dispatches across boundaries of states, and states of mind
Author: Carwil Bjork-James
Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University. (My opinions are my own, and not my employer's.) Author of The Sovereigns Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia (sovereignstreet.org). I conduct immersive and historical research on disruptive protest, grassroots autonomy, state violence, and indigenous collective rights in Bolivia.
Emilio Fernández, a young man from Loayza province, became the eleventh known fatal victim of military and police repression of the blockade and protests at the Senkata gas installation in El Alto on November 19, 2019. (There have also been persistent and credible, if unverified, eyewitness reports of security forces removing the bodies of additional dead protesters from the scene at Senkata.) The Senkata massacre remains the deadliest event in Bolivian political conflict since 2008, and the deadliest act of state repression since the 2003 Gas War.
Another victim of the Senkata violence passes away, and now there are 11 deaths
David Inca, the representative of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights of the city of El Alto, yesterday confirmed the death of an eleventh person after the violent events in Senkata in November 2019.
He said that he was aware that one of the injured had died on Wednesday morning [, March 4]. “He was one of the youth who was wounded and returned to his community in Loayza province. He was Emilio Fernández.”
Inca denounced that the wounded did not receive the required medical attention and surgical operations to recover from the damage they suffered after being injured by bullets. “There are other wounded who returned to their community without due attention. The transitional government threatened them that they would go to prison for supposed terrorism.”
The Plurinational Legislative Assembly of Bolivia took its sessions to the largely indigenous city of El Alto yesterday in honor of the anniversary of the founding of Bolivia’s second most populous city. Relations between the city and the hard-right interim government of President Jeanine Áñez are still shadowed by the massacre of protesters and bystanders on November 19, 2019, shortly after she took power. (Prior coverage of the Senkata masscre.) During the anniversary procession, mourners marched with a black flag in remembrance of those killed.
A couple dozen Senkata residents, largely family members of those killed protested the lack of accountability for the Senkata massacre by attempting to block the Bolivian Senate’s special session in their part of El Alto. In response, the Bolivian police teargassed them, as the statement from the Defensoría del Pueblo below details. This was the second time that security forces have tear gassed the family members of Senkata massacre victims; the first time was in a politicized funeral march just days after the attack.
Meanwhile, news has broke of the death of an eleventh victim of state repression at Senkata. Emilio Fernández of Loayza province died of his wounds on Wednesday morning.
Today, [Bolivia’s] Human Rights Ombudsman Office condemns the indiscriminate use of force by agents of the Bolivian Police, who gassed the family members of the victims of the Senkata massacre, which occurred November of last year, and affected a hundred children in the [nearby] July 25 School.
The incidents occurred in the morning, when the Bolivian Senatae attempted to hold a session in the social headquarters of the July 25 neighborhood in the Senkata are of the city of El Alto, in honor of the the anniversary of the municipality. Then, some two dozen family members of last November’s massacre and neighbors of that zone posted themselves outside to call for “trial and punishment for those responsible” for the ten deaths in November.
The union office, inside which the legislators gathered, was surrounded by police troops, before whom the family members [of the Senkata massacre victims] displayed signs pleading for justice. “Justice and Punishment or those responsible for the Senkata massacre. Justice for Ruy Cristina Vásquez,” read one of the signs. Amid their cries, the family members approached the uniformed police to call out for justice for their dead.
The response of the police was tear gas, which they launched upon the demonstrators and which reached the July 25 School, located across from the union headquarters. A hundred children were affected and had to be evacuated amid their cries and even bleeding, because it could be seen that one of them broke out bleeding from their nose. The docents of the school had to set a fire in the patio to dissipate the gas that had penetrated throughout the installation. According to the report from RTP, the troops launched the chemical agents to protect the evacuation of the senators, partisans of the government, who had decided to suspend their session.
The Human Rights Ombudsman Office condemns this indiscriminate use of force and reminds the Ministry of Government and the Bolivian Police that their actions must be within the framework of the  Constitution and the national and international norms for the protection and guarantee of individual and collective rights.
Additionally, it noted that the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) has established that police operatives should have an operational plan that contemplates special attention and safeguard for children and adolescents, among other vulnerable groups. From the perspective of the Office, in this case the security forces did not act in accordance with this recommendation.
The Human Rights Ombudsman Office reiterates to political parties, citizen groups, political and social leaders, as well as to the government its exhortation to guarantee the peaceful carrying out of celebrations of the anniversary of the city of El Alto, as well as the current electoral process.
