Bolivia seeks charges against US rancher
April 19, 2008 - Associated Press


LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) -- Bolivia's government is seeking to charge an American rancher and his son -- a former Mr. Bolivia pageant winner -- for their alleged role in violent protests against President Evo Morales' land redistribution plan.

Ronald Larsen, who has extensive land holdings in Bolivia, and his son Duston are named in a criminal complaint for "sedition, robbery, and other crimes." The complaint was announced on Friday by Deputy Minister of Land Alejandro Almaraz.

Ronald Larsen, of Montana, is accused of firing on Almaraz's vehicle and holding the minister hostage as he tried to carry out a government inspection of Larsen's ranch in southern Bolivia on February 29. The Larsens are also accused of leading a protest last week in the nearby town of Cuevo that left some 40 people injured.

Prosecutors will now decide whether to file charges against the pair. Neither could be immediately be reached for comment, and it was unclear if they had hired a lawyer.

But Larson told his side of the story to the La Paz daily La Razon last week.

"He was drunk and he showed up at three in the morning at my ranch. I didn't know who he was," Larsen said of Almaraz, according to the newspaper. "I didn't want this guy making any trouble, so I shut him up with a shot at one of his tires. That's the story."

Morales, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has pledged to seize idle and fraudulently obtained land for redistribution to indigenous groups and the landless poor.

The initiative has met strong resistance from farmers and ranchers in the lowland east.

Human rights groups say thousands of poor Guarani Indian laborers work in servitude on remote ranches there. Landowners deny their laborers are mistreated.

Almaraz said it was unclear whether any Guarani lived or worked on the Larsens' land.

Almaraz said he was leading a team of land inspectors when he stopped on or near Larsen's property.

"They kidnapped us for a whole day," Almaraz said. "Mr. Larsen still has it in his head that this is the 'Far West' of Montana."

Almaraz also accuses the Larsens of involvement in a highway blockade last week in Cuevo in which ranchers smashed land inspectors' vehicles.

Government officials say Larsen, of Plentywood, Mont., owns about 141,000 acres in holdings throughout Bolivia. Larsen has said he owns 21,500 acres.

Larsen's son Duston was born in Bolivia but has lived much of his life in the U.S., attending high school in Grand Island, Nebraska and college at Montana State University.

In 2004 he won the Mr. Bolivia male beauty contest.