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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Deaths during Bolivia’s 2019 crisis: An initial analysis

Since 2015, I have been working systematically to compile a database of people who lost their lives in the course of Bolivian conflict, though I had been collecting detailed on a variety of deadly post-2000 events for years before that. Never before this year, however have I had the responsibility of adding so many new, present-day entries to database: at least 35 people died in the conflicts that followed the October 20 election and the November 10 overthrow of Evo Morales. November alone proved to be the bloodiest month in sixteen years, and the third deadliest month of the democratic era. And it is thanks to the database that I can make simple factual statements like those.

The database enumerates individual deaths in Bolivian political conflict since 1982, the end of military rule in the country. It is compiled by myself and a research assistant based on multiple sources, including media reports, governmental, intergovernmental, and private human rights reports, and use of the research literature on political conflict. The dataset now includes nearly all of the deaths identified by a Permanent Assembly of Human Rights-Bolivia (APDHB) study of deaths from 1988 to 2003, and a study of the coca conflict from 1982 to 2005 (Navarro Miranda 2006; Llorenti 2009; Salazar Ortuño 2008). Unlike prior compilations by human rights organizations, however, this database includes a variety of qualitative variables designed to understand how and why the deaths occurred and what policies and patterns underpin them.

I designed the database to both catalog the lethal consequences of participation in social movements and political activism, and to assess responsibility, accountability, and impunity for violent deaths. All deaths are significant as signs of the price that has been paid to seek social
change. Some deaths are also significant as elements of repression or violence for which someone might ultimately be held accountable. Rather than begin by asking, “Is this death someone’s fault?,” we are coding each death according to multiple factors that enable us to extract different
subsets of the overall database for different purposes. We estimate there were estimated 550 to 580 deaths associated with Bolivian political conflict from October 1982 until the current crisis. As of October 2019, the project had identified 530 of these deaths, including those of 496 named individuals.

Through this process, I have become familiar with reading multiple and conflicting reports, evaluating official denials (we have created a data column for such denials), collecting narrative accounts, coding what we can based on the information, and signaling remaining questions. One thing that I have learned through this process is that making informed judgements, rather than marking all disputed facts with some kind of asterisk, is absolutely foundational to being able to do comparative work. It was with that experience that I spent time over the past month reading and processing reports of Bolivia’s deadly November.

This blog post presents Part I of this analysis, which describes the deadly events involved and explains some of my coding decisions in assessing responsibility for them. A second part will put the 2019 into comparative perspective against other periods covered by the database.

Who killed and who died in the 2019 crisis?

This table (click to expand) shows my initial analysis of the affiliations of the victims and perpetrators of violence and other deadly incidents during October and November. Overall, thirty-five people died in the conflict, including two people killed in their attempts to avoid violence against them.

Crisis deaths and affiliations of victims and perpetrators.
Deaths during the crisis and their causes.

Below, I break down the events involved and describe what we know about who was responsible for and who suffered these deaths.

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“Three hours of terror in Senkata”

There has been relatively little in-depth journalistic coverage of the sequence of events at the blockaded Senkata refinery, which ended in the deadliest day in Bolivian political conflict since 2008. This report is a significant exception. The article was originally published as “Las 3 horas de terror que sufrieron en Senkata,” by Jorge Quispe, La Razón, December 2, 2019. The photos shown below accompanied the original article; their captions are also translated from the original article.

In October 2003, a convoy that would later be named as “the death caravan” outwitted the blockade at the Senkata plant. On Tuesday, November 19 [of this year], between 10:20 and 10:30am, [blockading] Alteños tried to prevent fifty tankers from exiting their cordon. The result was fatal.

Pedestrian overpass from which soldiers had fired. Photo: Álvaro Valero

On Saturday, November 9, ten days before the 19th, the neighbors of District 8, which includes Senkata, were the first to follow the El Alto Neighborhood Council Federation’s instructions and blockade their main road, which leads to Oruro. Days later, the blockade was transferred to the hydrocarbon plant, which supplies natural gas, gasoline, and diesel to La Paz and El Alto.

That Tuesday morning, there were only a few neighbors taking part in the vigil at the gates of the Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) installation, which is an hour’s walk away from the Ceja [the central market in El Alto], since (according to leader Juan Luis Chipana) a dialogue had begun to bring [the protesters] closer to the new government.

The majority of the people were at the Senkata Crossing, in the heart of the giant El Alto neighborhood, but at around 10:20, they could see in the distance a cloud of smoke near the plant. The news spread like wildfire. “The tankers are escaping!,” they shouted.

The protesters ran towards the plant, some fifteen minutes away from the Senkata Crossing, arrived there, and were received by a rain of tear gas fired by some fifty policemen. Some tried to set up and light bonfires, other looked for stones, and the boldest among them threw the gas canisters back. That was the first moment in this tense day.

After 11:15, the crowd surrounded the Senkata plant. And so began the second moment of that fatal day. Some of them threw stones at the windows and entry gates of the facility, but others, in groups of 20 or 30 people, appeared along the perimeter wall and began to push. That his how seven sections of that wall fell, the largest hole being 100 meters long, and the smallest some ten meters.

A segment of the pushed-over wall; the site remains guaraded today.

At that instant, according to family members [of those killed], witnesses, and David Inca, the representative of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights of Bolivia (Asamblea Permanente de Derechos Humanos de Bolivia, APDHB), the shots began. “The people recounted that from behind the wall, they began to launch tear gas over it, the people appeared, and pushed and made the wall fall. That is when the military troops came out directly to shoot,” as the activist Inca described.

