Early on Sunday morning, September 17, over sixteen hundred Bolivian police massed in the high desert plateau east of Lake Titicaca. Perhaps the largest police mobilization under the presidency of Evo Morales, these forces gathered to interrupt an extraordinary local protest that had blockaded roads and interrupted travel by road in the region for an unprecedented 26 days. The operation used its overwhelming numbers, police vehicles, and a substantial amount of tear gas to break up the Achacachi blockade. Over forty-five people were arrested, twenty-one of whom are being held without bail in Patacamaya and San Pedro prisons. The intervention looks to be a decisive turn in the municipality’s protests, which have been ongoing throughout 2017.
The protesters, who have numbered in the thousands, are backing a demand that Édgar Ramos (of the governing MAS-IPSP party) step down as mayor of Achacachi municipality over allegations of corruption. That demand prompted protests in February, in which anti-Ramos demonstrators damaged the mayor’s property and his organizational allies in Achacachi city. In response, Ramos’ rural allies looted the city’s commercial district. In July, the national government advanced an investigation of the anti-Ramos forces, notably Achacachi Neighborhood Federation (Federación de Juntas Vecinales; Fejuve) leader Esnor Condori, but not of pro-Ramos forces. Reversing an earlier decisions to grant house arrest, a judge jailed Condori and two urban teachers affiliated with the movement, Pastor Salas and Gonzalo Laime, in San Pedro. The day after they were jailed, August 22, the blockade began.
In a remarkable month of mobilization, the mostly urban Achacachi protesters who began the blockade (in so far as a town of nine thousand people is considered urban on the Altiplano) both maintained steady control over regional roadways and built a surprising network of alliances. They were joined in protest by Felipe Quispe, the famed, but retired leader of the national peasant confederation CSUTCB, who is a native of Achacachi Municipality. They signed a pact of mutual support with TIPNIS community leaders still reeling from the August law that permits development in their territory. And on August 28, a march of Achacachi women descended from the Altiplano and El Alto to stand before the San Pedro Prison. Their signs read:
Damn those who defend corrupt mayors with their power.
Jail for this looter
Evo, listen: Your mayor is corrupt
“Malditos aquellos que con su poder defiende a alcaldes corruptos”,
“Cárcel para este saqueador”
“Evo escucha, tu alcalde es un corrupto”
The Achacachi women stayed in the capital of La Paz, staging regular demonstrations and setting up a sit-in blockade in front of the Ministry of Justice. Their mobilization seems to have built more surprising ties to parts of the Paceño population, while the highland traditionalist organization CONAMAQ Orgánica, regional labor federation COD-La Paz, and the traditionally radical teacher’s union all offered their support.
On Friday, September 15, these groups combined to hold a cabildo—a mass public meeting that can issue statements or coordinate protests—in the Plaza San Francisco, the traditional heart of grassroots protest in Bolivia, four blocks below the presidential palace in La Paz.
The cabildo termed itself “Achacachi Somos Todos” (We are all Achacachi) and managed to generalize the demands of the local movement, related to the mayor and the detained protest leaders, into “an Agenda that comes from the Aymara people to the whole country.” The six points of departure raised and approved in the cabildo include (1) the struggle against corruption, (2) the struggle against the politicization of the criminal justice system, (3) the right to dissidence and critique, (4) respect for individual and collective rights, (5) critical debate about the vision for Bolivia’s development based on local demands and perspectives, and (6) rejection of the instrumentalizing of indigenous peoples for political ends.
Achacachi municipality, particularly the smaller town of Warisata and the many Aymara rural communities that make up most of its population, was the point of ignition for the 2003 Gas War, and a key part of the rural mobilizations that preceded it. At that time, a thousand marchers from the Altiplano led by Felipe Quispe implanted themselves in the overwhelmingly indigenous city of El Alto (just above La Paz on the edge of the Altiplano plateau) and became an articulating force for collaborative protest. Today, Achacachi Municipality is divided along partisan lines (which are partially town/village lines), but its mobilization again seems to be bringing other movements together. It is very much an alliance of outsiders, those grassroots social forces that have had the harshest break-ups with the national government. But the process of connection among them should be watched closely as the Achacachi movement regroups from Sunday morning’s police intervention.
Broad Legitimacy for Road Blockades as Protest Tactic in Bolivia
Road blockades are a frequent form of protest in Bolivia, at many different scales. A small demonstration may claim a single roadway, or a coordinated effort can deliberately paralyze transport across an entire region. Sometimes small protests in just the right place can lead to big consequences. Bolivia is one of the most highly mobilized countries in the world in terms of protest: In a 2012 national survey by LAPOP (the Latin American Public Opinion Project), just under 17% of 2,999 people polled said they had taken part in a protest in the last 12 months. The 508 who said yes were asked if they had blockaded a road or other public space, and 229 confirmed that they had. In other words, one out of every 13 adult Bolivians polled had taken part in a road blockade. Asked in the same year whether they approved of different kinds of political action, Bolivians rated blockading a bit lower than simply demonstrating, but ahead of creating a political party.
In 2002 and 2004, LAPOP asked Bolivians a more incisive question about road blockades:
“Sometimes there are protests that provoke difficulties because the streets are closed. In those cases, what should the government do? A veces hay protestas que provocan dificultades porque se cierran las calles. En esos casos, ¿qué debe hacer el gobierno?
The result was overwhelming: Large majorities (76.48% in 2002; 71.89% in 2004) chose “Negotiate with the protesters although this may take days or weeks, affecting the economy of the country” over “Order the police to open the roads.” (Negociar con los manifestantes aunque esto pueda tardar días o semanas, afectando la economía del país vs. Mandar a la policía para abrir los caminos).
Add to this the fact that the ruling political party, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People emerged from the Chapare cocalero movement, which frequently used blockades as a protest tool. And that it came to power in 2005 on a wave of unrest that was powered by blockades and sparked into national revolt in Achacachi. And that road blockades were also a frequent tool of the grassroots left in the 2006–09 struggle against a separatist right-wing movement in the east of the country.
Accordingly, the Morales government has often approached blockades with tolerance on the ground. It’s the exceptional application of intensive force to break up a blockade that attracts well-deserved attention: the 2010 police raid on the Caranavi blockade demanding a citrus plant, the 2016 effort to break up blockades by the cooperative miners federation, and this week’s operation in Achacachi. The first two efforts had deadly consequences: two townspeople were killed in Caranavi, and five miners and one Vice Minister died in last years confrontations. While the current operation caused no fatalities, it represents an important break point between the government and a movement that had been a solid part of its broad grassroots base until now.