Widespread fires in Bolivia, which ravaged over 6.4 million hectares—6% of the country’s surface area—as of November 2019, caused massive damage to primary forests according to multiple research teams that investigate and quantify deforestation. Global Forest Watch, which attempts to quantify primary forest loss—that is, the area of untouched forest destroyed—found that Bolivia lost 290,000 hectares in 2019, nearly doubling its 2018 loss of 154,000 hectares. This brought Bolivia to fourth place among tropical countries for deforestation in 2019. Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project found that deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon increased markedly from 58,000 hectares in 2018 to 135,400 hectares in 2019, though MAAP’s study area excludes Santa Cruz department, where the worst 2019 fires occurred.
These figures are, as expected, well below the overall total area burned by fires in Bolivia, as calculated by Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza–Bolivia, which closely monitors satellite fire data. FAN-Bolivia estimated that 2.0 million of the 6.4 million burned acres were forested. The bulk of this forest loss came in Santa Cruz, where 1.9 million of a record-setting 4.1 million burned acres were forested, by FAN-Bolivia’s calculations. Of course, not all fires destroy all forest cover, not all forests are primary, and not all losses represent the first loss to an area. Global Forest Watch’s estimate of 290,000 hectares only applies forest loss that meets all three criteria. GFW has a much higher estimate for Bolivia’s total forest loss in 2019: 852,000 hectares. Much previously damaged forest, or forest never regarded as primary, burned in 2019.
Overall, Bolivia has a political culture of frequent mass participation in disruptive protest, which is reflected in laws, legal precedents, traditions of tolerance, popular attitudes toward protest and repression, and the words and actions of politicians and other leaders. For nearly a century, many Bolivian government leaders have claimed their legitimacy as representatives of recent outbursts of mass protest, but this history has been interrupted many times by military and authoritarian rulers who cracked down on protest. During the shorter, but current period of electoral democracy (since 1982), politicians of various political stripes have contrasted their values and actions with those of the pre-1982 dictatorships, creating a certain space for protest and an incomplete but nonetheless real aversion to deadly repression of protest.
However, there are now two exceptional moments that burst the bounds on deadly repression: the 2003 Gas War and the 2019 political crisis that saw the overthrow of Evo Morales. The white paper examines each of them in detail. In 2003, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada moved to criminalize longstanding forms of protest, and orchestrated a military response that directly killed at least 59 civilians. In 2019, three weeks of dueling protests over the October 20 election prompted Morales’ November 10 resignation under pressure from security forces. After Morales’ ouster both military commanders and interim president Jeanine Áñez presided over deadly repression.
Bolivia’s post-Evo crackdown broke limits on state repression
Regarding 2019, my quantitative analysis found:
At least 37 people were killed in this conflict, the first death was caused on October 29, and the last so far on November 19. This includes the deaths of two individuals after hostilities had ceased.
Four of the deaths were caused by civilian supporters of Evo Morales before he resigned, while one pro-Morales journalist suffered a likely fatal beating.
Seven civilians and two police officers died during two days of interim military rule.
Finally, twenty-three civilians were killed after the swearing in of President Jeanine Áñez, all but one of them by joint military-police operations in response to protests. The massacres at Sacaba (nine killed on November 15) and Senkata (11 killed on November 19) were the deadliest incidents of state violence since 2003, and of violence of any kind since 2008.
Overall, state security forces were responsible for at least 25, and as many as 28 deaths in the aftermath of Evo Morales’ ouster. In ten days, the police and military killed more protesters than they had in the final ten years of Morale’s rule (21), and nearly as many as in his entire administration (33).
These sharp differences in death toll reflect the importance of presidential decisionmaking, policing policy and human rights guarantees in human rights outcomes. The military leadership and President Áñez both decisively reversed the order given by President Carlos Mesa in January 2005 to restrict military involvement in policing protest. Áñez also signed Supreme Decree 4078, which exempted the military from criminal prosecution for actions carried out during the nationwide crackdown.
The 2003 Gas War was an exceptional episode of state repression
The bulk of the white paper presents and extends the results of a report I drafted as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Mamani et al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín case before the United States Federal Court for the Southern District of Florida. My goal in that report was to examine and contextualize the Bolivian government’s use of repressive force in response to protest during the September–October 2003 mass mobilization, popularly known as the Gas War.
