Deaths during Bolivia’s 2019 crisis: An initial analysis

Since 2015, I have been working systematically to compile a database of people who lost their lives in the course of Bolivian conflict, though I had been collecting detailed on a variety of deadly post-2000 events for years before that. Never before this year, however have I had the responsibility of adding so many new, present-day entries to database: at least 35 people died in the conflicts that followed the October 20 election and the November 10 overthrow of Evo Morales. November alone proved to be the bloodiest month in sixteen years, and the third deadliest month of the democratic era. And it is thanks to the database that I can make simple factual statements like those.

The database enumerates individual deaths in Bolivian political conflict since 1982, the end of military rule in the country. It is compiled by myself and a research assistant based on multiple sources, including media reports, governmental, intergovernmental, and private human rights reports, and use of the research literature on political conflict. The dataset now includes nearly all of the deaths identified by a Permanent Assembly of Human Rights-Bolivia (APDHB) study of deaths from 1988 to 2003, and a study of the coca conflict from 1982 to 2005 (Navarro Miranda 2006; Llorenti 2009; Salazar Ortuño 2008). Unlike prior compilations by human rights organizations, however, this database includes a variety of qualitative variables designed to understand how and why the deaths occurred and what policies and patterns underpin them.

I designed the database to both catalog the lethal consequences of participation in social movements and political activism, and to assess responsibility, accountability, and impunity for violent deaths. All deaths are significant as signs of the price that has been paid to seek social
change. Some deaths are also significant as elements of repression or violence for which someone might ultimately be held accountable. Rather than begin by asking, “Is this death someone’s fault?,” we are coding each death according to multiple factors that enable us to extract different
subsets of the overall database for different purposes. We estimate there were estimated 550 to 580 deaths associated with Bolivian political conflict from October 1982 until the current crisis. As of October 2019, the project had identified 530 of these deaths, including those of 496 named individuals.

Through this process, I have become familiar with reading multiple and conflicting reports, evaluating official denials (we have created a data column for such denials), collecting narrative accounts, coding what we can based on the information, and signaling remaining questions. One thing that I have learned through this process is that making informed judgements, rather than marking all disputed facts with some kind of asterisk, is absolutely foundational to being able to do comparative work. It was with that experience that I spent time over the past month reading and processing reports of Bolivia’s deadly November.

This blog post presents Part I of this analysis, which describes the deadly events involved and explains some of my coding decisions in assessing responsibility for them. A second part will put the 2019 into comparative perspective against other periods covered by the database.

Who killed and who died in the 2019 crisis?

This table (click to expand) shows my initial analysis of the affiliations of the victims and perpetrators of violence and other deadly incidents during October and November. Overall, thirty-five people died in the conflict, including two people killed in their attempts to avoid violence against them.

Crisis deaths and affiliations of victims and perpetrators.
Deaths during the crisis and their causes.

Below, I break down the events involved and describe what we know about who was responsible for and who suffered these deaths.

During the Morales presidency

During the three weeks of protest against suspected electoral fraud by President Evo Morales’ party in the October 20 elections, there were four deaths, all of which were perpetrated by pro-MAS civilians. Police–protester confrontations were significant, but the police rarely if ever used lethal force. If anything, the police were criticized early on for allowing violent confrontations to spiral among civilians. The first death recorded in this table is the beating of Julio Llanos Ramos, a former political exile and leader in the movement of survivors of the 1964–82 dictatorship years. He was beaten when a protest defending Evo Morales passed through La Paz’s Prado on October 29, but died of medical complications of the assault over a month later. Further inter-protester violence occurred the next day in Montero (Santa Cruz), when pro-MAS crowds attempted to break up anti-electoral fraud blockades, leading to a daylong series of confrontations. Several people on the MAS side brought firearms to the confrontation and shot several people, two of them fatally. Anti-MAS street-fighting groups were active in Santa Cruz and metropolitan Cochabamba, where the final death of the Morales presidency took place: Limbert Guzman Vasquez, a 20-year-old student, was killed in high-intensity clashes in Quillacollo. In reprisal for a rumor of four deaths, anti-MAS protesters then captured and publicly humiliated the MAS Mayor of neighboring Vinto municipality. In coding this last death, I discounted entirely the unsubstantiated allegation by Vice President Álvaro García Linera that the victim was killed by his own homemade bazooka, rather than severe cranial trauma caused by a beating, as doctors reported.

