Cooperative Mining Protest leaves Vice Minister, Five Protesters Dead in Bolivia

Vice Minister Rodolfo Illanes, in charge of Bolivian security forces within the Ministry of Government, was killed Thursday night after being held captive by protesting cooperative miners. Illanes was part of a negotiating team sent arrange talks with a national protest campaign. He went to Panduro, a town on the La Paz–Oruro highway, Thursday morning, where he was taken hostage by members of the Federation of Cooperative Miners (Fencomin). Later in the day, he was brutally beaten to death and then left on the side of the highway. His capture and death came on the second of two deadly days of confrontations between miners and police attempting to disperse their blockades of Bolivia’s principal highways.

Recent confrontations around the government’s effort to clear road blockades by cooperative miners have been unusually violent and intense. Two miners died of gunshot wounds on Wednesday at Sayari (on the Oruro–Cochabamba highway), Fermín Mamani (25 years old) and Severino Ichota (41), according to national government prosecutors who have opened investigations of their deaths. A third, Rubén Aparaya Pillco, was reportedly shot dead on Thursday at Panduro, near where Illanes was being held. At two more miner’s lives were cut short: Freddy Ambrosio Rojas (26) died on Saturday after suffering severe injuries while holding dynamite at the Panduro confrontation. Pedro Mamani Massi (41) suffered a gunshot to the head and suffered brain death in the hospital;  he remains on life support without prospect for recovery. he died on September 1 and was mourned by his family in El Alto.

As part of my research, I have been compiling a database of deaths in political conflict in Bolivia during the current (post-1982) democratic period. This work is still in process, but can help to put current events into context. This week’s events make 2016 the deadliest year since 2008, with 13 fatalities. In February, six municipal workers died in the city hall of El Alto (the nation’s second largest city) as the result of an arson attack by protesters. In January, soldiers beat a trucking worker to death during a pressure campaign by that sector.

Deaths in Bolivian protest have been less common under the presidency of Evo Morales than in the past and killings by state security forces (army and police) make up a smaller fraction of deaths than under Morales’ predecessors. We’ve identified 91 deaths during Morales’ ten years in office (including those this week), and fewer than a third of them were carried out by security forces. Meanwhile, at least twenty-one deaths under the Morales administration have come in conflicts among mineworkers or between mineworkers and community members: 16 in 2006, two in 2008; one in 2012; and two in 2015. Two cooperative miners were killed by police during 2014 protests in Cochabamba, during a confrontation in which police were also taken hostage. Altogether, four members of the police or military have died in political conflicts since 2006. Vice Minister Illanes is the first senior official to be killed.

This confrontation does not herald a general confrontation between state and society or among larger political forces. No other sectors have joined Fencomin’s protests and the group is at odds with waged mine workers who play a key role in the national labor movement. Cooperative miners are longtime allies of the MAS government, backed President Morales’ re-election in 2014, and endorsed another term for him as recently as May.

Since 2009, the most intense conflicts in Bolivian society have occurred within the broad grassroots left coalition that backed the rise of Evo Morales to power. The government has routinely alleged that protests from within the grassroots left have an anti-government political agenda, and did so again this week, but these claims are often unsubstantiated. The 2006-08 conflict between the Morales government and secession-oriented right-wing movements has long since concluded, and is unrelated to the current protests.

Principal Actors

This week’s protests were organized by the National Federation of Cooperative Miners (Fencomin). Bolivia’s mining sector has long been extremely important to its economy and for most of the twentieth century, miners saw themselves as the vanguard of the country’s labor movement. While in earlier generations mining was dominated by a single state-owned company, today it is split between large firms and small-scale cooperatives, many of which may operate on a single deposit. Cooperative mining is physically and economically risky. Cooperatives are owned by members involved in mining but may also employ waged workers. A new Cooperatives Law, passed this month, allows these workers to join a union.

The current protests involve a ten-point platform of demands, including the expansion of mining concessions, the revocation of unionization rights for their workers, the right to sign contracts with private mining firms, energy subsidies, tariff-free importing of equipment, and the immediate payment of debts owed to miners by the state-run Vinto smelter. The replacement of two cooperative miners who served as vice ministers in the government was also a contributing factor in the protest.

Recent years have seen a number of serious mining conflicts, including conflicts between Fencomin and the Union Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia (Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia, FSTMB), and between miners and rural community members over lands with mineral deposits.

Background on Protest Tactics

Explosives shown on state-run TV program El Pueblo Es Noticia by Minister Carlos Romero

Bolivia is a highly politically mobilized society in which a large percentage of people are affiliated with unions or union-like associations like  Fencomin. Many of these organizations endured military rule during the mid-twentieth century (during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1964–82) and pride themselves on their combative history during that period. A willingness to physically confront police and fearlessness in the face of repression are widely recognized as virtues, even among groups with no recent history of causing serious injury.

A large percentage of Bolivians have participated in protest. The principal kinds of actions used by protesters (what social scientists call the country’s “repertoire of contention”) involve physical acts that create economic disruption. Road blockades—the form of action the Cooperative Miners coordinated this week—are a major form of protest in Bolivia, far more common than physical confrontations with police. They are widely recognized as legitimate forms of protest. The Morales government has generally preferred to negotiate with blockaders rather than attempt to disperse their protest, but there have been exceptions to this policy of restraint.

Similarly, the threatening practice of tossing fireworks or dynamite (an explosive used in the daily work of mining in Bolivia) in the air is a not-uncommon part of protests in Bolivia. Dynamite is a symbol of the mining sector and may be brought along and thrown up in the air even when no violence is intended by those marching with it. It is also thrown towards opposing forces during particularly intense confrontations. One recent death (in 2012) of a protesting miner occurred as the result of a self-inflicted dynamite blast. In November 2006, police Sargent Juan Carlos Quenallata, was killed by a dynamite explosion during a confrontation with Cooperative Miners of Huanuni. (As a result of that conflict, the Huanuni mine was incorporated in the state firm Comibol and most miners involved joined the FSTMB).

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