Archive for April, 2009

Smiles and paranoia

April 26, 2009

Wednesday night 4/21 was time of laughter and amusement for viewers watching TV programs. At least two news shows took the brunt of the Bolivian audience by staging the individuals who appeared in a photograph which, the night before, had been shown by Interior Minister Alfredo Rada as the smoking gun of an alleged conspiracy. It was an all local Adrian Monk episode.

As it turned out, the picture was real and so were the people dressing military uniforms that it showed. But they were not the individuals Minister Rada claimed they were. The guns seen in the picture were toys. Actually, it was a wrong interpretation of a picture. And the mistake was a further embarassment fo a government that, at least regarding the bloody episode of April 16, is losing credibility. At predawn hours that day, three people whom the government claims were plotting to kill President Evo Morales were shot dead during a police operation. Those in the picture were a group of players of two popular games, soft air and paint game. Teenagers –and not-too-young- go crazy for them. Four of those in the photograph went to TV to deny the official allegation that the group was a sort of ultra-rightist militia. They surprised an audience that didn’t know much about these games.

Furthermore, an alleged member of the team in the photo the Minister showed was someone resembling an arch-enemy, Mauricio Iturri, of the rightwing Cruceño Youth Union. Rada claimed the alleged presence of Iturri in the group proved it was mischievous. But, for the Minister’s surprise, the person was not Iturri.

Iturri himself shoveled the last bunch of dirt in the plot/militia theory by calling himself to the station from Miami, where he has taken refuge since the government is after him. “I am not that person”, he said dryly on the telephone. In reality, by direct information of one of those –positively yes- in the photo, Pedro Sandoval, the alleged Mauricio Iturri was Pedro Álvarez. A quick conclusion: The Minister played Sherlock Holmes and ended up in a mess. If prior to the fiasco it was difficult for the government to convince Bolivians about the veracity of its allegations, now it was worse.

Defense Minister Walker San Miguel fueled the fire when he said use of military-like gear and playing war games were illegal. But no Bolivian legal code includes such bans. Probably he didn’t know that shortly after the first military coup attempt led by then Col. Hugo Chavez there were lots of children dressing sort of military uniforms similtar to the rebel colonel’s during carnival days that year (1992). It was a gesture of sympathy toward the Venezuelan army commander and nobody told the kids’ parents that was illegal. More simply, Minister San Miguel probably didn’t play as a child the “pam pam” game, in which children simulate killing an enemy shouting “pam pam” when the rival appears on sight.

It is not only a Bolivian game. Italian singer Iva Zanicchi popularized it in a catchy song of the late 1960s: “Mi ricordo quando tu ed io eravamo due bambini e gioccavamo bang bang”, etc. (I remember when you and I were little kids and played bang bang).

As a result of this paranoia panic is widespread among lovers of both air soft and paint game. “We are concerned because friends and relatives have called us warning with heads up that we were being indicted of holding bonds with people we not even know. We are sportsmen”, Jose Miguel Sandoval was heard saying almost crying on TV. The picture shows him and the minister said he and others were part of a “fascist militia.”

Ernesto Justiniano, another of those photographed, said he was with the group only because he likes sports. “We have been playing for at least four years. We use game arms with compressed air”, he said as he was trying to avoid going to La Paz to be heard by a judge. People fear La Paz because it is the government’s stronghold and several of those arrested because of alleged anti-government activities are held in the city’s jail, awaiting trial.

As of this week of late April, the group was ready to travel to La Paz escorted by Santa Cruz congressmen. They were expected to appear before a judge and explain details of the two games.

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An official story under fire

April 19, 2009

The official version about a bloody episode Thursday in Santa Cruz, in which three people were killed and two arrested and taken to La Paz, seems like a balloon under a dangerous attack. Three days after the bloody event, questions remain unanswered and local media has begun to openly demand for clarifications. The government of Mr. Morales is having hard time convincing  Bolivians about the veracity of its information.