This imbalance in deadly violence helped to bring the Bolivian crisis to the boiling point. In the three days following the student’s death, anti-Morales protesters reached out the police and military for an alliance, and a police mutiny began on November 7 in Cochabamba and rapidly spread to other cities. As the mutiny spread, a new form of potentially deadly violence arose: protesters in anti-MAS caravans from Potosí and Sucre (on the road to protest in La Paz) were taken captive and beaten on November 9, and attacked by sharpshooters on November 10, wounding at least six. No one was killed but all of these events shocked and destabilized the country and contributed to the demand for Evo Morales to resign.

At the same time, the Morales government publicly disavowed the use of the military to either attack the protest movement or quell the police mutiny. Defense Minister Javier Zavaleta declared that “Evo Morales and our government have given a strict order to the Armed Forces that under no circumstances … will there be any operation in the streets of any city,” while Government Minister said that deploying the military was totally ruled out. Armed Forces commander Williams Kaliman’s November 9 declaration that the Armed Forces would respect the constitution, maintain cohesion, and never confront the Bolivian people followed this overall line. As of November 9, neither the police nor the military had killed a single Bolivian in 2019.

During the military interregnum

A two-day power vacuum occurred after Evo Morales resigned at the “suggestion” of the Armed Forces on November 10. (Much can be said about that transition, but this is not the place.) During these two days without a president, groups of pro-MAS demonstrators attacked police installations and engaged in other looting and property destruction in El Alto and Cochabamba’s south side. On the evening of November 11, the Armed Forces commander issued an order for troops to deploy nationwide to restore order.

During the two-day period at least eight people were killed, including two police officers who were fatally wounded. Police Lieutenant Colonel Heyber Antelo Alarcon, crashed his motorcycle while dodging a crowd engaged in property destruction on the night of November 10. Police Sergeant Juan José Alcón Parra was inside the Regional Command of the Police in El Alto when it was taken over by a pro-MAS crowd, which badly beat him; he never recovered and died November 18. Four civilians also died in La Paz: Silverio Condori fled police tear gas and fell to his death in an abyss; Percy Romel Conde Noguera and Beltrán Paulino Condori Arumi were both shot dead, and Condori’s family was kept from his body by security forces who credibly but uncertainly blame them his death. There is no information about the death of Juan Martin Felix Taco, whose death on November 12 may have come after Jeanine Áñez assumed the presidency late that day. Three more civilians died in Cochabamba, one of them on November 12: In Sacaba, the easternmost city in the Cochabamba metropolis, Miguel Ledezma González was killed November 11 in what the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported was a confrontation with security forces; there is no denial or other narrative. MAS partisans, who burned numerous police stations, battled in the streets of Cochabamba’s Zona Sur with the right-wing Resistencia Juvenil Cochala. They strangled community leader Filemón Soria Díaz, likely mistaking him for an adversary in this fight, and Juan José Mamani Larico, a genuine member of the RJC.

Elsewhere, the military had the advantage of arms and numbers and was likely responsible for three people’s deaths. In Betanzos (Potosí), they arrived after a night in which following a mass meeting, thousands of pro-MAS campesinos marched through the streets of the town, chanting “Civil War,” kicking doors, and setting a series of fires, including at the homes and businesses of a local opposition candidate’s family. When the army arrived the next day (November 12), they engaged in confrontations with pro-MAS campesinos and ultimately shot dead a 53-year-old passerby, Marcelino Jarata Estrada. In Montero, police brought firearms to a renewed clash among politically polarized neighbors, shooting a pro-MAS youth, Roberth Ariel Calisaya Soto on November 13. In Yapacaní, where people protesting the coup had taken over a police installation and seized both uniforms and weapons, there was a clash between the military and protesters, killing an unidentified 18-to-20-year-old member of the pro-MAS crowd, though this is the first case where the possibility of gunfire among the protesters was raised by the government.

During these first days after Morales’ overthrow, significant numbers of crowds engaged in direct attacks on the new regime. Some of these may not have even been direct supporters of Morales (see “They are not Evo supporters! They are Alteños, dammit!‚” for such a perspective). These efforts aimed to directly disable police control by targeted destruction. While not totally new (see Achacachi in 2000; and a number of other public actions since), this took on a new scale in November 2019. The participants in this wave of actions may have felt that the apparent military coup justified these actions, but they faced a massive share of the Bolivian public that had mobilized against the Morales government, and (in El Alto, especially) the deep political ambivalence of some of their expected allies, whom they further alienated with their tactics and engagement local partisan conflicts. In short, these days presented a novel tactical challenge to the government and inflicted significant losses on the police. The security forces’ responses were blunt, sometimes belated, and sometimes deadly even to non-participants in the conflict. However, the deaths each occurred individually rather than as part of sustained assaults in individual places.

