Searching For Karl Penta’s
Suriname & French Guiana
February 7, 2010
Click on photos to enlarge, repeat to shrink
I first became interested in Suriname after Tanja Gromala told me about it. It was after reading Karl Penta’s “Have Gun Will Travel“, however, that I realized an investigation into Suriname as well as French Guiana by The Velvet Rocket was now both urgent and compulsory.
You’re probably thinking now that a little background information would be useful…
A Little Background Information:
Suriname was once Dutch Guiana but became independent in 1975. In 1980, Desi Bouterse, then an NCO PT instructor in the Surinamese army, launched a military coup with just sixteen men, successfully overthrowing the civilian government.
Bouterse declared martial law and claimed the People’s Republic of Suriname would take its inspiration from Cuba. Prime Minister Chin-a-sen fled to Amsterdam and launched the Committee of Liberation. Bouterse’s next step was to cold-bloodedly execute fifteen of his political opponents – two former cabinet ministers, the dean of the local university, four prominent lawyers and four journalists were among the dead.
Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi paid Bouterse $100 million to open a “cultural mission” in Suriname’s capital, Paramaribo. The Libyans were also running a military training camp near a remote village on the Brazilian border.
In July 1986, six years after Bouterse seized power, one of the dictator’s own bodyguards led an uprising of the Maroon – descendants of black slaves who lived in the jungle along the Marowijne River that divides Suriname from French Guiana. The former bodyguard, Ronnie Brunswijk, and his rebel force captured twelve government soldiers in their first attack against an army post. On the same day another attack against the garrison town of Albina failed because the rebels – known as the Jungle Commando (or JC) – lacked enough weapons.
At the time, the two forces matched up as follows:
Armed Forces of Suriname
2,500 personnel (approx.)
1) Cascavels – a Brazilian-made six-wheel armored car with a 90 mm gun and laser range finder
2) Urutus – another Brazilian-made six-wheeled armored car equipped with a .50-caliber machine gun
3) YPs – a Dutch-manufactured DAF two-man scout car
4) S-class boats – a Dutch-built coastal patrol boat (approximately 30 meters long) with 2 x 40 mm Bofors cannons plus machine guns
5) MAGs – 7.62 mm machine guns
6) FN-FALs – 7.62 mm rifles manufactured in Belgium or Brazilian copies
7) Defenders – Britten-Norman Islander aircraft (military versions)
250 personnel (maximum)
1) 40 fire extinguishers
2) 250 sticks
Enter Karl Penta:
During the 1980s mercenary Karl Penta almost single-handedly brought the government of Suriname to its knees after responding to an ad in the International Herald Tribune that simply read as follows:
Ex-military personnel to work abroad
The individuals responsible for the placement of the advertisement Penta responded to were members of the Surinamese exile community. They had money and they desperately wanted to be rid of Desi Bouterse.
Here is how the jacket of Penta’s book reads:
“As I rose to my knees behind the cover of a giant tree, I brought up the barrel of my FAL assault rifle, flicked the weapon to automatic, and took aim at the truck full of troops. There were all staring down the road ahead. One of them was leaning with his left arm over the edge of the truck, a rifle clutched in his right hand. Over the haze from the muzzle blast, I saw men bouncing and jumping. Another burst straight into them. Click – the mag was empty…
Karl Penta is a tough, wiry Liverpudlian with a Scouser’s natural dark humour. He has served in many of the world’s hotspots, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and Kosovo. It was whilst in Sri Lanka that he saw an advert: MEN WANTED. Ex-military personnel to work abroad. Underneath was an Amsterdam phone number. Soon, Karl found himself in Surinam. His brief: to bring down the government. Within weeks, the government was on its knees: KARL PENTA IS THE ONLY MAN EVER TO CRIPPLE A GOVERNMENT SINGLEHANDEDLY. The twists and turns of this amazing operation are still going on, but Karl feels it is now safe to tell the whole, incredible story. This is it.”
I’ll start this story in French Guiana.
If this story is about Suriname, why are we looking into French Guiana? Well, French Guiana is a “department” of France (You and I would use the word “colony” but that apparently isn’t a politically correct word to use – so “department” it is). And this is where Karl Penta started his South American odyssey by flying into Cayenne (the capital of French Guiana) from Paris on Air France.
The government of France was never particularly keen on a communist dictatorship sympathetic to Libya next door to their lucrative space center. And so, when he began operating in Suriname, the French government, while not always actively supporting Penta’s work, certainly approved of his actions.
Obviously, once Penta’s activities garnered some international press attention, the French had to make public noise about how they did not support mercenaries or what Penta was doing and even conducted an arrest of Karl. However, in private, they told him he was doing an excellent job.
