The Evo Morales Administration and Lethal Political Violence

Evo Morales was the longest-serving president in Bolivia’s history, serving for nearly 14 years. His December 2005 election came in wake of a national uprising, the September–October 2003 Gas War, that claimed seventy-one lives in six weeks. It ended with a three-week protest movement over alleged electoral fraud in the October 20, 2019 election. Ultimately, thirty-six peopled died during the 2019 crisis, all but four of them after Morales resigned as president. A common theme in both these political transitions is loud public denunciation of the violence of the prior governments, specifically of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who governed for fourteen months in 2002 and 2003, and Evo Morales, who served over eleven times as long.

In this post, I offer an overview of political violence, including state repression, during the Morales years. This analysis is based on Ultimate Consequences, a database of people who have lost their lives in Bolivian social movement conflicts since 1982. I have been working to compile this information systematically since 2015.  The data 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. 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.

Altogether, 137 people[1] died in social movement-related events during the fourteen years of Morales’ presidency, the second highest total of any president during the democratic era, and a close runner-up to President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s fourteen-month death toll of 139. However, in nearly all other respects, the Morales years were quantitatively very different from Sánchez de Lozada, and more in line with the 1982–1999 period of limited violence in Bolivian political life.

The simplest way to see this is to look at the annual pace of deaths.

Table 1: Deaths by presidency in the post-1982 democratic era (excluding unconfirmed upper estimates and non-conflict-related accidents). The higher numbers of deaths found by the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights of Bolivia (APDH) in the 1989 to 1997 period may represent counting errors or deaths not yet included in the database.

Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s second term stands out from all others (116 deaths per calendar year), only distantly followed by Jorge Quiroga’s one-year term (32/year) and Hugo Banzer’s 1997–2001 term (24–31/year). Evo Morales’ presidency had 9.9 deaths per year. Over the whole period since the restoration of democracy in October 1982, an average of 14.8 Bolivians per year have died in political conflicts, so Morales’ record is well below average.

Importantly, the Bolivian state is not the only perpetrator of political violence. In fact, the police and military perpetrated just a little more than half (284; 51%) of all deaths recorded in the database. Another 69 (12%) were deaths inflicted upon the security forces. In 178 deaths (32%) conflicts occurred separate from the state; 45 of these deaths were part of the “war of the ayllus,” an inter-ethnic conflict on the Potosí–Oruro border, 30 more involved conflicts among civilian groups over mines; and 23 involved conflicts over land.

If we look just at deaths perpetrated by state security forces, the second Sánchez de Lozada administration (2002–2003) was unique. The 106 deaths caused under his presidency greatly exceeds the 36 caused by the army and police under Hugo Banzer, the 33 under Evo Morales, and the 28 under Sánchez de Lozada’s prior term. After Morales’ fall, the security forces under de facto military command and the government of Jeanine Áñez were responsible for at least 24, and as many as 28 deaths. In ten days, the police and military killed more protesters than they had in the previous ten years (21). In terms of annual deaths perpetrated by security forces, Evo Morales had the fourth lowest average: 2.4 deaths per year. All three of the presidents with lower average rates of killing, Eduardo Rodríguez Veltze (zero), Hernán Siles Zuazo (0.7/year), and Carlos Mesa (1.8/year) had—like Morales—vowed to have no such bloodshed on their watch.

Figure 1: Deaths caused by Bolivian state security forces (military and police) during each presidency of the post-1982 democratic era.

Overall, if one looks at all deaths and state-perpetrated by the security forces over the democratic period, a pattern is visible. The violence of 2000 to 2004 stands out from the rest, as does the new crisis year of 2019.

Figure 3: Deaths per year, from 1982 to 2019, as tabulated in the database of lethal consequences of political conflict. Blue bars include all deaths. Red bars include all those killed by state security forces. The 1982 total only covers deaths after the October transition to democracy.