What follows is a summary of the argument:
Bolivia has a highly contentious political culture marked by high levels of participation in protest, high levels of involvement in large grassroots organizations, frequent intervention of these organizations in matters of public policy, and the expectation that governments will negotiate with, rather than criminalize or physically disperse, protesters.
Frequent, disruptive protest is the norm in Bolivia’s political culture. The September–October 2003 protests were largely comprised of common elements within Bolivia’s so-called repertoire of contention.
Bolivian legal traditions authorize the country’s widespread unionization, its variety of civil society organizations, and these organizations’ unusually broad right to engage in disruptive strikes. Informally, policing and prosecutorial practice have usually respected these rights during the democratic period. When they occur, large deployment of force by the police or army may attract public criticism.
The events of September and October 2003, while larger in scale than in prior years, generally involved the use of tactics within the Bolivian repertoire of contention, and were conducted in the expectation of negotiating with the Sánchez de Lozada government. Calls for the president’s resignation were also consistent with longstanding political traditions.
The police and military response to the September and October 2003 protests is a quantitative outlier, far outside the general approach of Bolivian democratic governments in its lethality. This is true even though other democratically elected presidents have faced more frequent and more intense protests.
In the current democratic era, other 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.
The Evo Morales years saw far less direct state violence
Evo Morales, who was elected by a 54% majority in December 2005 in the wake of the political upheaval reflected in the 2003 Gas War, went on to become the longest-serving president in Bolivia’s history, serving for nearly 14 years. Ultimately, 138 people would die in social movement-related events during the Morales years, a close runner-up to 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. Under Morales (as well as under Carlos Mesa), state security forces killed less often and were responsible for a smaller share of deaths than even during the relatively calm 1982–2000 years. In no single incident did security forces under Evo Morales kill more than four civilians.
Partisan political conflict among civilians resulted in twenty-six deaths during the Morales years, many more than in prior decades. Responsibility for these deaths was evenly split between Morales’ supporters and opponents. The increased frequency of such violence set the stage for the seven civilian-on-civilian killings during the 2019 crisis. During the crisis, the Morales government exercised restraint over the security forces and publicly announced its refusal to confront mutinying police. After Morales’ overthrow, a different and more deadly situation would rapidly emerge.
The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts for Bolivia, a five-person team of human rights experts named by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), has been formally cleared to begin the work of investigating all human rights violations during Bolivia’s 2019 political crisis (prior coverage|Wikipedia) and expects to start work in the country on October 2, 2020. The Group was authorized by agreement between the Commission and the Bolivian government on December 2 of last year, following a dramatic visit by IACHR members to the country in the wake of the Sacaba and Senkata massacres. While the IACHR quickly appointed four members of the Group back in January, its work has yet to start and the interim government Jeanine Áñez has raised objections to both its membership and methods.
On April 28, however, the IACHR and the Foreign Ministry announced their agreement to a full investigation of last year’s often-violent events. The IACHR describes the Group as
[my English translation:] an international investigation mechanism on the acts of violence that occurred in the country … with guarantees of autonomy and independence, to secure the right to the truth and to duly identify those responsible for human rights violations.
un mecanismo de investigación internacional sobre los hechos de violencia ocurridos en el país, específicamente un Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (GIEI), con garantías de autonomía e independencia, para asegurar el derecho a la verdad e identificar debidamente a los responsables de violaciones de los derechos humanos.
The agreement between the Bolivian state and the IACHR guarantees the Group the right to conduct an elaborate investigation with full access to the files and records of the government. Its designated powers are reminiscent of a truth commission:
An Argentine journalist’s final report denounced a coup; his beating later that night looks like murder
Sebastián Moro was a 40-year-old Argentine journalist working for Prensa Rural, a newspaper associated with the CSUTCB national peasants union that strongly supported the government of Evo Morales. On the morning of November 9, the Morales presidency was under siege, with a widespread police mutiny backing up nationwide protests of the October 20 election results. That morning, Sebastián Moro showed up to coordinate the next edition of Prensa Rural with his supervisor José Aramayo, who also coordinated the station Radio Comunidad out of the office of the CSUTCB in the Miraflores neighborhood of La Paz. By that night, angry civilian opponents of the Morales government had broken into the compound, beaten and tied up Aramayo and senior union leader Hugo López, and delivered them to a police station.
