“If you enter the city, I will hunt you.”: Sacaba massacre was preceded by open threat of military violence

On November 13, 2019—one after Jeanine Áñez was sworn as interim president of Bolivia—the highest police authority and highest-ranking peasant union leader of Cochabamba met in the Integral Police Station (EPI) of Huayllani, the neighborhood that would see the country’s deadliest massacre in sixteen years just two days later.

The Cochabamba peasant federation (Federación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Cochabamba; FSUTCC) had joined calls by the Movement Towards Socialism leader and coca grower Andrónico Rodríguez to mount a national march “against the coup d’ètat” and Áñez’s succession to president. Following in the footsteps of many prior mobilizations since the 1980s, the march would proceed from the coca-growing Chapare to Cochabamba and onto La Paz. The outlying town of Sacaba was the necessary first stop on that journey. FSUTCC leader Jhonny Pardo was in Huayllani to prepare the ground for this mobilization.

Colonel Jaime Edwin Zurita Trujillo, departmental commander of the Bolivian National Police, received Pardo and Nelson Cox, the departmental head of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo). Zurita had only recently taken command of the region’s police; National Police Commander Yuri Calderón installed him on November 8 in the wake of the nationwide police mutiny, which took a dramatic form in urban Cochabamba. Police officers in mutiny had demanded the removal of their prior commander Colonel Raúl Grandy. (Both Calderón and Zurita had received new commands in 2019 as part of anti-corruption house-cleaning in the police force. Calderón was later investigated by the Áñez government for his alleged loyalty to President Morales during the 2019 crisis, and by the Arce government for his role in the Sacaba massacre.)

After Morales‘ fall, Zurita had publicly embraced the Resistencia Juvenil Cochala, a right-wing motorcycle gang and called upon the it and self-organized citizens of Cochabamba to defend a police station in the city from pro-MAS opposition attacks. Zurita asked them to “organize brigades, organize barricades; we have information that people are coming towards the city from the Sacaba side and from the south… do not let them pass” (GIEI Report, p. 87). He also spoke out publicly to assure police officers in mutiny that he was on their side: ”[I would] say to the the comrades that I came to work … and that this is a moment for institutional cohesion. They should know that the Police chiefs are fully supporting all of the demands and that we are not going to leave them alone.” He offered to step down if it would be in the interest of police unity. “Of course” he supported the police mutiny, as did “absolutely all of the police command,” and he had nothing more in common with Cochabamba MAS leader Leonilda Zurita than their shared last name.

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One dead as urban opposition battles pro-MAS campesinos in Potosí

Young pro-MAS protester Basilio Titi Tipolo has been identified as the first fatal casualty in renewed partisan confrontations in Bolivia. Titi died amid the yesterday’s most intense street clashes, in the city of Potosí, where the Potosí Civic Committee (Comcipo) was leading the second day of a nationwide strike. In Potosí, as in several other major cities of Bolivia, striking opposition protesters mounted road blockades in protest of Law 1386, an anti-money laundering statute that shopkeepers claim will lead to abusive investigations of their books. But the issue primarily serves as a lightning rod for the civic opposition, which previously led October–November 2019 protests that culminated in the overthrow of President Evo Morales, to coordinate a nationwide challenge to what they call the “authoritarian” rule of Luis Arce, who was elected in October 2020.

During Tuesday’s protests, multiple efforts were on a collision course in urban Potosí:

  • The Potosí Civic movement intended to paralyze economic life through blockades as part of a national strike.
  • Campesinos arrived in town as opponents of the strike and as supporters of President Luis Arce.
  • Bolivia’s National Police were taking a more-hostile-than-usual approach to the blockades, assailed by Arce’s government as economically damaging.
  • The Departmental government, led by Jhonny Mamani (MAS-IPSP), was preparing to hold an honorary parliamentary session on Wednesday to commemorate the department’s anniversary.
  • On Tuesday morning, Comcipo announced that it would not allow President Luis Arce and Vice President David Choquehuanca to attend the anniversary festivities.
  • Once in town, campesinos rallied around and damaged the headquarters of Comcipo.
  • The Potosí Civic movement mounted a sustained effort to push campesinos out of the central Plaza 10 de Noviembre, eventually achieving this objective.

