The Senkata Massacre: Considerations on how the state legitimizes repression

This article was published online by Guido Alejo. Thanks to an anonymous researcher’s translation work, I am sharing it here in English. While written just five days after the deadly day of military shootings that broke up protests in Senkata, a residential area on the edge of El Alto that is the site of La Paz department’s largest oil and gas supply depot. This essay provides the deepest look at the narrative put forward by the government of Jeanine Áñez to justify the killings of at least ten civilians, the deadliest act of state violence in Bolivia since 2003.

Prior coverage of the Senkata massacre on this blog includes: Inter-American Commission puts a spotlight on Sacaba, Senkata massacres (Dec 19, 2019); Three hours of terror in Senkata (a translation of a Dec 2, 2019, newspaper account); and Deaths during Bolivia’s 2019 crisis: An initial analysis (Jan 4, 2020). Additional eyewitness coverage in Spanish includes: Jhocelin Caspa Sarzuri’s “Senkata, una de las zonas de El Alto, fue escenario de otra cruda represión desatada por el ejército y la policía de Bolivia,” November 22, 2019; Testimonies before the Inter-American Commision on Human Rights’ mission to Bolivia, November 24, 2019; and several accounts (1|2|3) by journalist Fernando Oz, who was in Senkata that day. David Inca, of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights–Bolivia’s El Alto chapter, discusses Senkata in this interview published in Portuguese: “na Bolívia temos uma agressão cruel e covarde aos direitos humanos,” published Dec 12, 2019.

The most tragic event of El Alto’s recent history happened on November 19, the Senkata Massacre in which 9 Bolivian citizens died. The massacre was part of the post-electoral conflicts which led to the assumption of the presidency by Jeanine Áñez and the marches demanding her resignation. Many of these were led by remaining MAS leaders but the mobilised population didn’t necessarily support these interests.

There was a parallel symbolic struggle taking place, the construction of a discourse and story that hegemonizes the collective imagination and imposes itself over the fragments of another, subaltern story. Within this comes a strengthening discourse about the [subaltern] contender in the struggle: the sense of inferiorization of that contender, the trivialization of their reaction, the simplification of their being, their dehumanisation… Only in this way will the remainder of the population accept an oppressive imposition even at the cost of their own freedoms, in this way the death of the construed opponent will become tolerable, even desired. Consequently, the central government has claimed for itself moral superiority, the ownership of the absolute truth, and the legitimate use of force.

The Liquified Petroleum Gas plant in Senkata is a strategic location because it provisions the city of La Paz with fuel and gas for cooking. In the conflicts of the past few years, occupants of the area have blockaded the plant to put pressure on the state so that their demands be met. This time, the demand was the resignation of the current president and mayor and the annulment of Supreme Decree 4082 (exempting the military from criminal responsibility in “operations to restore order”). The blockade began on November 9, two days before the resignation of Evo Morales. Initially, the action was coordinated by MAS leaders. However, as the days passed, the MAS -upporting leadership of the FEJUVE was rejected and the movement became more heterogeneous and therefore cannot be catalogued as purely partisan.

The official version of the facts

The media environment was elaborated by the state [which saw] the ghosts of Cuban and Venezuelan interventionists, drug traffickers and illicit groups in the [geographic] center of the country (something which cannot be denied, but will it be relevant in the case of Senkata?), the profile of the blockading protester was categorised as “vandals, alcoholics and looters” and as a reason for the massacre, the profile of “terrorist” was coined as well. All this discourse is supported in a media account on the part of some television and radio stations alongside an intense social media campaign looking to show the protester as inferior.

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Deaths during Bolivia’s 2019 crisis: An initial analysis

Since 2015, I have been working systematically to compile a database of people who lost their lives in the course of Bolivian conflict, though I had been collecting detailed on a variety of deadly post-2000 events for years before that. Never before this year, however have I had the responsibility of adding so many new, present-day entries to database: at least 35 people died in the conflicts that followed the October 20 election and the November 10 overthrow of Evo Morales. November alone proved to be the bloodiest month in sixteen years, and the third deadliest month of the democratic era. And it is thanks to the database that I can make simple factual statements like those.

