Meet Roger Pinto Molina, the Edward Snowden of Bolivia

Aug 15, 2013 at 9:10 AM ET

Small, landlocked and desperately poor, Bolivia is easily ignored by the world’s most powerful nations. But when President Evo Morales traveled to Russia earlier this summer for an oil and gas conference, the U.S. government took notice. In an interview with a Kremlin-friendly Russian television station, Morales, the Andean populist schooled in the tub-thumping style of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was asked if he might grant asylum to the American fugitive Edward Snowden, who was then still stuck in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. “Why not?” Morales shot back.

With those two words, the Bolivian president set off a global manhunt. After flying out of Moscow, his plane was turned away from Italy, France, Portugal and Spain. It finally made a forced landing in Austria, where authorities confirmed that Snowden—a former U.S. intelligence contractor who revealed details about the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance program—was not aboard. “The empire and its servants will never be able to intimidate or scare us!” Morales thundered the next morning when he arrived to a hero’s welcome at El Alto International Airport just outside La Paz, Bolivia’s capital.

Latin America applauded. But as it happens, Morales has his own Edward Snowden to contend with in the Andes. His name is Roger Pinto Molina, and he’s a 53-year-old senator and leader of the country’s opposition party. This Bolivian asylum seeker doesn’t have the cachet of his American counterpart. There are no legions of pro bono lawyers arguing his case or public words of support from Daniel Ellsberg, the legendary Vietnam war whistle-blower. Yet in accusing top government officials of drug trafficking, taking bribes and other high crimes, he has managed to piss off Morales and his cohorts and attract a wave of indictments and death threats. In May 2012, he sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy in La Paz. And though Brazil quickly granted him asylum, Bolivia has refused to provide him safe passage on the grounds that he is a “common criminal” who must answer to local justice. Which would be fine, Pinto’s defenders say, except that Morales is to due process what the Taliban is to female education.

The ordeal began five years ago, when Pinto—a former governor and a longtime lawmaker from Pando, a prosperous state in the Bolivian Amazon—was elected to the Senate and became head of the congressional opposition. He began leading a forceful movement against the Morales government and calling Bolivian politics as he saw them—authoritarian, erratic and increasingly vindictive. That year he also started pointing a finger at government officials for high crimes.

The retaliation was sharp and swift. Since early 2009 the Bolivian government has indicted Pinto for 20 different crimes, from the vague “disrespect for authority” to corruption and even murder. In one instance, he was accused of illegally raising taxes in a duty-free zone to create a public university—perhaps the first time a politician has been accused of seizing tax revenues to build a school. And after Pinto and fellow lawmakers exposed government-affiliated attorney Mary Carrasco and her associates for lining their pockets, tax evasion, buying witnesses and planting evidence, he was served with a homicide charge. The catch: No victim has ever been identified, and a key witness against Pinto later recanted.

“Attorney for Bolivian Senator Roger Pinto Molina exposes the offensive arrogance of Evo and his sidekicks.”

“We join hands to ask for the liberty of the senator, Bolivian political prisoner Roger Pinto Molina.”

“Brazil declines asylum to Snowden. But grants it to Bolivian Senator Roger Pinto Molina. Snowden is just a rebellious employee. Bolivia v. U.S.”

In 2011, things got even worse for Pinto when he took a sealed envelope to the presidential palace containing information that he claimed tied top officials, including Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti Soliz, to the international drug trade. But President Morales—who had expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency from La Paz in 2008—declined to meet with the opposition leader. The minister in turn charged Pinto with slander and disrespecting authority.

In a statement in June, Communications Minister Amanda Dávila rejected Pinto’s claims that the government condoned drug trafficking. “We do not know if this is correct information,” she said, claiming that Pinto “offers information with no type of documentation and distributes it to the press.”

And yet Pinto isn’t the only one making the claim that the government in La Paz is involved in drugs. In February 2011, Morales’s former national intelligence adviser René Sanabria Oropeza was caught in Panama trying to sell hundreds of kilos of cocaine, and was eventually sent to prison in Miami. Last year, from his jail cell, Sanabria reportedly told U.S. prosecutors and the Spanish cable channel Univision that he operated with the blessing of Interior minister Llorenti Soliz.

The muck went even higher, according to Pinto, all the way to the chambers of Juan Ramón Quintana, the powerful minister of government and Morales’ right hand. In March 2011, the controversial lawmaker released documents accusing Quintana of holding a meeting in the home of convicted drug trafficker Maximiliano Dorado, who since escaping from a Brazilian prison in 2001 was believed to be the Bolivian connection for a murderous São Paulo drug cartel called the Capital First Command. Quintana denied the meeting and the Morales government dismissed the charges and answered with one of its own against Pinto—yet another indictment for “disrespecting authority.”

Having criticized both Bolivian government officials and the drug-dealing thugs he said they were protecting, Pinto received a bevy of death threats. In early 2009, a confessed gunman named Blusher Niels Alpire declared on video that Quintana had hired him to kill Pinto with a 9 millimeter pistol. Last year, Pinto released audio tapes obtained through a wiretap in which another hit man, claiming links to Quintana, described in detail how he planned to shoot down the gadfly lawmaker. Finally, in May 2012, after a tip that assassins would try to kill him in the street, Pinto turned up at the Brazilian embassy.

Despite refusing to let Pinto go to Brazil, Morales keeps defending Bolivia’s right to grant asylum to Snowden. He lobbied Latin heads of state at a regional summit last month to declare the “right of every sovereign state to grant asylum to any citizen according to the norms of international law.” There was no mention of Pinto at the summit. The joint statement by the South American trade block, Mercosur, went on to declare: “It is fundamental that the right to safe passage to the country conceding asylum be guaranteed.”

There was no mention of Pinto at this meeting. Nor was there any mention of the report that surfaced a few days later accusing Bolivian security of having forcibly searched a Brazilian air force plane in 2011, apparently on a hunch that Pinto was aboard. Morales issued a quiet apology, but denied that that his security had been looking for the Bolivian whistleblower. Brazilian defense minister, Celso Amorim, declined to comment, which is oddly circumspect for an outspoken diplomat who once famously upbraided the U.S. for requiring a Brazilian foreign minister to remove his shoes for airport security.

That sort of chutzpah is notably absent in the case of Pinto, as Brazil seems at risk of becoming a Bolivian piñata. Not only did the Bolivian government thwart Brazil by ignoring Pinto’s right to asylum, but it has provoked the Latin powerhouse in recent years by seizing an oil refinery, dragging its feet on drug trafficking, and looking the other way when thieves smuggled thousands of stolen Brazilian cars over the border. “For Brazilian diplomacy, this is humiliating,” says Fernando Tibúrcio Peña, Pinto’s Brazilian attorney.

To break the impasse over Pinto, Tibúrcio has filed a writ of habeas corpus before the Brazilian Supreme Court. It’s an unusual request, and a delicate one. “The Brazilian court has no jurisdiction over Bolivia,” the lawyer says. “What we want is for Brazil to dispatch a car to the embassy, pick up Pinto and bring him back to Brazil.”

Barred from talking to the press, Pinto counts the days in a spare room in the embassy furnished with a writing desk, a half-size fridge, a sofa and a single bed. The shared bathroom is down the hall. There are marine guards posted at the opposition leader’s door tasked with keeping him safe. As long as Bolivia denies him safe conduct, he is stuck passing the time by surfing the web, listening to Frank Sinatra and catching up on his reading. On his bedside table is a copy of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky—the same book Snowden was reportedly reading last month in the Moscow airport.