Security forces and pro-government and opposition protesters were thus pursuing objectives that led to confrontation. Unarmed street battles are not rare in Bolivian political life, but most often involve one group of demonstrators and security forces. Tuesday saw clashes between all three groups, as well as prolonged violent attacks upon individuals isolated in crowds of their political opponents. A pall of confusion and self-interested statements hangs over many of the details of yesterday’s events, but some facts are gradually becoming clear.

Potosí’s mayor reports that fifty people were treated in hospitals in clinics following the confrontations, two remain in intensive care, and one protester died. The deceased protester is Basilio Titi Tipolo, a young man just shy of his 22nd birthday. Basilio had residential ties in Surichata and Potosí, where he had worked as a miner. His body lay in state in the Potosí Peasant Confederación headquarters, where he was mourned by his Quechua-speaking mother.

The Defensoría del Pueblo has taken charge of compiling information on Basilio Titi’s death. Defensora Nadia Cruz stated that he died in the context of the confrontations, that he reportedly fell in attempt to reach safety, and that the medical cause of his death was broncoaspiración—the entry of food or other obstruction into the lungs causing suffocation. Separate accounts have been offered by Comcipo and the national government.

Comcipo issued this comment: “We know that a person has died, a 25-year old who had choked on their coca, surely while running away. There were no signs of violence, and I regret very much that there was a death on the side of our campesino brothers.” Further comments alleged that the campesinos were given alcohol, money, and chile pepper (that is, meals) to cajole them into protests. This is a statement so full of hostility and stereotypes that (1) any sincerity to the claimed lament of the death rings hollow; (2) it’s hard to take the claim that the death was accidental rather than caused by violence at face value.

Comcipo was also at pains to declare that Titi was physically unharmed, placing him among the handful of Bolivians who have fled violent confronations to their deaths over the years.

Álvaro Terrazas, a vice minister of health, presented a more sinister narrative. He alleged that violent groups blocked the passage of an ambulance carrying Titi and that “the lack of medical attention has led to the death of one person.” Terrazas claims that the forensic medical report established that Titi suffered multiple traumatic injuries, including hematomas from the blows that were struck upon him in the street. He did not cast doubt on the medical cause of death, but rather argued that someone who lost consciousness could suffer broncoaspiración from something as mall as a bit of bread. Terrazas also accused blockaders of throwing dirt to attack the ambulance carrying Titi.

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“We didn’t know what we were doing”: Afghanistan as tragic repetition

“Everyone” knows that Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers about Vietnam fifty years. What few people know is that the study that compiled those papers was an effort by the military/intelligence apparatus to understand why the US makes such bad, unaware, and self-destructive decisions in war.[1]

Those who do not learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.

One of the many ways that history repeats itself is that George W. Bush assembled a team led by Nixon administration alumni to prosecute two massive new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.[2] And the US governments of Bush, Obama, and Trump all repeated many of the same patterns in Afghanistan as they did in Vietnam.

Again, there was a study behind closed doors, leaked to the press. Here’s an opening sentence from the (much less celbrated) coverage: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015.[3]

The fact that the US participated in and enabled atrocities in Afghanistan, and that the precedent of past US wars meant that the most craven local leaders gravitated to the US-backed government does not undermine the fact that hundreds of thousands or even millions of Afghans made their peace with that same government, and built the stability they could find around it. Today is not so much the US government’s tragedy, as it is theirs.

As citizens of a country that has failed to restrain our own military-industrial complex from repeating its own destructive patterns across more than half a century, our first debt is to those it has killed and wounded, to those whose lives it has ended or wasted, and our second debt is to those who sought shelter under its wings. Refuge is the least we owe them.