Here is a view out over Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. It’s tiny, but it is still the largest city in the country:
Penta would stay in the Toucan Hotel when he was in Cayenne to either rest up or meet with French intelligence officials. Here is a view of downtown Cayenne:
These are some of the French government offices in the government sector on the edge of Cayenne:
The strategy of the French seems to be to keep just enough military and police personnel around to prevent trouble-makers from getting any clever ideas around French sites of interest, such as the Guiana Space Centre (usually referred to as CSG or Centre Spatial Guyanais where the European Space Agency, the French space agency CNES, and the commercial Arianespace company conduct launches from) at Kourou which is where the picture below was taken:
The police and military jobs are held by individuals brought over from France (either ordered over or attracted by more lucrative pay and benefits than available in France):
This region has calmed down a lot since the 1980s and so I doubt there is still a significant presence of intelligence personnel as during Karl Penta’s time. However, during Penta’s era, you can be certain that Penta and any intelligence officer would have been intimately familiar with the facility pictured below – French Guiana’s Ministry of Defense, located in the capital city of Cayenne:
The above picture was actually taken inside the grounds of the Ministry of Defense. I had simply intended to take some pictures of the outside given the relevance of the French Ministry of Defense to our story, but to my astonishment we were able to simply walk right in.
Below, you can see how seriously they take security by observing these “secure” communications lines inside the Ministry of Defense complex:
Another view of the Ministry of Defense:
The “city” of Cayenne soon gives way to this…
…Which soon gives way to this…
These were taken on our drive up to St. Laurent where one crosses the Marowijne River over into Suriname. This is also the route Penta first drove to enter Suriname:
And it gives you an idea of the kind of terrain he was working with when Karl Penta was running around the countryside of Suriname blowing up power lines to cut off electricity to Paramaribo, shutting down the country’s main airport or ambushing Surinamese troops:
This is in St. Laurent, the border with Suriname.
Penta passed through St. Laurent a number of times. On one of these visits, he sorted out a Surinamese spy named Koyku who had received training in Libya and was harassing and assassinating Jungle Commando supporters in French Guiana.
Karl Penta crossed the river into Suriname by utilizing a forty-foot long wooden canoe equipped with an Evinrude outboard motor. And nothing has changed at all since Penta’s day as that remains the way to get into Suriname today as well.
Crossing into Suriname through Albina as Karl Penta did… But, oh the indignity, Penta never had to pay a bribe of 30 euros as we did to a character like this merely to be allowed into Suriname:
Penta never seized the capital of Suriname, Paramaribo, but for a time, he and his employers controlled much of the rest of Suriname. Driving from the border (Albina) in to Paramaribo it was fairly easy to see how – even the main road to the capital (the N1 which is pictured below) was narrow, poorly maintained (dirt at times) and completely deserted. With the windows down, I could hear the crickets and frogs in the jungle.
Karl Penta had little trouble closing these roads to the capital and laying siege to Paramaribo after setting up roadblocks, using logging equipment to dig deep trenches in the road (and laying bombs constructed from fire extinguishers stuffed with gunpowder around them to deter tampering) and destroying some of the ramshackle bridges leading in.
The below is a view of downtown Paramaribo, so you know what we’re working with (This picture was taken from the Albergo Alberga which is quite nice if you’re looking for a place to stay):
The question that needed to be answered at this point was: Could Karl Penta have taken Paramaribo?
One of the first things that struck me was the proximity of all the important buildings to the river.
The Jungle Commando were based on two islands – Langatabbetje and the headquarters on Stoelman’s Island – They had plenty of access to the rivers of Suriname and used them all the time. Thus, they had the watercraft and knowledge to launch an amphibious assault from the river along Paramaribo.
And despite shutting down the roads leading to Paramaribo, it was still these roads that were heavily patrolled by government forces rather than the river.
Lastly, I have discussed before the benefits of launching an invasion from water, but will spare dear readers an extensive discussion of this method here.
The Italian and I observed plenty of convenient landing sites along the river for an offensive force:
Now, during the time Desi Bouterse was in power, the government principals based themselves in the historic Fort Zeelandia.
But, Fort Zeelandia has never really fulfilled its purpose as a military defense, for history shows it was easy to sack and as a result changed hands often. For instance, in 1712, Fort Zeelandia was used actively when the French pirate captain Jacques Cassard attacked Paramaribo. Nevertheless, Captain Cassard managed to overcome its defenses and depart with a sizeable amount of loot.
As an interesting, “Oh by the way”, the Fort has also been the backdrop for gruesome events such as the punishment, and even execution, of slaves and prisoners alike. In 1872, the Fort was converted to a jail which was used until 1967. In 1972, it became a museum until 1982 when the military rulers took over the Fort.
An oil lamp is permanently lit in the last cell in the Fort to commemorate the fifteen prominent individuals (mentioned above) that were executed on December 8, 1982.