From his apartment in the Sopocachi neighborhood, Moro filed a report for the Argentine newspaper Página12titled “Un golpe de estado en marcha en Bolivia [A coup d’etat is underway in Bolivia].” article mentioned the attack on Aramayo as part of long list of attacks by the civic movement:
Because of the [police and military’s self-imposed] confinement to barracks, on Saturady there were acts of vandalism and aggression upon government functionaries, journalists, and MAS party members in different parts of the country. Among numerous acts, the governor of Oruro’s house was burned, state workers at Bolivia TV and Radio Patria Nueva denounced they were kidnapped and denied their right to work by fighting groups of the opposition who surrounded their building, and the La Paz headquarters of the Peasant’s Confederation (CSUTCB) was invaded and attacked.
Producto de los acuartelamientos, el sábado hubo actos vandálicos y agresiones a funcionarios, periodistas y militantes del MAS en distintos puntos del país. Entre varios hechos, el gobernador de Oruro sufrió el incendio de su vivienda, trabajadores estatales del canal Bolivia TV y de Radio Patria Nueva denunciaron que fueron secuestrados y privados de su derecho al trabajo por grupos de choque de la oposición que cercaron el edificio, y la sede paceña de la Confederación Campesina (CSUTCB) fue invadida y atacada
The Bolivian government of interim president Jeanine Áñez has decreed a sweeping “total quarantine” for 14 days to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and halt a small, but significant outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. (Prior coverage of COVID-19 in Bolivia|Wikipedia) There are just 19 cases confirmed in Bolivia, with known community transmission in urban Oruro and the municipality of Porongo, both of which were already under local quarantine measures. Nonetheless, municipal and departmental authorities, legislators, and presidential candidates had all called for a total quarantine in the past few days. The fourteen-day emergency restrictions immediately prompted electoral authorities to postpone the highly anticipated general election, previously scheduled for May 3.
The quarantine measures mandate Bolivians to stay in their homes except for trips for work, groceries, and medical care; shorten the working and shopping day; and suspend public transport. It enters into force at 12am on Sunday, March 22, just hours after being announced. Bolivians are encouraged to provision themselves today, but markets will remain open for the mornings under the quarantine.
After Áñez decreed the national quarantine, Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) suspends electoral preparations for 14 days, calls on all parties to agree on a new date for general elections, previously set for May 3. In recent days, six political parties supported postponing elections, but the largest, but Evo Morales’ MAS-IPSP opposed any delay. Both calculation are in part political, since the MAS-IPSP is leading in the polls and the Bolivian political Right has failed to consolidate around a single candidate.
The Tribunal had little choice but to propose some delay since the proposed quarantine will interfere with pre-election preparations, even if it ends on schedule on April 5. The Tribunal’s statement s very clear in seeking consent from the legislative branch, led by a MAS-IPSP majority for a new election date. It also points out the central and troubling challenge: “to resist the threat of the pandemic and to also organize a clean and transparent electoral process, which will reflect precisely the will of the citizenry and will permit the formation of a legitimate government.”
It remains to be seen whether Áñez decision was necessary or precipitous, and whether the quarantine will further militarization and political divisions within the country or allow Bolivians to supplant them. The fractures opened up during the 2019 political crisis remain gaping, as does the absence of an elected government. There are clearly signs of both a cross-party willingness to cooperate against the coronavirus, as evidenced by recent agreements in El Alto and the Chapare, as well as clear signs of political opportunism. As with the rest of the world, much also depends on whether or not the coronavirus spreads out of control over the next two weeks.
Top image: President Jeanine Áñez at the repurposed anti-imperialist military school, rapidly converted as a COVID-19 isolation site. From @JeanineAnez on Twitter.
It has been just seven days since the Bolivian Ministry of Health confirmed the first two case of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in the landlocked South American country, on Tuesday, March 10. The announcement, and the attempts of two patients to seek treatment in the lowland city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra set off a wave of panic in that metropolis, marked by (as best I know, globally unprecedented) protests by doctors, health workers, and neighbors seeking to deny treatment to the infected individuals. Cooler heads prevailed, and treatment sites were eventually proposed. Channeling the panic, several national legislators proposed criminal penalties for either blocking treatment or arriving and failing to quarantine.
Meanwhile, the small highland city of Oruro experienced community transmission of the virus, which now has seven cases (one of them is linked to travel from Italy). Oruro then led a wave of departments and localities in taking community-wide measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Oruro department’s “quarantine” measures are scheduled to last from March 16 to 31.
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 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.
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.
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.”