LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — AT 6:45 a.m. on Dec. 5, La Paz's normally quiet, middle-class suburb of Sopocachi woke up to a gunfight. The local residents - and Bolivia - had not witnessed such a political shootout since the country's return to democracy in 1982.
More than 50 members of two special police and military units surrounded and then stormed the residence in which seven members of a left-wing guerrilla group were holding Jorge Lonsdale, a Bolivian industrialist and the Coca-Cola company's representative, kidnapped nearly six months earlier.
Lonsdale was killed in the operation, shot, according to the government, by the guerrillas, who called themselves the Nestor Paz Zamora Commission (CNPZ). Three CNPZ members also died, including their alleged leader. One escaped, and three surrendered.
Seven people have been killed in police-guerrilla confrontations since the CNPZ's first public action of kidnapping Lonsdale last June.
Such a toll would not be headline news in neighboring Peru. But Bolivia has been virtually free of left-wing guerrillas throughout the 1980s, while in Peru more than 20,000 people have died in that guerrilla conflict.
The Bolivian government is concerned that the recent activities could indicate a possible reemergence of leftist guerrillas. There are also worries that extreme rightist groups might form to counter the leftists with their own violent tactics.
The CNPZ is alleged to have links to the pro-Cuba Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) in Peru. On the same day as the shootout, Interior Minister Guillermo Capobianco announced that the MRTA had provided the money to fund the kidnapping of Lonsdale, and wanted a good return on those funds to finance its activities in Peru.
CNPZ documents captured by the police show that the group's formation goes back at least eight years. A slow gestation period culminated in 1987 when a ``new generation'' linked up with former members of the National Army of Liberation (ELN), a group formed in 1967 by Che Guevara in his attempt to start a continent-wide revolution and defeated by the Bolivian Army in 1970. Together they formed the ELN-Renovado (Renewed ELN), of which the CNPZ is thought to be one cell.
Analysts say the name of CNPZ was probably chosen to embarrass the current Bolivian president, Jaime Paz Zamora, whose brother Nestor died in the failed ELN attempt at revolution.
The CNPZ's first public document, released in October, called for immediate expulsion of the US ambassador, removal of all US troops, cancellation of antidrug agreements signed with President Bush, and expulsion of oil companies.
Beyond ideological concerns, however, making a profit was also an apparent motivation in the kidnapping. Independent calculations put the cost of keeping Lonsdale in five different rented apartments in wealthy suburbs of La Paz at about $80,000. The kidnappers were initially asking for $8 million, reduced to $500,000 in early December.
The government also points to the presence of two Peruvians in the CNPZ operations: Federico Eulogio Guaman, one of three men who surrendered, and Alejandro Escobar Guti'errez, whom the government admits died after being tortured while under police custody.
Analysts and diplomats agree it is as yet impossible to say whether new cells of the ELN-R will emerge. On the morning of the shootout, an ELN-R spokesman claimed in a radio statement that ``the war has begun. We are many, and only some have fallen.'' No ELN-R action has been carried out since the statement.
Some point to a series of elementary ``mistakes'' made by the CNPZ, which suggest a scarcity of members and experience. For example, the group used some of the same people to carry out the kidnapping and the Oct. 10 attack on a house occupied by United States Marines who protect the US Embassy in La Paz.
The admitted human rights violations by the government have also stirred domestic political concerns. Interior Minister Capobianco has been fiercely criticized by opposition deputies for ``meeting terrorism with terrorism.''
They point to the death of Escobar, the failure to negotiate Lonsdale's release, and the possible summary execution of two of the three guerrillas. Witnesses to the operation in which Lonsdale died say they saw two guerrillas arrested on the roof of a nearby house, then killed by police.
``The tough government response has provoked a certain sympathy in some sectors of the population,'' says Humberto Vacaflor, editor of the weekly Siglo 21. ``The CNPZ may be dead, but other cells could emerge in the future.''
There is more agreement that neither the CNPZ or the ELN-R enjoys mass support from peasants or workers. Those arrested were virtually all university students.