Bolivian police break up epic road blockade in Achacachi

Early on Sunday morning, September 17, over sixteen hundred Bolivian police massed in the high desert plateau east of Lake Titicaca. Perhaps the largest police mobilization under the presidency of Evo Morales, these forces gathered to interrupt an extraordinary local protest that had blockaded roads and interrupted travel by road in the region for an unprecedented 26 days. The operation used its overwhelming numbers, police vehicles, and a substantial amount of tear gas to break up the Achacachi blockade. Over forty-five people were arrested, twenty-one of whom are being held without bail in Patacamaya and San Pedro prisons. The intervention looks to be a decisive turn in the municipality’s protests, which have been ongoing throughout 2017.

Woman with an Aymara-style slingshot faces off with dozens of riot police during their September 17 blockade clearing operation. This photo (and photo above) by Javier Alejandro Mamani (APG). See Gallery at Rimay Pampa.

The protesters, who have numbered in the thousands, are backing a demand that Édgar Ramos (of the governing MAS-IPSP party) step down as mayor of Achacachi municipality over allegations of corruption. That demand prompted protests in February, in which anti-Ramos demonstrators damaged the mayor’s property and his organizational allies in Achacachi city. In response, Ramos’ rural allies looted the city’s commercial district. In July, the national government advanced an investigation of the anti-Ramos forces, notably Achacachi Neighborhood Federation (Federación de Juntas Vecinales; Fejuve) leader Esnor Condori, but not of pro-Ramos forces. Reversing an earlier decisions to grant house arrest, a judge jailed Condori and two urban teachers affiliated with the movement, Pastor Salas and Gonzalo Laime, in San Pedro. The day after they were jailed, August 22, the blockade began.

In a remarkable month of mobilization, the mostly urban Achacachi protesters who began the blockade (in so far as a town of nine thousand people is considered urban on the Altiplano) both maintained steady control over regional roadways and built a surprising network of alliances. They were joined in protest by Felipe Quispe, the famed, but retired leader of the national peasant confederation CSUTCB, who is a native of Achacachi Municipality. They signed a pact of mutual support with TIPNIS community leaders still reeling from the August law that permits development in their territory. And on August 28, a march of Achacachi women descended from the Altiplano and El Alto to stand before the San Pedro Prison. Their signs read:

Damn those who defend corrupt mayors with their power.
Jail for this looter
Evo, listen: Your mayor is corrupt
“Malditos aquellos que con su poder defiende a alcaldes corruptos”,
“Cárcel para este saqueador”
“Evo escucha, tu alcalde es un corrupto”

The Achacachi women stayed in the capital of La Paz, staging regular demonstrations and setting up a sit-in blockade in front of the Ministry of Justice. Their mobilization seems to have built more surprising ties to parts of the Paceño population, while the highland traditionalist organization CONAMAQ Orgánica, regional labor federation COD-La Paz, and the traditionally radical teacher’s union all offered their support.

On Friday, September 15, these groups combined to hold a cabildo—a mass public meeting that can issue statements or coordinate protests—in the Plaza San Francisco, the traditional heart of grassroots protest in Bolivia, four blocks below the presidential palace in La Paz.

The cabildo termed itself “Achacachi Somos Todos” (We are all Achacachi) and managed to generalize the demands of the local movement, related to the mayor and the detained protest leaders, into “an Agenda that comes from the Aymara people to the whole country.” The six points of departure raised and approved in the cabildo include (1) the struggle against corruption, (2) the struggle against the politicization of the criminal justice system, (3) the right to dissidence and critique, (4) respect for individual and collective rights, (5) critical debate about the vision for Bolivia’s development based on local demands and perspectives, and (6) rejection of the instrumentalizing of indigenous peoples for political ends.

Achacachi municipality, particularly the smaller town of Warisata and the many Aymara rural communities that make up most of its population, was the point of ignition for the 2003 Gas War, and a key part of the rural mobilizations that preceded it. At that time, a thousand marchers from the Altiplano led by Felipe Quispe implanted themselves in the overwhelmingly indigenous city of El Alto (just above La Paz on the edge of the Altiplano plateau) and became an articulating force for collaborative protest. Today, Achacachi Municipality is divided along partisan lines (which are partially town/village lines), but its mobilization again seems to be bringing other movements together. It is very much an alliance of outsiders, those grassroots social forces that have had the harshest break-ups with the national government. But the process of connection among them should be watched closely as the Achacachi movement regroups from Sunday morning’s police intervention.

