Several men carry the white coffin of Basilio Titi Topolo to a crypt.

Four deaths surrounded Bolivian political mobilizations in 2021. Responsibility for two remains in dispute.

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.

Prior summary coverage of deaths in Bolivian political conflict: 2012 | 2019 crisis

Photo: Burial of Basilio Titi Topolo / ABT.

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