Correction: This article states that Mario Francisco Tasik Astorga and Elod Toaso fought in the Croation war. According to news reports, the two members of the cell that fought in that war were Astorga and the named ringleader, Eduardo Rosa Flores, not Elod Toaso.

Last month, the Bolivian government expelled [1] a senior “diplomat” from the US embassy in La Paz, whom it accused of covertly supporting efforts [2] to depose the country’s leftist president, Evo Morales. This past week, Bolivian authorities announced they had foiled operations by a major international anti-government mercenary group operating out of the city of Santa Cruz, a hotbed of anti-government activity in the country’s wealthy eastern provinces. Three of the unit’s members, a Bolivian of Croatian descent, an Irishman and a Romanian, were killed by Bolivian security forces; two others, a Hungarian and another Bolivian of Croatian descent, were captured and are now in custody.

The Discovery

Last Thursday, Bolivian security officials investigating the recent bombing [3] attack on the house of Catholic cardinal Julio Terrazas, were led to Santa Cruz’s luxury Hotel Las Americas, where the five alleged mercenaries were reportedly staying. Elite Bolivian security forces conducted a pre-dawn raid at the hotel and killed [4] three of the five suspects in the ensuing 30′ shootout. Bolivian security agents, who searched the hotel room following the raid, said [5] they found “a cache of weapons and ammunition, including several cylinders of C-4” high-power explosive. Their findings also led them to a separate storage unit in the city’s fairgrounds, where they uncovered several pounds of explosives and numerous assault rifles. The chief of Bolivia’s police, General Victor Hugo Escobar, said late on Thursday that all of the uncovered weapons and explosives appeared to originate from outside the country.

Assassination Plans

General Escobar also claimed that the group had in its possession several reporters’ vests and “PRESS” identity cards, of the kind typically displayed by accredited journalists. Security officials are examining the possibility that the group may have been planning to use journalistic disguise to gain proximity to senior government officials for purposes of assassination. Furthermore, the country’s vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, claimed [6] last week that a laptop recovered at the suspects’ hotel room shows they were planning to assassinate president Morales and other cabinet members. One cabinet member, minister of interior Marcos Farfán, alleged [7] that Bolivian security forces had already managed to foil an attempt by the covert group to attack a vessel on Lake Titicaca, located on the Peruvian border, where the Bolivian government cabinet was meeting.

The Plot Thickens

Bolivian police escort two arrested plotters (AP)

Bolivian police escort two arrested plotters (AP)

All five known members of the mysterious group have intriguing international backgrounds. The two arrestees, who are currently being interrogated at the Bolivian attorney general’s offices in La Paz, are Mario Tadik (or Tadić) Astorga, a right-wing Bolivian army veteran of Croatian descent, and Előd (or Elődöt) Tóásó, a known Hungarian nationalist and computer expert. Interestingly, both Tadić and Tóásó fought as mercenaries for the Croatian forces in the in the Croatian War of Independence from Yugoslavia, in 1991-1995.

The three killed include Irishman Michael Martin Dwyer, and Árpád (or Arpak, or Ariad) Magyarosi, reportedly an expert sniper who was a nationalist member of Romania’s Hungarian minority. Comparatively little is known about Dwyer, 24, who was a student at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. British media report [8] that Dwyer’s personal Facebook page contains several photographs of “himself in military gear and holding fake weapons”.

The Third Man

The third person killed has been named as Eduardo Rózsa Flores, also known as Jorge Hurtado Flores, 48, a Bolivian-Croatian national, who was reportedly the leader of the Bolivian operation. Flores’ journey is an interesting one, to say the least. He was born to a Hungarian father and Spanish mother, who in 1972 left Bolivia for Chile, in support of Chilean president Salvador Allende’s socialist experiment. The Flores family later moved to Europe, where Eduardo’s political views shifted gradually to the right. In 1992, he moved to Croatia, where he fought as a mercenary for the anti-Yugoslav nationalist forces and eventually led the Croatian forces’ First International Platoon (Prvi Internacionalni Vod, known as PIV), an amalgamation of foreign nationalist mercenaries from several nations operating under Croatian command. At the end of the Yugoslav Wars, Flores was awarded Croatian citizenship and moved to Hungary, where he became increasingly vocal in far-right circles. According [9] to one of his Hungarian contacts, Flores relocated to Bolivia in May 2008 “to fight against its communist government”.

Links to Opposition Financiers

Several Bolivian officials have said [10] that Eduardo Rózsa Flores was invited to join the militant anti-Morales opposition by Branko Gora Marinković Jovicević [11], 42, one of Bolivia’s richest individuals and a well-known financier of the anti-government opposition. Marinković, who holds dual Bolivian-Croatian citizenship, was born to a Croat father and a Montenegrin mother, who immigrated to Bolivia from Yugoslavia in the 1950s, allegedly under fear of retribution after having collaborated with Nazi-affiliated Croat forces during World War II. A resident of prosperous Santa Cruz, Marinković was until recently a leader in the separatist campaign by Bolivia’s energy-rich white-controlled provinces. In late 2008, however, he stepped out of the political limelight, reportedly to shield the movement from revelations about his family’s “Nazi past”.