If we look deeper into this a three-part division of the democratic era, we get very different annual averages for deaths. The 1982–1999 period saw relatively few annual deaths (averaging seven per year, and never exceeding 20). The turbulent years from 2000 to 2003 averaged over sixty. And the October 18, 2003–November 10, 2018 period of presidents Carlos Mesa, Eduardo Rodríguez, and Evo Morales had deaths averaging 9.4 per year and reaching a maximum of 21. Direct state responsibility for deaths varied greatly as well: about 5.1 per year in the first period, 36 per year in the second; and 3.6 per year in the third. (As can be seen in Table 1 above, people died and the state killed at roughly the same rates under Mesa and Morales.)

October 1982–1999
(17.25 years
)
2000–2003
(4 years)
2004–October 2019
(15.83 years)
Deaths128
(7.4/year)
245
(61.3/year)
154
(9.7/year)
State-perpetrator deaths88
(5.1/year)
144
(36/year)
35
(2.2/year)
Share of deaths caused by security forces69%59%22%
Table 2 Deaths in three periods of the democratic era.

So, the Mesa and Morales years saw a significant number of deaths in social mobilization, but state security forces killed less often and were responsible for a smaller share of deaths than even during the relatively calm 1982–2000 years. (To some degree, the higher overall death rate since 2004 may be an artifact of our research’s greater access to daily reports of events during the recent period.) So, what needs to explained about the Morales era is not the overall pace of deaths, but rather, on one hand, the limited use of deadly state violence and on the other, the somewhat higher rate of deadly violence among civilian groups.

Pledges to End Bloodshed and State Repression

In the current democratic era, some Bolivian presidents have responded to large-scale and highly disruptive protests by exercising greater restraint, avoiding or limiting bloodshed. The impulse to do so is an important part of Bolivia’s post-dictatorship democratic political culture. Hernán Siles Zuazo refrained from cracking down on protest out of principle, declaring, “I don’t care if I’m judged as indecisive or a bad administrator. What’s important to me is having my hands clean of repression and that history recognizes the extent of my commitment that Bolivia continue to be a land of free men.”[2] Around eight people died violently during political conflicts in Siles Zuazo’s three-year administration. Four died after large landowners attempted to disperse a peasant protest in Santa Cruz department with gunfire; a prominent businessman was murdered for mistreating his workers, and two to four people died when police dispersed a peasant roadblock in Sacaba.

Carlos Mesa effectively withdrew as Sánchez de Lozada’s vice president in October 2003 rather than bear responsibility for bloodshed and crafted a January 2005 decree limiting military repression. Mesa likewise recalled his desire to avoid bloodshed in his autobiography: “My decision was that I would renounce my office before having to bring out the Armed Forces with instructions to use [lethal] force.” In January 2005, President Mesa signed a Supreme Decree regulating the “use of force in internal conflict.” It requires that, unless directly attacked, the Armed Forces may only use force after “the processes of negotiation carried out by the government have been exhausted, as well as the persuasive and dissuasive actions of the police.” It requires their actions to be (in Mesa’s paraphrase) “be proportional to the aggression received and limited to the neutralization of the aggressor(s). … It should not be accompanied by reprisals of any kind.”[3]

Despite these measures, Mesa’s six hundred days in office saw 16 deaths, about 9.7 deaths per year. These deaths included four security forces troops killed during coca eradication, three political assassinations, the suicidal explosion of a miner protesting pension cuts (which killed two soldiers at the National Congress), and three instances of security forces killing protesters.

Morales vowed in his January 22, 2006, inaugural address that, “My government will be a government without deaths. Mi gobierno será un gobierno sin muertos.”

This pledge of zero deaths did not last. By the end of September 2006, Bolivian security forces had shot dead one urban squatter with the Roofless Movement and two coca growers resisting eradication of their crops in the Vandiola Yungas region. Prolonged clashes between two factions of miners in Huanuni cost seventeen lives in October and November of that year, largely outside the presence of government forces. The last of these was a police officer surrounded and fatally wounded by hostile miners on November 12. With twenty violent deaths, 2006 was an inauspicious beginning for a president who promised a new era in relations between the state and grassroots movements. On the other hand, there had been an average of 51 deaths during each of the turbulent years from 2000 to 2004, and security forces had killed three or more social movement participants in fourteen of the twenty years prior to 2006.

