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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How to survive and outflank Justice Amy Coney Barrett

At 49, Amy Coney Barrett is four years older than me, and has just been given a lifetime appointment to the US Supreme Court. Her appointment is the culmination of a generation of efforts by the Federalist Society and allies to engineer the Supreme Court into a brake on the emerging social democratic politics of a multiracial and economically unequal America. It is the last act of an unprecedented decade of obstruction of Federal judiciary appointments by a Republican Senate majority that represents a minority of Americans. Barrett herself is the standard-bearer of a judicial philosophy that upholds the intentions of eighteenth century lawmakers in a twenty-first century society, as well as personally committed to religious and community politics that would roll back a half-century of feminist social transformation.

Despite all this, our existing institutional arrangements will give Amy Coney Barrett the power to review the laws of this country well into the 2060s, long after the United States has ceased to a majority-white country, and when Millennials and Generation Z will rightly be democratically shaping their own present and future.

I promise you that the Constitution itself is less sacred than the right of my children and children’s children to not have their freedom overseen by Amy Coney Barrett in 2060.

So how can we prevent that future? Here’s a list of strategic options, including those already in circulation, for the coming months and the years and decades beyond. We too can strategize in terms of decades, outflanking the regressive minority that brought us Justice Barrett.

  1. First, our mentality must change. We must divest ourselves of the notion that the current Constitution and the Supreme Court are sacred. Only rarely has the Court marched ahead of society in the fight for greater justice (notably, Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda); mostly it has played a role of cementing widespread changes already underway (Roe, Obergefell), or even worse standing in the way of transformative progress (Bakke) and rolling back critical protections (Shelby County v. Holder). If we want a visionary court again, we will have to fight for one, and not offer compromise justices that split the difference between the parties (looking at you, Merrick Garland) or between liberal identity politics and corporate power (Elana Kagan). With respect to the Constitution, virtually every other country in the world has written a new constitution since 1945, and collective notions of human rights have dramatically expanded worldwide. We’re overdue to catch up. The trifecta of an unrepresentative Senate, a majority-canceling Electoral College, and a lifetime-appointed Supreme Court is no holy trinity. Get over your allegiance to these institutions and the flawed, outdated and political document that created them.
  2. Supreme Court expansion: Comes in two flavors: partisan retribution (you got 3, we get 3) and fundamental rethink (let’s have many more justices and a less-partisan process). Biden seems down for legal scholars to sort this out.
  3. Impeach Brett Kavanaugh, who committed perjury in his nomination hearings. Congress could do this. Controversial, but not as controversial as having someone who lied about sexual assault sitting on the court for a generation.
  4. Expand and nominate to the Federal judiciary: There really is a backlog of cases in the Federal courts and plenty of candidates waiting.
  5. Amend the constitution and enshrine the rights Barrett doesn’t believe in. While constitutional amendment is an exhausting process, the Equal Rights Amendment has already been ratified by 38 states, and just needs formal acceptance and some legal defense. A Biden administration could do this unilaterally, though there will be legal wrangling to follow up.
  6. Legislate Roe. There’s draft legislation to do this, the Women’s Health Protection Act: “A health care provider has a statutory right under this Act to provide abortion services, and may provide abortion services… without any of the following limitations or requirements.” This legislation does away with a generation of debate as to whether the Constitution itself provides the right to abortion, by making that right a matter of law.
  7. Make human rights treaties legally enforceable in Federal Courts. The US is signatory to a raft of global and hemispheric treaties enshrining a variety of human rights, but their enacting legislation prohibits citizens from raising claims from them in court. Reverse this.
  8. Ratify the American Convention on Human Rights and thereby allow the Inter-American American Court on Human Rights to issue binding protections for human rights, reviewing Supreme Court rulings. This is the system that most of the hemisphere lives under, and it sets a high floor for human rights across Latin America.
  9. Incorporate radical transformations of our country’s identity, institutions, and constitution into mass movements. Much of my last dozen years has been spent documenting how social movements revolutionized Bolivian politics. One important ongoing demand of those movements was radical constitutional reform in which everyday people and grassroots leaders rewrote the constitution from top to bottom. New visions were inserted and old structures abolished. What made this process possible was that instead of thinking about a “movement to amend” the political structures of society, this was a movement to reconceptualize what Bolivia is, into a plurinational, autonomy-centered society in which indigenous peoples rule themselves. Everything from history to national identity sense of self was up for grabs. A new constitution was the by-product of far more radical transformation.
  10. Keep fighting for the world we want. Don’t get locked in a defensive crouch about Barrett and her five new best friends. When they come to say we can’t have universal health care, stabilize the Earth’s climate, remake criminal justice, or rethink our society, take those moments as opportunities to re-build the kinds of institutions we need to achieve these real goals.

As the United States’ overly romanticized Founding Fathers once wrote, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”

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.

Bolivian legislature investigation: All deaths in Sacaba and Senkata traceable to security forces’ weapons

A months-long investigation by the Bolivian legislature of killings during last year’s political crisis has found that the twenty gunshot victims in Sacaba (November 15) and Sacaba (November 19) were all killed by weapons used exclusively by Bolivia’s military or police forces. The commission, led by Deputy Víctor Borda, will make its formal report on Monday, October 26, but issued advance statements to the press today.

