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American businessman accuses Bolivians of unjust incarceration

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
Jacob Ostreicher, seen with three of his 10 grandchildren, hopes to be home in New York for Rosh Hashanah later this month
Jacob Ostreicher, seen with three of his 10 grandchildren, hopes to be home in New York for Rosh Hashanah later this month
  • Jacob Ostreicher came to Bolivia to oversee an investment in rice
  • He found fraud by the manager and took over
  • Authorities tied the land he worked on to a trafficker
  • He is facing money laundering charges
  • Bolivia
  • United States

(CNN) -- From his cell in the notorious Palmasola prison in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, New Yorker Jacob Ostreicher counts down the days to Rosh Hashanah.

Maybe his nightmare will end by then, he thinks.

An Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, Ostreicher can't imagine spending the Jewish New Year anywhere else but with his family in the United States. But he knows he is caught up in a stranger-than-fiction drama whose ending remains uncertain.

Ostreicher, 52, is charged with money laundering. Bolivian prosecutors accuse him of being in cahoots with a ruthless drug trafficker.

Ostreicher says he is simply an innocent businessman whose investment in Bolivian agriculture reaped more than he bargained for. He is a victim of a shakedown by prosecutors who would like to seize money and goods, he says.

The story begins in 2008, when a group of investors found what they saw as a lucrative opportunity in growing rice in eastern Bolivia. Land was cheap, labor was cheap and returns looked favorable.

"On paper it was an incredible deal," Ostreicher told CNN.

Ostreicher, a flooring contractor in New York, was an acquaintance of one of the principal investors, a Swiss man named Andre Zolty. More than $20 million were put into the project, but he personally didn't put in a lot of money, Ostreicher's wife, Miriam Ungar, told CNN.

But he immersed himself in everything there was to know about rice and Bolivia and began traveling there to check on his investment.

"He's like that by nature. He didn't just want to go in blind," Ungar said.

He was also concerned about actions of the woman who Zolty hired to manage the operations in Bolivia. Claudia Liliana Rodriguez Espitia was being secretive when it came to showing records for the work being carried out. When pressed for accountability, she would become defensive and threaten to quit, Ostreicher said.

What he found in Bolivia was worse than he imagined.

"When I got here, I discovered a total nightmare," Ostreicher said.

Rodriguez was hired to buy land, deforest land and plant rice. According to Ungar, this is what her husband found: Only one-third of the land had been deforested, machinery had been bought on credit while she allegedly pocketed the cash, and she persuaded investors to buy another tract of land that she began making improvements on but did not pay for. This last tract of land would become the most troubling to everyone involved.

According to Ungar, the land belonged to the brother of Rodriguez's boyfriend, Maximiliano Dorado, a Brazilian drug trafficker who escaped from a Brazilian prison in 2001 and fled to Bolivia. Because of their relationship, Dorado's brother allowed Rodriguez to work the land and to pay later.

Ostreicher wasted no time. He filed criminal and civil cases against Rodriguez, had her removed as the company's manager and was appointed new manager.

Other things moved quickly, too, Ungar said. The landowner demanded the money from Rodriguez. She split from her drug trafficker boyfriend. She turned him in to authorities. She fled.

The prosecutor in the case, Roberto Acha, told CNN how they came to suspect Ostreicher.

After Dorado's arrest, police began investigating his assets, and his brother's property -- the one with the rice operation -- became an object of interest.

"There is no evidence of where the money invested (in the project) came from, money that was used to buy property from people involved in criminal activities," Acha said.

Investigators were perplexed that after Rodriguez's alleged fraud was discovered, Ostreicher continued to negotiate with the property owner and continued work in the rice fields.

Prosecutors were also suspicious that the investors were spending lots of money to recoup their losses, even to the point of taking out an advertisement with Rodriguez's photo offering a $25,000 reward for her whereabouts. To investigators, it hinted more of revenge than justice they were seeking.

Eventually, Rodriguez reappeared and was arrested.

After several interviews with Ostreicher, police arrested him in June.

"After they found out about the amount of land and money, this thing became about extortion," he said.

He is at Palmasola prison, known as a place where prisoners run the show and charge inmates rent for their cells. Before that, he spent four days in a urine- and feces-infested cell where no one checked on him, Ungar said.

"I try to do the best I can to survive," Ostreicher said.

Acha called these claims untrue.

"At no time have his rights been violated," he said.

American diplomats have tried to intervene, Ungar said, but have been rebuffed by Bolivian authorities. Relations between the two countries have been at a low point during the current presidency of Evo Morales. Morales booted the U.S. ambassador from Bolivia in 2008 in a diplomatic row.

Ostreicher's family says he was nothing but honest with the prosecutors about how he was the victim of an apparent scam artist and whose only ties to Bolivia were an investment in rice. They call the prosecutors corrupt and accuse them of wanting a piece of the pie.

"There is enough evidence to establish that he is a participant in this case," Acha said. "They have offered no proof of anything to the contrary."

Ostreicher has had his next hearing postponed. He is slated to go before a judge next Friday, and Ungar has worked tirelessly to make sure that they are prepared.

She has had nearly 1,100 documents translated and notarized, documents she says prove her husbands origins, the source of the money and his dealings in Bolivia.

"I'm hopeful, but I'm in Bolivia," she said, adding that she does not have a problem with the country, but with the prosecutors.

In the meantime, authorities have seized some 20,000 tons of rice and have made the machinery off-limits to workers.

Ostreicher says he won't count on his freedom until he has it. Until then, he is thinking of his children and grandchildren and Brooklyn. Rosh Hashanah is right around the corner.