The death of Bolivian mining leader Orlando Gutiérrez was accidental, investigators conclude.

The death of Bolivian mining leader Orlando Gutiérrez Luna remained a matter of dispute for a full year after his untimely death in October 2020, shortly after the electoral victory of Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca. While estranged from the inner circle of Evo Morales, Gutiérrez headed the pivotal miner’s union, Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB), and campaigned hard for Arce and Choquehuanca. He also feared for his life and warned his wife not to accompany him on his final journey to La Paz. From such murky circumstances seems to have sprung the notion that he may have been the victim of foul play. His widow, Karen Calle, was the leading proponent of suspicions of an attack.

Gutiérrez’s death became a matter of public concern, both in Bolivia and for the international left, after a denunciation issued on social media by the FSTMB on October 23, 2020. (Detailed in previous coverage here) The statement, which has since been disavowed by the FSTMB leadership, spoke of “hired killers” and “street thugs” who “assassinated” Gutiérrez. In the wake of some three dozen deaths in 2019, this claim set off concern and more than a few sympathetic denunciations far beyond Bolivia’s borders.

Within Bolivia, however, conflicting evidence was easier to hear. Three friends of the deceased labor leader reported that he fell on stairs in his home when they were with him, causing his fatal injuries. This explanation matched that given by the clinic that cared for him. Karen Calle, too, heard Gutiérrez himself offer this explanation to the medics who cared for him. but felt sure her husband was concealing the real cause out of fear. Bolivian social movement, union, and political leaders, who initially reacted with shock and anger, shifted from calling for “justice” for Orlando Gutiérrez to “clarification” of the circumstances of his death.

And still, that clarification was slow to arrive.

In March 2021, prosecutors declined to treat the matter as a homicide. Their statement said, “While there is testimony from witnesses, there is no place or date of the events, nor an original cause of his death.” However, they did not attempt to clarify the cause of death.

Then in August 2021, a detailed investigation was restarted.

While a final report is still pending, Bolivian prosecutors have now told the independent news network Erbol the results, which confirm that writing on the wall since late 2020: Gutiérrez died of an accidental fall. Other conclusions:

  • Gutiérrez fell in a private residence after an evening out drinking.
  • Both criminal investigation and spatial reconstructions found the fall was accidental.
  • An autopsy found that he died of lesions to his upper nerve centers, cerebral hemorrhage, and cranioencephal trauma.
  • Gutiérrez also suffered from post-COVID pulmonary fibrosis and caridomegaly.
  • The Departmental Health Service audited Gutiérrez’s care during a prolonged clinic.

Hopefully the conclusions can put to rest the concerns of a grieving and fearful widow, concerned members of Bolivian movements, and activists worldwide who feared—for healthy reasons, but without sound evidence—that Gutiérrez was the victim of unknown agents of the Bolivian right wing.

One dead as urban opposition battles pro-MAS campesinos in Potosí

Young pro-MAS protester Basilio Titi Tipolo has been identified as the first fatal casualty in renewed partisan confrontations in Bolivia. Titi died amid the yesterday’s most intense street clashes, in the city of Potosí, where the Potosí Civic Committee (Comcipo) was leading the second day of a nationwide strike. In Potosí, as in several other major cities of Bolivia, striking opposition protesters mounted road blockades in protest of Law 1386, an anti-money laundering statute that shopkeepers claim will lead to abusive investigations of their books. But the issue primarily serves as a lightning rod for the civic opposition, which previously led October–November 2019 protests that culminated in the overthrow of President Evo Morales, to coordinate a nationwide challenge to what they call the “authoritarian” rule of Luis Arce, who was elected in October 2020.

During Tuesday’s protests, multiple efforts were on a collision course in urban Potosí:

  • The Potosí Civic movement intended to paralyze economic life through blockades as part of a national strike.
  • Campesinos arrived in town as opponents of the strike and as supporters of President Luis Arce.
  • Bolivia’s National Police were taking a more-hostile-than-usual approach to the blockades, assailed by Arce’s government as economically damaging.
  • The Departmental government, led by Jhonny Mamani (MAS-IPSP), was preparing to hold an honorary parliamentary session on Wednesday to commemorate the department’s anniversary.
  • On Tuesday morning, Comcipo announced that it would not allow President Luis Arce and Vice President David Choquehuanca to attend the anniversary festivities.
  • Once in town, campesinos rallied around and damaged the headquarters of Comcipo.
  • The Potosí Civic movement mounted a sustained effort to push campesinos out of the central Plaza 10 de Noviembre, eventually achieving this objective.

