Bolivia: Unraveling the Conspiracy

(IPS) – The dismantling of a commando made up mainly of men described by the Bolivian government as foreign mercenaries could lead authorities to the people who organised around a dozen different attacks carried out since 2006 in the city of Santa Cruz.

Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera said the attacks were aimed at destabilising the lefting government of Evo Morales and were to culminate in the assassination of the president.

He said business leaders and landowners in the eastern province of Santa Cruz were financing the clandestine operations by the five alleged terrorists, three of whom were shot and killed by the police.

The vice president said some of the businessmen and landowners backed such action of their own accord, and that others did so under pressure.

But the leader of the opposition-controlled Senate, Santa Cruz businessman Oscar Ortiz, questioned the official report that the men were killed in a shootout, and said he suspected they were simply murdered by the police.

According to witnesses, however, police had attempted to arrest the men in downtown Santa Cruz, and they fled to a hotel, where a half-hour shootout came to an end when the alleged plotters reportedly detonated a grenade inside their hotel room.

Santa Cruz governor Rubén Costas, Morales’ most prominent political opponent and one of four governors who have sought autonomy for their provinces, initially suggested that the supposed assassination plot was staged, but is now demanding an impartial investigation.

For its part, the rightwing Santa Cruz Civic Committee, led by local business leaders and landowners, is demanding to see the evidence and photos of the commando that the government says it has.

The Apr. 16 police operation, in which two men were arrested and three killed, took place in an upscale hotel in the capital of the department of Santa Cruz, a city of 1.5 million located 900 km east of La Paz.

No police or judicial investigation has so far clarified the months-long escalation of bomb attacks and fires that targeted the homes of cabinet ministers, government officials and opposition leaders in Santa Cruz, the stronghold of the business and landowners associations and other conservative sectors opposed to Morales since he took office in January 2006.

However, the Apr. 15 attack on the Santa Cruz home of Roman Catholic Cardinal Julio Terrazas, which was carried out with military-style plastic explosives, caused a public outcry, and the police set out to track down the culprits.

Terrazas was out of town at the time of the attack, for which no one claimed responsibility.

The gun battle in the Las Américas hotel in Santa Cruz occurred the night after the bombing attack on the cardinal’s home. The police reported that members of an elite anti-terrorist unit had been involved in a gunfight with a far-right group of mercenaries, and that three men were killed: Romanian-Hungarian Magyarosi Arpak, Irishman Michael Dwyer and Bolivian Eduardo Rózsa Flores, who also apparently holds Hungarian and Croatian passports.

Two others were arrested: Bolivian-Croatian Ramiro Francisco Tadic and Romanian-Hungarian Elod Toaso.

The police also reported that they found a cache of sniper’s rifles, high-calibre firearms, munitions, and plastic explosives similar to those used in the attack on Terrazas’ home, as well as the lid of a container that might have been used to hold the explosives in the bombing attempt the night before.

The arsenal was found in a marketplace warehouse belonging to the Cooperativa de Teléfonos de Santa Cruz de la Sierra, a telephone company owned by wealthy local business leaders who are active in the opposition to the Morales administration.

In September 2008, one of the three men who were killed, Eduardo Rózsa Flores, a Bolivian journalist from Santa Cruz who fought in the Balkans war, had taped an interview with a Hungarian TV personality "in case anything happens to me."

In the interview, which was broadcast by the Hungarian MTV station after the news of his death came out, Rózsa Flores said he had been invited by the opposition in Bolivia to set up an armed defence force to protect the autonomy of the province of Santa Cruz. He also said that "We are ready, within a few months in case co-existence doesn’t work under autonomy, to proclaim independence and create a new country."

While the hidden arms cache in a building owned by rightwing opposition businessmen was reported in Santa Cruz, Vice President García Linera warned in statements from La Paz of the presence of mercenaries, and Morales said from Venezuela – where he was taking part in a meeting of the ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) bloc, held ahead of the fifth Summit of the Americas hosted by Trinidad and Tobago – that the group was plotting to assassinate him.

Rózsa Flores, the son of a Communist militant who settled in Santa Cruz, was commander of an international brigade in the Balkans conflict made up of 380 mercenaries from 20 different countries, who were fighting for Croatian independence.

Political violence and terrorist attacks are nothing new since Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, was sworn in. Radical rightwing opposition groups stormed central government buildings in Santa Cruz last September, while anti-government protesters caused a natural gas pipeline explosion in the southern province of Tarija.

And on Sept. 11, 2008, a group of indigenous supporters of Morales were violently blocked by provincial authorities from entering the town of El Porvenir in the northern Amazon jungle province of Pando.

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and a United Nations commission condemned the massacre of 13 indigenous peasants, which led to the arrest of conservative Pando governor Leopoldo Fernández, who is in prison in La Paz awaiting trial.

The survivors described the incident as an "ambush" by the opposition, and video footage showed people desperately swimming across a river to escape, under gunfire.

The incident was the bloodiest in over a week of often violent protests by the rightwing opposition in Bolivia’s relatively wealthy eastern provinces, which have been fighting for autonomy.

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is basically divided between the western highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority, and the much better off eastern provinces, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry and GDP. The population of eastern Bolivia tends to be lighter-skinned, of more mixed-race (Spanish and indigenous) descent.