The death of Bolivian mining leader Orlando Gutiérrez was accidental, investigators conclude.

The death of Bolivian mining leader Orlando Gutiérrez Luna remained a matter of dispute for a full year after his untimely death in October 2020, shortly after the electoral victory of Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca. While estranged from the inner circle of Evo Morales, Gutiérrez headed the pivotal miner’s union, Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB), and campaigned hard for Arce and Choquehuanca. He also feared for his life and warned his wife not to accompany him on his final journey to La Paz. From such murky circumstances seems to have sprung the notion that he may have been the victim of foul play. His widow, Karen Calle, was the leading proponent of suspicions of an attack.

Gutiérrez’s death became a matter of public concern, both in Bolivia and for the international left, after a denunciation issued on social media by the FSTMB on October 23, 2020. (Detailed in previous coverage here) The statement, which has since been disavowed by the FSTMB leadership, spoke of “hired killers” and “street thugs” who “assassinated” Gutiérrez. In the wake of some three dozen deaths in 2019, this claim set off concern and more than a few sympathetic denunciations far beyond Bolivia’s borders.

Within Bolivia, however, conflicting evidence was easier to hear. Three friends of the deceased labor leader reported that he fell on stairs in his home when they were with him, causing his fatal injuries. This explanation matched that given by the clinic that cared for him. Karen Calle, too, heard Gutiérrez himself offer this explanation to the medics who cared for him. but felt sure her husband was concealing the real cause out of fear. Bolivian social movement, union, and political leaders, who initially reacted with shock and anger, shifted from calling for “justice” for Orlando Gutiérrez to “clarification” of the circumstances of his death.

And still, that clarification was slow to arrive.

In March 2021, prosecutors declined to treat the matter as a homicide. Their statement said, “While there is testimony from witnesses, there is no place or date of the events, nor an original cause of his death.” However, they did not attempt to clarify the cause of death.

Then in August 2021, a detailed investigation was restarted.

While a final report is still pending, Bolivian prosecutors have now told the independent news network Erbol the results, which confirm that writing on the wall since late 2020: Gutiérrez died of an accidental fall. Other conclusions:

  • Gutiérrez fell in a private residence after an evening out drinking.
  • Both criminal investigation and spatial reconstructions found the fall was accidental.
  • An autopsy found that he died of lesions to his upper nerve centers, cerebral hemorrhage, and cranioencephal trauma.
  • Gutiérrez also suffered from post-COVID pulmonary fibrosis and caridomegaly.
  • The Departmental Health Service audited Gutiérrez’s care during a prolonged clinic.

Hopefully the conclusions can put to rest the concerns of a grieving and fearful widow, concerned members of Bolivian movements, and activists worldwide who feared—for healthy reasons, but without sound evidence—that Gutiérrez was the victim of unknown agents of the Bolivian right wing.

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.
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“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.

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One dead as urban opposition battles pro-MAS campesinos in Potosí

Young pro-MAS protester Basilio Titi Tipolo has been identified as the first fatal casualty in renewed partisan confrontations in Bolivia. Titi died amid the yesterday’s most intense street clashes, in the city of Potosí, where the Potosí Civic Committee (Comcipo) was leading the second day of a nationwide strike. In Potosí, as in several other major cities of Bolivia, striking opposition protesters mounted road blockades in protest of Law 1386, an anti-money laundering statute that shopkeepers claim will lead to abusive investigations of their books. But the issue primarily serves as a lightning rod for the civic opposition, which previously led October–November 2019 protests that culminated in the overthrow of President Evo Morales, to coordinate a nationwide challenge to what they call the “authoritarian” rule of Luis Arce, who was elected in October 2020.