On a larger level, if you look around the world you will see that the worst off countries are those who were colonized most recently (largely sub-Saharan Africa) and those the US military has invaded and occupied: Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti. Vietnam, for all its continuing problems, has emerged far better than most. We have to stop doing this, because in the wake of our government’s most costly endeavors comes poverty and stagnation.

[1] Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets
[2] Errol Morris, The Unknown Known
[3] The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war, Washington Post

Tick-tock coverage of the overthrow of Evo Morales: What we know now

A flood of new declarations from politicians and official involved in the 2019 ouster of Evo Morales have come out. These declarations have accelerated because the matter is now the subject of a criminal investigation that led to the arrest of Jeanine Áñez. This post revises and updates my January 2020 coverage of accounts of Morales’ overthrow; the original text remains online there. Since both posts are intended to gather historical evidence and illuminate critical questions, I‘m avoiding using the word “coup d‘ètat” here. Readers are invited to apply their own definition to the mounting facts, as I have elsewhere.

What’s at stake

Without a doubt, the post-electoral protests against President Evo Morales, his sudden resignation under pressure from both protesters and the military, and the unexpected succession of Jeanine Áñez (previously, second vice president of the Senate) are the most significant events of Bolivian political life in 2019. The hinge point of these events was the dramatic week stretching from November 8 to 15, during which the police and military joined protesters as central actors; significant transactions occurred behind closed doors; acts of violence and arson targeted politicians on all sides; uncertainty surrounded presidential succession; and finally, a remobilized military killed a shocking number of people in four dramatic days.

I want to offer here some detailed accounts of what happened during that pivotal week and lay out the crucial questions as to whether, when, and how the overthrow of Morales was planned.

Why did an inexperienced junior senator with no mandate get empowered to lead a disastrous coup, unleashing the deadliest month in 15 years in Bolivian politics? How did a military “suggestion” claiming to head off bloodshed so rapidly lead to operations against civilians that cost many more lives than had been lost in the previous three years (let alone the three weeks of protest since the election)? In short, to what extent was a unified planning process (what we might call a coup plot) at the heart of this political transition?

Put differently, do we understand Evo Morales’ overthrow, Jeanine Áñez’s succession, and the military shakeup that followed the result of:

  • The foresight and planning of a small circle of actors. Did someone in the civic movement set her up? Work out a deal with those in the military who craved a crackdown? There are real signs of premeditation, coordination, and alliances among political forces and people within the military who might have a crackdown as a goal.
  • A convergence of fearful choices that led to a disastrous transition. Did the military leadership believe a quick transition would de-escalate an increasingly deadly confrontation on November 10? Did multiple actors think confirming someone, any civilian at all, was preferable to prolonging interim military rule and nightly violence on November 12? The real consequences of fear, urgency, distrust, violence, and reactions to violence that led people to act without considering the worst-case scenario that could emerge.

Since plotting is necessarily a closed-door activity, we couldn’t fully know the answers to these questions on November 10 or 15. But since these are matters of public concern and the principal actors are talking to journalists, we are getting more and more details (all possibly filtered through self-justifications and political ambitions) about what exactly happened when. What follows is an evolving list of sources for those of us trying to understand what happened in detail.

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Note from the field: Bolivia redefines its history [2010]

I’m reposting this fieldwork newsletter account that I wrote in 2010 because it feels relevant to current conversations about narrating American history.

Imagine for a moment the following scenario:

There’s a formal diplomatic function between the United States and France, in which the visiting French president is honoring a hero of the Franco-American effort during the American Revolutionary War. Military and civil honors are being accorded to Thomas Jefferson, say, or the Marquis de Lafayette.* The French President is there, before a special session of the United States Congress. Picture the well of the House, the assembled guests, the audience of Americans watching on video screens on the streets outside the Capitol. The first to speak, on behalf of the United States Government is Joe Biden. He strides to the podium, welcomes the French President, and begins a speech. He remembers the revolutionary era as a period of liberation for the American continent, a key point in a still unfinished process. Then he says we must think of the revolutionary period as two distinct struggles for independence and self determination: the American Revolution we all know, extending through the War of 1812; and the struggles Native Americans fought against invasion during the same decades. He says we must remember as American heroes Tecumseh as well as Jefferson, Blackhawk as much as Lafayette. For good measure, he adds Nat Turner to the list. The Age of Liberation we celebrate as the birth of our nation, he argues, will only be fulfilled when Native peoples have self governance and Blacks have ended oppression and racism against them.