Behind the Operation

It has already been confirmed by several sources in Bolivia, Croatia, Hungary and elsewhere, that at least three of the five members of the covert cell fought (possibly together) in the Croatian War of Independence during the 1990s. What is more, Bolivian investigators have traced the mercenaries’ travel routes from Croatia and Ireland to Bolivia.

The fact that the five were staying in one of the country’s most luxurious hotels is undoubtedly seen by investigators as evidence of substantial funding in support of the operation. The Croatian link connecting most of the five mercenaries, including alleged leader Eduardo Flores, is also important. Traditionally, the militant far right in Bolivia, Venezuela and Guatemala has relied on mercenaries from nearby Colombia, Nicaragua, Argentina or the United States. Inviting European mercenaries is certainly not unheard of, but it is notably rare, and points to possible connections with Branko Marinković. Additionally, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the five to operate out of Santa Cruz without the tacit consent of Marinković and his clique, who virtually own the city.

US Involvement Suspected

The question, of course, is whether Langley was aware of the covert operation. US media outlets have remained strangely silent on the entire affair. But European media, where the news from Bolivia has been making headlines, report [12] that an enraged Evo Morales asked US President Barack Obama “to repudiate the plot” during a closed-door session, noting that “[i]f the US president did not repudiate the alleged conspiracy I might think it was organized through the [US] embassy”. President Obama reportedly [13] told his Bolivian counterpart that “he was unfamiliar with the incident” and denied that “his administration was […] involved”.

Meanwhile, the investigation in La Paz continues. Sources tell me that Interpol has confirmed the mercenaries’ travel routes and Croatian connection, and it is actively assisting Bolivian investigators. It is admittedly rare  that two members of an alleged international assassination squad are captured alive, or that laptops and documents containing information on planned operations are seized by government authorities. It could well be the case that Bolivian officials are already in possession of information that may soon embarrass several intelligence services in the Americas and beyond.

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[1] I. Allen (2009) “Bolivia expels second US diplomat for having CIA links”, intelNews, 11 March.

http://intelligencenews.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/01-97/

[2] I. Allen (2008) “US covert operations in Bolivia detailed”, intelNews, 18 November.

http://intelligencenews.wordpress.com/2008/11/18/01-2/

[3] Anon. (2009) “Bomb damages Bolivian cardinal’s home”, United Press International, 15 April.

http://www.upi.com/Top_News/2009/04/15/Bomb-damages-Bolivian-cardinals-home/UPI-68291239808176/

[4] S. Alvarez (2009) “Bolivia Deepens Probe Into Assassination Plot”, Latin American Herald Tribune, 20 April.

http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=332195&CategoryId=14919

[5] N. Mapstone (2009) “Bolivian leader says death plot thwarted”, The Financial Times, 16 April.

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/58d31a62-2acf-11de-8415-00144feabdc0.html

[6] S. Alvarez (2009) “Bolivia Deepens Probe Into Assassination Plot”, Latin American Herald Tribune, 20 April.

http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=332195&CategoryId=14919

[7] N. Mapstone (2009) “Bolivian leader says death plot thwarted”, The Financial Times, 16 April.

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/58d31a62-2acf-11de-8415-00144feabdc0.html

[8] R. Carroll (2009) “Bolivian president Morales links US embassy to alleged assassination attempt”, 20 April.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/20/evo-morales-bolivia-us-embassy

[9] P. Sherwell (2009) “My meeting with the man accused of plotting the assassination of Evo Morales”, The Daily Telegraph, 20 April.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/bolivia/5185198/My-meeting-with-the-man-accused-of-plotting-the-assassination-of-Evo-Morales.html

[10] P. Sherwell (2009) “My meeting with the man accused of plotting the assassination of Evo Morales”, The Daily Telegraph, 20 April.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/bolivia/5185198/My-meeting-with-the-man-accused-of-plotting-the-assassination-of-Evo-Morales.html

[11] S. Romero (2008) “In Bolivia, a Croat and a Critic Is Cast in a Harsh Light”, The New York Times, 26 September.

[12] R. Carroll (2009) “Bolivian president Morales links US embassy to alleged assassination attempt”, The Guardian, 20 April.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/20/evo-morales-bolivia-us-embassy

[13] R. Carroll (2009) “Bolivian president Morales links US embassy to alleged assassination attempt”, The Guardian, 20 April.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/20/evo-morales-bolivia-us-embassy