Security forces and pro-government and opposition protesters were thus pursuing objectives that led to confrontation. Unarmed street battles are not rare in Bolivian political life, but most often involve one group of demonstrators and security forces. Tuesday saw clashes between all three groups, as well as prolonged violent attacks upon individuals isolated in crowds of their political opponents. A pall of confusion and self-interested statements hangs over many of the details of yesterday’s events, but some facts are gradually becoming clear.

Potosí’s mayor reports that fifty people were treated in hospitals in clinics following the confrontations, two remain in intensive care, and one protester died. The deceased protester is Basilio Titi Tipolo, a young man just shy of his 22nd birthday. Basilio had residential ties in Surichata and Potosí, where he had worked as a miner. His body lay in state in the Potosí Peasant Confederación headquarters, where he was mourned by his Quechua-speaking mother.

The Defensoría del Pueblo has taken charge of compiling information on Basilio Titi’s death. Defensora Nadia Cruz stated that he died in the context of the confrontations, that he reportedly fell in attempt to reach safety, and that the medical cause of his death was broncoaspiración—the entry of food or other obstruction into the lungs causing suffocation. Separate accounts have been offered by Comcipo and the national government.

Comcipo issued this comment: “We know that a person has died, a 25-year old who had choked on their coca, surely while running away. There were no signs of violence, and I regret very much that there was a death on the side of our campesino brothers.” Further comments alleged that the campesinos were given alcohol, money, and chile pepper (that is, meals) to cajole them into protests. This is a statement so full of hostility and stereotypes that (1) any sincerity to the claimed lament of the death rings hollow; (2) it’s hard to take the claim that the death was accidental rather than caused by violence at face value.

Comcipo was also at pains to declare that Titi was physically unharmed, placing him among the handful of Bolivians who have fled violent confrontations to their deaths over the years.

Álvaro Terrazas, a vice minister of health, presented a more sinister narrative. He alleged that violent groups blocked the passage of an ambulance carrying Titi and that “the lack of medical attention has led to the death of one person.” Terrazas claims that the forensic medical report established that Titi suffered multiple traumatic injuries, including hematomas from the blows that were struck upon him in the street. He did not cast doubt on the medical cause of death, but rather argued that someone who lost consciousness could suffer broncoaspiración from something as mall as a bit of bread. Terrazas also accused blockaders of throwing dirt to attack the ambulance carrying Titi.

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Note from the field: Bolivia redefines its history [2010]

I’m reposting this fieldwork newsletter account that I wrote in 2010 because it feels relevant to current conversations about narrating American history.

Imagine for a moment the following scenario:

There’s a formal diplomatic function between the United States and France, in which the visiting French president is honoring a hero of the Franco-American effort during the American Revolutionary War. Military and civil honors are being accorded to Thomas Jefferson, say, or the Marquis de Lafayette.* The French President is there, before a special session of the United States Congress. Picture the well of the House, the assembled guests, the audience of Americans watching on video screens on the streets outside the Capitol. The first to speak, on behalf of the United States Government is Joe Biden. He strides to the podium, welcomes the French President, and begins a speech. He remembers the revolutionary era as a period of liberation for the American continent, a key point in a still unfinished process. Then he says we must think of the revolutionary period as two distinct struggles for independence and self determination: the American Revolution we all know, extending through the War of 1812; and the struggles Native Americans fought against invasion during the same decades. He says we must remember as American heroes Tecumseh as well as Jefferson, Blackhawk as much as Lafayette. For good measure, he adds Nat Turner to the list. The Age of Liberation we celebrate as the birth of our nation, he argues, will only be fulfilled when Native peoples have self governance and Blacks have ended oppression and racism against them.

I’m sure I can imagine this scene. You can too; hopefully, you just have. But those words out of the mouth of our current President or Vice President probably seem impossible. At least, I’m confident I won’t hear them. And I’m confident that if I did hear them, I would break into tears with the unexpected justice of the situation.

