The 1988 Villa Tunari massacre, a dossier

In June 1988, Bolivia’s then-nascent Chapare coca grower’s union movement suffered its greatest single-day loss of life, the Villa Tunari Massacre. The killings came amid their campaign to oppose the passage of Ley 1008, which would eventually criminalize all coca growing in the Cochabamba valley region. The day forged the union and later political career of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s future president, and set Chapare coca growers and the US-backed Bolivian government on a deadly collision course that would claim scores of lives over the twenty-seven years that followed.

Despite the event’s importance, there have been precious few accounts in English. Jo Ann Kawell’s 1989 article in NACLA Report on the Americas is by the far the most complete I’ve found.

Shortly before Bolivia passed a new law aimed at controlling coca production, a crowd of protesters gathered at the drug police post in Villa Tunari, a small town in the coca-growing Chapare region. An hour-long video tape made by a crew from a local television station documented the scene: Hundreds of marchers, dressed in shabby work clothes and carrying no visible arms, not even sticks, approach the post. Nervous police, wearing camouflage uniforms and armed with automatic rifles, block the marchers’ advance. A union leader asks permission for the group to enter and go to the eradication program office located on the site. Shots ring out. One farmer falls dead, another is wounded. Several farmers, including the wounded man, point out the police agent who fired. A police official promises that his men’s arms will not be used again “against campesinos. Only to fight drug traffickers.” But many more shots are heard as the police push the marchers off the grounds and far down the road. It was later reported that at least 12 more people died, some by drowning, as the marchers tried to escape across a river. The farmers later charged that agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had encouraged the police action.

Kawell, Jo Ann. “Under the Flag of Law Enforcement.” NACLA Report on the Americas 22, no. 6 (1989): 25–40. Full text | Paywalled PDF version.

Wikipedia Drawing on documents assembled for Ultimate Consequences, my database on deaths in Bolivian political conflict, Vanderbilt graduate student Nathan Frisch drafted a summary narrative, which I revised into the Wikipedia article and revised again with another Wikipedian’s advice and suggestions. The article begins:

The Villa Tunari Massacre was a 27 June 1988 mass killing committed by UMOPAR (Rural Patrol Mobile Unit) troops in response to a protest by coca-growing peasants (cocaleros) in the town of Villa Tunari in Chapare Province, Bolivia. The cocalero movement had mobilized since late May 1988 in opposition to coca eradication under Law 1008, then on the verge of becoming law.[1] According to video evidence and a joint chuch-labor investigative commission, UMOPAR opened fired on unarmed protesters, at least two of whom were fatally shot, and many of whom fled to their deaths over a steep drop into the San Mateo River. The police violence caused the deaths of 9 to 12 civilian protesters, including three whose bodies were never found, and injured over a hundred.[2][3][4][5] The killings were followed by further state violence in Villa Tunari, Sinahota, Ivirgarzama, and elsewhere in the region, including machine gun fire, beatings, and arrests.

Villa Tunari Massacre on Wikipedia.

Coverage from CEDOIN’s bimonthly newsletter Informe “R”, which includes the full report of the joint (“multisectoral”) Catholic Church–National Congress–COB labor confederation investigative commission.

Bolivian newsclippings from late June 1988:

Anniversary coverage in the government-run daily newspaper Cambio, thirty years after the massacre. Chambi O., Víctor Hugo. “La Masacre de Villa Tunari Tuvo El Sello de La Intromisión de EEUU.” Cambio, June 27, 2018. https://issuu.com/cambio2020/docs/edicion_impresa_27-06-18.

Historias a Quemarropa (“Point Blank Histories”) Documentary on the massacre from state-run Bolivia TV. Primarily consisting of an extended interview with Evo Morales, this segment also includes three-and-a-half minutes of graphic and intense video from the massacre as it took place, likely from the Channel 13 video mentioned by other sources.

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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The Evo Morales Administration and Lethal Political Violence

Evo Morales was the longest-serving president in Bolivia’s history, serving for nearly 14 years. His December 2005 election came in wake of a national uprising, the September–October 2003 Gas War, that claimed seventy-one lives in six weeks. It ended with a three-week protest movement over alleged electoral fraud in the October 20, 2019 election. Ultimately, thirty-six peopled died during the 2019 crisis, all but four of them after Morales resigned as president. A common theme in both these political transitions is loud public denunciation of the violence of the prior governments, specifically of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who governed for fourteen months in 2002 and 2003, and Evo Morales, who served over eleven times as long.

In this post, I offer an overview of political violence, including state repression, during the Morales years. This analysis is based on Ultimate Consequences, a database of people who have lost their lives in Bolivian social movement conflicts since 1982. I have been working to compile this information systematically since 2015.  The data is compiled by myself and a research assistant based on multiple sources, including media reports, governmental, intergovernmental, and private human rights reports, and use of the research literature on political conflict. Unlike prior compilations by human rights organizations, however, this database includes a variety of qualitative variables designed to understand how and why the deaths occurred and what policies and patterns underpin them.

Altogether, 137 people[1] died in social movement-related events during the fourteen years of Morales’ presidency, the second highest total of any president during the democratic era, and a close runner-up to President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s fourteen-month death toll of 139. However, in nearly all other respects, the Morales years were quantitatively very different from Sánchez de Lozada, and more in line with the 1982–1999 period of limited violence in Bolivian political life.

