Ten years on, family of Irishman killed in Bolivia still wait for answers
Investigation into death of Michael Dwyer in police raid held up by ‘farcical’ related trial
Michael Dwyer: The Bolivian state’s version of what happened leading up to and during the police raid in which Dwyer was killed has been contradicted by eyewitnesses and leaked video from inside the investigation.
When in 2015 Bolivia’s president Evo Morales became the first South American head of state to visit Ireland, he must have known the 2009 killing of Irishman Michael Dwyer, by police under his command, would be raised by his hosts.
It was, and he duly struck a conciliatory, co-operative tone. Though Morales himself did not meet the Dwyer family, two ministers travelling with him did and passed on their president’s personal condolences.
The Bolivian delegation also told the family and Irish officials they would fully co-operate and facilitate an international investigation into the killing of Dwyer alongside two other men in the police raid on their hotel 10 years ago on Tuesday (April 16th).
But that commitment, meeting an Irish demand first made in 2009, came with a caveat: any international investigation would have to wait until the conclusion of a criminal trial back in Bolivia that had followed the raid.
They might as well have told everyone they would be waiting for Godot.
The formal proceedings of Bolivia’s so-called trial of the century started in Santa Cruz on October 9th, 2012, and are nowhere near reaching a conclusion. Given its current rate of progress, observers estimate it will require at least another two years before a verdict is delivered. Even then, appeals as far as the supreme court could add another three years to the process.
Morales could be in a position to stall Irish demands for an international inquiry by referring to the fact that the trial is ongoing, and that could be his position until well into the next decade.
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Former officials have accused the highest reaches of the Morales administration of a carefully orchestrated political conspiracy
Originally, 39 men faced various terrorism-related charges relating to what prosecutors claimed was a plot to assassinate the president and foment separatism in Bolivia’s restive eastern lowlands. Among them were Dwyer’s two companions arrested in the raid in which he was killed. Most of the others are linked to the opposition in Santa Cruz, leading many in Bolivia to claim the police operation was part of an elaborate plan by state elements to criminalise Morales’s political foes.
This trial long ago descended into farce. The state’s version of what happened leading up to and during the police raid has been contradicted by eyewitnesses and leaked video from inside the investigation. Meanwhile, former officials have publicly repented their roles in the affair, accusing the highest reaches of the Morales administration of a carefully orchestrated political conspiracy. (The presidency and interior ministry in La Paz did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.)
With the state determined to proceed with the case despite its version of events having been exposed as fabricated, the affair has further undermined confidence among Bolivians in their scandal-plagued justice system. “Though public interest in the case has waned there is a profound scepticism in the population and an understanding that, here in Bolivia, justice is not justice but something that is subject to the whims of the executive,” says Harold Olmos, the author of a book on the events surrounding the hotel raid.
The tortuous nature of this decade-long process means that many of the 39 original defendants have cut plea-bargain deals with prosecutors, admitting guilt to lesser charges in return for their freedom. The two men arrested in the hotel raid pleaded guilty to complicity in armed insurrection in 2015 and were sentenced to time already served, allowing them to immediately leave the country.
But 12 others continue to hold out, two of them despite spending 10 years on remand – in violation of the country’s constitution and international human rights treaties signed by Bolivia. Hugo Paz, one of the holdouts, says the government’s aim is clearly to drag out the case so as to break their resistance and have them admit to what the government cannot prove in court. “I was told if I admitted my guilt I could go free but I am not going to lie to incriminate myself and be labelled a terrorist when I never was one,” says Paz.
In Bolivia a case from the fact to sentence must take three years. This case has gone way past that. It is a parody of justice
With the trial in Santa Cruz showing no sign of ending so as to allow any independent international investigation start, a verdict of sorts on the raid that killed Dwyer might instead have to come from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
It will rule on a petition brought before it by Dwyer’s mother Caroline in which she alleges her son was summarily executed by Bolivian security forces. If her charge is proven and the commission finds that Bolivian authorities failed to investigate and punish the persons responsible, then the country could be found in violation of its international treaty commitments. When the petition was deemed admissible last year, Morales took to social media to denounce the Western hemisphere’s leading human rights watchdog as a “defender of terrorism and separatism”.
But, given the slow-moving nature of the commission, a more immediate route to finally having Bolivian authorities facilitate in an international inquiry could open up in October. That is when Morales will attempt to secure a fourth consecutive term in office.
His re-election bid is in trouble because of public anger at his candidacy, which flouts the result of a referendum held in 2016. In this, voters rejected his attempt to abolish term limits restricting office-holders to two consecutive terms. Morales’s refusal to abide by that result has managed to unite large segments of an opposition that had been fragmented for much of his 13 years in power.
Should this re-energised opposition manage to defeat him, defence lawyers predict the troubled trial in Santa Cruz will quickly be brought to a close. “Once the government is no longer pressuring the judges the case will end. In Bolivia a case from the fact to sentence must take three years. This case has gone way past that. It is a parody of justice,” says Gary Prado, defence lawyer to some of the remaining men on trial.
Then maybe the events surrounding the police raid on Hotel Las Americas will finally be subjected to a proper investigation.