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.

Read More »

Inter-American Commission puts a spotlight on Sacaba, Senkata massacres

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which visited Bolivia November 22 to 25, has released a visually and emotionally arresting video that highlights the testimony of survivors of the Bolivian government’s massacres of protesters in the town of Sacaba and the El Alto neighborhood of Senkata. The video interweaves survivors’ pleas with crowd shouts for “justice” and does far more to humanize the participants in protests than nearly any coverage in the mainstream Bolivian press. (Click on “CC” for English subtitles, and on “vimeo” to see a larger version.)

The Commission’s report on its visit, currently available only in Spanish, includes extensive discussion of these two massacres. What follows is my translation of a relevant portion of their text:

Massacres and murders

In the context of the crisis, and as of November 27, the IACHR received news of 36 people who lost their lives in Bolivia. During its visit, the IACHR delegation received abundant information about two massacres committed in Sacaba and in Senkata, on November 15 and 19, respectively, in which at least 18 people lost their lives.

The Sacaba massacre occurred on November 15. The Commission received information from witnesses, according to which members of the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba arrived in a peaceful demonstration to the Sacaba municipality, demanding the return of Evo Morales to the government and recject the interim government. At the Huayllani bridge, located at kilometer 10 of the highway from Cochabamba, the combined forces of the Police and Armed Forces had established a security cordon. At the moment the demonstrators attempted to pass through, they were first contained and told verbally that the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) was on its way to mediate; nevertheless, according to information received, a few moments later the police and military agents would open fire against the civilian population gathered there, which they also would attack with tear gas, beatings, and kicks. In these acts, nine people were killed: Omar Calle, César Sipe, Juan López, Emilio Colque, Lucas Sánchez, Plácido Rojas Delgadillo, Armando Carvallo Escobar, Marco Vargas Martínez, and Roberto Sejas. Numerous people were wounded, including by bullets, who were received by various hospitals in Sacaba and Cochabamba.

The commission takes note of the existence of different versions of how these events unfolded. On one hand, some state authorities, including the Forensic Investigation Unit (Instituto de Investigaciones Forenses; IDIF) and the police command, have accused the demonstrators of having shot one another, proposing reasons such as the caliber of the bullets that were recovered from the bodies of the dead and wounded. On the other hand, the numerous testimonies received by the IACHR are consistent in indicating that the demonstrating people were unarmed, advanced peacefully by their own initiative, and were attacked with fire arms, teargas canisters, batons, and other weapons by the security forces, in a sudden and surprising manner. Security force helicopters participated in the operation, as even the Police Commander of Cochabamba testified before the IACHR.

The Senkata massacre occurred on November 19. According to information received, a group of partisans of the MAS carried out a blockade around the oil and gas plant of the Senkata sector, in El Alto. That morning, sixty container trucks of gasoline and natural gas were allowed to leave the plant, after which the demonstrators had knocked down one of the walls on the perimeter of the plant, at which time they were contained by the firearms of the combined forces of the Police and Army. In these acts, nine people were killed by gunshots: Devi Posto Cusi, Pedro Quisberth Mamani, Edwin Jamachi Paniagua, José Colque Patty, Juan José Tenorio Mamani, Antonio Ronald Quispe, Clemente Mamani Santander, Rudy Cristian Vásquez Condori, and Calixto Huanacu Aguilar. Among those who were killed are several people who do not seem to have participated in the blockade, but rather were simply passing through the zone on the way to their homes or workplaces. There were also numerous people wounded by gunshots, beatings, inhalation of gas, and other related causes, who were attended in various hospitals in El Alto. Just as in the Sacaba massacre, some public functionaries, both forensic and police, have questioned whether the bullets that killed these citizens had been shot by the regulation weapons of the security forces. With respect to that, according to public declarations and those made before the IACHR, insistently reiterated by the victims themselves, these people were publicly demonstrating without violence and were the object of repression by state agents using firearms. There have also been public denunciations of the disappearance over various lifeless bodies of people who had died in the the same massacre, which would have been taken by state agents so that no one would have word of these dead people. In particular, cases of [such disappearances] denounced before the IACHR include that of a peasant woman, and of a girl around 12 years old, among others. The victims of this massacre consistently signal that the number of those killed is much more than the nine that have been reported up to now.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights emphatically condemns the massacres of Sacaba and Senkata, in which [the perpetrators] incurred in grave violations of human rights. According to the Commission’s criteria, these acts can be characterized as massacres given the number of people who lost their lives in the same way, time, and place, and because they were committed against a specific group of people. In addition, the patterns of the wounds that have been recorded offer serious indications of practices of extrajudicial execution. The right to life, protected under the American Convention [on Human Rights], is inviolable, and due to its essential character is the precondition for the exercise of all other human rights. The organs of the Inter-American System [of Human Rights] have reiterated that the use of force by the state must be bound by the principles of exceptionality, legality, necessity, and proportionality. As well, the Bolivian state is reminded that lethal force many not be used merely to maintain or re-institute public order; only protection of life itself and physical integrity against imminent and real threats is a legitimate objective for the application of deadly force by state agents. In this sense, the IACHR urges the [Bolivian] state to immediately and urgently implement mechanisms to prohibit and effectively impede the use of lethal force as a control measure for public order in cases of public demonstrations. The Commission also reiterates that firearms and their munitions must be excluded from control operations of social protest, and that police or military functionaries that may enter into contact with a demonstration should not carry fire arms or other lethal weapons. Additionally, the Commission urges the state to rapidly carry out its international obligation to investigate, judge, and sanction those responsible for these criminal acts.

