Instead of putting the SS monster on trial, the US recruited him as a spy – a move which backfired when he joined forces with South American drug lords
As the brutal Butcher of Lyon, notorious Nazi Klaus Barbie spent the Second World War torturing children and sending whole families to the death camps.
But when the conflict ended, the Gestapo captain didn’t face instant arrest and swift justice. Instead, the US allowed him to start a new life as a CIA spy, smuggling him into Bolivia where he helped hunt and kill the revolutionary Che Guevara .
It was a disastrous mistake. Once in South America, Barbie went on to join forces with some of the region’s most feared drug lords, including Pablo Escobar , to launch a global cocaine trade currently worth £60 billion a year.
He even became a colonel in the Bolivian army, enlisted the help of terrorists called Fiances of Death and used drug money to fund a military coup, creating a narco-state where the traffickers could build a cocaine empire immune from prosecution.
Peter McFarren, an American journalist who tracked down Barbie and interviewed him several times, says: “Barbie may not have been physically involved in shipping kilos of drugs, but he played a decisive role in the growth of the cocaine trade in Bolivia, Peru and Columbia.
“He was the liaison between these kings of cocaine and the government, military and mercenaries.”
Barbie was the ultimate partner in crime for the drug lords. He proved his ruthlessness after he was appointed leader of Hitler’s secret police in Lyon in 1942, aged 29.
Charged with hunting down members of the French Resistance, he earned his Butcher nickname by personally torturing men, women and children with sexual abuse, electrocution and breaking bones.
After the war, some of Barbie’s new associates almost earned a similarly ferocious reputation. They included Pablo Escobar, the richest gangster in history who amassed a £30billion personal fortune and killed thousands of Colombians to maintain his empire.
The King of Cocaine held a monopoly on the import of coca paste from Bolivia to Colombia. At one point he was responsible for 80% of the powder smuggled into the US.
Barbie almost certainly visited him at his 5,000-acre estate, Hacienda Napoles, with its private airport and its own zoo.
It is likely the sadistic Nazi, who had a lucrative sideline as an arms trader, also supplied him with weapons.
But Barbie’s closest ally was Bolivian warlord Roberto Suarez Gomez, another notorious drug dealer, who inspired the character Alejandro Sosa in gangster film Scarface.
While not as rich as Escobar, when his eldest son was caught by US police in 1982, Suarez Gomez wrote to President Ronald Reagan offering to pay Bolivia’s £2.5billion foreign debt as a ransom for his release.
Barbie met Suarez Gomez regularly in the early 1980s, acting as a go-between for the drug lord and corrupt Bolivian army colleagues he wanted to bribe.
McFarren, who co-wrote a biography on Barbie called The Devil’s Agent, says: “I’ve spoken to people directly involved in those meetings, so we know Barbie received money from Suarez Gomez and the cocaine trade.”
But the pair had bigger plans. They plotted to overthrow an entire government. Barbie’s letters reveal he was paranoid there would be a Communist revolution in Bolivia and he would be deported to France to stand trial for war crimes.
Meanwhile Suarez Gomez wanted the freedom to expand his cocaine empire without fear of prosecution. So they arranged a military coup to install General Luis Garcia Meza Tejada as commander of the army, then as president in 1980, all funded by cocaine cash.
For the next two years the government was directly involved in, and profited from, the cocaine trade. Corrupt officials ensured it left the drug dealers free to pursue a policy of ruthless expansion.
McFarren says: “Overthrowing a democratic government with money from the drug trade was unheard of. It set a dangerous precedent of how democracy could be interrupted by the dollars and terrorism of cocaine trafficking bandits.
“In Columbia and Peru there were individual government officials and military police who were part of the cocaine trade. But I can’t think of another regime that was completely in the pocket of the trade, and Barbie played a key part in that.”
It is remarkable Barbie even made it to Bolivia. In the Second World War he was responsible for 14,000 deaths, but after Germany’s defeat he was recruited by the CIA to fight communism.
When it emerged Barbie may face prosecution for his horrific war crimes, the CIA enlisted the help of the Vatican to change his name to Klaus Altmann, and he fled to Bolivia in 1951.
Once in South America he kept a low profile, working at a remote lumber mill for 10 years. But Barbie found a new outlet for his sadistic talents by the 1960s, advising the Bolivian military on interrogation and torture techniques.
“We know he was involved in several cases where people were tortured and killed in Bolivia” says McFarren.
He also boasted he helped the CIA hunt down Che Guevara in 1967. The Argentinian had played a key role in the Communist revolution in Cuba, but was now leading a guerilla army in Bolivia.
Barbie’s position of power guaranteed him safety from extradition to France and he went to great lengths to preserve it, betraying anyone without hesitation.
When the daughter of close friend Hans Ertl, who made propaganda for Hitler, joined an anti-government guerilla group, Barbie denounced her so she could be captured and killed.
McFarren says: “There were people who found it abhorrent Barbie was able to live well in Bolivia and become a public figure after everything he’d done. But many people were indifferent to it, he blended into the fabric of Bolivia.
“He wasn’t seen as a horrible Nazi murderer. He became a grandfatherly figure. I saw him on the streets with his wife, hanging out in the local cafe.”
Yet Barbie remained paranoid that his past would catch up with him, as McFarren learned in 1981 as a freelance journalist for New York Times.
While investigating the drug money flooding the Bolivian government, McFarren traced Barbie to his villa in Cochabamba city, near the Andes.
Barbie appeared on his balcony but, when pressed for an interview, called the local barracks. McFarren was soon staring down a machine gun barrel.
McFarren says: “Heavily armed civilians surrounded the whole district and had us arrested. They threatened to torture us and pull out our fingermain concern was how we found out where Barbie lived.
“After a few hours of interrogation we were let loose, but we had to leave the country the next day because we got all kinds of death threats.”
The military coup, and the arrest of McFarren, put Barbie back on the map. It was precisely what he hoped to avoid.
After the collapse of the military dictatorship, Barbie was extradited to France in 1983 to stand trial. By then 70, he remained unrepentant for his many crimes, declaring: “When I stand before the throne of God I shall be judged innocent.”
Tried on 41 counts of crimes against humanity, he was found guilty and jailed for life in July 1987. He died four years later of leukaemia and cancer of the spine.
McFarren says: “Most Nazis who escaped prosecution disappeared, often to South America, but they stayed off the radar.
“But Barbie became a public figure. That makes him unique. And, despite that, he was able to live with impunity in Bolivia for more than 30 years. In that respect, America has a lot to answer for.”