Deaths under interim president Jeanine Áñez

Jeanine Áñez claimed the office of president on November 12, and swore in a cabinet of hardliners on November 13. Arturo Murillo, a hotel owner in the Chapare and harsh opponent of Evo Morales and his coca grower base, became Minister of Government, in charge of domestic policing. Fernando López Julio, a retired military officer became Minister of Defense. It has recently come to light that López Julio brokered an understanding between Luis Fernando Camacho of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee and officers within the military, likely the same group who convinced Kaliman to send troops out on November 11. Ánez replaced Kaliman as head of the Armed Forces with Carlos Orellana Centellas, who immediately endorsed joint operations with the police to “re-establish public order throughout the national territory, control of civil disturbances, [ensure] physical security of installations, and carry out arrests and apprehensions wherever public order is disturbed.” The military operations in Montero and Yapacaní (described in the previous section) were likely already ordered by this time.

On November 14, MAS-IPSP legislators and a few of their colleagues from other parties reconvened the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. After the session, the legislative leadership pledged to recover the institutions of democracy, urged peace in the country, and made a plea to the military: “No bullets, please.”

During these days, the MAS-IPSP protest was gradually transforming into the more conventional form of left grassroots mobilization: coordinated road blockades and mass marches as part of a general strike. The Chapare served as an epicenter and model for this, with blockades throughout the region. (Police had abandoned the Chapare shortly after Evo Morales’ resignation and flight to exile.) Such protests are essentially the default tactical scenario for the largely indigenous and/or rural base of the left grassroots alliance that has supported Morales: blockade roads in rural areas of strength and converge on metropolitan areas. (For more on how this works, see my article “Blockade: The Power of Interruption.”) A march of cocaleros on the city of Cochabamba and a prolonged blockade at the Senkata oil and gas facility in El Alto became the targets for the military crackdown.

Sacaba: The coca growers’ march on the highway from the Chapare to the city of Cochabamba was blocked by a newly installed military checkpoint in Sacaba, a town that lies just east of the departmental capital. After a prolonged standoff with protesters, the police fired teargas on the march, whose leaders had demanded to go to Sacaba’s central square. The shooting came about when military troops armed with guns replaced the police. Government ministers claimed that some in the crowd had guns and fired them, showing several bullet holes in police windows. Journalists estimate that “nearly ten” police were evacuated from the scene for injuries; evidently, none of them have bullet wounds. The police have recovered a single shotgun and five bullets. Meanwhile the troops’ use of force was overwhelming and witnessed by journalists and other observers in broad daylight. At least 115 protesters were injured, “mostly” by gunfire, according to hospital reports. Forensic analysts only recovered a single bullet fragment from the nine people killed; the remainder had both entry and exit wounds and the only ballistic conclusion was that the were shot by “long arms.”

Senkata: A combination of El Alto neighborhood councils and the La Paz campesino federation mounted a joint blockade-based general strike across the department. YPFB, the country’s publicly owned gas and oil corporation has a major facility in Senkata that supplies gasoline and gas canisters for cooking and heating to the La Paz–El Alto metropolis. The site gained significance during the lengthy 2003 protests demanding the nationalization of the gas industry. Then, a military escort for convoy of tanker trucks set off a massacre that eventually extended across the mammoth city of El Alto. Many protests since have gathered outside the plant. As of November 18, nothing about this protest depart from the norm of road blockading that occurs hundreds of times each year in Bolivia. That day, Senkata was the scene of a major cabildo deciding on demands; there were also apparently some tensions over whether to continue to blockade in the meeting.

On November 19, however, Senkata became the scene of the deadliest episode of repression in Bolivia in over a decade.

In the morning, a convoy of dozens of tankers and trucks carrying LPG gas canisters departed peacefully under a military escort, but most of the protesters were then gathered a fifteen minute walk away from the plant’s entrance. They quickly regrouped and marched upon the gates, where the police and military began to tear gas the crowd.

The protesters assembled bonfires in the streets, threw stones at the security forces, and threw back tear gas canisters. Again, this was a scenario that is not unfamiliar in Bolivia, one that has occurred without any fatalities scores of times in the past twenty years. (For a large example, see the 2017 blockade at Achacachi.) Around 11:15, the protesters’ attention turned towards the walls of the plant, from behind which troops were firing tear gas. Working in groups of 20 or 30, the protesters began to push over the cinder block walls of the plant, perhaps aided by initial charges dynamite to loosen the structure. And that was when the gunshots began.