Departmental legislator Gustavo Torrico and Evo Morales’ legal representative Patricia Pamela Hermosa are the latest people arrested in the interim Bolivian government’s legally dubious effort to prosecute exiled president Evo Morales for the crimes of sedition and terrorism. Torrico, a member of the Departmental Legislative Assembly of La Paz, was arrested last night (February 6) and is expected to be charged with sedition for threatening comments he made in a late October radio interview. Hermosa, for her part, was arrested on February 2while bringing Morales’ identity documents into Bolivia in order to register him as a MAS-IPSP candidate for Senate. She seems to be under investigation due to telephone records indicating she spoke with Evo Morales in November after his overthrow on November 10. The government has also floated the possibility of subpoenaing Chapare cocalero leader and senate candidate Andrónico Rodríguez in the case.
These moves, on top of the active investigation of at least 592 Morales government officials for alleged financial irregularities, and the recent brief arrests and apparent physical mistreatment of two officials given safe passage out of the country, illustrate a scenario in which judicial actions is being used as an active mechanism of political persecution against members of Morales’ party. The “sedition and terrorism” case is the spearhead of that overall effort.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges & Lawyers Diego García-Sayán has publicly called out the Áñez government: “I am concerned by the use of judicial and prosecutorial institutions for political persecution. The number of illegal detentions is growing. Today it was the turn of former minister Gustavo Torrico. I call for respect of the independence of institutions and for due process.”
Today, February 3 was the deadline for Bolivian parties to submit their candidate lists for the May 3 general election, which replaces the annulled October 2019 vote. Here is a summary of the parties, their political situation, and their candidates.
With less than 48 hours remaining before an official deadline to finalize party alliances for the May 3 presidential ballot, two sudden surprises shifted the Bolivian political landscape. First, interim President Jeanine Áñez Chávez announced her own candidacy, reversing her emphatic promises upon assuming office. Áñez had been warning for weeks of the danger of splitting the anti-MAS vote and urging unity over partisanship. Now she will become one of at least ten candidates facing off against the MAS-IPSP candidate, former finance minister Luis Arce Catacora.
On January 10, for example, Áñez tweeted:
We Bolivians have fought for a single cause: to leave tyranny behind; that we have accomplished thanks to the patriotism of the youth, women, and men who went out onto the streets for a free Bolivia. To disperse the vote would be to devalue our struggle!
Tweet from Jeanine Añez Chavez (@JeanineAnez), January 10, 2020.
As late as January 19, the interim president was placing herself above partisan politics in her pleas for unity: “We hope that there will be the political maturity and openness within the political class to see the greater good. What may happen with me is what I am least concerned with, what does interest me is what could happen to Bolivia.” Of course, by then, the negotiations for her candidacy had already begun.
The Demócratas party (Twitter|Wikipedia entry)—formally the Social Democrat Movement, but composed of rightist regional parties and led by Rubén Costas of Santa Cruz —took up her candidacy as their own. Áñez had represented the party (competing as the “Unity Democrats” alliance) as a senator in the 2015-2020 term. Significantly, however, two more political forces have joined in backing her candidacy.
Luis “Lucho” Revilla has governed La Paz as mayor since 2010, a post he succeeded from his co-partisan and human rights lawyer Juan del Granado. The two had both represented the Without Fear Movement (Movimiento Sin Miedo; MSM), a center-left party that allied with Evo Morales’ MAS-IPSP in 2005, and offered support wtih criticism during the 2008 constitutional referendum. The party, always strongest in La Paz department, made a serious effort at recruiting disaffected MAS voters in the 2009 general and 2010 regional election. In 2014, however, it failed to reach the 3% threshold for keeping its legal status and was forced to reorganize in advance of the 2015 regional elections. Revilla’s urban progressive party allied with Felix Patzi’s indigenous socialist Third System Movement (Movimiento Tercer Sistema; MTS) to become the dominant political force in La Paz department: SOL.bo, a tech-oriented acronym for Sovereignty and Freedom (Soberanía y Libertad punto bo). Patzi, whose ideology proposes indigenous communities as the basis of a system beyond capitalism and state socialism, has been governor of La Paz for the last five years. Ever distrustful of Evo Morales’ governing party SOL.bo joined Carlos Mesa’s Citizen Community presidential coalition in 2019.
So it was a major surprise on January 24 when Revilla threw his support behind Jeanine Áñez, in an endorsement that coincided with the Alasitas festival in downtown La Paz. Widespread speculation implies that Revilla expects a Vice Presidential position in return for his endorsement, but the second spot on the ballot has not been announced yet, and Revilla is very loudly proclaiming that he didn’t trade his endorsement for a seat. Almost as loudly as Jeanine Áñez had proclaimed she wasn’t considering running for president.
