“If you enter the city, I will hunt you.”: Sacaba massacre was preceded by open threat of military violence

On November 13, 2019—one after Jeanine Áñez was sworn as interim president of Bolivia—the highest police authority and highest-ranking peasant union leader of Cochabamba met in the Integral Police Station (EPI) of Huayllani, the neighborhood that would see the country’s deadliest massacre in sixteen years just two days later.

The Cochabamba peasant federation (Federación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Cochabamba; FSUTCC) had joined calls by the Movement Towards Socialism leader and coca grower Andrónico Rodríguez to mount a national march “against the coup d’ètat” and Áñez’s succession to president. Following in the footsteps of many prior mobilizations since the 1980s, the march would proceed from the coca-growing Chapare to Cochabamba and onto La Paz. The outlying town of Sacaba was the necessary first stop on that journey. FSUTCC leader Jhonny Pardo was in Huayllani to prepare the ground for this mobilization.

Colonel Jaime Edwin Zurita Trujillo, departmental commander of the Bolivian National Police, received Pardo and Nelson Cox, the departmental head of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo). Zurita had only recently taken command of the region’s police; National Police Commander Yuri Calderón installed him on November 8 in the wake of the nationwide police mutiny, which took a dramatic form in urban Cochabamba. Police officers in mutiny had demanded the removal of their prior commander Colonel Raúl Grandy. (Both Calderón and Zurita had received new commands in 2019 as part of anti-corruption house-cleaning in the police force. Calderón was later investigated by the Áñez government for his alleged loyalty to President Morales during the 2019 crisis, and by the Arce government for his role in the Sacaba massacre.)

After Morales‘ fall, Zurita had publicly embraced the Resistencia Juvenil Cochala, a right-wing motorcycle gang and called upon the it and self-organized citizens of Cochabamba to defend a police station in the city from pro-MAS opposition attacks. Zurita asked them to “organize brigades, organize barricades; we have information that people are coming towards the city from the Sacaba side and from the south… do not let them pass” (GIEI Report, p. 87). He also spoke out publicly to assure police officers in mutiny that he was on their side: ”[I would] say to the the comrades that I came to work … and that this is a moment for institutional cohesion. They should know that the Police chiefs are fully supporting all of the demands and that we are not going to leave them alone.” He offered to step down if it would be in the interest of police unity. “Of course” he supported the police mutiny, as did “absolutely all of the police command,” and he had nothing more in common with Cochabamba MAS leader Leonilda Zurita than their shared last name.

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Bolivian Ombudsman sues to prevent doctors from going on strike

 

Taking one more step in the Bolivian government’s slide away from socialism, the Defensor del Pueblo (Human Rights Ombudsman) has successfully petitioned a court to limit the right of Bolivian workers to go on strike. The workers in question are doctors affiliated with the Colegio Médico, who carried out a two-day work stoppage in protest of a government decree turning medicine into “free affiliation” profession, analogous to anti-union right-to-work laws in the United States.

Defensor David Tezanos Pinto filed the suit in the name of the right of the public to health, but the move cuts against the grain of strong pro-labor elements of Bolivian political culture, some of which date back to 1936. The right to strike was reaffirmed in the 2009 Constitution, and the court ruling that resulted is equivocal on the appropriate balance between that right and the public interest in access to medical services. The ruling stipulates “the Colegio Médico’s obligation to guarantee the right to health in normal conditions for all uses of the public health service when they exercise their ight to strike | El deber garantizar el derecho a la salud en condiciones de normalidad en todos los usuarios del servicio de salud público por parte del colegio médico a tiempo de ejercitar su derecho a la huelga.”

After the ruling,  Tezanos threatened further lawsuits against future protests on May 30, suggesting that transit drivers on strike and protesters using road blockades could be targeted. Blockade of highways are a central form of protest in the Andes, and many other places across Latin America. The current government owes its existence to extensive social unrest using blockades from the 1980s onward in the Chapare and from 2000 to 2005 across Bolivia. More recently, Tezanos has stepped back from his earlier threats, stating on Twitter that “The Constitution protects health services, limiting medical strikes, guaranteeing the right to strike in other sectors.”

Tezanos is the first Defensor appointed from within the Movement Towards Socialism party, which has governed since 2006. Under Bolivia’s previous political turbulence, the long term of the Defensor and the fractiousness of the National Congress has kept this important role somewhat independent of the ruling party. This lawsuit is the latest action leading some Bolivian’s to question whether that independence will continue under Tezanos’ leadership. For Inter-Union Pact leader José Luis Álvarez, the latest action “criminalizes the strike and social protest.”

This week, the Departmental Workers Center has stepped up a campaign to demand Tezanos renounce his action and back the right to strike. An alliance of workers, doctors, neighborhood councils, rural irrigation users, and others is preparing a march on the matter for June 26.

Image: Bolivian medical workers on strike in Cochabamba, April 2011.