During Tuesday’s protests, multiple efforts were on a collision course in urban Potosí:

  • The Potosí Civic movement intended to paralyze economic life through blockades as part of a national strike.
  • Campesinos arrived in town as opponents of the strike and as supporters of President Luis Arce.
  • Bolivia’s National Police were taking a more-hostile-than-usual approach to the blockades, assailed by Arce’s government as economically damaging.
  • The Departmental government, led by Jhonny Mamani (MAS-IPSP), was preparing to hold an honorary parliamentary session on Wednesday to commemorate the department’s anniversary.
  • On Tuesday morning, Comcipo announced that it would not allow President Luis Arce and Vice President David Choquehuanca to attend the anniversary festivities.
  • Once in town, campesinos rallied around and damaged the headquarters of Comcipo.
  • The Potosí Civic movement mounted a sustained effort to push campesinos out of the central Plaza 10 de Noviembre, eventually achieving this objective.

Security forces and pro-government and opposition protesters were thus pursuing objectives that led to confrontation. Unarmed street battles are not rare in Bolivian political life, but most often involve one group of demonstrators and security forces. Tuesday saw clashes between all three groups, as well as prolonged violent attacks upon individuals isolated in crowds of their political opponents. A pall of confusion and self-interested statements hangs over many of the details of yesterday’s events, but some facts are gradually becoming clear.

Potosí’s mayor reports that fifty people were treated in hospitals in clinics following the confrontations, two remain in intensive care, and one protester died. The deceased protester is Basilio Titi Tipolo, a young man just shy of his 22nd birthday. Basilio had residential ties in Surichata and Potosí, where he had worked as a miner. His body lay in state in the Potosí Peasant Confederación headquarters, where he was mourned by his Quechua-speaking mother.

The Defensoría del Pueblo has taken charge of compiling information on Basilio Titi’s death. Defensora Nadia Cruz stated that he died in the context of the confrontations, that he reportedly fell in attempt to reach safety, and that the medical cause of his death was broncoaspiración—the entry of food or other obstruction into the lungs causing suffocation. Separate accounts have been offered by Comcipo and the national government.

Comcipo issued this comment: “We know that a person has died, a 25-year old who had choked on their coca, surely while running away. There were no signs of violence, and I regret very much that there was a death on the side of our campesino brothers.” Further comments alleged that the campesinos were given alcohol, money, and chile pepper (that is, meals) to cajole them into protests. This is a statement so full of hostility and stereotypes that (1) any sincerity to the claimed lament of the death rings hollow; (2) it’s hard to take the claim that the death was accidental rather than caused by violence at face value.

Comcipo was also at pains to declare that Titi was physically unharmed, placing him among the handful of Bolivians who have fled violent confrontations to their deaths over the years.

Álvaro Terrazas, a vice minister of health, presented a more sinister narrative. He alleged that violent groups blocked the passage of an ambulance carrying Titi and that “the lack of medical attention has led to the death of one person.” Terrazas claims that the forensic medical report established that Titi suffered multiple traumatic injuries, including hematomas from the blows that were struck upon him in the street. He did not cast doubt on the medical cause of death, but rather argued that someone who lost consciousness could suffer broncoaspiración from something as mall as a bit of bread. Terrazas also accused blockaders of throwing dirt to attack the ambulance carrying Titi.

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Tick-tock coverage of the overthrow of Evo Morales: What we know now

A flood of new declarations from politicians and official involved in the 2019 ouster of Evo Morales have come out. These declarations have accelerated because the matter is now the subject of a criminal investigation that led to the arrest of Jeanine Áñez. This post revises and updates my January 2020 coverage of accounts of Morales’ overthrow; the original text remains online there. Since both posts are intended to gather historical evidence and illuminate critical questions, I‘m avoiding using the word “coup d‘ètat” here. Readers are invited to apply their own definition to the mounting facts, as I have elsewhere.

What’s at stake

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.

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Note from the field: Bolivia redefines its history [2010]

I’m reposting this fieldwork newsletter account that I wrote in 2010 because it feels relevant to current conversations about narrating American history.

