Who Killed the Nazi Botanist Trying to Wipe Out Cocaine?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a Nazi scientist was planning a devastating assault in the war on drugs.
The old man was found facedown on the floor. His hands and feet had been tied with electrical tape; the same tape, bound tightly over his mouth and nose, had caused his death by asphyxiation. By his side was an empty cassette recorder. The local press published the provocative details of the 1991 murder of Heinz Brücher, but the culprits have never been apprehended or their motives established.
But in the years following Brücher’s death, Condor Huasi — Condor House, Brücher’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Mendoza, Argentina — revealed its occupant’s dark past and dangerous projects. Perched above its entrance, a crude metal sculpture of a bird with outspread wings peers down at visitors.
“This isn’t a condor, it’s an eagle,” says Miguel Agnello, gesturing at the sculpture with its 5-foot wingspan. Agnello purchased Condor Huasi and its contents for a bargain price in 2002, but on entering the property for the first time, he was alarmed at what he found. Alongside graphic German magazines and propaganda from World War II, he came across thousands of handwritten index cards and small bags containing white powder. “I didn’t want any trouble, so I set fire to the lot,” he tells OZY.
Agnello destroyed the personal archive of one of the Third Reich’s leading scientists and, quite possibly, his master plan to wipe out the cocaine trade.
In 1997, Daniel Gade, a geographer at the University of Vermont who specialized in cultural ecology, was reading a book titled Biologists Under Hitler by Ute Deichmann, an adjunct professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, when a familiar name appeared. Gade had met Heinz Brücher, a fellow plant scientist, on a research trip to Paraguay in 1975. He found the German cantankerous and enigmatic but was impressed by his vast knowledge of plants.
Brücher had accumulated an impressive range of enemies over his career.
The two remained friends, exchanging letters until early 1991. Gade died in 2015 but his unpublished papers, which a former student recently shared with OZY, describe the attempts he made to fill in the gaps of a biography his erstwhile friend had been reluctant to discuss. Brücher had been an officer in the SS, and in 1943, on Heinrich Himmler’s orders, had stolen the contents of the USSR’s seed banks in Ukraine — the largest in the world at the time. Diechmann’s book confirms Brücher’s epic act of biopiracy.
Then, in 1945, with the Red Army pushing deep into Austria, he had disobeyed orders to destroy the vital collection of plant data, escaping via Sweden before turning up in Buenos Aires in 1949 with 400 kilograms of cargo, according to a 2006 article Gade published on the topic. Brücher and his encyclopedic knowledge of plants now made sense to Vermont professor.
Furthermore, Gade believed he had a motive for the German’s murder. In their correspondence, Brücher, who followed the Nazi line of eschewing alcohol, tobacco and drugs, had talked about working on a fungus — Fusarium oxysporum — capable of wiping out coca cultivations. In a subsequent visit to Argentina in 2006, Gade met Brücher’s son, who claimed his father had been working on such a project with support from unspecified U.S. organizations.
But Gade’s research also revealed how Brücher had accumulated an impressive range of enemies over his career. The suspect list grew, with potential motives ranging from a delayed KGB hit for his act of biopiracy to a conflict with a local potato magnate to Mossad or other Nazi hunters tracking him down. Yossi Melman, a historian in Mossad affairs, tells OZY that Brücher’s name was unfamiliar and that he was entirely the wrong profile for an attempted assassination out of Israel.
The theory that Brücher was killed by narcos is strengthened by the man who spent more time with him than any other. Vicente Cabrera, a laborer from northern Argentina, met Brücher when he was in his teens and worked for him as a seed collector across Latin America, finally taking up residence at Condor Huasi. Now 57, Cabrera greets OZY at a table outside his house in the nearby town of Ugarteche. In the days after the murder, he was arrested and, he says, beaten by the police. He smokes vigorously, tossing the butts into the overgrown yard as he readily tells his version of the story.
“Heinz told me that we had to eliminate the coca plant,” he says. “He had a 200-page bundle of papers that he was going to publish as a book. I was to travel overland into Bolivia, injecting coca plants with a syringe over an area of 200 hectares [approximately 495 acres].” According to Cabrera, Brücher was murdered 10 days before the planned departure date. “I’m sure that if I had been at the house that night, they would have killed me too,” he says.
While almost impossible to verify, Cabrera’s account, combined with the allegation of Brücher’s son that his father had had U.S. support, at least fits the timeline of an international scheme to launch a biological war on the coca plant. In the early 1990s, U.S. government and law enforcement were searching for a fungus — code-named Agent Green — to kill off coca, and Fusarium oxysporum was a promising candidate. It and other mycotoxins were promoted by the U.S.-led United Nations International Drug Control Program (now the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime) under a plan called SCOPE (Strategy for Coca and Opium Poppy Elimination). In 1998, following objections from Andean nations, the U.N. rejected SCOPE.
Brücher’s role in this scheme and how he appeared on the radar of his murderers are unlikely to be established. In Mendoza the police file on the case has long since disappeared, and in Ugarteche only rumors remain — of a pickup seen lurking at Condor Huasi and the arrival and departure of two Bolivians that day from the nearby airport. But, according to Cabrera at least, the long career of Nazi Germany’s top botanist was on the cusp of a dramatic final act before he was cut down. “Heinz was very close,” he says. “Everything was ready; we were going to eliminate coca.”