Some outstanding questions waiting for answers:

  • Why the three bodies remained in the Hotel Las Americas, where the alleged gang stayed, for so many (14) hours? Was autopsy performed just there? Was it the right place for an autopsy?
  • The security video cameras were blocked since 03:00 AM and during at least six hours, according to hotel records. Why? Who gave the order for the cameras black out?
  • If the group presented fierce resistance (as they were just in underwear!) how come there were no casualties among the police force? As far as it is known, no police sustained the slightest injury and there are no signs of bullets coming from the killed group.
  • Why there were no police from Santa Cruz at all and everything was directly commanded from La Paz?
  • Last but not least, what did this group come specifically to Bolivia for? Who paid them?  

Stories published Saturday by dailies Los Tiempos (Cochabamba) and La Razón (La Paz) underline the confusion stemming from the official version. Los Tiempos quotes Santa Cruz opposition congressman Oscar Urenda as showing perplexity by the fact the entire operation took place conveniently just hours before the president showed up at the Americas Summit in Trinidad. It looked like an appropriate mise en scene for him to claim that “mercenaries” were trying to assassinate him. He also was puzzled by the absence of forensic reports certifying whether those killed and the two arrested actually fired at the police.

For Urenda, according to Los Tiempos, it is “absurd” the official information that the group had been hired on the internet by an individual identified only as “the old man”, and that each would receive a pay of $6,000. No less puzzling is the finding of a cache of weapons allegedly belonging to the group in an office of the telephone cooperative COTAS. It is no secret that government leaders covet COTAS, the main rival of ENTEL, the formerly an Italian-owned conglomerate bought in the mid-1990s at the peak of a privatization swing and nationalized two years ago by Mr. Morales. COTAS is one of Santa Cruz’s most profitable enterprises and the finding of weapons in a showroom office seemed to Urenda as an effort to build up a case against the coveted cooperative.

“There is something wrong with the government story. There is something behind all this and since in Bolivia nothing remains secret we will find out and we will unveil it. People will sing it all out.”

But official representative René Martínez found the official version plausible and asked the government to look into the relationship between the alleged conspiracy group and local authorities in Santa Cruz.

La Razón Saturday added skepticism on the government story. It quoted Hernan Rosel, the Hotel Las Americas where the group stayed, as saying that Tuesday night, when a bomb placed by the gates of the Primate Cardinal Julio Terrazas’s residence, none of the guests left the hotel. “There is no possibility they had left the hotel unnoticed”, he said. His suggests the bomb was placed by others, but not the group, as the government had been charging. The daily adds a disquieting doubt. “A report by hotel staffers who checked out the building found no signs of any bullet fired by the alleged squad…”

La Razón’s story continues on: “The police elite broke into the hotel after 04:00 AM, and blew up the door of room 458, where the alleged hit-man Eduardo Rozsa was lodged. According to the insurance report, in the room there were ten bullet holes around the place where the body was. There were no holes in the door or the doorway. Room 457 showed three orifices on the wall, close to the bed, where Rumanian Magyarosi Arpad died. In the room 456, where Irish Dwyer Michael Martin died, there was just one bullet hole. Nothing else. There were eight holes in room 455, six by the wall next to the bed, one by a TV set, and another by a decoration painting. There was blood on the floor and the door of room 454. The police squad found none in room 453 but they shot aiming at the bathroom anyway.”

Two members of the group, Mario F. Tadik, a Bolivian, and Hungarian Elod Toaso, were arrested and taken to La Paz.

El Nuevo Dia daily runs this Sunday a statement by a forensic export, Ronny Pedro Colanzi, supporting the notion that at the Las Americas hotel there was no clash. The daily quotes Colanzi as saying he had seen that at least in one case the shot at the heart was precise, leaving no traces of violence or struggle. As a rule, when there is a shooting, the crime scene is messed up, which doesn’t seem to have happened in this case, Colanzi told El Nuevo Dia.

Opposition congressman Walter Arrázola says it was a “plain execution” and police gave no chance to the alleged terrorists to defend themselves.

Santa Cruz’s El Deber this Sunday quotes senate President Oscar Ortiz as saying: “By what is being known, there was no clash but an execution. This is very serious and demonstrates there is something dirty in this affair. Long before it, President Morales was claiming that there existed a secret cell planning to attempt against his life and that of other authorities.”

Rozsa, whose Bolivian father was a leftist and had to leave the country in the 1970s, when a rightist military regime took over, was well known pro Palestine and active fundamentalist, which would hardly fit the government claim that he was a leader of a rightist squad.