I’m sure I can imagine this scene. You can too; hopefully, you just have. But those words out of the mouth of our current President or Vice President probably seem impossible. At least, I’m confident I won’t hear them. And I’m confident that if I did hear them, I would break into tears with the unexpected justice of the situation.

I mention this scenario not just because it represents a good goal, or underscores the place of talking about history in righting historic wrongs. I mention it most of all because changing the national context, it is exactly what I witnessed on the 26th of March in Sucre. The figure in question was not Thomas Jefferson or Lafayette, but Juana Azurduy de Padilla, a mestiza military commander in the wars against the Spanish from 1809 to 1825. Born in the town of Chuquisaca (now named Sucre after her contemporary military and political leader), she fought for the independence of both Argentina and Bolivia in a war in which she saw four of her sons and her husband die. It was also a war during which she gave birth to a daughter. Azurduy is embraced by nationalists and pro-indigenous activists, as an Argentine and a Bolivian, as a woman and as a soldier.

The speech was given not by Joe Biden, of course, but by Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera. Before becoming Vice President, he was a partisan of a guerrilla movement of the 1980s and 90s, a professor of sociology, and a moving force within a leftist theory collective in La Paz called Comuna.

It is one thing to sit in a graduate classroom and learn about the extended history of South America’s Age of Revolution, to learn how the indigenous revolts of the 1770s and 1780s presaged the independence wars of the early 19th century. It is a different and altogether remarkable thing to watch a country’s national leadership embrace that narrative as a way of understanding its past. One of the better aspects of fieldwork has been the opportunity to do both.

* Military commander and diplomat Lafayette was in fact given honorary American citizenship in 2002. I won’t ask you to imagine the above scenario with Dick Cheney playing the role of García Linera.

Arturo Murillo began corruption scheme in first week of Áñez regime

On May 21 and 22, the United States government arrested Arturo Carlos Murillo Prijic, the former minister of government under the interim government of Jeanine Áñez, his chief of staff Sergio Rodrigo Mendez Mendizabal, and three of Murillo’s long-time associates. These include Murillo’s childhood friend Luis Berkman Littman, his son Bryan Samuel Berkman, and Argentine lawyer Philip Lichtenfield. The men are charged with money laundering and corrupt practices surrounding the Áñez government’s purchase of riot control munitions.

Based on the facts laid out in the indictment (Murillo is “Co-Conspirator 1”), confirmed by prior document releases in Bolivia since June 2020, this scheme is best understood not as an arms company bribing Murillo and Mendez to secure a contract, but rather the joint effort by the men involved to interpose the Berkmans’ shell company, Bravo Tactical Solutions, into an existing arms supply arrangement between a Brazilian arms manufacturer and the Bolivian government. This was done at a substantial mark-up, generating between $2 and $3 million, some $600 thousand of which were recycled back to Mendez, Murillo, and an unnamed Ministry of Defense official.

Since the public indictment provides a detailed timeline, we now know that this corrupt scheme originated in the first week of the Áñez government, before the government was even recognized by opponents, while blood was still on the ground from the Sacaba massacre, and before the second mass killing at Senkata.

I think about this crisis moment all the time; I’ve studied it intensely to understand who did what when, how hardline officials came in with guns blazing, killing more with the police and military in ten days than Bolivian security forces had killed in the past decade of policing protests. What I had not imagined, however, was that this first week was also a time for them to think about profiteering.

Arturo Murillo’s dramatic week

The week of November 10th through 16th, 2019, was a momentous one for Bolivia and for conservative hardliner Arturo Murillo.