Imagine for a moment the following scenario:

There’s a formal diplomatic function between the United States and France, in which the visiting French president is honoring a hero of the Franco-American effort during the American Revolutionary War. Military and civil honors are being accorded to Thomas Jefferson, say, or the Marquis de Lafayette.* The French President is there, before a special session of the United States Congress. Picture the well of the House, the assembled guests, the audience of Americans watching on video screens on the streets outside the Capitol. The first to speak, on behalf of the United States Government is Joe Biden. He strides to the podium, welcomes the French President, and begins a speech. He remembers the revolutionary era as a period of liberation for the American continent, a key point in a still unfinished process. Then he says we must think of the revolutionary period as two distinct struggles for independence and self determination: the American Revolution we all know, extending through the War of 1812; and the struggles Native Americans fought against invasion during the same decades. He says we must remember as American heroes Tecumseh as well as Jefferson, Blackhawk as much as Lafayette. For good measure, he adds Nat Turner to the list. The Age of Liberation we celebrate as the birth of our nation, he argues, will only be fulfilled when Native peoples have self governance and Blacks have ended oppression and racism against them.

I’m sure I can imagine this scene. You can too; hopefully, you just have. But those words out of the mouth of our current President or Vice President probably seem impossible. At least, I’m confident I won’t hear them. And I’m confident that if I did hear them, I would break into tears with the unexpected justice of the situation.

I mention this scenario not just because it represents a good goal, or underscores the place of talking about history in righting historic wrongs. I mention it most of all because changing the national context, it is exactly what I witnessed on the 26th of March in Sucre. The figure in question was not Thomas Jefferson or Lafayette, but Juana Azurduy de Padilla, a mestiza military commander in the wars against the Spanish from 1809 to 1825. Born in the town of Chuquisaca (now named Sucre after her contemporary military and political leader), she fought for the independence of both Argentina and Bolivia in a war in which she saw four of her sons and her husband die. It was also a war during which she gave birth to a daughter. Azurduy is embraced by nationalists and pro-indigenous activists, as an Argentine and a Bolivian, as a woman and as a soldier.

The speech was given not by Joe Biden, of course, but by Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera. Before becoming Vice President, he was a partisan of a guerrilla movement of the 1980s and 90s, a professor of sociology, and a moving force within a leftist theory collective in La Paz called Comuna.

It is one thing to sit in a graduate classroom and learn about the extended history of South America’s Age of Revolution, to learn how the indigenous revolts of the 1770s and 1780s presaged the independence wars of the early 19th century. It is a different and altogether remarkable thing to watch a country’s national leadership embrace that narrative as a way of understanding its past. One of the better aspects of fieldwork has been the opportunity to do both.

* Military commander and diplomat Lafayette was in fact given honorary American citizenship in 2002. I won’t ask you to imagine the above scenario with Dick Cheney playing the role of García Linera.

Arturo Murillo began corruption scheme in first week of Áñez regime

On May 21 and 22, the United States government arrested Arturo Carlos Murillo Prijic, the former minister of government under the interim government of Jeanine Áñez, his chief of staff Sergio Rodrigo Mendez Mendizabal, and three of Murillo’s long-time associates. These include Murillo’s childhood friend Luis Berkman Littman, his son Bryan Samuel Berkman, and Argentine lawyer Philip Lichtenfield. The men are charged with money laundering and corrupt practices surrounding the Áñez government’s purchase of riot control munitions.

Based on the facts laid out in the indictment (Murillo is “Co-Conspirator 1”), confirmed by prior document releases in Bolivia since June 2020, this scheme is best understood not as an arms company bribing Murillo and Mendez to secure a contract, but rather the joint effort by the men involved to interpose the Berkmans’ shell company, Bravo Tactical Solutions, into an existing arms supply arrangement between a Brazilian arms manufacturer and the Bolivian government. This was done at a substantial mark-up, generating between $2 and $3 million, some $600 thousand of which were recycled back to Mendez, Murillo, and an unnamed Ministry of Defense official.

Since the public indictment provides a detailed timeline, we now know that this corrupt scheme originated in the first week of the Áñez government, before the government was even recognized by opponents, while blood was still on the ground from the Sacaba massacre, and before the second mass killing at Senkata.