Image above: Relatives of Antonio Quispe lead the procession of the victims killed during clashes with police at the Senkata fuel plant. Photograph: Getty Images.

Division in El Alto follows militant anti-coup protests

Following the forced resignation of Evo Morales last Sunday, El Alto has taken a unique path. The city of one million people maybe the most indigenous large city in the world: 76% Aymara and 9% Quechua in the lastest census. United in by the September and October 2003 protests, it ensured the downfall of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the last hardline Bolivian president to order deadly repression on a massive scale. Ever since, El Alto has a reputation for ethnic and working-class militancy. And yet this very militancy is often radically skeptical of political parties, prone to division, and adverse to being a pawn in others’ games.

And so, the city’s reaction to Morales’ overthrow has been complicated. Some angry crowds have circulated at night, targeting police installations, infrastructure, and other politically connected targets in self-proclaimed resistance to the coup. (An incendiary text by Ivan Apaza Calle, “They are not Evo supporters! They are Alteños, dammit!,” takes up this position.) As I’ve described on Twitter, these protest cut a wide swath of property destruction, especially on the first night of November 10. These attacks seemed destined to deepen divisions rather than unite Alteños in a common effort.

Other daytime protest events have mobilized “in defense of the wiphala,” but with more ambiguous views on President Morales himself. Judith Apaza wrote “So we can understand each other a bit…” from within this context.

A substantial but not overwhelmingly large cabildo of the mobilized, claiming to represent El Alto’s 14 districts and La Paz department’s 20 provinces met Saturday in El Alto. The gathering, which numbered in the low thousands, made a broad list of national and local demands, including the resignations of both Jeanine Añez and Soledad Chapetón.

The circulating crowds, property destruction and arson, have left other Alteños terrorized and there are many testimonial and interpersonal reports of neighborhoods dwelling in fear of overnight reprisals on them. For an example see, “El Alto overnight: Bolivia seems to be an animal that chases its tail.” This weekend, this perspective emerged into a public current of dissension from the stance of hardline mobilization. Alteños are divided between a pro-MAS-IPSP Federation of Neighborhood Councils (FEJUVE) and an opposition FEJUVE contestaria that organizes separately. Some of these divisions have already proved very costly in human lives, notably in the 2016 protest and arson at El Alto’s city hall, which killed six people.

La Razón reported Saturday:

Since that day [November 9], mobilizations with blockades began and there were actions by groups engaging in vandalism who burned almost all of the police stations.

In opposition, the alternate FEJUVE, led by Néstor Yujra, instructed [its constituents] to raise the wiphala in their homes and asked the neighbors to take actions to safeguard their homes, making it clear that the sector does not support any political party.

The lootings divided many neighborhoods. Hence, in many sectors, it was decided not to march or blockade.