The simplest way to see this is to look at the annual pace of deaths.

Table 1: Deaths by presidency in the post-1982 democratic era (excluding unconfirmed upper estimates and non-conflict-related accidents). The higher numbers of deaths found by the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights of Bolivia (APDH) in the 1989 to 1997 period may represent counting errors or deaths not yet included in the database.

Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s second term stands out from all others (116 deaths per calendar year), only distantly followed by Jorge Quiroga’s one-year term (32/year) and Hugo Banzer’s 1997–2001 term (24–31/year). Evo Morales’ presidency had 9.9 deaths per year. Over the whole period since the restoration of democracy in October 1982, an average of 14.8 Bolivians per year have died in political conflicts, so Morales’ record is well below average.

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Photos of Senkata massacre victims laid out before a mass table on March 5, 2020

A wounded rural protester dies, becoming the eleventh victim of the Senkata massacre

Emilio Fernández, a young man from Loayza province, became the eleventh known fatal victim of military and police repression of the blockade and protests at the Senkata gas installation in El Alto on November 19, 2019. (There have also been persistent and credible, if unverified, eyewitness reports of security forces removing the bodies of additional dead protesters from the scene at Senkata.) The Senkata massacre remains the deadliest event in Bolivian political conflict since 2008, and the deadliest act of state repression since the 2003 Gas War.

Another victim of the Senkata violence passes away, and now there are 11 deaths

Translation of the article “Otra víctima de violencia en Senkata fallece y suman 11 muertes,” published in the newspaper Opinión (Cochabamba), March 6, 2020.

David Inca, the representative of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights of the city of El Alto, yesterday confirmed the death of an eleventh person after the violent events in Senkata in November 2019.

He said that he was aware that one of the injured had died on Wednesday morning [, March 4]. “He was one of the youth who was wounded and returned to his community in Loayza province. He was Emilio Fernández.”

Inca denounced that the wounded did not receive the required medical attention and surgical operations to recover from the damage they suffered after being injured by bullets. “There are other wounded who returned to their community without due attention. The transitional government threatened them that they would go to prison for supposed terrorism.”

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Bolivian police tear-gas Senkata massacre victims pleading for justice, again.

The Plurinational Legislative Assembly of Bolivia took its sessions to the largely indigenous city of El Alto yesterday in honor of the anniversary of the founding of Bolivia’s second most populous city. Relations between the city and the hard-right interim government of President Jeanine Áñez are still shadowed by the massacre of protesters and bystanders on November 19, 2019, shortly after she took power. (Prior coverage of the Senkata masscre.) During the anniversary procession, mourners marched with a black flag in remembrance of those killed.

A couple dozen Senkata residents, largely family members of those killed protested the lack of accountability for the Senkata massacre by attempting to block the Bolivian Senate’s special session in their part of El Alto. In response, the Bolivian police teargassed them, as the statement from the Defensoría del Pueblo below details. This was the second time that security forces have tear gassed the family members of Senkata massacre victims; the first time was in a politicized funeral march just days after the attack.

Meanwhile, news has broke of the death of an eleventh victim of state repression at Senkata. Emilio Fernández of Loayza province died of his wounds on Wednesday morning.

Statement from the Defensoría del Pueblo

The original statement was posted on the Defensoría website; my translation follows.

Today, [Bolivia’s] Human Rights Ombudsman Office condemns the indiscriminate use of force by agents of the Bolivian Police, who gassed the family members of the victims of the Senkata massacre, which occurred November of last year, and affected a hundred children in the [nearby] July 25 School.

The incidents occurred in the morning, when the Bolivian Senatae attempted to hold a session in the social headquarters of the July 25 neighborhood in the Senkata are of the city of El Alto, in honor of the the anniversary of the municipality. Then, some two dozen family members of last November’s massacre and neighbors of that zone posted themselves outside to call for “trial and punishment for those responsible” for the ten deaths in November.

The union office, inside which the legislators gathered, was surrounded by police troops, before whom the family members [of the Senkata massacre victims] displayed signs pleading for justice. “Justice and Punishment or those responsible for the Senkata massacre. Justice for Ruy Cristina Vásquez,” read one of the signs. Amid their cries, the family members approached the uniformed police to call out for justice for their dead.

The response of the police was tear gas, which they launched upon the demonstrators and which reached the July 25 School, located across from the union headquarters. A hundred children were affected and had to be evacuated amid their cries and even bleeding, because it could be seen that one of them broke out bleeding from their nose. The docents of the school had to set a fire in the patio to dissipate the gas that had penetrated throughout the installation. According to the report from RTP, the troops launched the chemical agents to protect the evacuation of the senators, partisans of the government, who had decided to suspend their session.

The Human Rights Ombudsman Office condemns this indiscriminate use of force and reminds the Ministry of Government and the Bolivian Police that their actions must be within the framework of the [2009] Constitution and the national and international norms for the protection and guarantee of individual and collective rights.

Additionally, it noted that the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) has established that police operatives should have an operational plan that contemplates special attention and safeguard for children and adolescents, among other vulnerable groups. From the perspective of the Office, in this case the security forces did not act in accordance with this recommendation.

The Human Rights Ombudsman Office reiterates to political parties, citizen groups, political and social leaders, as well as to the government its exhortation to guarantee the peaceful carrying out of celebrations of the anniversary of the city of El Alto, as well as the current electoral process.

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 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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