Behind the scenes, President Morales excoriated members of his cabinet for these first killings by the state. Morales’ personal biographer Martín Sivak recalls his initial “conviction that [his] administration would never suppress protesters” and reports that when Morales first heard that police had killed protesters in a confrontation, he called his Minister of Government to demand (in Sivak’s narration, “almost desperately”), “What have you done? How can you dirty us with blood?”[4]

Only Eduardo Rodríguez Veltze, the Supreme Court head who took power after June 2005 protests compelled Mesa to step down, and who acted as a neutral arbiter focused primarily on holding election, managed to avoid all deaths during his presidency, which lasted 227 days.

Nonetheless, the public and private commitments of these four presidents likely shaped police and military responses. There were three years under Morales in which state security forces didn’t kill anyone associated with social protest, and several incidents, notably the June 2005 succession crisis (under Mesa) and the 2010 Caranavi blockade (under Morales), in which these presidents claimed to have specifically forbidden the use of deadly force but were apparently countermanded by local officers.

Deadly Events Under Morales in Perspective

The deadliest events of the Morales administration were the Huanuni mine clashes of October 2006 (16 deaths, plus 1 more in october), the El Porvenir massacre of September 2008 (12 deaths plus 2 in aftermath events), the El Alto municipal arson in February 2016, and the Cooperative Miner strike of August 2016 (6 deaths each). In the first three, the bulk of deaths were caused before state security forces arrived: sixteen locals and one police officer were killed at Huanuni; after 12 people were killed on September 11 at El Porvenir, one soldier and one civic movement member died in a shoot-out at the Cobija airport; and six municipal workers perished in a protester-set arson in El Alto. In the 2016 strike, security forces killed four cooperative miners, who then killed a government negotiator in retaliation. This was the maximum number of protesters killed by security forces in any single event between October 2003 and November 2019.

In fact, if we look at the deadliest events of the last thirty-eight years in Bolivia (those which killed five or more people), we find that just four of these 22 events were during the Morales era, and only one of those involved deadly violence by the state. At its worst moments, the Morales government never reached the levels of violence exercised by the governments of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Jeanine Áñez. Moreover, even when threatened with possible overthrow (in both 2008 and 2019), it refused to choose mass killing as a response. In November 2019, 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 Carlos Romero said that deploying the military was totally ruled out.[5]

Table 3: The deadliest events in the post-1982 democratic era. Events during the two presidencies of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada are highlighted in yellow. Those during Evo Morales’ presidency, there of which involved no killing by state security forces, are highlighted in blue. Those during Jeanine Áñez’s presidency are highlighted in orange.

In addition, a half-dozen events involved social movements allied with the Morales government clashing with its opponents. This include the January 11, 2007 clashes in Cochabamba, El Porvenir (September 2008), a September 13, 2008, confrontation in Tiquipaya, Santa Cruz that led to the beating death of a civic movement demonstrator, the partisan assassination of opposition politician Clemente Paco on March 1, 2015, and the El Alto arson by the pro-MAS Federation of Parents of El Alto. Finally, during the 2019 post-election protests, armed pro-MAS protesters shot two anti-MAS protesters dead in Montero (Santa Cruz) on October 30, 2019, and fatally beat protesters in La Paz and Quillacollo. Altogether, pro-MAS civilians killed seven anti-MAS civilians and six municipal workers in El Alto. In turn, MAS supporters suffered two deaths at the hands of armed civilians in the January 2007 Cochabamba clashes, and eleven deaths inflicted by the armed Pando civic movement at El Porvenir in 2008.

Many of these events were part of the protracted political crisis—the empate catastrófico, or catastrophic stalemate—that stretched from the convening of the Constituent Assembly in August 2006 to the January 2009 referendum that approved the plurinational constitution. During this period, the opposition movement nearly halted the constitutional reform process, assaulted MAS politicians and indigenous movement activists in the streets, effectively barred president Morales from visiting five major cities, took over and burned numerous government offices and grassroots organization headquarters, and declared de facto independence from the national government. Despite these exceptional provocations, the security forces perpetrated just four of the twenty-one deaths during this period, and suffered the loss of one soldier. The right-wing civic movement killed fourteen MAS supporters and (accidentally) one of their own, all but one with gunhots. Pro-MAS protester beat two civic moment protesters to death during these confrontations.