I mention this scenario not just because it represents a good goal, or underscores the place of talking about history in righting historic wrongs. I mention it most of all because changing the national context, it is exactly what I witnessed on the 26th of March in Sucre. The figure in question was not Thomas Jefferson or Lafayette, but Juana Azurduy de Padilla, a mestiza military commander in the wars against the Spanish from 1809 to 1825. Born in the town of Chuquisaca (now named Sucre after her contemporary military and political leader), she fought for the independence of both Argentina and Bolivia in a war in which she saw four of her sons and her husband die. It was also a war during which she gave birth to a daughter. Azurduy is embraced by nationalists and pro-indigenous activists, as an Argentine and a Bolivian, as a woman and as a soldier.

The speech was given not by Joe Biden, of course, but by Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera. Before becoming Vice President, he was a partisan of a guerrilla movement of the 1980s and 90s, a professor of sociology, and a moving force within a leftist theory collective in La Paz called Comuna.

It is one thing to sit in a graduate classroom and learn about the extended history of South America’s Age of Revolution, to learn how the indigenous revolts of the 1770s and 1780s presaged the independence wars of the early 19th century. It is a different and altogether remarkable thing to watch a country’s national leadership embrace that narrative as a way of understanding its past. One of the better aspects of fieldwork has been the opportunity to do both.

* Military commander and diplomat Lafayette was in fact given honorary American citizenship in 2002. I won’t ask you to imagine the above scenario with Dick Cheney playing the role of García Linera.

Arturo Murillo began corruption scheme in first week of Áñez regime

On May 21 and 22, the United States government arrested Arturo Carlos Murillo Prijic, the former minister of government under the interim government of Jeanine Áñez, his chief of staff Sergio Rodrigo Mendez Mendizabal, and three of Murillo’s long-time associates. These include Murillo’s childhood friend Luis Berkman Littman, his son Bryan Samuel Berkman, and Argentine lawyer Philip Lichtenfield. The men are charged with money laundering and corrupt practices surrounding the Áñez government’s purchase of riot control munitions.

Based on the facts laid out in the indictment (Murillo is “Co-Conspirator 1”), confirmed by prior document releases in Bolivia since June 2020, this scheme is best understood not as an arms company bribing Murillo and Mendez to secure a contract, but rather the joint effort by the men involved to interpose the Berkmans’ shell company, Bravo Tactical Solutions, into an existing arms supply arrangement between a Brazilian arms manufacturer and the Bolivian government. This was done at a substantial mark-up, generating between $2 and $3 million, some $600 thousand of which were recycled back to Mendez, Murillo, and an unnamed Ministry of Defense official.

Since the public indictment provides a detailed timeline, we now know that this corrupt scheme originated in the first week of the Áñez government, before the government was even recognized by opponents, while blood was still on the ground from the Sacaba massacre, and before the second mass killing at Senkata.

I think about this crisis moment all the time; I’ve studied it intensely to understand who did what when, how hardline officials came in with guns blazing, killing more with the police and military in ten days than Bolivian security forces had killed in the past decade of policing protests. What I had not imagined, however, was that this first week was also a time for them to think about profiteering.

Arturo Murillo’s dramatic week

The week of November 10th through 16th, 2019, was a momentous one for Bolivia and for conservative hardliner Arturo Murillo.

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Spatialities of Andean Extractivism (video/talk at AAG 2021)

As part of an extended panel on the Corporation on at the American Association of Geographers meeting, I presented the following talk on Concession blocks, spiraling pits, and wily start-ups: Spatialities of Andean extractivism (AAG members only). The talk is a deep dive in the technologies and policies that connect open-pit mining w/ speculative capital, built around Sumitomo Corporation’s San Cristobal mine in Potosí, Bolivia and Bear Creek Mining’s failed Santa Ana silver mine project in Puno, Peru (prior coverage here: 1|2).

A breakdown of the observations on corporate structure is in this Twitter thread. You can watch a video of the full talk here. I’m preparing to submit an article-length version of the investigation soon.

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NACLA/NYU panel on the Bolivian election and challenges to come — 17 November 2020

The North American Congress on Latin America and New York University Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies hosted me on a panel on the 2020 Bolivian elections and the challenges that await the MAS-IPSP government, on Tuesday, November 17. The video is online here.

Bolivia’s Electoral Victory: What Challenges Lie Ahead For MAS?

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President Luis Arce’s economic model (and its limits)

Luis Arce Catacora, the economic architect of the Movement Towards Socialism during Evo Morales’ fourteen-year presidency, will take power today as Bolivia’s sixty-seventh president. Arce and incoming Vice President] David Choquehuanca were two of the longest-serving ministers in Evo’s cabinet (both from 2006 to 2017) and they stood at the core, respectively, of the party’s socialist and plurinational projects during those years.

