Guerrilla Chief, Drug Baron, Gold Magnate … and Now Social Reformer?


MOENGOTAPOE, Suriname — A cavalcade of black sport utility autos pulled up at a small village in a jungle clearing in a distant nook of South America. A tall, heavyset man with thick gold chains hanging over a decent shirt emerged from the biggest automotive to a refrain of cheers.

The person, Ronnie Brunswijk, the kid of subsistence farmers, had left the village of Moengotapoe in japanese Suriname searching for a greater life 50 years in the past. He was returning now as one in all Suriname’s richest, strongest and common males, to deliver electrical energy to his long-neglected neighborhood composed of the descendants of people that escaped slavery, often known as Maroons.

Mr. Brunswijk final yr grew to become the primary Maroon to succeed in the put up of vice chairman of this small South American nation, perched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Amazon rain forest. Alongside the way in which, he had been an elite paratrooper, a soccer participant, a wished financial institution robber, a guerrilla chief, a gold baron and a father to no less than 50 kids.

His mom has stated he has so many offspring that unknown individuals generally ask to hug her, claiming to be her grandchildren.

Mr. Brunswijk has been convicted of drug trafficking in Europe however has helped to deliver democracy to his homeland. His generosity has earned him the nickname of Robin Hood and the worship of supporters, however has left many Surinamese questioning the supply of his wealth and his political motives.

In some ways, Mr. Brunswijk epitomizes the contradictions of Suriname’s small, insular society, the place strains between heroes and villains are in flux, the place historical past immediately turns into fantasy and the individuals have realized that to maintain social peace it pays to not ask too many questions.

“Every little thing I’ve, I give it to the individuals,” Mr. Brunswijk, 59, stated in an interview in his workplace in a former colonial workplace overlooking Suriname’s staid capital of Paramaribo final month. “Ever since I used to be a toddler, I wished to assist others. I now have the possibility to assist the entire nation.”

Wearing a luxurious go well with and tie, Mr. Brunswijk initiatives the aura of an imposing statesman, guiding his impoverished nation to grease riches from newly discovered offshore deposits and enhancing the lives of Suriname’s marginalized Maroon minority.

It’s a stark makeover for a person who used to bathe supporters with money from a helicopter and whose mug shot was displayed in wished posters throughout the nation throughout the years of Suriname’s army dictatorship, which formally led to 1988.

His unlikely life story is in some ways the story of Suriname’s turbulent journey by way of economic crisis and political violence because it emerged from Dutch colonial rule in 1975.

“Mr. Brunswijk has his historical past. We may take a look at his historical past and see that as a barrier,” stated Suriname’s president, Chan Santokhi, a former police officer who tracked Mr. Brunswijk as a fugitive within the Eighties earlier than asking him to type a coalition authorities final yr. “We’re trying ahead to a greater future, as a result of we’re two leaders who’ve been entrusted to guide this nation collectively,” he stated in an interview.

Mr. Brunswijk was born right into a household of 10 surviving kids, in one in all Suriname’s poorest areas. The household lived totally on the rice, cassava and bananas they managed to coax from the skinny, sandy soil. The occasional meat got here from the wild animals Mr. Brunswijk and his brothers stalked with cutlasses.

“Life was not nice,” Agnes Brunswijk, the vice chairman’s mom, stated in an interview outdoors her house close to Moengotapoe. “We needed to wrestle.”

She stated the household’s massive measurement and meager sources taught Mr. Brunswijk at an early age to share with others, a top quality that might change into his hallmark. He was a “mischievous” boy, she stated, who fought with neighboring kids but in addition lower firewood for older individuals.

Mr. Brunswijk’s life modified when a Roman Catholic priest picked him, the one one amongst his siblings, to attend a boarding college in a close-by city at age 10.

“I didn’t see electrical energy till I went to the boarding college,” recalled Mr. Brunswijk.