The database shows violence by the state was the leading cause of conflict deaths during the democratic era, but under the presidency of Evo Morales, state violence accounted for just a quarter of conflict deaths. Morales, like three prior presidents, limited use of deadly force to confront protesters and limited this form of violence to a third of its average level since 1982. He faced a three-year period of sometimes violent political resistance from 2006 to 2008, during which his government and supporters bore the brunt of deadly violence, but ultimately acted decisively to end the crisis with a combination of deadly force and mass mobilization in September 2008. This ending was ratified at the polls in January 2009 with the approval of a plurinational constitution by a nearly two-thirds margin. Partisan conflict rebounded in the final Morales years (arguably beginning with the 2016 El Alto arson), which set the stage for the bloody conflict of October–November 2019. At its broadest, then, partisan political conflict among civilians was responsible for twenty-six deaths during the Morales years, with the president’s partisans responsible for half those deaths. From 1987 to 2004, eight people died in partisan political conflicts, so this represents a major escalation in the deadliness of partisan conflict. 

Meanwhile in the other areas that account for the most deaths between civilian factions, the Morales era does not appear to have made conflict more deadly overall. The bloodiest such conflict in the last four decades is the “war of the ayllus” in Oruro and Potosí. After two decades of failed truces and peace agreements, the Morales government successfully supported the peaceful resolution of this conflict. Land disputes and clashes between miners and local community members all led to deaths both prior to and during the Morales years. The majority of such deaths during the entire post-1982 period came in two days in 2006 at Huanuni, a conflict Morales inherited but did not create. As Martín Sivak records, “Prior to the confrontation, the government had held 20 meetings with the two groups. ‘As a campesino who is now president and as your brother,’ he pleaded, ‘tell me what to do.’ But the stubbornness of both sides, a certain degree of state incompetence, and ministry inefficiency prevent a way out.” Given the outsized role of this one event, I would hesitate to discern some general uptick in such violence during the Morales years.

In the aftermath of the 2019 crisis, opponents of Morales have attempted to shape public memory around a narrative of bloody dictatorship. In December, former president Tuto Quiroga was designated as the Áñez government’s international envoy “to explain the violations of human rights” under Morales, despite having presided over 16 state-perpetrated deaths is his twelve months in office. At hearings of Inter-American Commission on Human Rights this week, Justice Minister Álvaro Coimbra declaimed that, “The [Morales] regime killed more than 100 people because of their political convictions.” This is flatly untrue.

An accurate reckoning will remember the Morales years (alongside those of Mesa and Rodríguez) as a period in which some significant limits were set on state violence. Such a reckoning can take place if we disregard the responsibility of the right-wing opposition for its share of the deadly conflicts of those years. Or, more generally, if we don’t begin by paying direct attention to the various causes and perpetrators of political violence in Bolivia.

Note: Some but not all of this post appears in a forthcoming white paper, “Mass Protest and State Repression in Bolivian Political Culture:
Putting the Gas War and the 2019 Crisis in Perspective” to be issued by the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.


[1] Excluded from this total are seven non-conflict-related accidents, mostly car crashes with uninvolved parties during prolonged episodes of protest.

[2] Quoted in Catherine M Conaghan and James M Malloy, Unsettling Statecraft: Democracy and Neoliberalism in the Central Andes (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994), 123–24.

[3] Carlos Mesa Gisbert, Presidencia Sitiada: Memorias de Mi Gobierno (La Paz, Bolivia: Fundación Comunidad/Plural Editores, 2008), 292–93.

[4] Martín Sivak, Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 198.

[5] Carlos Corz, “Ministro Descarta Que Militares Sean Movilizados y Espera Reflexión En Policías Amotinados,” La Razón, November 8, 2019, http://www.la-razon.com/nacional/animal_electoral/Ministro-militares-movilizados-reflexion-amotinados-bolivia_0_3254074612.html.

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