The database enumerates individual deaths in Bolivian political conflict since 1982, the end of military rule in the country. It is compiled by myself and a research assistant based on multiple sources, including media reports, governmental, intergovernmental, and private human rights reports, and use of the research literature on political conflict. The dataset now includes nearly all of the deaths identified by a Permanent Assembly of Human Rights-Bolivia (APDHB) study of deaths from 1988 to 2003, and a study of the coca conflict from 1982 to 2005 (Navarro Miranda 2006; Llorenti 2009; Salazar Ortuño 2008). Unlike prior compilations by human rights organizations, however, this database includes a variety of qualitative variables designed to understand how and why the deaths occurred and what policies and patterns underpin them.

I designed the database to both catalog the lethal consequences of participation in social movements and political activism, and to assess responsibility, accountability, and impunity for violent deaths. All deaths are significant as signs of the price that has been paid to seek social
change. Some deaths are also significant as elements of repression or violence for which someone might ultimately be held accountable. Rather than begin by asking, “Is this death someone’s fault?,” we are coding each death according to multiple factors that enable us to extract different
subsets of the overall database for different purposes. We estimate there were estimated 550 to 580 deaths associated with Bolivian political conflict from October 1982 until the current crisis. As of October 2019, the project had identified 530 of these deaths, including those of 496 named individuals.

Through this process, I have become familiar with reading multiple and conflicting reports, evaluating official denials (we have created a data column for such denials), collecting narrative accounts, coding what we can based on the information, and signaling remaining questions. One thing that I have learned through this process is that making informed judgements, rather than marking all disputed facts with some kind of asterisk, is absolutely foundational to being able to do comparative work. It was with that experience that I spent time over the past month reading and processing reports of Bolivia’s deadly November.

This blog post presents Part I of this analysis, which describes the deadly events involved and explains some of my coding decisions in assessing responsibility for them. A second part will put the 2019 into comparative perspective against other periods covered by the database.

Who killed and who died in the 2019 crisis?

This table (click to expand) shows my initial analysis of the affiliations of the victims and perpetrators of violence and other deadly incidents during October and November. Overall, thirty-five people died in the conflict, including two people killed in their attempts to avoid violence against them.

Crisis deaths and affiliations of victims and perpetrators.
Deaths during the crisis and their causes.

Below, I break down the events involved and describe what we know about who was responsible for and who suffered these deaths.

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In the field: Building a database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict

Earlier this month, I spent ten days in La Paz working on Ultimate Consequences: A database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict during the democratic era. This project is a compilation of detailed information about the human cost of political struggle in the country I have been research and writing about for over a decade. It includes people killed when movements challenged the state and the state responded with violence—the initial spark for my research—but also a variety of deaths associated with coca erradication and resistance to it, deaths caused and endured by guerrilla and paramilitary forces, prolonged inter-ethnic conflict (mainly the “war of the ayllus” between the Laymi and Qaqachaka communities), political assassinations (both due to partisan politics and patriarchal rejection of women coming to forma leadership), and the times when self-sacrificial protest (hunger strikes and prolonged marches under adverse conditions) claimed the lives of protesters and their children.

As of today, we have 512 deaths recorded, 477 of them with names. It has been a grim, if captivating tour through recent Bolivian history. While I’ve had the collaborative support of two research assistants over the course of the project, I think I’ve read every story of death, and the process has been at turns sobering, enraging, frustrating, and deeply informative.

Right now, I am focused on getting two things done with this database: ensuring that our dataset is as complete as we can make it, and making several of the many variables that we are recording—starting with location and the role of the state—as completely specified as possible so that we can share complete summary data, maps, and other statistical visualizations with the public. In La Paz, this meant taking my camera on a lot of trips to the Archive of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, which has decades of Bolivian newspapers bound into massive volumes, and coordinating with colleagues in a Bolivian NGO on a graphic visualization front-end for the database.