The first to demonstrate their rejection [of the “citywide” blockade] were the neighbors of Villa Esperanza, who resolved not to participate in marches or blockades. They were followed in this determination by the Pacajes-Caluyo zone, whose inhabitants decided to go out and un-block the roadways. A similar decision was undertaken by the October 12 neighborhood. The Túpac Katari neighborhood, who de-recognized their [pro-blockade] leadership and Huayna Potosí zone (Porvenir sector) who rejected “being used by MAS partisans.”

Another sector resisting the mobilization by the FEJUVE leadership is District 3. There, barricades have been put up and every night there are vigils to safeguard the Integral Police Station, which is the only one that has not been burned down.

http://www.la-razon.com/nacional/Divergencias-surgen-El_Alto-respecto-movilizaciones_0_3258874098.html

El Alteño newspaper ran the headline “El Alto closes week of protest divided” today. It also reports that neighbors pleading for peace marched with white flags on the city’s Avenida Cívica. Aside from these demobilization initatives, there are statements and manifestos like this feminist text rejecting the “fascism” of Jeanine Añez while refusing any partisan takeovers of grassroots organizations.

Each region and city in Bolivia seems to have a different dynamic at the moment. Just as the national situation is reaching its bleakest moment yet, this pivotal city is working out its own longstanding divisions. It remains to be seen whether and how Alteños can claim the political initiative, and participate in an effective struggle to keep the gains they have won and reverse the damage currently being done.

El Alto overnight: “Bolivia seems to be an animal that chases its tail”

Since the forced resignation of Evo Morales, angry crowds have circulated in El Alto at night, targeting police installations, infrastructure, and other politically connected targets in self-proclaimed resistance to the coup. The circulating crowds, property destruction and arson, have left other Alteños terrorized and there are many testimonial and interpersonal reports of neighborhoods dwelling in fear of overnight reprisals on them. Thus, just as some foreign media outlets have celebrated El Alto as a heroic center of resistance, many of the updates coming directly from the city speak of fear, uncertainty, and division. Neighbors debate how they will respond to calls to mobilize that also paralyze and sometimes damage the city they live in. They debate risks to their own lives, reprisals from those who insist on mobilization, and the presence or lack of a common purpose with political parties like the MAS. This unease came into public focus this weekend in El Alto, and is also present in the writings coming out of the county.

I offer a brief text here that gives the flavor of such late night conversations in an uncertain time. Anthropologist Amy Kennemore (@KennemoreAmy) has translated this text by Rodrigo Urquila Flores shared via El Alto-based Colectivo Curva. It first appeared here in Spanish.

Since one (o’clock), we are in the streets of the neighborhood, in vigil, because we didn’t want them to surprise us.

It’s been years since I attended a neighborhood meeting.  The one yesterday at night was carried out in emergency because of the panic that we lived the day before.

Yes, there were people disguised as police. Yes, when they spoke foreign accents were recognized, presumably Venezuelans. And they seemed to know the territory well.

A woman told us that around noon, when she was preparing lunch for her family, someone beat on the door of her house. It was a tall man, all dressed in black, with a black helmet on too, on a motorcycle. He had a foreign accent she told us, and only asked vague questions, pointing to the closest light pole: “Does this light pole work well?” Scared, she responded; “Yes, youngster,” and took refuge in her house. Several neighbors, in the meeting, called him out at the same time for not having advised, to catch him between everyone. The motorcycle went away and didn’t return.

Another neighbor shared that he had to pay someone fees of their debt in a bank. All of the branches nearby were closed and he had to go all the way to the center with his wife and baby. Paid. Later, he saw an agglomeration of protestors, the majority of whom were Alteños, by Camacho Avenue. He wanted to get close. A policeman told him he should not take children to the march, that it was better that he went to his house and he wasn’t able to go further. “Then, a choca[1] passed, similar to the president [Áñez] and she said to my woman, ‘What are you doing here shitty chola,[2]and I responded, ‘What happened to you lady, are you drunk or drugged?’ And the police saw but they didn’t do anything.” When he finished speaking, there was concern. And shared pain. Until someone said “But not all qharas (white people) are like that, you have to turn the other cheek too, certainly this choca was ignorant, don’t pay attention to them.”

What can we do to get closer to all Bolivians? How to educate ourselves, to put ourselves in the place of the other?

Those that since victory do not do so resoundingly, they understand that there are joys that can hurt the losers, they understand that there is not a total victory unless it is a victory for all. And that the apparent losers of today can be the victorious tomorrow, again. And thus, the eternal circle, Bolivia seems to be an animal that chases its tail always, of the national absurdity.