By the way, Fort Zeelandia is right on the river. Literally. It touches the river – just one of many other vulnerabilities you can spot for yourself below:
Inside the fort:
Had the principals (the president and military chiefs of staff) not been in Fort Zeelandia at the time Penta launched his hypothetical assault on Paramaribo, here’s how it would have looked…
First of all, the Ministry of Defense is also right along the river:
And the security is comprised of a couple of bored guards with rusty automatic rifles slung lazily across their backs… Not a significant obstacle to overcome:
And the nearby presidential palace is completely unprotected:
Oh, excuse me, Penta might have strained his knee while stepping over this traffic barrier on his way to seizing the Presidential Palace:
Conveniently less than a block away (and also along the waterfront) sits the Central Bank of Suriname. Guess where all of Suriname’s foreign currency reserves are housed? If you guessed the Central Bank of Suriname, then give yourself a prize. Do you think those currency reserves might have proved useful to a rebel army?
Again, security was a joke. Just a couple of bored guards standing around:
Interestingly, a monument to the “heroics” of the 1980 coup still stands in this main square near the Central Bank building:
While conducting our investigation, I found it difficult not to notice that all of the significant communications sites around the country were as unsecured as those in French Guiana. In other words, it would have been incredibly easy for Karl Penta and the Jungle Commando to knock these out in order to prevent reserves being called in to defend the capital:
And even if force didn’t work, I suppose Karl could have tried voodoo. Plenty of the necessary ingredients are for sale in this voodoo market located just next to the Central Market (and also conveniently located along the waterfront in case he needed them in a hurry).
Or he could have stirred up the countries religious minorities to foment unrest and civil war… Actually, I don’t think he would have been successful with that one. Have you ever seen a mosque and a synagogue peacefully co-existing next to each other like this? I doubt it.
My conclusion: Karl Penta could have walked right in and taken this city had he chosen to do so.
And I sincerely doubt that the many casinos or gold companies in Suriname would have had much of a problem with a transition back to a capitalist government. And either way, conflict is bad for business.
As Penta and the Jungle Commando were so massively outmanned, a cornerstone of their strategy was to focus on bringing down the Surinamese economy
“We’ll blow up pylons, bridges and roads,” Penta declared.
For example: SurAlco was the fourth largest producer of bauxite in the world and Penta was able to shut it down by simply walking in with an armed crew and politely telling the workers to go home.
On another occasion, it was discovered that Bouterse owned most of the shares in the country’s national airline, Suriname Airways. Suriname Airways owned three 22-seat Twin Otter passenger planes and one DC-8. At that time a Twin Otter was worth about $2 million.
Thus an elaborate hijacking of a Twin Otter took place at Raleigh Falls airport.
This economic warfare was effective. The French estimated that the economy of Suriname was reduced to 1/6 of its previous value. And over 250 Surinamese soldiers gave themselves up in French Guiana.
So, what happened?
Ronnie Brunswijk ended up dealing cocaine with Desi Bouterse… That’s right – If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em.
Penta’s activities had put Suriname in such a vice-like grip that eventually Bouterse was forced to reach out to Ronnie Brunswijk to end the stalemate. Cocaine was bought very cheaply in Paramaribo and shipped across the river into French Guiana. So, Ronnie Brunswijk, the rebel leader evolved into a drug baron after he and Desi Bouterse caught on to the fact that drug deals together were a tad more lucrative than waging war against each other.
It was at this point that Karl Penta and the other mercenaries he had brought along with him walked away from the Surinamese conflict.
Thus, despite the agreement between Ronnie and Desi, death squads backed by Desi Bouterse began operating in Suriname as Ronnie Brunswijk became increasingly marginalized on his island base.
One group of six Jungle Commandos was foolish enough to walk into a bar in Paramaribo during the “ceasefire” period and were gunned down by one of Bouterse’s death squads.
The exiled Suriname community grew fed up with Ronnie and tried to start a new rebel group, but there was a slight problem. There was no money left. They had invested it all in Ronnie. Desperate to get things moving again they tried hiring anyone that expressed even minor interest in the job. One of these individuals was the late Phil Sessarego (calling himself Phil Stevenson at the time) whose body was recently discovered in a garage in Belgium and was even then trying to pass himself off as a member of the SAS.
Ronnie Brunswijk became rich trading in timber, gold and cocaine. He still lives in Suriname.
Desi Bouterse eventually did stand down as dictator, allowing a properly elected government to take control in 1989. He did not give up politics though and is now an MP in Suriname.
Both Ronnie Brunswijk and Desi Bouterse were convicted in abstentia in Holland for cocaine trafficking and will be arrested if they ever visit a country where Interpol has some weight
Karl Penta’s book was published in 2001 and I know he appeared in a television documentary. I’m afraid I can tell you nothing more.
© Copyright Justin Ames 2010 ......