The Senkata Massacre: Considerations on how the state legitimizes repression

This article was published online by Guido Alejo. Thanks to an anonymous researcher’s translation work, I am sharing it here in English. While written just five days after the deadly day of military shootings that broke up protests in Senkata, a residential area on the edge of El Alto that is the site of La Paz department’s largest oil and gas supply depot. This essay provides the deepest look at the narrative put forward by the government of Jeanine Áñez to justify the killings of at least ten civilians, the deadliest act of state violence in Bolivia since 2003.

Prior coverage of the Senkata massacre on this blog includes: Inter-American Commission puts a spotlight on Sacaba, Senkata massacres (Dec 19, 2019); Three hours of terror in Senkata (a translation of a Dec 2, 2019, newspaper account); and Deaths during Bolivia’s 2019 crisis: An initial analysis (Jan 4, 2020). Additional eyewitness coverage in Spanish includes: Jhocelin Caspa Sarzuri’s “Senkata, una de las zonas de El Alto, fue escenario de otra cruda represión desatada por el ejército y la policía de Bolivia,” November 22, 2019; Testimonies before the Inter-American Commision on Human Rights’ mission to Bolivia, November 24, 2019; and several accounts (1|2|3) by journalist Fernando Oz, who was in Senkata that day. David Inca, of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights–Bolivia’s El Alto chapter, discusses Senkata in this interview published in Portuguese: “na Bolívia temos uma agressão cruel e covarde aos direitos humanos,” published Dec 12, 2019.

The most tragic event of El Alto’s recent history happened on November 19, the Senkata Massacre in which 9 Bolivian citizens died. The massacre was part of the post-electoral conflicts which led to the assumption of the presidency by Jeanine Áñez and the marches demanding her resignation. Many of these were led by remaining MAS leaders but the mobilised population didn’t necessarily support these interests.

There was a parallel symbolic struggle taking place, the construction of a discourse and story that hegemonizes the collective imagination and imposes itself over the fragments of another, subaltern story. Within this comes a strengthening discourse about the [subaltern] contender in the struggle: the sense of inferiorization of that contender, the trivialization of their reaction, the simplification of their being, their dehumanisation… Only in this way will the remainder of the population accept an oppressive imposition even at the cost of their own freedoms, in this way the death of the construed opponent will become tolerable, even desired. Consequently, the central government has claimed for itself moral superiority, the ownership of the absolute truth, and the legitimate use of force.

The Liquified Petroleum Gas plant in Senkata is a strategic location because it provisions the city of La Paz with fuel and gas for cooking. In the conflicts of the past few years, occupants of the area have blockaded the plant to put pressure on the state so that their demands be met. This time, the demand was the resignation of the current president and mayor and the annulment of Supreme Decree 4082 (exempting the military from criminal responsibility in “operations to restore order”). The blockade began on November 9, two days before the resignation of Evo Morales. Initially, the action was coordinated by MAS leaders. However, as the days passed, the MAS -upporting leadership of the FEJUVE was rejected and the movement became more heterogeneous and therefore cannot be catalogued as purely partisan.

The official version of the facts

The media environment was elaborated by the state [which saw] the ghosts of Cuban and Venezuelan interventionists, drug traffickers and illicit groups in the [geographic] center of the country (something which cannot be denied, but will it be relevant in the case of Senkata?), the profile of the blockading protester was categorised as “vandals, alcoholics and looters” and as a reason for the massacre, the profile of “terrorist” was coined as well. All this discourse is supported in a media account on the part of some television and radio stations alongside an intense social media campaign looking to show the protester as inferior.

