Imprisoned in Bolivia

Imprisoned in Bolivia

There is a prison in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, that is commonly referred to as a ghetto, or a prison town. There are walls surrounding a huge complex. Inside the walls are buildings, with a large open courtyard in the center. Prison guards apply nominal controls over the lives of the prisoners of Palmasola. It is the prisoners themselves who run the show. They even created an organization called the Disciplina Interna that governs their affairs, if govern is the correct term. There are few rules, with “stay alive” at the top of that list.

No food is served; lucky prisoners are permitted to receive visitors bearing gifts. Those who have no one outside usually fight, steal, beg, or die. There are small grocery stores run by inmates for anyone who can pay. Most of the 3,000 inmates do not live in cells, so they sleep on the streets; if they are spiritual enough, or crafty, they can go to morning prayers at the church run by clergy (who themselves are prisoners) and be granted permission to stay the night.

Prisoners with money on the outside can buy a private five square-foot cell, and be the envy of those who want the same. The poorest of the prisoners, who cannot support their families outside, have their wives and children join them on the streets of Palmasola. Those visitors can come, get a full body search, and be granted access. They get a stamp on their arms; only if they can produce that stamp on the way out do they get to leave.

It is a rough, lawless place where the drug trade is brisk and the cocaine is allegedly the finest you can buy. In the words of someone who just visited her husband, “If you didn’t go in a drug addict, you will almost certainly leave as one – if you leave at all.”

The prison is home to murderers, rapists, thieves, drug dealers, smugglers, and users. Major crimes and minor ones warrant imprisonment in Palmasola. One offense that is almost certain to get you tossed into this harsh wasteland is upsetting the government of Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales.

Needless to say, if you are Jewish and observant, Palmasola is definitely not the place to be. There is no kosher food there, and nowhere among the many churches within its walls does a synagogue stand.

So what does an observant Jewish man do when he gets incarcerated in Santa Cruz, and what could he have done to be put there in the first place?

For 11 months now, an American man from Borough Park, Brooklyn, has been in Palmasola prison. In the interest of full disclosure, I represent his wife in her efforts to call attention to what clearly is a huge injustice.

Jacob Ostreicher, a 53-year-old father of five and grandfather of 11, was arrested in June 2011 on suspicion of money-laundering. Unlike in the United States, where one is innocent until proven guilty, the Bolivian prosecutor claims that Ostreicher was jailed because he failed to prove the money he used for a land deal was obtained legally. The Bolivian government, for its part, cannot prove that it was illegal. After more than 25 hearings, what is most evident is that there is no evidence – at least none that the government thinks will stand up in court.

The facts are simple. In 2008, Ostreicher’s Swiss money manager and some other investors purchased Bolivian cattle and rice fields for about $20 million. They hired a local woman to manage the business, and the woman allegedly embezzled the money, investing it with a drug trafficker.

It was after Ostreicher filed charges against the woman for theft that his problems escalated. He was arrested on suspicion of laundering drug money when he went to authorities to file a grievance against the woman, who is also now in prison.

The last significant legal proceedings yielded an odd result. The defense received a letter from Interpol saying that Ostreicher was not wanted anywhere, so in September 2011, the judge on the case believed there was sufficient evidence to release him. That judge ordered Jacob’s release, but only six days later reversed his decision. Miriam Ungar, Ostreicher’s wife, said that the judge later claimed that he was threatened with jail time unless he reversed his decision. That judge was promoted and a new judge was assigned to the case. He resigned after five scheduled hearings. There is no judge currently assigned to Ostreicher’s case.

Ungar is now campaigning to get her husband released. She says that neither Sens. Charles Schumer nor Kirsten Gillibrand pay attention to her husband’s case, and that the same is true of her congressman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler. She believes that if New York’s congressional delegation pushes the United States State Department to act, that could move the scales of justice for Jacob.

An American sits in a dangerous prison in a country with few ties to the United States, but has not been officially charged with a crime. Yet no official here seems interested in doing something about it. Last week, in an effort to call attention to his plight, about 400 of Ostreicher’s friends and family members came out to the Bolivian Mission to the United Nations to rally for his freedom.

Among the supporters was Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents Ostreicher’s neighborhood. There also is a Facebook site devoted to Ostreicher’s case, a Twitter feed, and a campaign website at If supporters can get 25,000 signatures in one month’s time, a petition will be brought to President Barack Obama’s desk.

It is bizarre that a U.S. citizen is being held – without formal charges being filed, much less any kind of a trial conducted – in harsh conditions in a foreign prison, and our leaders do not seem to care.

Hikind yelled out over the megaphone at the rally, “How cheap is American citizenship today that a United States citizen can sit in a Bolivian jail without being charged for a crime and no one lifts a finger?”

It is a very good – and extremely sad – question.