I think about this crisis moment all the time; I’ve studied it intensely to understand who did what when, how hardline officials came in with guns blazing, killing more with the police and military in ten days than Bolivian security forces had killed in the past decade of policing protests. What I had not imagined, however, was that this first week was also a time for them to think about profiteering.

Arturo Murillo’s dramatic week

The week of November 10th through 16th, 2019, was a momentous one for Bolivia and for conservative hardliner Arturo Murillo.

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Ecuadorian indigenous leaders gather in March to advocate null votes in the second round of presidential elections.

Parallels in Ecuador, Bolivia elections highlight growing role for independent and Indigenous politicians

Today’s New York Times is highlighting (with a quote from me) the growing number of Indigenous politicians and parties (en castellaño) claiming space in Andean politics. Different individuals and collectives are making the case for indigenous autonomy, post-extractivist economic models, accountability to the grassroots, and internal democracy (vs. centralized hyper-partisanship).

In Ecuador and Bolivia, this often means challenging the official standard-bearers of the left: Rafeal Correa’s chosen successor Andrés Arauz, and the Evo Morales/Luis Arce-led Movement Towards Socialism (MAS-IPSP).

Despite narrowly being shut out of today’s Ecuadorian presidential runoff, Pachakutik will be the second-largest party in the new parliament. As Pachakutik’s Yaku Pérez fought for second place in the first-round election in February, Correa’s party made it clear they would much rather face a neoliberal banker than debate extractivism, indigenous rights, and democracy in the general election. Pachakutik and the Ecuadorian Indigenous movement, which backed a late 2019 uprising against neoliberal policies, is calling for null votes in protest today and promises to continue its fight in parliament and through street protest no matter who wins. “We will permanently remain firm in our horizon of resistance,” the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador declared in mid-March, “and we will establish other mechanisms of struggle to make a path for the social and popular demands of the country.”

Pachakutik and the Democratic Left (Izquierda Democrática) have agreed on an alliance in the National Assembly, where they won 27 and 18 seats respectively (32% of the body), have proposed a joint agenda, and are seeking independent allies. If they attract five additional legislators, they will comprise the largest delegation, and regardless will be essential votes for whoever wins today’s election.

Pachakutik and Democratic Left will hold the balance of power in Ecuador’s new parliament.

In Bolivia, regional elections wrap up today with four run-offs for governor. In three of those, independent Indigenous candidates are challenging the MAS from the left. Three independent left candidates also will govern El Alto, Trinidad, and Cobija as mayors: Eva Copa, Cristhian Cámara, and Ana Luisa Reis. These three mayors-elect were all former members of the MAS-IPSP passed over by the party’s centralized nomination process (known popularly as the dedazo). Damián Condori, a peasant leader who built an independent party when he was passed as MAS-IPSP candidate for governor in 2015, is facing a tight runoff today in Chuquisaca after winning a plurality in the first round. Santos Quispe, the son of renowned indigenous leader Felip Quispe (“El Mallku”), is challenging in La Paz. And Regis Richter, another candidate sidelined by this year‘s dedazo, is the challenger in Pando. A run-off in Tarija is a more conventional left–right contest in a deeply divided department.

Eva Copa’s advocacy for the MAS under the difficult circumstances of Áñez government made her a national figure, but she ran for mayor highlighting issues of local accountability. Condori and Quispe represent political in-roads for their department‘s rural Indigenous populations, following in the wake of outgoing La Paz governor Felix Patzi. Their rise shows demonstrates an ability to stake out political ground outside of the vertical power structure of the MAS-IPSP. However, the biggest debates in Bolivia about democracy, indigenous autonomy, and ecological sustainability in Bolivia are likely to continue to happen outside of electoral politics for now.

Three of the four gubernatorial runoffs in Bolivia feature MAS–independent left contests.