  • On November 19th, “state forces had to make use of chemical agents in order to disperse protestors in District 8 of the city of El Alto while the line of cisterns and trucks carrying gas tanks advanced along 6 de marzo Avenue.” El Deber, November 19, 2019
  • On Tuesday, 2000 people returned to Senkata Plant minutes after 45 loaded tankers left the site, towards La Paz, accompanied by more than 25 military and police vehicles. They surrounded the site, threw stones and then blew up two walls with dynamite. Earlier, they started a fire inside. They also burned vehicles. Pagina Siete, November 21, 2019
  • Eight people died yesterday, Tuesday when groups supporting Movement towards Socialism (MAS) protested at the site and blew up the wall of the plant with dynamite. El Deber, November 21, 2019
  • The Secretary of Defence (Luis Fernando Lopez) defended the actions of the armed forces once again, indicating that soldiers are not carrying lethal weapons to counter the mobilisations. Regarding the decree authorising the deployment of troops in the street, he stressed that “it is not a blank check to kill” but rather it occurred within the framework of the Constitution. Correo del Sur, November 19, 2019
  • Eight people lost their lives in the Senkata area of the city of El Alto after an attack on the YFPB plant in which the armed forces had to act. However, none of the deaths was due to the use of military weapons according to the Forensic Investigations Institute. Pagina Siete, November 23, 2019
  • “If what was coming together in Senkata had happened, thousands of people would have died, and if it had not been for our brave police and army who maintained a srong control over the plant,” “all day there had been a plan to blow up the plant.” Statements from Arturo Murillo (Minister of Government), November 20, 2019
  • After an inspection in Senkata Plant, the hydrocarbons minister, Victor Hugo Zamora advised that the walls were seriously damaged. He also said that vehicles belonging to the company had been burned and at least 500 LPG cannisters had been stolen. ANF, November 23, 2019

The central ideas of the official story were an intervention using chemical agents to disperse the protestors, then the exit of the tanker trucks, tens of protesters returned, they caused a fire inside and then they blew up the outside wall in order to enter and set off a massive explosion. Faced with these actions, the security forces dissuaded them using non-lethal ammunition, then the protestors began to burn vehicles and steal gas cannisters. They were dispersed by the state forces who reinforced the guard on all the Senkata plant. In the case of the deaths, the soldiers did not cause them, since officials took the position that their weapons were a different caliber, so the deaths must be the fruit of the protestors seeking to fire up the protest.

Considerations on the official version of the facts

Scenario of the “Senkata Massacre”: Diagram of the wall destroyed by the protestors (mural destruido…) and the distance from the storage tanks (tanques de almacenamiento). Note that there are areas on the perimeter whose distance is much less. Other places marked: Ingreso = Entry gates; Ingreso vehicular = Truck entrance; Vehiculos incendiados… = Vehicles burned by demonstrators; Area de represión = Area of repression. Image: Personal creation [by Guido Alejo] based on a Google Maps image.

Using the diagram, the government statements can be checked. For their intention to blow up the plant to be true, the protestors that knocked down the wall would have to go over 250 meters and 450 meters (to the main warehouse area) in order to reach the gas tanks. The fallen wall is on the other side of the administrative buildings, there are areas where the distance between the street and the storage tanks is much smaller, for example from Arica Avenue (70m) and [Avenida Vicente] Seoane (40m).

Image: Senkata residents on Seoane Street watch a helicopter which shot tear gas grenades at the protestors. A bit later, a wounded person is moved through the area. In the video, we do not see the intention to knock down walls or commit any terrorist activity despite the fact there are storage tanks 40m away. Photo taken from video: https://n9.cl/h9jw

The fallen walls are close to the building blocks in the administration area, not close to the gas storage tanks. This positioning shows the possibility that the objective was in the administrative area blocks.

