Media and campaigners did disservice to Michael Dwyer

While questions remain over the shooting death of Michael Dwyer in Bolivia, it now appears he was wrongly portrayed as some kind of soldier of fortune, writes Michael Clifford

IN THE months after his death, Michael Dwyer was unfairly traduced across the media. Of that now, there can be little doubt.

Dwyer was shot dead by Bolivian security forces in the city of Santa Cruz in the early hours of April 16, 2009. The Bolivian government claimed that the 24-year-old Tipperary man had been part of an assassination squad intent on murdering the prime minister, Evo Morales. The circumstances of his death have been highly disputed.

On Monday, RTÉ screened Death Of A Son — The Killing of Michael Dwyer. It followed Dwyer’s mother Caroline as she travelled to Bolivia in search of some answers.

The family and the Irish Government have long called for an independent inquiry into the killing, but so far the Bolivian authorities have failed to agree to do so.

Dwyer’s killing was complicated by a number of factors. The summer before his death he had completed a construction management course at Galway and Mayo IT. He then spent a few months working for a security firm, IRMS, employed at the Corrib gas site in Co Mayo. It was here he met an individual who suggested the Bolivian adventure.

He travelled to South America in November 2008 to undergo a bodyguard training course that never materialised. He did not even speak Spanish, yet he stayed on and found himself in the company of men who could be described as dangerous.

These men included one Rozsa Flores, who had fought in the Balkans war and had arrived in Bolivia intent on joining forces opposed to the socialist Morales. Flores and another man were killed with Dwyer, but two others in their group were arrested.

These surviving two were put on trial for allegedly plotting the overthrow of the government. The process dragged on for over five years, until the pair agreed a plea bargain that involved a sentence of time served. Along the way, the state prosecutor defected to Brazil and has claimed that Dwyer and the other two were “executed”.

Central to any examination of the case is the question of the extent of Dwyer’s knowledge about what he was involved in. Did he know Flores’ background or intentions? Was he aware of the political cauldron that existed in the city of Santa Cruz?

Did he know that these men were apparently intent on acts of violence against the government in some form? Or was he on an adventure, spending a few months in South America, his room and board taken care of while he lived it up with other young men?

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, numerous photographs showing Dwyer posing with guns and in army fatigues were widely published.

These were suggestive by their nature, but evidence of nothing. He was described as a mercenary, and the “Irish jackel”.

Michael Dwyer

Some media outlets went further. One Sunday tabloid published a story claiming that four Eastern European men showed up at Dwyer’s funeral in Ballinderry and afterwards issued a Nazi salute at the graveside. There was no evidence whatsoever of this.

Another asserted that Dwyer had been involved in an attempt to blow up the home of a cardinal in the days before his own death. Again, there was zero evidence, but the story fed a prevailing sentiment that this man was involved in acts of political violence.

Monday’s programme addressed some of the innuendo that had been spread. A video which showed Dwyer and others working out on a shooting range in Santa Cruz was, at the time, provided as further evidence as to his intentions. In the film, Caroline Dwyer visited the range in question, which is housed in a public park, and which supplies the guns for practice. It’s the kind of place that young men full of testosterone would find themselves on a jaunt.

Such a setup would appear ludicrous in this country, but not South America, or even in parts of North America.

One of the photographs which was circulated at the time alleging to show Dwyer in an incriminating pose was exposed in the film as a light hearted moment captured in a Galway nightclub while he was in college.

While some elements of the media suspended customary scepticism about anything coming from official sources, there was a further complicating matter. Dwyer’s brief sojourn as an employee of the security firm protecting Shell in Mayo meant that he was held up as a poster boy for the evil that Shell was allegedly doing.

His death and the allegations that emerged about what he was involved in provided “evidence” of links between far right mercenaries and the oil company. This notion was propagated at a time when the Shell To Sea campaign opposed to the on-shore oil refinery in Mayo was losing purchase on the public’s radar.

While the campaigners had a perfectly legitimate — some might say laudable — objective, the use of Dwyer to further their aims was less than edifying. A long article on the now-defunct website Indymedia purported to join up the dots to show the links between Shell, the security firm IRMS, far-right terrorists, and a plot to overthrow a democratic government. The main link in the story was Dwyer.

Some campaigners went further in a demonstration in Galway’s Shop St, displaying the “incriminating” photos of Dwyer at a protest. This occurred in the city where he had lived the life of a typical student until months before his death.

At the time, I wrote an opinion piece in The Sunday Tribune questioning the use of Dywer’s image in this manner at a time when his family were attempting desperately to find out the truth of what happened their son.

The response which issued from Shell To Sea described the Indymedia piece as “a first class piece of journalism” and went on the suggest that I was attempting to bury the real story.

“To plead in this context that Dwyer was an Irishman and his mysterious activities must be hushed up for the sake of his family is nothing less than emotional blackmail; it is a sentimental species of self-censorship, a phenomenon that has plagued Irish news-reporting for generations, destroying integrity and blinding understanding.”

Time and the emergence of some evidence in the interim has shown the Indymedia piece to have been an agenda-laden smear.

Questions about Michael Dwyer’s activities in his final months do remain, but the idea that he transmogrified into a deadly soldier of fortune in a matter of months doesn’t stack up.

It now appears that he was done an injustice by a rush to judgment, the blind acceptance of propaganda from the Bolivian government, and attempts to smear him in pursuit of a separate agenda. Neither his memory nor his grieving and confused family deserved that.



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