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How to survive and outflank Justice Amy Coney Barrett

At 49, Amy Coney Barrett is four years older than me, and has just been given a lifetime appointment to the US Supreme Court. Her appointment is the culmination of a generation of efforts by the Federalist Society and allies to engineer the Supreme Court into a brake on the emerging social democratic politics of a multiracial and economically unequal America. It is the last act of an unprecedented decade of obstruction of Federal judiciary appointments by a Republican Senate majority that represents a minority of Americans. Barrett herself is the standard-bearer of a judicial philosophy that upholds the intentions of eighteenth century lawmakers in a twenty-first century society, as well as personally committed to religious and community politics that would roll back a half-century of feminist social transformation.

Despite all this, our existing institutional arrangements will give Amy Coney Barrett the power to review the laws of this country well into the 2060s, long after the United States has ceased to a majority-white country, and when Millennials and Generation Z will rightly be democratically shaping their own present and future.

I promise you that the Constitution itself is less sacred than the right of my children and children’s children to not have their freedom overseen by Amy Coney Barrett in 2060.

So how can we prevent that future? Here’s a list of strategic options, including those already in circulation, for the coming months and the years and decades beyond. We too can strategize in terms of decades, outflanking the regressive minority that brought us Justice Barrett.

  1. First, our mentality must change. We must divest ourselves of the notion that the current Constitution and the Supreme Court are sacred. Only rarely has the Court marched ahead of society in the fight for greater justice (notably, Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda); mostly it has played a role of cementing widespread changes already underway (Roe, Obergefell), or even worse standing in the way of transformative progress (Bakke) and rolling back critical protections (Shelby County v. Holder). If we want a visionary court again, we will have to fight for one, and not offer compromise justices that split the difference between the parties (looking at you, Merrick Garland) or between liberal identity politics and corporate power (Elana Kagan). With respect to the Constitution, virtually every other country in the world has written a new constitution since 1945, and collective notions of human rights have dramatically expanded worldwide. We’re overdue to catch up. The trifecta of an unrepresentative Senate, a majority-canceling Electoral College, and a lifetime-appointed Supreme Court is no holy trinity. Get over your allegiance to these institutions and the flawed, outdated and political document that created them.
  2. Supreme Court expansion: Comes in two flavors: partisan retribution (you got 3, we get 3) and fundamental rethink (let’s have many more justices and a less-partisan process). Biden seems down for legal scholars to sort this out.
  3. Impeach Brett Kavanaugh, who committed perjury in his nomination hearings. Congress could do this. Controversial, but not as controversial as having someone who lied about sexual assault sitting on the court for a generation.
  4. Expand and nominate to the Federal judiciary: There really is a backlog of cases in the Federal courts and plenty of candidates waiting.
  5. Amend the constitution and enshrine the rights Barrett doesn’t believe in. While constitutional amendment is an exhausting process, the Equal Rights Amendment has already been ratified by 38 states, and just needs formal acceptance and some legal defense. A Biden administration could do this unilaterally, though there will be legal wrangling to follow up.
  6. Legislate Roe. There’s draft legislation to do this, the Women’s Health Protection Act: “A health care provider has a statutory right under this Act to provide abortion services, and may provide abortion services… without any of the following limitations or requirements.” This legislation does away with a generation of debate as to whether the Constitution itself provides the right to abortion, by making that right a matter of law.
  7. Make human rights treaties legally enforceable in Federal Courts. The US is signatory to a raft of global and hemispheric treaties enshrining a variety of human rights, but their enacting legislation prohibits citizens from raising claims from them in court. Reverse this.
  8. Ratify the American Convention on Human Rights and thereby allow the Inter-American American Court on Human Rights to issue binding protections for human rights, reviewing Supreme Court rulings. This is the system that most of the hemisphere lives under, and it sets a high floor for human rights across Latin America.
  9. Incorporate radical transformations of our country’s identity, institutions, and constitution into mass movements. Much of my last dozen years has been spent documenting how social movements revolutionized Bolivian politics. One important ongoing demand of those movements was radical constitutional reform in which everyday people and grassroots leaders rewrote the constitution from top to bottom. New visions were inserted and old structures abolished. What made this process possible was that instead of thinking about a “movement to amend” the political structures of society, this was a movement to reconceptualize what Bolivia is, into a plurinational, autonomy-centered society in which indigenous peoples rule themselves. Everything from history to national identity sense of self was up for grabs. A new constitution was the by-product of far more radical transformation.
  10. Keep fighting for the world we want. Don’t get locked in a defensive crouch about Barrett and her five new best friends. When they come to say we can’t have universal health care, stabilize the Earth’s climate, remake criminal justice, or rethink our society, take those moments as opportunities to re-build the kinds of institutions we need to achieve these real goals.

