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Journalist followed after interviewing key witness in Santa Cruz scandal

(ANP/IFEX) - 4 February 2011 - Journalist José Luis Patuy, of the Red Uno television station, said that he was followed by employees of the Ministry of the Interior after having interviewed Ignacio Villa Vargas. Villa Vargas is a fugitive and a major player in a scandal that cast doubt on the existence of a terrorist and separatist cell that is alleged to have operated in Santa Cruz, eastern Bolivia, in 2009.

More than a year ago, Villa Vargas, who had appeared in photographs together with the alleged terrorists, implicated a number of local leaders in an alleged separatist plot, which also involved a plot to kill President Evo Morales. Three of the members of the alleged terrorist group were killed by police in Santa Cruz in 2009.

Recently, a video showing Villa Vargas receiving an alleged bribe of US$31,500 was sent to a number of TV stations. The distribution of the video resulted in a commotion, with the opposition claiming that the whole Santa Cruz terrorism scandal was orchestrated by the government to get rid of its opponents in the region. There was speculation that the video was filmed by people working for the Ministry of the Interior.

Patuy was able to locate Villa Vargas, who was believed to be out of the country. When speaking to Red Uno, Villa Vargas said he felt his life was in danger and that his original testimony had been obtained under torture. He said he had been forced to implicate members of the opposition in Santa Cruz and that the supposed bribe was later taken back by the same individuals who filmed the exchange of money.

According to Patuy, after the interview aired, he was heading home in a taxi when he noticed that he was being followed by three vehicles with tinted windows. In Bolivia, vehicles with tinted windows are only permitted with police authorisation. He returned to the TV station and drove home in a company vehicle. He then noticed another suspicious vehicle near his home.

Patuy said he spoke "off the record" with some officers who told him they were following him in the hope of capturing Villa Vargas.

Minister of the Interior Sacha Llorenti criticised Red Uno for airing the interview with Villa Vargas, accusing the TV station's owners of acting based on economic and political interests and trying to negate governments efforts to disband a terrorist group.

Llorenti also condemned the "El Nuevo Día" newspaper, which is owned by a former Santa Cruz municipal official, for its anti-government reporting.

Please note this is an abridged translation.

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