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 of over 100 protesters at Huayllani Bridge, nine of whom were killed, in Sacaba (Cochabamba Department) on Friday. This 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. The 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