Spatialities of Andean Extractivism (video/talk at AAG 2021)

As part of an extended panel on the Corporation on at the American Association of Geographers meeting, I presented the following talk on Concession blocks, spiraling pits, and wily start-ups: Spatialities of Andean extractivism (AAG members only). The talk is a deep dive in the technologies and policies that connect open-pit mining w/ speculative capital, built around Sumitomo Corporation’s San Cristobal mine in Potosí, Bolivia and Bear Creek Mining’s failed Santa Ana silver mine project in Puno, Peru (prior coverage here: 1|2).

A breakdown of the observations on corporate structure is in this Twitter thread. You can watch a video of the full talk here. I’m preparing to submit an article-length version of the investigation soon.

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Ex-president Jeanine Áñez arrested for 2019 coup d’ètat. Can the charges stick?

Former interim president Jeanine Áñez was arrested on Saturday, March 13, as part of an investigation into charges of “sedition, terrorism, and conspiracy” related to her sudden assumption of the presidency of Bolivia in November 2019. A judge ruled that Áñez is a flight risk and ordered four month of preventative detention while the investigation proceeds. The case, which began with a formal complaint by ex-legislator Lidia Patty in December, is grounded in the extraordinary way that an opposition leader in the Senate came to be Bolivia’s interim president. Áñez’s arrest came shortly after her defeat in the March 7 election for governor of her home department of Beni.

Inside Bolivia, Áñez’s arrest and the continuing investigations of members of her cabinet, former miltary officials, and opposition politicians have deepened the country’s political polarization. While members of the governing MAS-IPSP party and survivors of the Senkata massacre praised the arrest as a first step towards justice, other human rights groups have raised cautions about the perceived partiality of the country’s justice system, the need for due process, and the need to prioritize a truly independent accounting of abuses during the country’s 2019 political crisis.

Áñez’s responsibility

On November 12, 2019, Bolivian senator Jeanine Áñez convened a nearly empty chamber in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. Evo Morales had proffered his resignation two days earlier, followed in short order by his vice president, numerous members of the cabinet. The leaders of the legislature—Adriana Salvatierra, president of the senate and Victor Borda, president of the chamber of deputies—also had given up these posts, but not their seats. Outside the government itself, chaos reigned: following a November 8 police mutiny, opponents of Evo Morales set fire to the party’s regional headquarters in Cochabamba, and numerous politicians across the political spectrum had their houses set alight. Where the bulk of this destruction was from the anti-Morales side between the mutiny and Evo’s resignation, his supporters began a concentrated wave of revenge afterwards in El Alto and La Paz after his resignation. Police and soldiers had remobilized in a crackdown and shot dead as many as six protesters and bystanders. Two policemen and a protester were dead from non-shooting incidents in La Paz.

While the heads of the chambers had resigned their leadership posts, the socialist party of Evo Morales, the MAS-IPSP, retained its majority in the legislature. Amid the chaos and the crackdown, these legislators pleaded for a guarantees of their security and freedom should they come to the legislative chamber. These requests were ignored. Meanwhile, a behind-the-scenes group of opposition leaders, among them Jorge Quiroga, debated who could become Bolivia’s next president.

And so Jeanine Áñez convened the legislature, first to proclaim herself president of the senate, and then as president of the senate, to proclaim herself interim president of Bolivia.

Was this legal? The Bolivian Constitution of 2009 only specifies three offices in the line of succession to the presidency: Vice President, President of the Senate, and President of the Chamber of Deputies (Article 169). It also describes presidential resignations as something to approved or denied by the legislature (Article 170). MAS-IPSP deputies could reasonably expect to convene to both review the resignation and to re-elect new a new President of the Senate, who would then assume the presidency on an interim basis. But they were locked out of the process. Without its majority, the legislature may also not have had quorum to meet in official session. Under a prior constitution, a court ruling had placed the vice presidents of the Senate in the line of succession, but it remains unclear whether this ruling still applied after 2009. After Áñez took power, a press statement from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal, Bolivia‘s highest ruling court accepted her succession, but this document’s legitimacy and legal force are now debated including by a member of the court itself.