As the United States’ overly romanticized Founding Fathers once wrote, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”

Ecuadorian indigenous leaders gather in March to advocate null votes in the second round of presidential elections.

Parallels in Ecuador, Bolivia elections highlight growing role for independent and Indigenous politicians

Today’s New York Times is highlighting (with a quote from me) the growing number of Indigenous politicians and parties (en castellaño) claiming space in Andean politics. Different individuals and collectives are making the case for indigenous autonomy, post-extractivist economic models, accountability to the grassroots, and internal democracy (vs. centralized hyper-partisanship).

In Ecuador and Bolivia, this often means challenging the official standard-bearers of the left: Rafeal Correa’s chosen successor Andrés Arauz, and the Evo Morales/Luis Arce-led Movement Towards Socialism (MAS-IPSP).

Despite narrowly being shut out of today’s Ecuadorian presidential runoff, Pachakutik will be the second-largest party in the new parliament. As Pachakutik’s Yaku Pérez fought for second place in the first-round election in February, Correa’s party made it clear they would much rather face a neoliberal banker than debate extractivism, indigenous rights, and democracy in the general election. Pachakutik and the Ecuadorian Indigenous movement, which backed a late 2019 uprising against neoliberal policies, is calling for null votes in protest today and promises to continue its fight in parliament and through street protest no matter who wins. “We will permanently remain firm in our horizon of resistance,” the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador declared in mid-March, “and we will establish other mechanisms of struggle to make a path for the social and popular demands of the country.”

Pachakutik and the Democratic Left (Izquierda Democrática) have agreed on an alliance in the National Assembly, where they won 27 and 18 seats respectively (32% of the body), have proposed a joint agenda, and are seeking independent allies. If they attract five additional legislators, they will comprise the largest delegation, and regardless will be essential votes for whoever wins today’s election.

Pachakutik and Democratic Left will hold the balance of power in Ecuador’s new parliament.

In Bolivia, regional elections wrap up today with four run-offs for governor. In three of those, independent Indigenous candidates are challenging the MAS from the left. Three independent left candidates also will govern El Alto, Trinidad, and Cobija as mayors: Eva Copa, Cristhian Cámara, and Ana Luisa Reis. These three mayors-elect were all former members of the MAS-IPSP passed over by the party’s centralized nomination process (known popularly as the dedazo). Damián Condori, a peasant leader who built an independent party when he was passed as MAS-IPSP candidate for governor in 2015, is facing a tight runoff today in Chuquisaca after winning a plurality in the first round. Santos Quispe, the son of renowned indigenous leader Felip Quispe (“El Mallku”), is challenging in La Paz. And Regis Richter, another candidate sidelined by this year‘s dedazo, is the challenger in Pando. A run-off in Tarija is a more conventional left–right contest in a deeply divided department.

Eva Copa’s advocacy for the MAS under the difficult circumstances of Áñez government made her a national figure, but she ran for mayor highlighting issues of local accountability. Condori and Quispe represent political in-roads for their department‘s rural Indigenous populations, following in the wake of outgoing La Paz governor Felix Patzi. Their rise shows demonstrates an ability to stake out political ground outside of the vertical power structure of the MAS-IPSP. However, the biggest debates in Bolivia about democracy, indigenous autonomy, and ecological sustainability in Bolivia are likely to continue to happen outside of electoral politics for now.