Burning barrel during a night scene in El Alto

[1] Colloquial term for person who has features associated with whiteness.  

[2]  In the Andean region, term referring traditional clothing worn by Aymara women.

Bolivia enters nightmare scenario with Sacaba massacre, impunity decree, threatened detentions of MAS-IPSP leadership

Given the fast pace of events in Bolivia, my most responsive and up-tod-date commentary is available on Twitter, where I tweet as @CarwilBJ. However, it’s time for a brief summary of the disastrous, unfolding scenario.

President Jeanine Añez, a right-wing senator took power in a parliamentary maneuver late on Tuesday, November 12. A political unknown whose party Bolivia Dice No had received just 4% of the vote on October 20, Añez had a very limited mandate, both from the three-week mass movement that unseated Evo Morales and under the Bolivian constitution: restore public trust in the electoral system and convene elections within 90 days. Instead, Añez has presided over a rapid and deadly slide towards authoritarian rule that echoes the worst moments of early 2000s uprisings, 1988–2005 drug war, and the mass detentions that followed military coups in 1980 and 1981.

Three unmistakable signs of this disastrous turn have come this weekend:

The Sacaba Massacre: The mass shooting came amid police repression that wounded over 100 protesters at Huayllani Bridge, nine of whom were killed, in Sacaba (Cochabamba Department) on Friday. The shooting came about when military troops armed with guns replaced police who were keeping a coca growers’ march from entering the town on the east side of the Cochabamba metropolis. According to reporters on the scene, police teargassing touched off a two-hour confrontation. Security forces have claimed that some in the crowd had guns and fired them, showing several bullet holes in police windows. Journalists estimate that “nearly ten” police were evacuated from the scene for injuries; evidently, none of them have bullet wounds. The police have recovered a single shotgun and five bullets. Meanwhile their use of force was overwhelming, caused massive injuries, and ended nine civilian lives. Opinión offers the most complete initial narrative of the day (es).

Autopsies have confirmed that all nine people killed died from gunshot wounds; ballistic analysis was not yet complete as of Saturday. The dead in Sacaba are:

Armando Carballo Escobar, de 25 años, falleció por un trauma torácico penetrante por Proyectil de Arma de Fuego (PAF).

Plácido Rojas Delgadillo, de 18 años, murió por shock hipovolémico, trauma hepático y trauma torácico abdominal penetrante por PAF.

Omar Calle Siles, de 26 años, falleció por choque hipovolémico por hemorragia interna, laceración cardiaca por traumatismo y PAF. 

Lucas Sánchez Valencia, de 43 años, falleció laceración encefálica y traumatismo cráneo facial por PAF.

Emilio Colque, de 21 años, murió por choque hemorrágico, laceración de órganos vitales y trauma torácico por PAF.

Juan López Apaza, de 34 años, falleció por shock hemorrágico, laceración aortica y trauma torácico penetrante por PAF. 

César Sipe Mérida, de 18 años, murió por choque hipovolémico y traumatismo abdominal por PAF.

Marco Vargas Martínez, se desconoce su edad, falleció por lesión de centros nerviosos superiores, laceración de masa encefálica y trauma cráneo encefálico por PAF.

Roberto Sejas Escobar, de 28 años, murió por laceración de masa encefálica y traumatismo cráneo encefálico por PAF.

https://www.opinion.com.bo/articulo/cochabamba/autopsias-confirman-personas-murieron-armas-fuego/20191116211426737221.html

With at least 19 deaths, November has now become the deadliest month in Bolivian political conflict since October 2003, the time of the Gas War under Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Deaths in the current crisis initially occurred among civilians, but in recent days a clear pattern of military gunfire killing civilians has become the predominant cause of death.

Supreme Decree exempts military from prosecution: Saturday afternoon, Añez signed Supreme Decree 4078. Among other provisions, it exempts the military from criminal prosecution for actions carried out during the current efforts to “restore order” in the country:

Personnel of the Armed Forces who participate in the operations to restore internal order and public stability will be exempted from criminal responsibility when, acting in fulfillment of their functions, they act in legitimate defense or out of necessity.