Image: Protestors destroy part of the perimeter wall close to the entrance. They use physical force to push three sections of the wall over. In the first segment, there is no information that dynamite was used but neither is it apparent that there was shooting. In the second fallen section, yes, there are signs that firearms were used, the protestors hid behind the concrete blocks. In the third section, the protestors stopped trying to knock down the wall when they became aware that people were dead and injured. Photo taken from video: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=993164271027181&external_log_id=6485f272a070faf5a24f11c112a0e3ff&q=disparan%20senkata

The use of dynamite – on the part of the protestors – in order to knock down the wall is not apparent on the graphic record, contradicting the official version. Furthermore, on November 24th, the Hydrocarbons Minister (Victor Hugo Zamora) does not mention any fire damage to the inside of the plant as Pagina Siete had claimed two days before. The [denial of the] use of firearms by the armed forces has been called into question since there is an abundance of videos where they shoot at the protestors, this last aspect has been tinged with the versions of the forensics institute and other investigators who say that the ammunition taken from the bodies of the protestors does not match up with the firearms used by the armed forces. Furthermore, a version has spread that the protestors who looted the police stations were armed and they killed protestors in order to cause further chaos. However, no testimony or visual evidence has appeared showing civilians with firearms, at least not until the date of this publication.

Image: Armed forces shooting projectiles.*

Testimony about the events

View of the entrance to Senkata Plant. Note the absence of police and military presence outside. The residents hung a wiphala in the entrance. *

Social media was filled with audio-visual regarding the events in Senkata, showing the other side of the coin. Testimonies from the residents, despite their small differences, do not vary generally and all identify two important episodes in the events of November 19.

The cisterns left the plant, in the direction of La Paz and then the repression took place. Image source: Screenshot from RSG Noticias Facebook page.

The cisterns leaving marks the first episode which begins the extreme violence. The testimonies state that there was no request for dialogue nor any prior agreement only the execution of an unreasonable repression using tear gas and projectiles leaving many wounded, men, women and children. There are versions that mention dead people (the number fluctuates between 1 and 8) who were taken inside Senkata plant by the state forces. The Association of Relatives of the Detained, Disappeared, and Martyrs in Defence of the Nation spoke out on November 20 about the possible disappearance of a person based upon testimonies of the residents.

After the first repression, in the face of the rumour that there were bodies inside the plant, a group of residents crowd around the entrance while the armed forces wait inside. This is the second episode of the repression. The protestors knock down part of the perimeter wall near the Senkata Plant administration buildings with the intention of recovering the bodies. However, they are supressed by the state forces who make use of war weapons, tear gas from the ground and air (helicopter), causing several deaths. The clashes move to other areas on the outside the plant where the protestors – now aware of the dead and wounded – throw Molotov cocktails at a car park inside the plant – near Juana Basilia Calahumana Street – burning some vehicles and taking some used gas cannisters.

Traces of shots from Senkata plant. Photo taken from video.*

Reflections on the testimonies

The idea of the presence of bodies inside Senkata Plant is common in the testimonies following the repression by the state forces. Even though it cannot be discarded as untrue, it is not something that has an audiovisual record in the moment nor is it mentioned in the videos shared of the moment of the destruction of the wall (until the publication date). However, the fact that the destroyed wall is near the administrative building shows that the main objective was there and not at the gas tanks. Furthermore, it should be considered that the fall of a wall in a high security industrial installation should not compromise it seeing as the humidity (with the subsequent collapse of the wall) or a traffic accident could cause similar situations and therefore a LPG plant has – or should have – various contingency measures.

The second part of the repression has been widely documented audiovisually and therefore the truth of it cannot be questioned. However, it is in complete contrast to the government version which states that the state forces did not fire a single shot and that irregular civilian forces caused the deaths. This cannot be corroborated in the audio-visual evidence that has been presented so far. As of November 24, 9 deaths have been confirmed as a result of the repression.

What would have happened if the protestors had taken the plant? This enters the realm of speculation. The central government has pushed the version, using a press and social media campaign which garnered approval from a good part of the general public, that a terrorist attack was going to be carried out. What is true is that the Senkata Plant has been at the crux of many conflicts, October 2003 being the primary antecedent, some testimonies say that at that point because of the massacre, some angry voices suggested blowing up the plant but in the end, the rational majority prevailed. Would this have been the case during recent events?