Three of the four gubernatorial runoffs in Bolivia feature MAS–independent left contests.

Spatialities of Andean Extractivism (video/talk at AAG 2021)

As part of an extended panel on the Corporation on at the American Association of Geographers meeting, I presented the following talk on Concession blocks, spiraling pits, and wily start-ups: Spatialities of Andean extractivism (AAG members only). The talk is a deep dive in the technologies and policies that connect open-pit mining w/ speculative capital, built around Sumitomo Corporation’s San Cristobal mine in Potosí, Bolivia and Bear Creek Mining’s failed Santa Ana silver mine project in Puno, Peru (prior coverage here: 1|2).

A breakdown of the observations on corporate structure is in this Twitter thread. You can watch a video of the full talk here. I’m preparing to submit an article-length version of the investigation soon.

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Ex-president Jeanine Áñez arrested for 2019 coup d’ètat. Can the charges stick?

Former interim president Jeanine Áñez was arrested on Saturday, March 13, as part of an investigation into charges of “sedition, terrorism, and conspiracy” related to her sudden assumption of the presidency of Bolivia in November 2019. A judge ruled that Áñez is a flight risk and ordered four month of preventative detention while the investigation proceeds. The case, which began with a formal complaint by ex-legislator Lidia Patty in December, is grounded in the extraordinary way that an opposition leader in the Senate came to be Bolivia’s interim president. Áñez’s arrest came shortly after her defeat in the March 7 election for governor of her home department of Beni.

Inside Bolivia, Áñez’s arrest and the continuing investigations of members of her cabinet, former miltary officials, and opposition politicians have deepened the country’s political polarization. While members of the governing MAS-IPSP party and survivors of the Senkata massacre praised the arrest as a first step towards justice, other human rights groups have raised cautions about the perceived partiality of the country’s justice system, the need for due process, and the need to prioritize a truly independent accounting of abuses during the country’s 2019 political crisis.

Áñez’s responsibility

On November 12, 2019, Bolivian senator Jeanine Áñez convened a nearly empty chamber in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. Evo Morales had proffered his resignation two days earlier, followed in short order by his vice president, numerous members of the cabinet. The leaders of the legislature—Adriana Salvatierra, president of the senate and Victor Borda, president of the chamber of deputies—also had given up these posts, but not their seats. Outside the government itself, chaos reigned: following a November 8 police mutiny, opponents of Evo Morales set fire to the party’s regional headquarters in Cochabamba, and numerous politicians across the political spectrum had their houses set alight. Where the bulk of this destruction was from the anti-Morales side between the mutiny and Evo’s resignation, his supporters began a concentrated wave of revenge afterwards in El Alto and La Paz after his resignation. Police and soldiers had remobilized in a crackdown and shot dead as many as six protesters and bystanders. Two policemen and a protester were dead from non-shooting incidents in La Paz.

While the heads of the chambers had resigned their leadership posts, the socialist party of Evo Morales, the MAS-IPSP, retained its majority in the legislature. Amid the chaos and the crackdown, these legislators pleaded for a guarantees of their security and freedom should they come to the legislative chamber. These requests were ignored. Meanwhile, a behind-the-scenes group of opposition leaders, among them Jorge Quiroga, debated who could become Bolivia’s next president.

And so Jeanine Áñez convened the legislature, first to proclaim herself president of the senate, and then as president of the senate, to proclaim herself interim president of Bolivia.

Was this legal? The Bolivian Constitution of 2009 only specifies three offices in the line of succession to the presidency: Vice President, President of the Senate, and President of the Chamber of Deputies (Article 169). It also describes presidential resignations as something to approved or denied by the legislature (Article 170). MAS-IPSP deputies could reasonably expect to convene to both review the resignation and to re-elect new a new President of the Senate, who would then assume the presidency on an interim basis. But they were locked out of the process. Without its majority, the legislature may also not have had quorum to meet in official session. Under a prior constitution, a court ruling had placed the vice presidents of the Senate in the line of succession, but it remains unclear whether this ruling still applied after 2009. After Áñez took power, a press statement from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal, Bolivia‘s highest ruling court accepted her succession, but this document’s legitimacy and legal force are now debated including by a member of the court itself.