Additional research ultimately introduced Mr. Brunswijk to Paramaribo, the place in 1980 he stated he was drafted into Suriname’s budding nationwide military by Desiré Bouterse, the army dictator who had recently seized power with a promise to comb away the corruption of post-colonial rulers.

Singled out for his power, Mr. Brunswijk grew to become one in all Suriname’s first 12 paratroopers and was despatched for army coaching to Cuba, earlier than being handpicked by Mr. Bouterse as his bodyguard.

The 2 males grew shut, however Mr. Brunswijk stated their relationship soured because the dictator started murdering political opponents and cracking down on the independent-minded Maroon communities.

“Maroon individuals don’t like being pressured,” Mr. Brunswijk stated. “In the future I stated, ‘That is mistaken.’ I had sufficient.”

The following break up has outlined Suriname’s historical past ever since.

Mr. Brunswijk left the army in 1984, went on the run and commenced constructing his enduring Robin Hood fantasy, incomes a conviction for financial institution theft and armed theft and a popularity amongst Maroon villagers for beneficiant handouts.

Mr. Brunswijk has denied committing the crimes, saying the convictions had been a part of Mr. Bouterse’s effort to discredit a rival. With out providing particulars, he stated his items got here from the cash he made at a gold mine.

He was ultimately captured, however managed to flee and fled to the Netherlands, the place he joined Surinamese political exiles plotting Mr. Bouterse’s overthrow.

He returned to Suriname in 1986 and triggered an armed rebellion, commanding a power that grew to 1,200 males in a civil conflict that lasted six years. What he lacked in army expertise and strategic imaginative and prescient he compensated for with sheer power of will, conflict veterans have stated.

“He had a powerful spirit in him,” Adam Petrus, a former insurgent commander, stated in an interview. “He didn’t have to pay individuals. They got here to him, they obeyed him.”

The motley power managed to combat the federal government to a standstill and helped provoke Suriname’s return to democracy. However the political compromise got here at the price of hundreds of deaths and the destruction of Suriname’s financial system, from which the younger nation by no means absolutely recovered.

The conflict was additionally the beginning of accusations that Mr. Brunswijk was concerned within the drug commerce, as both sides turned to cocaine to finance the battle, Dutch historians have stated.

In 1999, a Dutch court docket convicted Mr. Brunswijk in absentia of operating a cocaine smuggling ring. An identical conviction adopted in France a yr later, however he has steadfastly denied any involvement in drug trafficking.

He stated his fortune got here as an alternative from timber and gold-mining concessions he obtained after the conflict. His first enterprise was a sawmill, which he arrange with a enterprise grant from the Dutch authorities.

He used the cash to enter politics, capturing the small however essential Maroon vote share and changing into the kingmaker in Suriname’s parliamentary electoral system. He was re-elected to Parliament final yr and shaped a coalition authorities with Mr. Santokhi, the president.

As a politician, Mr. Brunswijk continued to assist Surinamese in want, paying for medical payments, funerals and homes and incomes the devotion of Maroon communities.

The help ranges from the extravagant to poignant. He has purchased new vehicles for the whole squad of an area soccer workforce that he owns. However he additionally helped many refugees return to their villages after the conflict.

His detractors say the handouts merely hold Mr. Brunswijk’s constituents dependent with out providing an actual path to self-improvement. However his supporters say the charity is a lifeline in a rustic with out actual social protections, and petitioners from throughout Suriname flock to his workplace day-after-day.

Mr. Brunswijk now hopes to make use of his excessive workplace to construct an actual social security web in Suriname and to deliver fundamental infrastructure to the distant communities which were ignored by the nation’s rulers for hundreds of years.

“It is a historic second, when the village of my beginning can lastly have fixed electrical energy,” a visibly moved Mr. Brunswijk stated after turning on an influence plant in Moengotapoe in December to the joyful chanting of residents. “I at all times wished to make this a actuality, and now that I’m the vice chairman, I lastly can.”

Ank Kuipers contributed reporting from Paramaribo, Suriname.