Before the dust had settled in either massacre, the interim government of Jeanine Áñez issued blanket denials of any responsibility for the shootings of scores of protesters before hundreds of witnesses including members of the press. Those denials were buttressed by claims that protesters shot one another, that bullet wounds were in the back (and therefore “must” have been from the protesters’ side), and that the weapons involve did not correspond to military weapons. Defense Minister Luis Fernando López claimed, “In November, in the worst epoch of our democracy, the Armed Forces did not fire a single cartridge; not one death is due to the Police or the Armed Forces.” The legislative commission now rejects all these points, which had always strained credibility.

Its report is based on visits to the massacre sides, reports from prosecutors and the forensic institute, and over 150 witness declarations. Among its conclusions disclosed today by Borda: “We have not received a single forensic medical certificate from any injured police officer or soldier.” Borda further identified three calibers of ammunition fired: 5.5mm used in light weapons given to officers, but not soldiers, of the Armed Forces, 7.62mm used in automatic weapons by the military, and 22 caliber used by the police.

Borda signalled that the report will also consider deaths in La Paz, Montero, and Betanzos during the 2019 crisis.

Photo above: Sacaba clashes as viewed from behind the military lines (AFP).

Mamani case plaintiffs and legal counsel

US Court revives case against Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, widens accountability for extrajudicial killings

The US Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit in Miami issued a major ruling that brings us closer to justice for the killings during in the 2003 “Gas War” protests. Bolivian President Gonzalo (“Goni”) Sánchez de Lozada and Defense Mininister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín both fled to exile in the United States after the deaths of over 70 protesters failed to quash widespread protests. For the last thirteen years, a legal team including Bolivian human rights lawers, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, and DC-based Akin Gump have pursued the two former officials for civil accountability in the United States.

The plaintiffs, surviving relatives of eight people killed during the 2003 protests, sued the two officials in US civil court under the Torture Victims Protection Act. In March 2018, the case, Mamani et. al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín became the first time that a former head of state was brought to trial for human rights violations in a United States court. A month later, a jury a United States jury found the defendants liable under the Torture Victims Protection Act and not liable under a wrongful death claim. They entered a judgment of $10 million for the eight deaths. But Judge James I. Cohn set aside the jury’s ruling in May 2018, finding that the jury could not have lawfully reached its conclusion. (Full chronologies from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Harvard Human Rights Program.)

Today, the 11th Circuit Appeals Court dramatically reversed that ruling and issued a dramatic endorsement of the plaintiffs’ long quest for justice. The ruling:

  1. Vacates the judge’s move to set aside the verdict, and imposes a new standard for judgement.
  2. Makes an explicit case that a reasonable jury could have found the defendants liable.
  3. Clarifies a broader standard for defining “extrajudicial killings” under the TVPA—based on the indiscriminate use of force—that can be used going forward.
  4. Opens the door for a new trial on the wrongful death claims by ruling that inadmissible hearsay (from US government cables) was provided to the jury improperly.

The plaintiffs clearly recognize Monday’s ruling as a victory. “This is such wonderful news,” said Sonia Espejo, whose husband Lucio was killed in the 2003 Massacre. “We have fought for so long. We will continue fighting, but for today, I feel happy. I feel calm,” according to their joint press release.

Beyond the renewed possibility that Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín will have to pay (in a material sense) for coordinating the deadliest crackdown on protesters in Bolivia’s democratic era, the ruling offers both a significant increment in the willingness of US courts to hold human rights abuses accountable and direct validation of the loss suffered and grief endured by the families that brought the case.

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Research paper: 2003 Gas War and 2019 crisis were deadly, exceptional periods in Bolivian democracy

My analysis, “Mass Protest and State Repression in Bolivian Political Culture: Putting the Gas War and the 2019 Crisis in Perspective,” has just been released as part of the HRP Research Working Paper Series by the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School. The paper uses quantitative analysis based on a comprehensive database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict since 1982 and a qualitative examination of the range of protest tactics and political actors’ acceptance of or willingness to repress mass protest.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Expanded Inter-American expert group to investigate human rights violations during Bolivia’s 2019 crisis

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.

http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/prensa/comunicados/2020/091.asp

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:

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Sebastián Moro’s suspicious death during the ouster of Evo Morales

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.

Portarit of Sebastián Moro by Cristina Perez. Text reads: "A Sebastián Moro, periodista Argentino fallecido por el golpe de estado en Bolivia, Noviembre 2019.
Photo: Jose Aramayo tied to a tree by anti-Morales protesters, November 9

From his apartment in the Sopocachi neighborhood, Moro filed a report for the Argentine newspaper Página12 titled “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

Moro, Sebastián. “Un Golpe de Estado En Marcha En Bolivia | El Escenario Desplegado Por Las Fuerzas Golpistas.” Página12, sec. El mundo. https://www.pagina12.com.ar/230124-un-golpe-de-estado-en-marcha-en-bolivia.

By the next morning, Sebastián Moro was brutally beaten and in urgent need of medical treatment. Medical and media reports described multiple “bruises, abrasions, and scratches.” At the Clínica Rengel, he was diagnosed with an ischemic stroke, a condition which can be induced by trauma. He died around midnight on the morning of November 16.

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New arrests in “sedition” case targeting Evo Morales

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 2 while 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.”

García-Sayán published a broader critique in yesterday’s edition of El País in Spain.

Details on Torrico’s October comments follow…

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