Was this coercive? To the extent that President Morales and people in the line of succession were personally threatened to get them out of office, yes. Susan Rivero, then first vice president of the Chamber of Deputies (and who therefore expected to assume leadership of the chamber), reports feeling threatened with reprisals upon her family. The MAS-IPSP legislative leadership, she recounts, was told by Quiroga’s group, “Bueno, apúrense a hablar con su bancada porque con ustedes o sin ustedes tenemos un plan B. [Well, hurry up and talk with your [partisan legislative] bench, because with or without you we have a Plan B.]” Later that day, Áñez swore herself in without them.

Does this make Áñez criminally liable? The legal case against Áñez pursues uncharted waters for accountability in Bolivia, and the boundary between conspiracy to overthrow Morales and clandestine succession planning after his resignation depends on the degree of coordination and planning before the fact. (This is something I explored earlier about the ouster overall, when less information was available.)

The challenge of legitimacy

Will the current investigation have legitimacy across the political spectrum? All signs point to no. While there is a coherent case around Áñez’s responsibility, it is nowhere near as clear as her command responsibility for human rights abuses—chiefly the Sacaba and Senkata massacres, mass arrests, and torture in prison—during her first month in office, which was the bloodiest time in Bolivia since 2003 Bolivian prosecutors and the IACHR-formed Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) are pursuing separate investigations of these abuses. The latter investigations have promised to impartially examine the actions of all governments (Morales, the military interregnum, and Áñez) and of non-state actors on all sides during the crisis. Amnesty International’s statement on the arrest urged that this group should take the lead for accountability.

Parallel actions by Bolivian prosecutors, and statements by members of the governing party are also subtracting legitimacy from the arrest by putting it in a partisan context. Evo Morales and MAS-IPSP legislators are attempting to hold OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro accountable for the coup, which they blame on the OAS audit of the election. However, on the morning of Morales‘ resignation, the OAS auditors proposed that he should compete in an electoral runoff even as the Bolivian labor movement was urging him to resign. MAS-IPSP legislators have also suggested charges against human rights activist and anti-Morales organizer Waldo Albarracín for using his role as Rector of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés to promote protests.

Amnesty International also points to the Arce government’s blanket amnesty (via Supreme Decree 4461 on February 18, 2021) to all people already under investigation for crimes committed during the crisis. While many of the charges and indictments issued during the Áñez government were politically dubious, not all were, and throwing them out collectively amounted to saying that only those on one side of the conflict will be held accountable, while those on the other side will not.

Finally, a slate of coincident accusations against opposition politicians have surfaced or advanced in the past week. These include proposals to charge Áñez criminally for four acts of policy during her administration, and allegations of financial mismanagement against Iván Arias, her minister of public works who was recently elected mayor of La Paz. (Arias also faces credible accusations of sexual harassment that first appeared in mid-2019.) Bolivian laws prior to and during the Morales administration make it possible to hold officials criminally accountable for acts such as “economic damage to the state.” Whether or not such crimes are a sensible idea, they provide nearly unlimited opportunities to prosecute political opponents. Only a rigorously independent prosecutor’s office and judiciary can manage such cases in a manner that preserves confidence that justice will be impartial. Unfortunately, neither of these offices have a tradition of independence, as was graphically shown by the investigation and jailing of hundreds of MAS officials and party members during the Áñez government. President Luis Arce recognized these flaws and set up a judicial reform commission tasked with restructuring the system, but its work is stalled.

For now, the Arce government will have to prioritize which forms of accountability to pursue, and provide extraordinary and convincing evidence of wrongdoing to both domestic and international audiences on the cases it does move forward. Prosecuting Áñez and other members of her government for massacres and human rights abuses is the clearest path. Setting some legal limits on executing a coup itself looks like more of a reach. Neither will retain international or domestic legitimacy if prosecutors simultaneously target political opponents for their policies or protests.