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.
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.
Without a doubt, the post-electoral protests against President Evo Morales, his sudden resignation under pressure from both protesters and the military, and the unexpected succession of Jeanine Áñez (previously, second vice president of the Senate) are the most significant events of Bolivian political life in 2019. The hinge point of these events was the dramatic week stretching from November 8 to 15, during which the police and military joined protesters as central actors; significant transactions occurred behind closed doors; acts of violence and arson targeted politicians on all sides; uncertainty surrounded presidential succession; and finally, a remobilized military killed a shocking number of people in four dramatic days.
I want to offer here some detailed accounts of what happened during that pivotal week and lay out the crucial questions as to whether, when, and how the overthrow of Morales was planned.
Why did an inexperienced junior senator with no mandate get empowered to lead a disastrous coup, unleashing the deadliest month in 15 years in Bolivian politics? How did a military “suggestion” claiming to head off bloodshed so rapidly lead to operations against civilians that cost many more lives than had been lost in the previous three years (let alone the three weeks of protest since the election)? In short, to what extent was a unified planning process (what we might call a coup plot) at the heart of this political transition?
Put differently, do we understand Evo Morales’ overthrow, Jeanine Áñez’s succession, and the military shakeup that followed the result of:
The foresight and planning of a small circle of actors. Did someone in the civic movement set her up? Work out a deal with those in the military who craved a crackdown? There are real signs of premeditation, coordination, and alliances among political forces and people within the military who might have a crackdown as a goal.
A convergence of fearful choices that led to a disastrous transition. Did the military leadership believe a quick transition would de-escalate an increasingly deadly confrontation on November 10? Did multiple actors think confirming someone, any civilian at all, was preferable to prolonging interim military rule and nightly violence on November 12? The real consequences of fear, urgency, distrust, violence, and reactions to violence that led people to act without considering the worst-case scenario that could emerge.
Since plotting is necessarily a closed-door activity, we couldn’t fully know the answers to these questions on November 10 or 15. But since these are matters of public concern and the principal actors are talking to journalists, we are getting more and more details (all possibly filtered through self-justifications and political ambitions) about what exactly happened when. What follows is an evolving list of sources for those of us trying to understand what happened in detail.
November 7–9: Negotiating a Civic-Military alliance
During these days, José Luis Camacho Parada, former head of the CEPB business federation and the father of Santa Cruz civic movement leader Luis Fernando Camacho, acted as a negotiator between that movement and the military. He contacted Fernando López Julio, a former officer who would become Áñez’s Defense Minister, to broker an agreement to keep the military out of the conflict, and it would appear, to consolidate a growing group of hardliners to back a post-Evo era.
Revealing the talks, Luis Fernando Camacho said López “got close with the military. For that reason, the person who when to speak with them and coordinate everything was Fernando López, the present Defense Minister And that is why he is the minister, to carry through with these commitments” (video). López himself has confirmed his role and stated that during the Morales presidency, the Ministers of Defense—all of them civilians—“never understood the Armed Forces, nor comprehended their needs.” He presents himself as “someone from their domain, and who will understand their needs and return to them their dignity” (Correo del Sur).
The night of November 10 saw chaotic property destruction by outraged Morales supporters in El Alto and La Paz. The police were increasingly overwhelmed by crowds whose principal target was police stations, many of which they burned and looted entirely. Two police were fatally wounded in these confrontations, one when his motorcycle crashed while attempting to evade marchers. Meanwhile, the military command resisted getting involved and Armed Forces commander and the head of the Air Force remained in contact with resigned president Evo Morales and Defense Minister Javier Zavaleta.
A complex series of negotiations on presidential succession were brokered by the Catholic Church, the European Union, and others. Former president Tuto Quiroga emerged as the strategist behind the succession of Jeanine Áñez, previously the second vice president of the Senate. This position is not included in the brief section of the 2009 Constitution concerning the line of succession, but justification was found in a 2001 ruling on succession. Senate President Adriana Salvatierra and Chamber of Deputies President Víctor Borda had resigned their leadership posts on November 10.
