Obituary: General Celso Torrelio

CELSO TORRELIO was an obscure Bolivian army officer who enjoyed a brief moment of fame at the conjunction of two significant developments in recent Latin American history: he was present at the fall of the first government, anywhere in the world, to be run for and by drug traffickers, and he subsequently presided over a junta that turned out to be one of the last old-style military regimes in a country that had become a byword for barracks conspiracies.

Torrelio was a political dinosaur, albeit a relatively inoffensive one, and it was a surprise to discover that, when he died of heart failure in a La Paz clinic, he was only 65.

There had been five coups in three years by the time he was pushed into the limelight by his brother officers in September 1981. The armed forces had split up into a collection of feuding camps, with bemedalled generals elbowing each other aside in comic-opera fashion, ever since the authoritarian regime of General Hugo Banzer had been brought to an abrupt end in 1978. He had at least engineered seven years of relatively stability and economic growth for Bolivia, but that soon unravelled after he was overthrown in a military coup. It became clear that the army would have to call it a day and hand power back to the civilians sooner or later. It fell to Torrelio to hold the fort while the details were worked out.

To his great credit, Torrelio worked hard during his 10 months in power to restore some respectability to the Bolivian armed forces. That was no easy task, as for the previous year the army's most senior general, Luis Garca Meza, had presided over a ruthless and bloody dictatorship that not only broke the unwritten convention of Bolivian coup-making - that not many people should get hurt - but then proceeded to enrich itself from trafficking in cocaine, which had once again become a fashionable drug in the United States.

The interior minister, Colonel Luis Arce Gmez, ran the operation, while entrusting internal security to gangs of neo-fascist paramilitary thugs. Torrelio had been one of Garca Meza's most trusted lieutenants, succeeding Arce Gmez at the interior ministry in June 1981. But two months later, as the new army commander-in-chief, he took part in the military junta that overthrew Garca Meza, and in September he was proclaimed President of the Republic.

Torrelio did his best to clamp down on corruption and drug trafficking, and to restore the civil liberties that had been stamped on during the Garca Meza regime. But he was weak and ineffectual, and in July 1982 it was his turn to step aside and allow General Guido Vildoso, his chief of staff, to have a shot at running the country. That government lasted just three months.

Much has changed in Bolivia since then. The country has enjoyed relatively stable democratic government since October 1982, Garca Meza is serving a 30-year prison sentence for his crimes and (retired) General Banzer is now back in the presidential palace, reincarnated as a civilian politician committed to the destruction of the still-powerful cocaine business.

Colin Harding

Celso Torrelio Villa, army officer: born Sucre, Bolivia 3 June 1933; President of Bolivia 1981-82; died La Paz 23 April 1999.

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