Broad Legitimacy for Road Blockades as Protest Tactic in Bolivia

Road blockades are a frequent form of protest in Bolivia, at many different scales. A small demonstration may claim a single roadway, or a coordinated effort can deliberately paralyze transport across an entire region. Sometimes small protests in just the right place can lead to big consequences. Bolivia is one of the most highly mobilized countries in the world in terms of protest: In a 2012 national survey by LAPOP (the Latin American Public Opinion Project), just under 17% of 2,999 people polled said they had taken part in a protest in the last 12 months. The 508 who said yes were asked if they had blockaded a road or other public space, and 229 confirmed that they had. In other words, one out of every 13 adult Bolivians polled had taken part in a road blockade. Asked in the same year whether they approved of different kinds of political action, Bolivians rated blockading a bit lower than simply demonstrating, but ahead of creating a political party.

In 2002 and 2004, LAPOP asked Bolivians a more incisive question about road blockades:

“Sometimes there are protests that provoke difficulties because the streets are closed. In those cases, what should the government do? A veces hay protestas que provocan dificultades porque se cierran las calles. En esos casos, ¿qué debe hacer el gobierno?

The result was overwhelming: Large majorities (76.48% in 2002; 71.89% in 2004) chose “Negotiate with the protesters although this may take days or weeks, affecting the economy of the country” over “Order the police to open the roads.” (Negociar con los manifestantes aunque esto pueda tardar días o semanas, afectando la economía del país vs. Mandar a la policía para abrir los caminos).

Add to this the fact that the ruling political party, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People emerged from the Chapare cocalero movement, which frequently used blockades as a protest tool. And that it came to power in 2005 on a wave of unrest that was powered by blockades and sparked into national revolt in Achacachi. And that road blockades were also a frequent tool of the grassroots left in the 2006–09 struggle against a separatist right-wing movement in the east of the country.

Accordingly, the Morales government has often approached blockades with tolerance on the ground. It’s the exceptional application of intensive force to break up a blockade that attracts well-deserved attention: the 2010 police raid on the Caranavi blockade demanding a citrus plant, the 2016 effort to break up blockades by the cooperative miners federation, and this week’s operation in Achacachi. The first two efforts had deadly consequences: two townspeople were killed in Caranavi, and five miners and one Vice Minister died in last years confrontations. While the current operation caused no fatalities, it represents an important break point between the government and a movement that had been a solid part of its broad grassroots base until now.

 

As he ordered attack on indigenous march, Bolivian Vice Minister saw raid as a fight to industrialize the country

Nearly six years ago, members of the Bolivian Army and National Police carried out a raid on some six hundred indigenous marchers at Chaparina. In a startlingly frank conversation addressing members of the National Police, Vice Minister of Police and the Interior Regime Marcos Farfán described the next day’s raid as a battle to preserve the government’s economic program and political future. (A video recording of his conversation was leaked to the press, and published this week by the Fundación Solón as part of an article by Pablo Solón). The Eighth National Indigenous March had as its first demand the defense of Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), and put forward a general right of indigenous communities to say no to destructive projects within their territories.

On September 25, police mounted an attack on the indigenous marchers, beating and teargassing them, seeking out and arresting prominent leaders, and leaving behind a chaotic scene of injury, flight, and fear. Marchers, including prominent leaders, were grabbed, tackled, and handcuffed in front of network television cameras. Between 70 and 280 were injured in the assault, including Celso Padilla (president of the Guaraní People’s Assembly), hospitalized with multiple hematomas. Hundreds of marchers were taken on buses overnight in a frustrated attempt to return them by land or airplane to the starting point of the march. The raid at Chaparina was the breaking point for the lowland Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia’s alliance with the government.

While the motives of the raid have long been evident, this forthright statement crystalizes the government’s motives in carrying it out. It will appear in any future historical account of when and how the Evo Morales government shifted from a rhetorical embrace of indigenous rights to a committed advocate of putting extractive industrial development first.

One must have a global, integrated vision of the matter, although it can be reduced to just the operation that we will carry forward tomorrow, it has to do with overall issues in terms of what our Constitution and program [of government] have proposed, which is rooted in industrializing, highways, hydroelectric dams, electricity, and energy.

But they [the indigenous marchers, presumably] are with their program attempting to avoid that going forward. They have their own political objectives behind it. The less able this government is to fulfill its programs, the fewer possibilities it will have in the future to gain votes.

Because if we don’t produce, if we don’t create industries, if we don’t build highways, if we don’t diversify our production, if we don’t transform our gas into other products, if we don’t generate added value from our raw materials, this government will fail. Everything will be ruined. This is the bottom-line objective that it [the march] has, to say that they were with Evo and his lovely proposals, but he didn’t carry them out. And he didn’t carry them out because of these kind of elements who put up hindrances and obstacles against carrying out that which is the job of nobody else in the country [but us]. A country in which we have been reduced to backwardness, to economic dependence, and to political dependence over years and years and years.