In behind-the-scenes negotiations, Adriana Salvatierra represented the MAS-IPSP. According to Quiroga and four other parties involved (The New York Times reported), she exchanged permission for Evo Morales and his entourage to exit the country for a relatively uncontested succession. However, Salvatierra may have had personal interests at stake, namely the legal situation of her father who Hugo Salvatierra who is risking prosecution for a possibly corrupt tractor transaction during his time as Rural Development Minister early in the Morales government. Incoming Senate president Eva Copa revealed to the press that:
In her own voice in a meeting of our party delegation, she [Salvatierra] stated that she renounced the presidency, for she ought to have been the transitional president, because the only thing that she has is her father and mother, and that she could not assume the position because they might reactivate the tractors case against her father. That is the decision that she took, and that left us crippled and we have had to take responsible and mature decisions as partisans.
The New York Times reports that the succession agreement was worked out on November 11, but Salvatierra’s assent seemingly did not come on behalf of the larger MAS-IPSP delegation in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. They did not attend sessions on the afternoon of November 12 meant to swear in Áñez as president. Instead of convening the Assembly to consider Morales’ resignation letter, Áñez invoked the former president’s “abandoning” his post by fleeing the country as the mechanism of succession. Through two successive parliamentary maneuvers, Añez first declared herself president of the Senate then took office as president on the basis of the unavailability of the president and vice president. MAS-IPSP legislators reasonably expected to be able to consider the resignation letters in their first session, and to elect a different senator to replace Salvatierra. There are conflicting accounts about whether they boycotted the session or stayed away out of fear for their own safety.
On the night of November 13, Jeanine Áñez presided over the elevation of a new set of officers to the military High Command, replacing the entire leadership. Handing over his office, outgoing commander Kaliman drew attention to “respect for [human] life” during his term and said, “The direction has been marked out; we leave you armed forces that are cohesive, disciplined, respected and admired by all Bolivians; an armed forces linked to the Bolivian Constitution. Only follow the trail of our work, improve what we have done with more effort, it is your turn to be the protagonists of our institution.” Was this a formality, or a warning of the danges of putting troops back into the streets to engage in crowd control?
Since 2015, I have been working systematically to compile a database of people who lost their lives in the course of Bolivian conflict, though I had been collecting detailed on a variety of deadly post-2000 events for years before that. Never before this year, however have I had the responsibility of adding so many new, present-day entries to database: at least 35 people died in the conflicts that followed the October 20 election and the November 10 overthrow of Evo Morales. November alone proved to be the bloodiest month in sixteen years, and the third deadliest month of the democratic era. And it is thanks to the database that I can make simple factual statements like those.
The database enumerates individual deaths in Bolivian political conflict since 1982, the end of military rule in the country. It 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. The dataset now includes nearly all of the deaths identified by a Permanent Assembly of Human Rights-Bolivia (APDHB) study of deaths from 1988 to 2003, and a study of the coca conflict from 1982 to 2005 (Navarro Miranda 2006; Llorenti 2009; Salazar Ortuño 2008). 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.
I designed the database to both catalog the lethal consequences of participation in social movements and political activism, and to assess responsibility, accountability, and impunity for violent deaths. All deaths are significant as signs of the price that has been paid to seek social change. Some deaths are also significant as elements of repression or violence for which someone might ultimately be held accountable. Rather than begin by asking, “Is this death someone’s fault?,” we are coding each death according to multiple factors that enable us to extract different subsets of the overall database for different purposes. We estimate there were 550 to 580 deaths associated with Bolivian political conflict from October 1982 until the current crisis. As of October 2019, the project had identified 530 of these deaths, including those of 496 named individuals.
Through this process, I have become familiar with reading multiple and conflicting reports, evaluating official denials (we have created a data column for such denials), collecting narrative accounts, coding what we can based on the information, and signaling remaining questions. One thing that I have learned through this process is that making informed judgements, rather than marking all disputed facts with some kind of asterisk, is absolutely foundational to being able to do comparative work. It was with that experience that I spent time over the past month reading and processing reports of Bolivia’s deadly November.
This blog post presents Part I of this analysis, which describes the deadly events involved and explains some of my coding decisions in assessing responsibility for them. A second part will put the 2019 into comparative perspective against other periods covered by the database.
Who killed and who died in the 2019 crisis?
This table (click to expand) shows my initial analysis of the affiliations of the victims and perpetrators of violence and other deadly incidents during October and November. Overall, thirty-five people died in the conflict, including two people killed in their attempts to avoid violence against them.
Below, I break down the events involved and describe what we know about who was responsible for and who suffered these deaths.
