Maybe it was the improbability of it all that tipped them off.
But for the far-right generals who have ruled this nation of 3 million people for the past 11 years, the small farming village of hundreds of people with Russian surnames, happy after-work gatherings at the local Maximo Gorki Cultural Center and a couple of old hunting rifles smelled of a plot confirming their worst fears: The Bolsheviks had infiltrated the country.
For the residents of San Javier, however, the military's suspicions have been peculiarly unfair, and sometimes deadly. Earlier this year Vladmir Roslik, a local doctor who had studied medicine on a scholarship in Moscow, died while in military custody. An autopsy showed evidence of torture, and two officers were convicted of "involuntary manslaughter."
Recently about 210 people of Russian descent filed a race discrimination complaint in the Supreme Court against the military government, charging that the town was the target of "strict security control and special vigilance" solely because of its residents' ethnic background.
Said one resident grimly, "If the world knew what's been going on here they'd die laughing."
On the face of it, San Javier, a town of 1,500 people along the banks of the languid Uruguay River near the western border with Argentina, would appear to be an unlikely place for a Moscow-directed conspiracy. Residents say their only contact with the Soviet Union was the occasional presence of embassy officials at cultural events. The visits stopped a decade ago, although the Soviet Union retains diplomatic ties with the government in Montevideo.
San Javier was founded in 1913 by 750 religious dissidents from a breakaway sect of the Orthodox Church called the New Israel Community, who fled czarist Russia in search of religious freedom and fertile land.
The 300 families led by religious leader Basilio Lubkov who began the settlement here, soon put a distinctive stamp on their community, in the middle of the region fabled for its gauchos or South American cowboys.
Los rusos -- the Russians -- of San Javier arrived four years before the Soviet revolution, although they did bring with them a penchant for cooperative farming, producing bounteous harvests of wheat, oats, flax and potatoes.
As time passed the residents of San Javier, like the Spanish, Italian, German and other immigrants who make up Uruguay's national stock, began to lose much of their ethnic character. The second generation had barely reached adulthood when cooperative farming gave way to privately held lots. Many of those born in Uruguay married into native families, and most converted to Catholicism.
By the early 1970s little remained of the immigrant past: the Maximo Gorky Cultural Center, named after the famous Russian novelist; the celebration of old Russian holidays; a folk dance group called Kalinka, and a few dozen elderly people who held onto the Russian language and attended the New Israel church.
And, in a country where it is quite common to see ancient cars creaking down dusty country roads, a few people traveled by carro baltico, a horse-drawn, old-world-style wagon.
In 1973, however, San Javier's easy coexistence with the rest of the country began to come apart. That year Uruguay's long tradition of democratic rule was broken by a military-backed coup that supported the first of a series of anticommunist presidents. Following the coup, the Uruguayan Communist Party was declared illegal and the xenophobic military began to suspect the blue-eyed, fair-haired people of San Javier of subversive activities.
Since 1973, residents say, the people of San Javier have been subjected to a steady stream of harassment, discrimination and physical abuse by the authorities. Arrests, jailing and torture of local people, which began the year of the coup, were stepped up between 1976 and 1980. Russian-surnamed farmers found their access to government credit and welfare cut off.
"The people of San Javier have suffered massive detentions, continual ransacking of their homes by military commandos looking for arms, and the intimidation of constant police patrols," said Alberto Zumaran, a human rights activist and Blanco Party presidential candidate.
"Subversive Cell Broken Up in Maximo Gorki Center in San Javier," said a banner headline on the front page of El Telegrafo newspaper of nearby Paysandu on June 21, 1980. The military's information agency was quoted as saying: "An important cell of the Communist Party's armed apparatus that was training its people for armed struggle has been broken up by combined security forces."
The details of the alleged plot, reported in full by El Telegrafo, painted a grim picture of the goings-on at the Gorki center. It said political indoctrination was carried out by a communist front organization. The newspaper said arms, radio transmitters and "abundant Soviet literature -- all of a subversive character" were found in the sweep.
Interviews with more than a dozen residents of San Javier painted quite a different story. The raid on the town, one of several carried out in recent years, included surrounding entire neighborhoods with armored personnel carriers and columns of troops with snarling dogs, while helicopters hovered above, the residents said. Many people were dragged out of their homes, the slow being prodded at bayonet point.
About a dozen people, including Victor Macarov, then 18, were arrested in the military dragnet and sent to Uruguay's notorious La Libertad prison where they were tortured, townspeople and human rights activists said. Villagers said the arms confiscated by the military consisted of a few old hunting guns and wooden facsimilies used by the Kalinka folk dancers.
Of those detained in 1980, Victor Macarov was finally released on April 13 of this year. One of his friends, Dr. Roslik, 41, had been freed without being charged in 1981 after a year in jail.
Although Macarov's house is next door to the doctor's office, the two had little time to renew their friendship. At 4 a.m. on April 15 Roslik and six others were roused from their beds and taken blindfolded by Army personnel to a local battalion headquarters.
Roslik died the next day. Lt. Gen. Pedro Aranco, then Army commander-in-chief, said Roslik died of a heart attack during questioning about "alleged terrorist activities." An independent autopsy showed he died of asphyxiation, shattered kidneys and internal bleeding.
The military, engaged in delicate talks with civilian politicans over a return to constitutional rule scheduled for early next year, backed down. A lieutenant colonel and a major accused of responsibility for Roslik's death were convicted of "involuntary homicide" -- the first such conviction, rights activists say, since 1973.