie. He traveled freely around the world, giving lectures on the new South American fascism. His security forces targeted catholic missionaries. Barbie was also was involved in Operation Condor, a US-sponsored project of political repression of leftists in South America.
Meanwhile back in Bolivia, Banzer was busy with his own enterprise - growing coca. In fact, Suarez became the primary supplier of coca paste to the Medellin cartel. His multi-billion dollar business, nicknamed 'la mafia cruzena', required enhanced security, and for this he turned to his old friend Barbie.
Barbie's narco-mercenaries included two former SS officers and several known terrorists. Their jobs weren't just to protect Banzer. They also attacked rivals in the drug trade and enforced payments from their Medellin counterparts. Their weapons were supplied by the Suarez government.
The drug trade was doing so well that Banzer tripled the amount of coca being produced in Bolivia. The huge surge in supply dropped the price of a gram of cocaine on American streets from $1,500 a gram in 1975 to $200 a gram in 1986. Thus fueling the crack cocaine epidemic.
To move all this coca paste to Columbia, Banzer had a massive fleet of private planes. But when planes weren't enough he used Barbie's Transmaritania shipping company.
The Cocaine Coup
"No, personally, no. If there were mistakes, there were mistakes. But a man has to have a line of work, no?"
- Klaus Barbie, when asked if he had any regrets
By 1978 the narco-corruption in the Bolivian government was so out of hand that Banzer decided to step down and hold an election. Despite widespread fraud, the right-wing party lost anyway. This was unaccptable to the Bolivian fascists, so they launched what became known as the "Cocaine Coup".
Colonel Luis Arce Gómez turned to his his "teacher", Klaus Barbie, to organize the coup. Barbie turned to Italian fascist and terrorist Stefano Delle Chiaie, also known as the Black Prince, to provide muscle. Chiaie had worked under Mussolini's intelligence service during WWII rounding up leftist opponents. He had been captured by the Italian communists at war's end and was going to be put to death, but the CIA stepped in and rescued him. He had to flee Italy in 1969 for plotting a coup.
Stefano Delle Chiaie
On July 17, 1980, the cocaine coup happened. Leftist labor leaders were executed, and all opposition media was silenced.
The following day Luis Garcia Tejada was sworn in as president. Luis Arce Gomez was appointed minister of the interior and Klaus Barbie became the head of the internal security forces. With the help of professional torturers imported from Argentina, an estimated 1,000 people were killed in just 13 months.
Luis Garcia Tejada
Hundreds of opposition leaders were rounded up and herded into a large soccer stadium in La Paz, where in true Argentina-style, they were shot en mass.
Klaus Barbie was given the job of suppressing all competition in the drug monopoly.
Ultimately, things had become so flagrant that even the regime's backers in the United States distanced themselves.
President Garcia was forced to resign on August 4, 1981. Chiaie stayed in Bolivia for another year before fleeing an arrest warrant.
On January 25, 1983, Klaus Barbie was arrested and later handed over to French authorities.
His trial started on May 11, 1987. The lead defense attorney, Jacques Vergès, convincingly argued that his actions were no different than the actions of French colonialists, thus making this trial selective prosecution. Many of the charges against Barbie had to be dropped.
However, on July 4, 1987, Barbie was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity. He died in prison four years later at the age of 77.