The Senkata Massacre: Considerations on how the state legitimizes repression

This article was published online by Guido Alejo. Thanks to an anonymous researcher’s translation work, I am sharing it here in English. While written just five days after the deadly day of military shootings that broke up protests in Senkata, a residential area on the edge of El Alto that is the site of La Paz department’s largest oil and gas supply depot. This essay provides the deepest look at the narrative put forward by the government of Jeanine Áñez to justify the killings of at least ten civilians, the deadliest act of state violence in Bolivia since 2003.

Prior coverage of the Senkata massacre on this blog includes: Inter-American Commission puts a spotlight on Sacaba, Senkata massacres (Dec 19, 2019); Three hours of terror in Senkata (a translation of a Dec 2, 2019, newspaper account); and Deaths during Bolivia’s 2019 crisis: An initial analysis (Jan 4, 2020). Additional eyewitness coverage in Spanish includes: Jhocelin Caspa Sarzuri’s “Senkata, una de las zonas de El Alto, fue escenario de otra cruda represión desatada por el ejército y la policía de Bolivia,” November 22, 2019; Testimonies before the Inter-American Commision on Human Rights’ mission to Bolivia, November 24, 2019; and several accounts (1|2|3) by journalist Fernando Oz, who was in Senkata that day. David Inca, of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights–Bolivia’s El Alto chapter, discusses Senkata in this interview published in Portuguese: “na Bolívia temos uma agressão cruel e covarde aos direitos humanos,” published Dec 12, 2019.

The most tragic event of El Alto’s recent history happened on November 19, the Senkata Massacre in which 9 Bolivian citizens died. The massacre was part of the post-electoral conflicts which led to the assumption of the presidency by Jeanine Áñez and the marches demanding her resignation. Many of these were led by remaining MAS leaders but the mobilised population didn’t necessarily support these interests.

There was a parallel symbolic struggle taking place, the construction of a discourse and story that hegemonizes the collective imagination and imposes itself over the fragments of another, subaltern story. Within this comes a strengthening discourse about the [subaltern] contender in the struggle: the sense of inferiorization of that contender, the trivialization of their reaction, the simplification of their being, their dehumanisation… Only in this way will the remainder of the population accept an oppressive imposition even at the cost of their own freedoms, in this way the death of the construed opponent will become tolerable, even desired. Consequently, the central government has claimed for itself moral superiority, the ownership of the absolute truth, and the legitimate use of force.

The Liquified Petroleum Gas plant in Senkata is a strategic location because it provisions the city of La Paz with fuel and gas for cooking. In the conflicts of the past few years, occupants of the area have blockaded the plant to put pressure on the state so that their demands be met. This time, the demand was the resignation of the current president and mayor and the annulment of Supreme Decree 4082 (exempting the military from criminal responsibility in “operations to restore order”). The blockade began on November 9, two days before the resignation of Evo Morales. Initially, the action was coordinated by MAS leaders. However, as the days passed, the MAS -upporting leadership of the FEJUVE was rejected and the movement became more heterogeneous and therefore cannot be catalogued as purely partisan.

The official version of the facts

The media environment was elaborated by the state [which saw] the ghosts of Cuban and Venezuelan interventionists, drug traffickers and illicit groups in the [geographic] center of the country (something which cannot be denied, but will it be relevant in the case of Senkata?), the profile of the blockading protester was categorised as “vandals, alcoholics and looters” and as a reason for the massacre, the profile of “terrorist” was coined as well. All this discourse is supported in a media account on the part of some television and radio stations alongside an intense social media campaign looking to show the protester as inferior.

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Free Gaza flotilla: Accusation on bulletproof vests a dangerous distortion

As you probably know, Israel’s May 31 raid on the Free Gaza Movement’s flotilla of aid-bearing ships has occasioned a torrent of justifications, short video clip releases, and arguments. On the Israeli side, this began before the nine to nineteen dead activists bodies were yet cold. The narrative, remarkably, made the unarmed activists aboard the ships into a lynch mob and a terrorist ambush. In short, the Israeli government has been extremely eager to make the story fit a standard narrative in the region, one of treacherous asymmetrical warfare.

Those looking for the other side of the story had to wait out detentions and deportations, but eyewitness accounts are increasingly circulating. Both the anti-blockade activists and third-party journalists have had their ability to tell the story severely crimped by the Israeli seizure of film, memory cards, cameras, computers and other personal effects of those onboard.

The Israeli search has resulted in a remarkable remix of the goods they claim were onboard the ships, most visible in this photoset released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And here is I where I can offer my humble contribution to correcting propaganda. A well-circulated story right now involves this contention:

Israeli officers later displayed slingshots, knives and truncheons they said were found on the ship as evidence of organized resistance. Defense officials also say some activists had military-style gear such as bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles and carried large sums of cash. (AP)

The AP is simply reporting their claim, but is also giving the Israeli government the sole opportunity to create a narrative from various objects onboard. Let’s consider a very serious alternative story. Observe the following Israeli government photo:

Note, by the way, the clean, unruffled, un-shot-at state of the vests. Now read this from the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2002:

No one is more keenly aware of the risks taken by ambulance personnel than Mohammed El Hessi, a 26-year-old Palestine Red Crescent (PRCS) paramedic who was called to the scene of a gunboat attack on a security post north of Gaza City on the night of 7 March. Mohammed, who responded to the call along with three of his colleagues, would be dead today had it not been for the bullet-proof vest he was wearing. Such vests have been supplied to the PRCS by the ICRC, with the knowledge of the Israeli authorities. Mohammed suffered serious shrapnel wounds as his team attempted to retrieve two bodies. A piece of metal was subsequently found embedded in the ceramic back-plate of his vest. A second PRCS ambulance team came to the rescue and managed to evacuate the dead and wounded after more than an hour. Mohammed was rushed to a hospital in Gaza, and his life is now out of danger. During the same rescue operation, a member of an ambulance team from the local medical services was killed.

“Without a doubt, the bullet-proof vest saved his life,” said Dr Fayez Jibril, head of the PRCS’s emergency medical service in Gaza, as he examined Mohammed’s bloodstained vest the following morning. “This is where the shrapnel lodged. If it had pierced his body, it would have gone straight to his heart.”

Who needs bulletproof vests in Gaza? No doubt people like paramedic Mohammed El Hessi. Why should we think that this vest was meant for him? Reading on in the same 2002 story:

Respect for medical personnel, ambulances and medical facilities bearing the protective red cross and red crescent emblems is compulsory under international humanitarian law. Any violation of this rule puts the safety of all medical and humanitarian workers in jeopardy. (Full article from the ICRC)

Oh, you mean these emblems? Compare them to the ones on the vest.

No matter how much the Israeli government might wish it had faced a commando team onboard the Gaza-bound flotilla, it didn’t. But it’s willing to weave a web of lies to make you think that it did. Hopefully, we can be a little less trusting of this kind of propaganda, and a little more concerned for lives like Mohammed El Hessi, the paramedic whose life was saved by a bulletproof vest with a red crescent.