Four Bolivians died in or around social movement conflicts in 2021. These were the first deaths since the deadly political crisis of 2019, when political violence claimed 38 lives, 29 or 30 of them killed by the security forces after the ouster of Evo Morales. In the year that followed, Bolivian politics centered on a single national struggle.
This year’s deaths came in four separate mobilizations, only one of them around a national issue.
- Police Sergeant Miguel Ángel Quispe Nina — The ongoing conflict over leadership of Adepcoca, the La Paz Departmental Association of Coca Growers which split between pro- and anti-government factions, resurfaced in 2021 in a series of protests, unarmed street battles, building takeovers, and finally an electoral campaign. In July, this included an episode of armed violence.
The pro-MAS faction led by Elena Flores convened a meeting of the organization in Coripata. The opposition factor led by Armin Lluta (since Franclin Gutierrez’s incarceration) blockaded a roadway leading to the town. Police came in to break up the blockade and police sergeant Miguel Ángel Quispe Nina was shot dead. Sub-lieutenant Reinaldo Quispe suffered a nonfatal gunshot to the head. Police and Flores blamed Lluta’s faction and alleged foreigners were involved. Afterwards, the government negotiated an agreement to hold leadership elections in the combined organization in September, but dissension and physical confrontations between the two sides continued. Five others died in the Adepcoca conflict in 2018 and 2019.
- Chiquitano community leader Lino Peña Vaca (78) — One of many ongoing struggles over land between “Intercultural” highland migrant communities and Indigenous residents in Bolivia’s lowlands escalated in San Ignacio de Velasco, in Santa Cruz department. Chiquitano indigenous claims to the land in question stretch back twenty years. They sought title to the land from the National Land Reform Institute in 2016, but were given other lands in 2018, while the Interculturales had the land titled as Jerusalén III. A confrontation on the matter broke out on July 5, during which Lino Peña Vaca was severly injured, including with broken ribs and a broken nose. He was hospitalized eventually died of septic shock, severe pneumonia, and pulmonary fibrosis. However, his cause of death is disputed: his community, including leader Dino Franco assert that he died of complications of his injuries, while the death certificate indicates his respiratory maladies were due to COVID-19. Franco asserts that Peña Vaca’s COVID test was negative.
- Indigenous marcher Rafael Rojas Abiyuna (63) — Rojas Abiyuna died of natural causes during the negotiation phase of a cross-Santa Cruz Indigenous march in defense of land and territory. At the time of his death from a heart attack in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in late October, the marchers had completed their trek and were unsuccessfully demanding negotiations with the Arce government.
- Pro-MAS demonstrator Basilio Titi Topolo (21) — During the year’s most significant partisan mobilizations, opposition protesters mounted urban blockades in protest of Law 1386, an anti-money laundering statute that shopkeepers claimed will lead to abusive investigations of their books. In Potosí, as in several other cities, largely rural pro-MAS counterprotesters arrived to challenge these blockades in defense of the Arce government. Among the pro-MAS protesters was Basilio Titi Topolo, a miner of rural origin. He died while fleeing anti-MAS crowds, falling, and according to the official autopsy choking on a ball of coca lodged in his upper respiratory tract. The government alleged that violent anti-MAS groups blocked the passage of an ambulance carrying Titi and that “the lack of medical attention” led to his death. An unofficial autopsy pointed to other signs of trauma. Despite the rapid intervention of the Defensoría del Pueblo, the facts surrounding his death remain sharply disputed. Coverage on this blog: One dead as urban opposition battles pro-MAS campesinos in Potosí.
Three of these four deaths were violent (or at least came in the context of potentially lethal violence), where Rafael Rojas Abiyuna’s death was a tragic accompaniment to political mobilization. (The rules of my ongoing database project on Bolivian political conflict deaths exclude the latter’s death from quantitative comparisons.) Two of the violent deaths came in confrontations among civilians from opposed social movements, the pattern that predominated prior to the 2019 crisis.
Meanwhile the debates over the causes of and responsibility for Peña Vaca and Titi Topolo’s deaths reflect the country’s increasing polarization: material facts are increasingly drawn into political disputes, rumors and accusations proliferate, and trust in medical, forensic, and prosecutorial institutions is in decline. This phenomenon has gradually gathered steam: counternarratives surrounded the 2008 Porvenir massacre and Hotel Las Americas raid; and official denials and misrepresentations have long been made around security force killings. However, the claims that the Sacaba and Senkata massacres were perpetrated by their victims were a significant turning point towards a country where reporting is increasingly bifurcated between opposing narratives. The apparently accidental death of mining union leader Orlando Gutiérrez in 2020 showed that left-leaning social media is also capable of amplifying unfounded claims.
Other near-lethal violence in 2021
Several other conflicts narrowly escaped the loss of human life in the past year as opposed civilian groups faced off over land and mining concessions. The use of firearms by Bolivian social movements has been fairly rare, but Sergeant Quispe Nina’s death was not the only instance in 2021.
- Mining conflicts in Charopampa, Mapiri Municipality, La Paz. Leco Indigenous communities have objected to gold mining by cooperatives in the region. The mines are legally authorized but environmentally damaging. Fratricidal violence among mining cooperatives killed one miner, Edwin Caseres, at the Hijos del Pueblo cooperative mine in December 2020. This year, a series of confrontations took place between the Leco communities and mining cooperatives. Community members confronted the 15 de Mayo cooperative in early May, but initial reports of one death proved to be unfounded. The next month the Leco community resolved to expel the mine, which the mayor and national police moved to defend. New clashes in late June and July injured 10 civilians and 14 police, respectively. My coverage on Twitter: Background | UNITAS on local politics | July events. Disputed accounts of the July clashes claim that either live ammunition or pellet guns were used by community members.
- Land conflicts Guarayos Province, Santa Cruz. Multiple overlapping land claims by large- and small-scale farmers exist in a region filled with large soy plantations. Nominally part of the Guarayos forest reserve, these lands have been cleared and used without title for years. On September, large-scale farmer Juan Montaño was shot four times and fifteen of his employees wounded with machetes and blows, in the El Carmen community. The attackers were rapidly arrested.
On October 28 at Las Londras, a visiting team of journalists invited by the soybean and oil growers’ association Anapo were confronted by an estimated 70 people affiliated with the small farmers, some of them hooded and armed. The group took seventeen people—among them journalists, police officers, and civilians—captive for seven hours. The regional federation of Intercultural (that is, small-scale and migrant) farmers accused the large landowners of being the illegal squatters and ”offered full support for the comrades who have entered Las Londras to hold on to a bit of land.” Police announced a list of 12 suspects in the action, but their attempted arrest in San Julián turned into a shootout on November 24. Police only managed to capture Heber Sixto Canaza, while two other suspects fled. Sixto Canaza is accused of leading the violent occupation of lands that are part of the estate of Álvaro Tomás Gonzáles Barbery, also in Guarayos. The departmental campesino federation has not broken ties with Sixto Canaza.
Photo: Burial of Basilio Titi Topolo / ABT.