Witnesses, journalists, and cameras documented shooting by the military, and numerous troops with lethal weaponry. Several survivors (most dramatically, Betina Gutierrez) report that the security forces dragged the lifeless bodies of people who had been shot into the YPFB compound. What is confirmed is the deaths of ten people, all of them Alteños. Some were shot immediately outside the gates of the compound, others on rails near the plant, and still more at the Senkata crossing and in the vicinity of the San Francisco de Asis church, where family members brought many of their bodies as the shooting continued from before noon to past 5pm. No audiovisual evidence of non-military shooters or armed men has surfaced since the deadly day. Nonetheless, following the script established at Sacaba, military and government spokesmen claimed that the deadly fire had come from the protesters themselves.

Because the site is a petrochemical plant, the street battle outside it heightened fears of an intentional or accidental explosion of the plant’s holding tanks. By late in the day, this concern had morphed into a narrative accusing the protesters of being “terrorists” intent on destroying the plant. The next morning, the government touted the military as heroes who had avoided a mass casualty terrorist attack, while still maintaining they had never fired a shot. After reviewing as much detailed coverage as I could find, I believe that the terrorism narrative largely stems from an exaggeration of the presence and quantity of dynamite in toppling the walls, and likely misinterpreting their motives. There is a strong case that protesters intending to attack the gas tanks, rather than confront the security forces firing at them or retrieve the dead and wounded, would have toppled the walls elsewhere in the complex. Of course, once protesters were pushed away from the complex, the urgency (and legality under international norms) of using lethal force to prevent an explosion ended, but military violence clearly did not.

Why I evaluated the government claims that protesters “shot one another” as a denial rather than throwing all the facts in question

As I mentioned at the outset, constructing a database requires making judgments on the relative strength of evidence when matters are disputed by the parties involved. Official denials of responsibility for violence are so frequent, and so frequently false, that they cannot in of themselves overrule compelling arguments. My database has a denials variable to record just such events.

Jorge Derpic offers a string of episodes where officials made essentially baseless denials of deadly violence in Bolivia by claiming (as authorities did in the Sacaba and Senkata cases) that protesters killed one another:

When state authorities cite evidence that doesn’t justify their case, such as the argument that people shot from behind must have been shot by fellow protesters (as if people being shot at universally face their attackers), I ignore these arguments in evaluating who was the perpetrator. In some cases, other evidence is thin and I do not assign a perpetrator, or merely describe a “likely perpetrator”; this was my choice for the death of Beltran Condori and the unidentified youth in Yapacaní (who therefore do not figure in my totals of state-perpetrated deaths).

I also look to other expert sources. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights heard testimony and various claims from official sources. I translated the section of their preliminary report on the two incidents, in which they too weigh the evidence. I also consulted reporting by journalists at the scene in Sacaba, a detailed journalistic reconstruction of the events at Senkata (translated here), expert comment on the weapons deployed by the military at both sites, and a summary of the IDIF forensic report.

In Sacaba, A military official—Alfredo Cuellar, Commander of Military Region 7—claimed that his troops fired no lethal weapons at Sacaba, and that bullet casings found at the scene were 7,65mm, which he said were not used by the military or police. A review by weapons expert Samuel Montaño found examples of the military with Chinese AK-47s, which fire the disputed caliber. Past events, as described by Jorge Derpic above, and the April 2000 shooting of Víctor Hugo Daza by a military sharpshooter, have involved Bolivian soldiers using “non-regulation” munitions to kill people during protest.

Soldier kneeling with Chinese AK-47 on the bridge in Sacaba. Image from La Razón.

At least in Sacaba, there were sightings of a small number of armed protesters. No such evidence has surfaced to justify government claims that the military didn’t fire a shot in Senkata. Contemporary reporting and audiovisual evidence demonstrate otherwise, as summarized in detail by Guido Alejo.

Like most conspiracy theories, the notion that the MAS implanted secret shooters in the crowds at Sacaba and Senkata to shoot their own supporters in order to make the Áñez government and the military look bad makes an enormous leap from the perceived consequences of an event (who benefits?) to its authors (who did it?). Often, as in these cases, this leap is taken without the slightest concern for the trail of evidence that such a sequence of events would leave behind. For example, it is mind-boggling to propose that the protesters would neither have detected nor responded to shooter wounding scores of people from within these crowds, or that protesters would maintain a conspiracy of silence to protect the people who killed their loved ones, just for a perceived political advantage. While these counter-narrative may have been circulated just to temporarily deflect negative attention from the government, it is clear from social media that numerous people actually believe these outlandish narratives.

The IACHR and the Bolivian government have agreed to a group of international experts that will investigate human rights violation during the period in question. I remain open to new evidence on the perpetrators of these deaths, but the balance of evidence strongly points to military perpetrators in these mass shootings.