Plot Foiled? In Bolivia, Truth Is Elusive
April 27, 2009 - New York Times


CARACAS, Venezuela — Wielding assault rifles, the members of Delta Group, an elite Bolivian police unit, quietly crept up the stairs to the fourth floor of the Hotel Las Américas. It was 4 a.m. on April 16 in Santa Cruz, the city in the lowlands of Bolivia that is a bastion of opposition to that nation's president, Evo Morales. Then they did their work.

(right) Covered in blankets, suspects in an assassination plot against President Evo Morales were taken to jail in La Paz on April 18 (photo: Juan Karita/Associated Press)

The bodies of three men who were killed by a police unit on April 16 in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Within minutes, they shot dead three men: Michael Dwyer, 24, of Ireland; Arpad Magyarosi, 39, a Romanian of Hungarian descent; and Eduardo Rozsa Flores, 49, a Bolivian with Hungarian and Croatian passports and a nebulous past as a leader of foreigners fighting for Croatia during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

(right) The bodies of three men who were killed by a police unit on April 16 in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. (Photo: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

As the bullet-riddled bodies were shown on national television, the authorities claimed to have foiled a plot to kill Mr. Morales, a former coca grower reviled by Santa Cruz's light-skinned elite. Soon after the raid, security forces found a cache of explosives and guns that they said were linked to the dead men.

"These terrorists were connected to an ideology of the extreme fascist right," said Álvaro García Linera, a former Marxist guerrilla who is Bolivia's vice president.

But the episode, with its dash of Balkan intrigue, remains far from an open-and-shut case of right versus left.

Instead, it falls somewhere in that gray area of Bolivian politics, in which Mr. Morales's claims of destabilization plots, now a regular feature of his government, and his opponents' counterclaims that such plots are shams contribute to growing tensions between the central government and the rebellious lowlands.

"If this weren't such a serious matter, it would make a great screenplay, tragedy and farce all wrapped together," said Jim Shultz, a political analyst in Cochabamba, in central Bolivia.

In a move that angered political leaders in Santa Cruz, the central government last week ordered more than a thousand troops to the region. Juan Ramón Quintana, a senior aide to Mr. Morales, said the decision was made partly because of a concern over "the presence of terrorists that are a potential threat to the security of the Bolivian state."

Meanwhile, the killings have raised a raft of nettlesome questions. Who backed such a group? How did officials detect them? Why did Mr. Morales send the police all the way from the capital, La Paz, to deal with them? And exactly what was a man like Mr. Rozsa Flores, at turns a poet and a war correspondent before his foray into the Balkan killing fields, doing back in Santa Cruz?

Indeed, the mystery of the case revolves largely around this enigmatic figure, believed to be the group's leader.

He left Bolivia as a teenager, going with his parents into exile in Chile before moving to Hungary, the birthplace of his father, an emigrant of Jewish origin. In Budapest, Mr. Rozsa Flores said he came into contact with Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the Venezuelan terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, while studying linguistics and literature, according to published interviews.

Finding work as a correspondent for a Spanish newspaper covering the breakup of Yugoslavia, Mr. Rozsa Flores abandoned journalistic objectivity and took sides. He commanded volunteers fighting for Croatia in the early 1990s, but his battlefield experience was marred by claims that he oversaw the murder of a Briton and a Swiss citizen.

"He lived an overcrowded life, full of events, locations, people, gossip, good and bad legends," said Ibolya Fekete, a Hungarian director who made a 2001 film, "Chico," based on Mr. Rozsa Flores's life. "He never fit in anywhere."

Returning to Hungary after the war, Mr. Rozsa Flores converted to Islam, a shift from his earlier association with Opus Dei, the conservative Roman Catholic group. And he found a new political obsession, explaining in a television interview last year with a Hungarian journalist that he was moving to Bolivia to organize a militia.

"There is a need for weapons," he said in the interview, which was broadcast for the first time in Hungary last week after his killing, "so it isn't about the boys marching in the streets with flags and bamboo sticks."

Mr. Rozsa Flores went further in the interview, saying his goal was not toppling Mr. Morales, but achieving autonomy for Santa Cruz, Bolivia's wealthiest department, or province. Envisioning a clash with La Paz over this issue, he nonchalantly described his goal as "declaring independence and creating a new country."

Over the weekend, a prosecutor presented a video recorded on a cellphone, without clear audio, in which he said Mr. Rozsa Flores had discussed a plan to kill Mr. Morales on a recent trip to Lake Titicaca.

Such assertions fit well into the way Mr. Morales's government portrays Santa Cruz: as a region where powerful industrialists and bankers, some of them descendants of Croatian immigrants, want to secede from Bolivia in a rupture inspired by Yugoslavia's disintegration.

But while Mr. Morales has described the men killed in Santa Cruz as part of a "tentacle of a structure" intent on killing him and other senior officials named in a list obtained by his government, missteps by officials in describing their handling of the group have led to further questions about the men and what they were doing in Santa Cruz.

Mr. García Linera, the vice president, at first said the three were killed in a 30-minute gunfight, but an insurance report filed for the hotel and obtained by La Razón, a newspaper, apparently found no signs of an exchange of gunfire. Two men taken captive at the hotel, Elod Toazo, a Hungarian, and Mario Tadik, a Bolivian, seem to have surrendered without a fight.

"What happened was the killing of three people who were sleeping, which means murder," said Óscar Ortiz, president of Bolivia's Senate and a top opponent of Mr. Morales.

Alfredo Rada, a senior minister, made things worse when he went on television with images of men in Santa Cruz clasping weapons, claiming they were linked to those killed. But the men in the photos, lifted from a Facebook page, debunked the claim by explaining that they practiced "airsoft," a game in which participants fire at one another with pellet guns.

The case is fueling conspiracy theories of every stripe, but some secrets were taken to the grave by Mr. Rozsa Flores and his two comrades in arms.

In his interview last September in Hungary, he speculated that Mr. Morales's intelligence service knew about him, and he also touched on the possibility that he might meet his death in Bolivia.

"I will now go to my home country, my homeland; if something happens to me there, then what?" he said. "Firstly, it was my fate; secondly, it happens to me in the best place possible."

Andres Schipani contributed reporting from La Paz, Bolivia.