Monday, January 17, 2005

LA PAZ, Bolivia — After an unusually long lapse in communication with her son, Sheila Poirier called the Peace Corps in Bolivia to tell them she was concerned about him. Two days later, on March 6, 2001, Walter J. Poirier was officially declared missing, and neither U.S. nor Bolivian authorities have been able to figure out what happened.

When Mrs. Poirier called, Peace Corps officials did not even know where the 22-year-old was living in the Zongo Valley, a mountainous, tropical-forest region about two hours north of La Paz, the capital, and where he had been sent by the foreign-service agency to organize an ecotourism project.

Later, investigators went to his small room in the Zongo Valley and found, among other personal items, his wallet. It contained about $12, credit cards and all his personal IDs, suggesting that Mr. Poirier had not strayed far. Neighbors said they did not see him enter or leave the room during the period he became missing.

Now, nearly four years later, officials can only presume Mr. Poirier is dead. But his family and others familiar with the case say they think the U.S. Embassy, the Peace Corps and Bolivian officials botched the investigation.

Mr. Poirier’s parents, Walter Sr. and Mrs. Poirier, say that most recently, the U.S. Embassy halfheartedly followed up a lead from authorities in August in which a Bolivian kidnapping victim claimed to have overheard what had happened to their son’s body.

“This is the best lead to have surfaced since the disappearance of our son,” the Poiriers said in an e-mail from Lowell, Mass., the hometown of the missing volunteer. The Massachusetts congressional delegation also has been critical of the investigation.

In 2001, a General Accounting Office investigation, done at the request of Rep. Martin T. Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat, found the Peace Corps at fault, saying it had failed “to properly supervise Mr. Poirier and lost track of him.”

In 2002, a GAO study concluded that major physical assaults on the 7,533 Peace Corps volunteers had more than doubled in the preceding decade and that organizational problems likely had worsened the problem.

“This investigation has been mishandled since the beginning,” Mr. Meehan said. “While the Peace Corps may have instituted changes, they have been too little too late as far as Walter Poirier and his family” are concerned.

Barbara Daly, a spokeswoman for Peace Corps, said that at the request of the Poiriers, the agency is maintaining their son in “active status,” which allows it to continue to investigate. “We have been investigating, and will continue to do so,” she said from Washington.

Mr. Poirier joined the Peace Corps shortly after graduating from Notre Dame University in 2000 and had been in Bolivia for about six months when he was declared missing. An extensive search was carried out soon by U.S. and Bolivian authorities in the Zongo Valley, near the room where he stayed and at places he frequented.

In addition, a publicity campaign was conducted on Bolivian radio and television, and in newspapers. At the insistence of the Poiriers, the Peace Corps recently boosted to $50,000 the reward for information leading to the recovery of their son’s body. The family is contributing half the amount.

But U.S. authorities said they have gotten nowhere.

“The effort to obtain additional information on the disappearance of Walter Poirier has been extremely frustrating,” the U.S. Embassy said. “Despite a number of apparently promising leads, every trail thus far has been unproductive.”

In June, under pressure from Mr. Meehan and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry, the Peace Corps agreed to hire a full-time investigator. The unidentified investigator began work in September and was given six weeks to do an in-country assessment, said a Bolivian private investigator hired to assist him.

The Bolivian investigator said they had not identified any solid leads, nor finished reading the mounds of paperwork given to them to review when the Peace Corps investigator left Bolivia in mid-November.

Raising hope for a break in the case, a formal criminal complaint was filed with La Paz police in August against two persons in connection with the volunteer’s disappearance.

In the complaint, which obliges La Paz police to investigate, Ramiro Machaca, 22, an Aymara Indian, said he was kidnapped May 23 and held for six days in a Zongo Valley river tunnel near the Wahi electric plant.

Mr. Machaca, who worked at the plant, said he was kidnapped because in February, while cleaning the machines at the plant one evening, he had overheard two other employees discussing Mr. Poirier. Mr. Machaca said they were celebrating and drinking alcohol.

“One of them made a toast to ‘el chango’ Walter Poirier,” Mr. Machaca said, using slang for “the kid.”

“Then, they began talking about what they did with his body,” he said, adding that the two mentioned it was buried in the mountains below Zongo Pass.

Several witnesses have corroborated to La Paz police the kidnapping of Mr. Machaca. A medical report from Agramont Hospital in El Alto, near La Paz, said he was brought there May 30 in a “metabolic coma.” A doctor wrote that Mr. Machaca also bore head injuries, with signs of strangulation and lack of oxygen to the brain.

But formal criminal charges have not been filed. La Paz District Attorney Audalia Zurita said the authorities need more evidence. She said last month that she last communicated with the U.S. Embassy about the Poirier case in late September.

She said her office wants to conduct a monthlong search for Mr. Poirier’s body in the areas of Zongo identified by witnesses who have come forward in connection with the Machaca case, but the U.S. Embassy wants a more precise location before it hires specialists and equipment.

“I still believe the information we have on the possible whereabouts of Poirier is credible, but I need help convincing the U.S. Embassy,” Mrs. Zurita said.

But others say Bolivian authorities share much of the blame for the failed investigation into Mr. Poirier’s disappearance.

His parents also think more can be done. “We are perplexed as to why the embassy and Peace Corps have not embraced this lead,” they said.

“The Poirier family feels that, from the beginning, the Peace Corps was inept and unprepared to handle our son’s disappearance — they simply did not know what to do.”

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