What we need to do is consolidate our sovereignty as a nation. To be sovereign, we must be productive, rich as a nation, and to be rich we need to produce and industrialize our country.

Thank you for listening to me. It doesn’t have much to do with the matter [at hand], but I believe it’s important to clarify those elements that have to do with all Bolivians, police officers or not, with the whole country. But it is within this framework that we, lamentably, are entering into carrying out this operation… Tomorrow, we will be working.

“Hay que tener una visión global, integral del tema, aunque se reduzca al operativo que vamos a llevar mañana adelante, pero tiene que ver con temas de fondo en relación a lo que establece nuestra Constitución Política y el programa por supuesto que se ha planteado, que radica en industrializar, carreteras, hidroeléctricas, electricidad, energía.

Pero están con este programa tratando de evitar que se lleve adelante. Tienen sus objetivos políticos ahí atrás. (Mientras) menos pueda dar cumplimiento a sus programas este gobierno, menos posibilidades va tener en el futuro de ganar más votos.

Porque si no producimos, no creamos industrias, no construimos carreteras, no diversificamos la producción, no transformamos nuestro gas en otro elemento, no generamos valor agregado a nuestro producto, este gobierno va a fracasar. Todo se viene al tacho. Este es el objetivo de fondo que se tiene, para decir estuvo el Evo con sus lindas propuestas pero no las cumplió. No las cumplió porque hay este tipo de elementos que ponen trabas y obstáculos para que se pueda dar cumplimiento a eso que no es en función de nadie mas que del país. Un país que hemos estado reducidos al atraso, a la dependencia económica, a la dependencia política durante años y años y años.

Lo que necesitamos es consolidar nuestra soberanía como nación. Para ser soberanos tenemos que ser productivos, ricos como nación, para ser ricos tenemos que producir e industrializar nuestro país.

Gracias por escucharme no tenía mucho que ver con el tema pero creo que es importante aclarar estos elementos que tienen que ver con todos los bolivianos, policías no policías, con todo el país. Pero en ese marco es que estamos, lamentablemente, entrando a realizar este operativo… Mañana vamos a estar trabajando”.

Within 48 hours, Marcos Farfán resigned his post as Vice Minister, reportedly to facilitate a public inquiry into the raid. A report leaked in 2013 revealed that prosecutors found that the raid was carried out in accordance with the chain of command. Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti, who was involved in the decision, was reappointed to serve as Bolivia’s Ambassador to the United Nations. In April 2015, prosecutors relieved Farfán, Llorenti, and other senior officials of criminal responsibility for Chaparina. Six officials then indicted have yet to face trial.

Narrow Road to Prosecuting Police for Killings; A Wall Blocks Murder Convictions

With the November 16 indictment of Jeronimo Yanez for the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Height, Minnesota, there have now been twelve police officers criminally charged for shooting civilians on duty in 2016. Eighteen more were charged in 2015, reports Jennifer Bjorhus in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her reporting draws on the media monitoring and data collection of Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University. Stinson has been chronicling this data since 2005, using systematic Google News searches, one part of a wide-ranging inquiry into police misconduct that can be seen in his many publications. (A 538 interview describes his work.) The thirty indictments in the last 23 months have come at a much faster pace than the 48 indictments Stinson has counted in the previous ten years, 2005-14.

Data sources: Prior to the emergence of Black Lives Matter, there was little appetite in the news media or government agencies for this kind of data, but news organizations have stepped in to the vacuum: The Guardian produces “The Counted,” a tabulation of all police killings and the Washington Post maintains “Fatal Force” chronicling deadly police shootings. Shamed by the lack of official data, the US Department of Justice announced plans to begin keeping a database of deaths in police custody and deadly police violent force in 2016, although it would rely on voluntary self-reporting for the latter. It is unclear if a Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department would continue this initiative.

Murder convictions remain elusive: The 78 indictments since 2005 have yielded 27 convictions. However, just one of those produced a murder conviction: Police officer James Ashby was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Jack Jacquez in the back in 2014; the victim was unarmed and had fled into his mother’s house. As explained in the video below, the Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Connor (1989) provides any cop who believed there was a threat to himself or others with a defense against prosecution.

As previously noted on this blog, in 1969 the magazine Ramparts offered a challenge to secure a murder conviction of a cop killing a Black man. The Guardian has tabulated over 500 black deaths in just the past 23 months. According to Stinson’s data, no convictions matching that description have been made in over 12 years.