“If you enter the city, I will hunt you.”: Sacaba massacre was preceded by open threat of military violence

On November 13, 2019—one after Jeanine Áñez was sworn as interim president of Bolivia—the highest police authority and highest-ranking peasant union leader of Cochabamba met in the Integral Police Station (EPI) of Huayllani, the neighborhood that would see the country’s deadliest massacre in sixteen years just two days later.

The Cochabamba peasant federation (Federación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Cochabamba; FSUTCC) had joined calls by the Movement Towards Socialism leader and coca grower Andrónico Rodríguez to mount a national march “against the coup d’ètat” and Áñez’s succession to president. Following in the footsteps of many prior mobilizations since the 1980s, the march would proceed from the coca-growing Chapare to Cochabamba and onto La Paz. The outlying town of Sacaba was the necessary first stop on that journey. FSUTCC leader Jhonny Pardo was in Huayllani to prepare the ground for this mobilization.

Colonel Jaime Edwin Zurita Trujillo, departmental commander of the Bolivian National Police, received Pardo and Nelson Cox, the departmental head of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo). Zurita had only recently taken command of the region’s police; National Police Commander Yuri Calderón installed him on November 8 in the wake of the nationwide police mutiny, which took a dramatic form in urban Cochabamba. Police officers in mutiny had demanded the removal of their prior commander Colonel Raúl Grandy. (Both Calderón and Zurita had received new commands in 2019 as part of anti-corruption house-cleaning in the police force. Calderón was later investigated by the Áñez government for his alleged loyalty to President Morales during the 2019 crisis, and by the Arce government for his role in the Sacaba massacre.)

After Morales‘ fall, Zurita had publicly embraced the Resistencia Juvenil Cochala, a right-wing motorcycle gang and called upon the it and self-organized citizens of Cochabamba to defend a police station in the city from pro-MAS opposition attacks. Zurita asked them to “organize brigades, organize barricades; we have information that people are coming towards the city from the Sacaba side and from the south… do not let them pass” (GIEI Report, p. 87). He also spoke out publicly to assure police officers in mutiny that he was on their side: ”[I would] say to the the comrades that I came to work … and that this is a moment for institutional cohesion. They should know that the Police chiefs are fully supporting all of the demands and that we are not going to leave them alone.” He offered to step down if it would be in the interest of police unity. “Of course” he supported the police mutiny, as did “absolutely all of the police command,” and he had nothing more in common with Cochabamba MAS leader Leonilda Zurita than their shared last name.

Police under Zurita’s command evidently shot dead Miguel Angel Ledezma Gonzales on November 11. Ledezma, a 24-year-old cellphone technician, was participating in a pro-MAS crew of youth attempting to dislodge a civic movement blockade at the Huayllani bridge, soon to be the scene of the November 15 massacre. Witnesses saw him shot multiple times in the face during a confrontation with police. According to the GIEI report, the police commander denied there was a police operation destined for the bridge that night, contradicting documentary evidence. His killers were not identified in their investigation (GIEI Report, p. 77–80).

The following night, November 12, police arrested pro-MAS urban resident Juan José Mamani Larico at a protest on the Avenida Petrolera, near his home on the south side of central Cochabamba. After beating the unresisting Mamani Larco, they turned him over to soldiers, who carried a truckload of prisoners to the UTOP police station at Muyurina. The soldiers rained blows, kicks, and strikes with their guns on the prisoners, who fell upon one another. Trapped under his fellow prisoners, Mamani Larico cried out he could not breathe before succumbing to suffocation. Police did not register his detention, but seem to have transferred his lifeless or dying body to an ambulance. He was pronounced dead on arrival to Cochabamba’s Hospital Viedma (p. 80–83).

From November 12 to 14, Bolivian police and military forces operated jointly in metropolitan Cochabamba, in an operation called Plan Sebastián Pagador. The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights would conclude that “the security forces acted in an unreasonaby and arbitrary form … There were arbitrary detentions and violence against demonstrators and those detained” (p. 81).

All of this is what Jaime Zurita could assume his peasant union interlocutor “had already seen” by the time of their November 13 meeting. In that conversation, observed by Nelson Cox and partially recorded, Zurita made this chiling and prescient threat:

Yo no voy a permitir que ustedes pasen, porque ustedes están viniendo a causar estragos en Cochabamba, tengo información de Inteligencia. Si ustedes pasan a Cochabamba, yo los voy a cazar.

I am not going to permit that you pass, because you are coming to cause havoc in Cochabamba; I have information from the Intelligence [service]. If you come to Cochabamba, I will hunt you.

Quoted by Nelson Cox in an Informe defensorial and La Razón, 2020.

And this threat was backed by an argument about the changed political and military situation:

If you are using those methods, we will not let you [pass], you have seen that there is a new commander, a new Army and all of that. Whe have gathered together … the air force, all of the garrison. We don’t want to annihilate you, we don’t want to.

mientras ustedes utilicen esos métodos, no los vamos a dejar, ustedes ya han visto hay un nuevo comandante, nuevo Ejército todo eso, nosotros nos hemos reunido… fuerza aérea, todita la guarnición, no queremos aniquilarlos, no queremos

Quoted by Nelson Cox in a separate Informe defensorial, 2020, p. 279.

It was, the Defensoría concluded, a statement that ”left it clear that the right to life would be attacked if necessary, as well illegal acts taken to prevent the [campesino] sector from entering the city.”

Taken in context, this prior threat clarifies that the Sacaba massacre was premeditated, involved coordination at the level of regional command, and strongly suggests a national government decision (“a new commander, a new Army”) behind it. The language of hunting echoes similar statements by Minister of Government Arturo Murillo, Zurita’s civilian superior, that same week. And it chillingly presages survivors accounts that they were “shot like animals” during November 15 Sacaba massacre and November 19 Senkata massacre.

At least ten people, all of them Chapare coca growers, were shot dead in Sacaba. Jaime Zurita is among those under criminal investigation for the mass killing.

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