The legitimation of state-led repression

Vandalism was at the heart of the start and end of the anti-electoral fraud movements that led to the resignation of Evo Morales. It was also at the heart of the subsequent period in which Jeanine Áñez takes over the presidency. The burning of the regional electoral commission offices on October 21 was vandalism as was the destruction of the perimeter wall of Senkata Plant on November 19. In both stages, government delegitimization of the protests can be seen tarring them with the brush of different affiliations, be it “coup participants and racists” in one case or “vandals, paid off, terrorists” in the other.

In the case of the Senkata Massacre, it was framed inside the management a concrete state discourse that was worked on for a long time, during their time in opposition. The nucleus of this discourse is based upon associating the protestors with Cuban-Venezuelan interventionism, drug trafficking, vandalism, perks, extreme MAS support and terrorism (especially in Senkata), these roles are extrapolated to every protest and oppositional thought. This discourse was replicated in the press and on social media and was accepted by a large part of the population who had protested days before against electoral fraud, in this way the government and the elite managed to create a “false consensus” in which fear was a key factor. In Senkata, the story about a possible terrorist attack was the prop around which repression and the death of 9 people (until the date of publication) was justified, while days before, narcovandalism justified 9 deaths in Sacaba (in the last month, 32 people have died in the country). On November 23, a group of people positioned themselves in the entrance of the Casa Grande Hotel where the Inter-American Commisnion on Human Rights was taking declarations about human rights violations during the recent violent repression. This group classified those reporting violations as “narcoterrorists and paid off”. This attitude shows that even following the “resolution” of the conflict this position of inferiorizing opposition will continue as well as the preference for repression as a way of maintaining order, total absence of empathy and dehumanization of that which is different, something completely removed from the flag of democracy employed over the last few weeks.

Now, if the government account is false, does it remove responsibility from the protesters? Many protests in Bolivia are based upon limiting the fundamental rights of the masses, be it the stalling of activities and roadblocks, these measures have proven effective in drawing the attention of the state and causing societal pressure for a quick solution. Even though some measures fall under the right to protest, they are not part of the abstract ideal of peaceful and democratic living. Threat as an element of social coercion and looting as a punitive measure have been called out. Unfortunately, these types of protest are part of the cooperativist nature of social and professional organisations, it isn’t something exclusive and isolated in a certain protest. On the side of the state, the different political parties in their administrative function also exercise pressure and threats against their officials, co-operativism forms a negative part of Bolivian “political culture”. Another aspect that cannot be denied is the interference of unofficial groups, with politically destabilising interests, be they financed by political agents MAS or other destabilizing political influences. However, massacres are not necessary in order to deal with these groups, what is necessary is preventative action of surgical removal.

In Senkata, an endless number of discourses have been agglomerated, overlapping the testimonies of its participants. For the government and its followers, the fallen walls represent a suicide terror attack, for some residents, the way of entering the property in order to recover the first bodies. In Bolivian society, reality has overlapped with prejudice that show breakdowns in the value of life, the value of human rights, free speech and thought. Political discourse and intellectuals on the side of the government will dress up the events with the most convenient words but as has been seen, masks will cyclically fall off and away the worst of a divided society will resurface so long as the vertical visions due to social differences dragged with us since the colony continue to exist.

In this context and apart from political positions, it is necessary to build bridges based on respect for human rights – not just political rights – focusing on bringing respect for human life and the search for social justice to the fore. The return to inequalities that were in the process of being overcome should draw our attention, as well as the trivialization of the lives of those that don’t share the same homogenised thinking. The Senkata Massacre is proof of this regression, a share of public opinion minimized the repression and embraced the idea of order imposed by the state; this path comes with the idea of continuing to embrace authoritarian regimes and adopting absolute truths emanating from authority. There can be no democracy without justice, and the relatives of the victims of the Senkata Massacre and the other many dead in recent decades demand justice and punishment for those who are to blame.

If anything can bring us together, it is the search for social justice…

Links to sources consulted are listed at he bottom of the original article. Links to the sources of images marked with an asterisk (*) are also available there; they cannot be reposted on WordPress for technical reasons.

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