There has been relatively little in-depth journalistic coverage of the sequence of events at the blockaded Senkata refinery, which ended in the deadliest day in Bolivian political conflict since 2008. This report is a significant exception. The article was originally published as “Las 3 horas de terror que sufrieron en Senkata,” by Jorge Quispe, La Razón, December 2, 2019. The photos shown below accompanied the original article; their captions are also translated from the original article.
In October 2003, a convoy that would later be named as “the death caravan” outwitted the blockade at the Senkata plant. On Tuesday, November 19 [of this year], between 10:20 and 10:30am, [blockading] Alteños tried to prevent fifty tankers from exiting their cordon. The result was fatal.
On Saturday, November 9, ten days before the 19th, the neighbors of District 8, which includes Senkata, were the first to follow the El Alto Neighborhood Council Federation’s instructions and blockade their main road, which leads to Oruro. Days later, the blockade was transferred to the hydrocarbon plant, which supplies natural gas, gasoline, and diesel to La Paz and El Alto.
That Tuesday morning, there were only a few neighbors taking part in the vigil at the gates of the Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) installation, which is an hour’s walk away from the Ceja [the central market in El Alto], since (according to leader Juan Luis Chipana) a dialogue had begun to bring [the protesters] closer to the new government.
The majority of the people were at the Senkata Crossing, in the heart of the giant El Alto neighborhood, but at around 10:20, they could see in the distance a cloud of smoke near the plant. The news spread like wildfire. “The tankers are escaping!,” they shouted.
The protesters ran towards the plant, some fifteen minutes away from the Senkata Crossing, arrived there, and were received by a rain of tear gas fired by some fifty policemen. Some tried to set up and light bonfires, other looked for stones, and the boldest among them threw the gas canisters back. That was the first moment in this tense day.
After 11:15, the crowd surrounded the Senkata plant. And so began the second moment of that fatal day. Some of them threw stones at the windows and entry gates of the facility, but others, in groups of 20 or 30 people, appeared along the perimeter wall and began to push. That his how seven sections of that wall fell, the largest hole being 100 meters long, and the smallest some ten meters.
At that instant, according to family members [of those killed], witnesses, and David Inca, the representative of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights of Bolivia (Asamblea Permanente de Derechos Humanos de Bolivia, APDHB), the shots began. “The people recounted that from behind the wall, they began to launch tear gas over it, the people appeared, and pushed and made the wall fall. That is when the military troops came out directly to shoot,” as the activist Inca described.
One of the first victims, according to the family member, was Edwin Jamachi. “He left the house to cash a check and passed by the [Senkata] plant where he was shot,” recounted his sister, who for fear of reprisals did not give her name. The loved ones of those killed, wounded, and detained are fearful, because they believe that they may be accused of sedition.
Shots. Between 11:00 and 12:00, according to his family members, Clemente Mamani also died.
“Clemente was shot near the rail (the old railway that passes by 50 meters from the plant). That happened after the tankers had gotten out, he wasn’t even blockading,” detailed another family member who requested anonymity.
The people ran to the left, close to the old rail line; others to the right, towards the town of Achocalla, and many retreated towards the Senkata Crossing, where the blockade was born on November 9.
The third moment came between 12:00 and 1:30pm, according to the version related by Inca and the families of those wounded and killed. “The military troops came out of the plant towards the pedestrian bridge (in the center of Senkata) to carry out the work of dispersing [the crowd], advancing and firing gas canisters. Others fired their guns,” Inca denounced. According to the APDHB representative, there were 60 wounded and at least 11 killed (a girl died on Wednesday). Officially, there are ten known deaths.
“The helicopter that was flying over Senkata also fired gas,” affirms a family member of Juan José Tenorio, another of the victims that may have died near that pedestrian bridge. Others were wounded on the highway that leads to Vela Bridge. “A bullet passed through the arm and the right leg of my wife,” described a husband of one of those wounded. Some victims fell near the plant and others by the Senkata Crossing and the San Francisco de Asís parish. “My son Pedro Quisbert died near the church,” his mother said.
The long night of Tuesday, November 19, while five bodies were laid out under veils in the parish, Defense Minister Fernando López assured the public that not one shot was fired by the Armed Forces. … The Forensic Investigations Institute (Instituto de Investigaciones Forenses; IDIF) reported in La Paz that four of the dead in El Alto were wounded with 22mm and 9mm bullets. They ruled out [standard issue] military munitions.
On Tuesday November 26, Wilson Santamaría, the new Vice Minister of Citizen Security, said that after viewing the security cameras at Senkata, they identified the use of explosive by some blockaders and that some of them were not from El Alto.