On a recent afternoon in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, according to reports from Bolivia, about a dozen young members of Bolivia's outlawed Revolutionary Leftist Movement gathered for a clandestine meeting in a private home.
Addressing a roomful of miners, peasants, factory workers and students, the leftists began discussing their party's response to the just-announced "drastic economic measures" of Gen. Luis Garcia Meza's government -- measures that included price increases of 25 to 120 percent on gasoline and many food products.
The price increases had already been met with protests in other parts of Bolivia -- one strike at three major tin mines, another at factories in the city of Cochabamba. In both those protests, dozens of people had been arrested, and there were reports of several hundred additional arrests in the weeks before the economic measures were announced.
The end of the La Paz meeting was swift and bloody. At about 5 p.m., according to reliable reports, about 20 heavily armed paramilitary agents burst into the house, firing submachine guns. Several people were killed outright and the rest, including at least one woman, were led away with their hands in the air.
A total of nine persons reportedly died in the raid, including one security agent and Artemio Camargo, top leader of the miners' union at the huge Catavi mine complex.
Several dozen others were detained. The leader of the nationwide confederation of land colonizers is believed to be in the building operated by the Department of Public Order, where many detainees are interrogated, and one woman -- whose arrest the government will neither confirm nor deny -- is reported to be under arrest and in serious need of medical attention.
A few days after the raid, the mutilated corpses of the dead leftists were returned to family members. Gen. Hugo Suarez, former defense minister and mayor of La Paz, was the father of one of those killed. He said his son had been brutally tortured. Some relatives were reportedly forced to sign documents saying they were grateful to Garcia Meza for detecting the "criminal subversives."
The government, officials declared in a statement published Jan. 20, had broken up a vast plan to provoke "an armed insurrection and seize power in the country." With links to political parties in Peru, Ecuador, France, Colombia, El Salvador and Argentina, this group was plotting a "select and systematic assassination plot," said Interior Minister Luis Arce Gomez, who is said to have ordered the raid.
The plotters' targets, officials declared, were to have included former presidents Gen. Hugo Banzer, Victor Paz Estenssoro and Gen. Alberto Natusch Busch as well as a lengthly list of other military and civilian figures. The people gathered at the meeting, officials said, were armed with "Cuban-made arms and grenades," and engaged the paramilitaries in a 20-minute shootout.
"Arce's statement is totally false," said Genaro Flores, a peasant union leader who has been in hiding since Garcia Meza took power last July. Considered one of the government's most-wanted opponents, Flores spoke to a special correspondent for The Washington Post just before what Flores said would be a brief self-imposed exile in a neighboring country.
"These companeros were unarmed," said the middle-aged peasant leader, visibly nervous from so many weeks in hiding."Look, I can't even walk around with an identity card, much less bombs and guns and dynamite." He said he believes the current level of repression would simply not allow the kind of armed organization government officials have described.
There are signs that Arce may have overstepped his bounds when he reportedly ordered the attack on the gathering. Military officers and civilians supportive of the Garcia Meza government reportedly are calling for Arce's ouster. Some, according to reports, think his dismissal would improve the government's image abroad, particularly with the Reagan administration, which Garcia Meza badly wants to court as an economic and political ally.
One economic adviser, now trying to help the Bolivian government obtain International Monetary Fund and private financing for its $3.5 billion foreign debt, said recently: "Arce has to go."
There are rumors that Garcia Meza has argued fiercely with Arce -- and that Arce responded by declaring that he would no longer take orders from the president.
Given the history of this government, which many Bolivians have described as the most repressive and frightening they have ever lived under, it is questionable whether Garcia Meza would be able to get rid of Arce even if he wanted to. One of the chief differences between last July's coup and those of Bolivia's highly unstable past, according to many observers, was the use of paramilitary "security forces" to conduct arrests and raid private homes. Those paramilitaries, many of them armed civilians, were publicly acknowledged to be backup troops under Arce's control.