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.

International Day of Action in Defense of Coca Chewing Underway

Massive coca leaf made out of coca leaves
On the plaza, a giant coca leaf made out of coca leaves

Coca growers from the Chapare (Cochabamba Department) and the Yungas (La Paz Department)—Bolivia’s two coca-growing regions—have travelled to Bolivia’s nine departmental capitals today to publicly chew the traditional leaf and to support the Bolivian government campaign to end the UN prohibition on coca chewing. Coca leaves are a traditional crop in the Andes and are both chewed in the mouth and boiled into a tea called mate de coca. Both forms are valued for their medicinal properties and cultural role in Andean culture, particularly the protection they offer against altitude sickness, fatigue, and upset stomachs. Bolivia’s demand that a 1961 UN drugs convention be amended has attracted broad support, including from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and Africa, and several countries that had expressed doubts about the move have been won over. However, the United States—a major cocaine-consuming country and the main international sponsor of Bolivia’s once-heavily-militarized war on drugs—and Sweden continue to block the move. The deadline for changing their position is January 31.

Events in Cochabamba are still underway, but here is an early preview of the gathering in the city’s main square, the Plaza 14 de Septiembre.

 

bagging and sorting coca leaves
Vendors from the May 27 Association bag coca leaves to give away

Marchers with coca plants
Two women from the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba march with young coca plants and bags of coca leaves

TV journalist interviews Leonilda Zurita, president of Coca Growers' Women's Federation

A more complete set of photos from today’s protest is online at flickr.