When the Morales government came to power, it was haunted by the spectre of economic failure under the last center-left government, the 1982 to 1985 UDP government of Hernán Siles Zuazo. Morales turned to Arce, an economist who had worked in the Bolivian Central Bank since 1987, to lead his economic policy. Arce faced an incredible challenge: to thread the needle between popular demands for redistribution and an international credit market wary of leftist populism.

The markets were already trembling: Morales was already a bogeyman of demagogic populism. He was vilified by American diplomats for the coca leaf’s connection to narcotics and stereotyped domestically as an uninformed peasant ignorant of diplomatic protocol and economic realities. Moreover, Morales proposed a “21st century socialism” as his economic project. Everything that was an anathema to neoliberal technocrats seemed to be packaged together.

And yet, the new Morales government was far from ignorant of global economic or political realities. It still needed foreign credit, still lived in a hemisphere politically and militarily dominated by the United States, and still sought international investment. The spectre of dangerous populism, and the historical shadow of the 1982–86 hyperinflation, threatened all of those relationships. The Bolivian government could not afford to be downgraded in international bond markets, isolated like a new Cuba, or spurned by transnational corporate investors. And so, the government sent clear signals to global powers about just what its brand of populism would entail.

One unlikely emissary was Vice President Álvaro García Linera, a Marxist intellectual and former guerrilla, who spoke at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2006. “We are not,” the Vice President pledged, “a populist government with easily opened pockets and cheap promises.” He highlighted the government’s “austerity” with its officials, who would no longer put money in offshore accounts (unlike their notoriously corrupt predecessors), and its “responsible management of macroeconomics.” This was Arce’s portfolio.

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Bolivia saw massive forest loss in 2019

Widespread fires in Bolivia, which ravaged over 6.4 million hectares—6% of the country’s surface area—as of November 2019, caused massive damage to primary forests according to multiple research teams that investigate and quantify deforestation. Global Forest Watch, which attempts to quantify primary forest loss—that is, the area of untouched forest destroyed—found that Bolivia lost 290,000 hectares in 2019, nearly doubling its 2018 loss of 154,000 hectares. This brought Bolivia to fourth place among tropical countries for deforestation in 2019. Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project found that deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon increased markedly from 58,000 hectares in 2018 to 135,400 hectares in 2019, though MAAP’s study area excludes Santa Cruz department, where the worst 2019 fires occurred.

These figures are, as expected, well below the overall total area burned by fires in Bolivia, as calculated by Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza–Bolivia, which closely monitors satellite fire data. FAN-Bolivia estimated that 2.0 million of the 6.4 million burned acres were forested. The bulk of this forest loss came in Santa Cruz, where 1.9 million of a record-setting 4.1 million burned acres were forested, by FAN-Bolivia’s calculations. Of course, not all fires destroy all forest cover, not all forests are primary, and not all losses represent the first loss to an area. Global Forest Watch’s estimate of 290,000 hectares only applies forest loss that meets all three criteria. GFW has a much higher estimate for Bolivia’s total forest loss in 2019: 852,000 hectares. Much previously damaged forest, or forest never regarded as primary, burned in 2019.

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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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Bolivia reacts to COVID-19: First panic, then policy

It has been just seven days since the Bolivian Ministry of Health confirmed the first two case of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in the landlocked South American country, on Tuesday, March 10. The announcement, and the attempts of two patients to seek treatment in the lowland city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra set off a wave of panic in that metropolis, marked by (as best I know, globally unprecedented) protests by doctors, health workers, and neighbors seeking to deny treatment to the infected individuals. Cooler heads prevailed, and treatment sites were eventually proposed. Channeling the panic, several national legislators proposed criminal penalties for either blocking treatment or arriving and failing to quarantine.

Meanwhile, the small highland city of Oruro experienced community transmission of the virus, which now has seven cases (one of them is linked to travel from Italy). Oruro then led a wave of departments and localities in taking community-wide measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Oruro department’s “quarantine” measures are scheduled to last from March 16 to 31.

As of March 17, Bolivia has twelve cases, including four in Santa Cruz department and one in Cochabamba. A patient who died in El Alto was reported as a suspected case, but this claim was negated by the ministry of health.

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