Was this coercive? To the extent that President Morales and people in the line of succession were personally threatened to get them out of office, yes. Susan Rivero, then first vice president of the Chamber of Deputies (and who therefore expected to assume leadership of the chamber), reports feeling threatened with reprisals upon her family. The MAS-IPSP legislative leadership, she recounts, was told by Quiroga’s group, “Bueno, apúrense a hablar con su bancada porque con ustedes o sin ustedes tenemos un plan B. [Well, hurry up and talk with your [partisan legislative] bench, because with or without you we have a Plan B.]” Later that day, Áñez swore herself in without them.

Does this make Áñez criminally liable? The legal case against Áñez pursues uncharted waters for accountability in Bolivia, and the boundary between conspiracy to overthrow Morales and clandestine succession planning after his resignation depends on the degree of coordination and planning before the fact. (This is something I explored earlier about the ouster overall, when less information was available.)

The challenge of legitimacy

Will the current investigation have legitimacy across the political spectrum? All signs point to no. While there is a coherent case around Áñez’s responsibility, it is nowhere near as clear as her command responsibility for human rights abuses—chiefly the Sacaba and Senkata massacres, mass arrests, and torture in prison—during her first month in office, which was the bloodiest time in Bolivia since 2003 Bolivian prosecutors and the IACHR-formed Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) are pursuing separate investigations of these abuses. The latter investigations have promised to impartially examine the actions of all governments (Morales, the military interregnum, and Áñez) and of non-state actors on all sides during the crisis. Amnesty International’s statement on the arrest urged that this group should take the lead for accountability.

Parallel actions by Bolivian prosecutors, and statements by members of the governing party are also subtracting legitimacy from the arrest by putting it in a partisan context. Evo Morales and MAS-IPSP legislators are attempting to hold OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro accountable for the coup, which they blame on the OAS audit of the election. However, on the morning of Morales‘ resignation, the OAS auditors proposed that he should compete in an electoral runoff even as the Bolivian labor movement was urging him to resign. MAS-IPSP legislators have also suggested charges against human rights activist and anti-Morales organizer Waldo Albarracín for using his role as Rector of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés to promote protests.

Amnesty International also points to the Arce government’s blanket amnesty (via Supreme Decree 4461 on February 18, 2021) to all people already under investigation for crimes committed during the crisis. While many of the charges and indictments issued during the Áñez government were politically dubious, not all were, and throwing them out collectively amounted to saying that only those on one side of the conflict will be held accountable, while those on the other side will not.

Finally, a slate of coincident accusations against opposition politicians have surfaced or advanced in the past week. These include proposals to charge Áñez criminally for four acts of policy during her administration, and allegations of financial mismanagement against Iván Arias, her minister of public works who was recently elected mayor of La Paz. (Arias also faces credible accusations of sexual harassment that first appeared in mid-2019.) Bolivian laws prior to and during the Morales administration make it possible to hold officials criminally accountable for acts such as “economic damage to the state.” Whether or not such crimes are a sensible idea, they provide nearly unlimited opportunities to prosecute political opponents. Only a rigorously independent prosecutor’s office and judiciary can manage such cases in a manner that preserves confidence that justice will be impartial. Unfortunately, neither of these offices have a tradition of independence, as was graphically shown by the investigation and jailing of hundreds of MAS officials and party members during the Áñez government. President Luis Arce recognized these flaws and set up a judicial reform commission tasked with restructuring the system, but its work is stalled.

For now, the Arce government will have to prioritize which forms of accountability to pursue, and provide extraordinary and convincing evidence of wrongdoing to both domestic and international audiences on the cases it does move forward. Prosecuting Áñez and other members of her government for massacres and human rights abuses is the clearest path. Setting some legal limits on executing a coup itself looks like more of a reach. Neither will retain international or domestic legitimacy if prosecutors simultaneously target political opponents for their policies or protests.