El personal de las Fuerzas Armadas, que participe en los operativos para el restablecimiento del orden interno y estabilidad pública estará exento de responsabilidad penal cuando en cumplimiento de sus funciones, actúen en legítima defensa o estado de necesidad

https://www.lostiempos.com/actualidad/pais/20191116/decreto-exime-ffaa-responsabilidad-penal-caso-legitima-defensa-estado

While the decree technically reiterates the validity of exisitng guidelinse on the use of force, this exemption effectively eliminates any penalties for systematic human rights abuses, up to and including murder. Passing it the day after the Sacaba massacre only underscores how shameless and violent the Añez government is.

Crackdown announced on MAS-IPSP leadership: Today, Sunday November 17, Minister of Government Arturo Murillo announced he will detain MAS-IPSP legislators for “sedition” and “subversion” (effectively, for supporting anti-government protests), starting this week. The MAS-IPSP legislative delegation, who still hold a majority in both house (and won a continuing majority in the October elections) had emerged as a center of moderation and calm this week. On Thursday, November 14, they called for “mobilized sectors of social movements to allow us to achieve peace” and asked “equally, of the Armed Forces and the police: no bullets, please.” The Sacaba massacre was a grim response.

Over the weekend, the same legislators issued a call for the full Senate and Chamber of Deputies to hold sessions on Tuesday (Noveber 19) to convene new elections. Murillo’s new crackdown threatens to undermine this call and/or unseat the MAS-IPSP from its majority. The Minister, who supervises the security forces and prosecutors, said Sunday:

“There are senators and deputies (male and female), not all of them, just some; I will begin to publish their names who are fomenting subversion. Starting Monday, I already have the list which the leaders of the various zones themselves are passing to me. [We] will begin to detain them with prosecutorial orders.”

“Hay senadores y senadoras, diputados y diputadas, no todos, unos cuantos, que voy a empezar a publicar sus nombres, que están haciendo subversión. A partir de lunes voy a ordenar, ya tengo listas que los mismos dirigentes de varias zonas me están pasando, los van a empezar a detener con órdenes fiscales”

https://www.europapress.es/internacional/noticia-nuevo-gobierno-boliviano-detendra-diputados-mas-responsables-subversion-sedicion-20191117194230.html

At the beginning of the week, I argued that when “the military signaled limits to further state repression, stayed out of the presidential chair, and did not substitute its choice of leaders for one determined at the ballot box,” their political interventions in Bolivia have not been remembered as coups d’ètat. We have crossed those lines.

This is a coup.

“So that we can understand one another a bit, from the point of view of El Alto”

Bolivian Judith Apaza (@judith_apaza) wrote this important thread “So that we can understand one another a bit, from the point of view of El Alto.” The document was written in the context of the Alteño march into La Paz “in defense of the wiphala.” It first appeared on Twitter, starting with the tweet below. My translation follows…

So that we can understand one another a bit, from the point of view of El Alto. The people of El Alto and the provinces convened by the CSUTCB peasant confederation, are mobilizing today because they feel that the process of inclusion and respect for indigenous and native campesinos is currently in danger.

This is seen in part to be exacerbated by:

  • Acts of aggression upon a patriotic symbol, the Wiphala, which is a symbol of indigenous peoples.
  • Acts of discrimination and racism that were carried out during the so-called “defense of democracy”
  • Minimization of [our] protest on social media by means of mockery and disrespect

There are ways that we can help to solve this tense situation:

  • Support the prosecution, under the law, of those who broke the law and burned the wiphala
  • Be more tolerant of those who think differently. This respect will bring us to genuine democracy.

Among us all, we need to guarantee:

  • That respect for indigenous peoples and native peasants is promoted, as well as their participation in building Bolivia
  • That spaces of dialogue are generated to seek out joint solution that don’t respond to personal interests.
  • The violence that we are currently living through is condemnable from anyone’s point of view. Let’s collaborate to avoid passing on message of hate and differentiate between the struggle of indigenous peoples and the vandalism that some are taking advantage of in order to do crime and destroy.

Finally, it’s necessary that the society as a whole be aware that dialogue is the only solution to heal the social fracture that we are living through, and to guarantee that what has been built in these years, as the Bolivian people, will not be lost.

I want to signal that this thread, with some modifications, was the result of a collective conversation within El Alto, and that it is hoped that it can help mutual understanding of that which has been broken apart in recent days.

Judith Apaza
November 12, 2019