One of the first victims, according to the family member, was Edwin Jamachi. “He left the house to cash a check and passed by the [Senkata] plant where he was shot,” recounted his sister, who for fear of reprisals did not give her name. The loved ones of those killed, wounded, and detained are fearful, because they believe that they may be accused of sedition.

Shots. Between 11:00 and 12:00, according to his family members, Clemente Mamani also died.

“Clemente was shot near the rail (the old railway that passes by 50 meters from the plant). That happened after the tankers had gotten out, he wasn’t even blockading,” detailed another family member who requested anonymity.

Families of the dead in the San Francisco parish church.

The people ran to the left, close to the old rail line; others to the right, towards the town of Achocalla, and many retreated towards the Senkata Crossing, where the blockade was born on November 9.

The third moment came between 12:00 and 1:30pm, according to the version related by Inca and the families of those wounded and killed. “The military troops came out of the plant towards the pedestrian bridge (in the center of Senkata) to carry out the work of dispersing [the crowd], advancing and firing gas canisters. Others fired their guns,” Inca denounced. According to the APDHB representative, there were 60 wounded and at least 11 killed (a girl died on Wednesday). Officially, there are ten known deaths.

“The helicopter that was flying over Senkata also fired gas,” affirms a family member of Juan José Tenorio, another of the victims that may have died near that pedestrian bridge. Others were wounded on the highway that leads to Vela Bridge. “A bullet passed through the arm and the right leg of my wife,” described a husband of one of those wounded.
Some victims fell near the plant and others by the Senkata Crossing and the San Francisco de Asís parish. “My son Pedro Quisbert died near the church,” his mother said.

The long night of Tuesday, November 19, while five bodies were laid out under veils in the parish, Defense Minister Fernando López assured the public that not one shot was fired by the Armed Forces. … The Forensic Investigations Institute (Instituto de Investigaciones Forenses; IDIF) reported in La Paz that four of the dead in El Alto were wounded with 22mm and 9mm bullets. They ruled out [standard issue] military munitions.

On Tuesday November 26, Wilson Santamaría, the new Vice Minister of Citizen Security, said that after viewing the security cameras at Senkata, they identified the use of explosive by some blockaders and that some of them were not from El Alto.

The Palestinian protest camps in Gaza are world’s most daring protest

Today is the long-planned climactic day of the Great March of Return, a Palestinian protest on the fenceline of the Gaza Strip. On March 30, Palestinians set up five protest camps a half-kilometer from the Israeli military. These camps are themselves a form of mass protest, reminding the world that two-thirds of Gazans are refugees from towns, villages, and farms within Israeli territory. The protest’s chief demand is the Right of Return, their ability to freely return to their homes and/or to re-establish the communities they have maintained in exile for the past 70 years. Protesters are also demanding an end to the eleven-year blockade of Gaza, imposed in 2007, which has crippled the territory economically. The camps have been the staging grounds for weekly demonstrations, in which ten to thirty thousand protesters rally while at first hundreds, and more recently thousands of protesters have advanced into the unilaterally declared buffer zone along the fence. During these protests, unarmed Palestinians have thrown stones and flaming bottles towards the fence, and used a variety of tools to dismantle part of the wall that keeps them caged and isolated from the rest of the world.

Marchers, journalists, protesters engaged in confrontation and those who have peacefully approached the fence have all been subjected to an unprecedent barrage of violent force on the part of the Israeli military, who are positioned in towers and earthen embankments on their side of the fence. Israeli snipers have shot over 2,500 people and as of today, killed over fifty Palestinians. Yet week after week they keep coming.

The Great Return March in Gaza continues to be the most daring tactical encounter between protesters and security forces on the planet.

If you’ve seen the film Gandhi, you know the scene where people line up and risk beatings to defend their strike. Journalistic coverage of this march on the Dharasana Salt Works was a devastating proof the moral bankruptcy of British Rule in India. I’ve long said this could not be repeated when the opponent has deadly weapons. The Gaza protests have proven me wrong.

The Gaza protesters are unarmed militants, not satyagrahis. They are not arriving empty-handed but with stones in their hands. But they have injured no one on the Israeli side. They are deploying unequal means: inflicting symbolic damage while suffering brutal and deadly violence. And their response to that violence is not to switch to the deadlier means at their disposal (guns and rockets), but to keep coming back.

This is the dynamic of the Soweto Uprising, a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Unequal violence proved morally unsustainable for the regime, ultimately isolating it from its support system in the United States and Europe. The dynamic on the side of Israel and its backers remains unknown; will shooting thousands of essentially defenseless civilians provoke a moral reckoning? That choice is up to us.

You probably haven’t seen this protest from the inside. To do so, see the last footage captured by Yaser Murtaja, who was killed by Israeli gunfire in April. It offers a flash of insight into what the ongoing Gaza protests entail. Watch it.

After the break, four things you need to know about the protests…

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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.

Cooperative Mining Protest leaves Vice Minister, Five Protesters Dead in Bolivia

Vice Minister Rodolfo Illanes, in charge of Bolivian security forces within the Ministry of Government, was killed Thursday night after being held captive by protesting cooperative miners. Illanes was part of a negotiating team sent arrange talks with a national protest campaign. He went to Panduro, a town on the La Paz–Oruro highway, Thursday morning, where he was taken hostage by members of the Federation of Cooperative Miners (Fencomin). Later in the day, he was brutally beaten to death and then left on the side of the highway. His capture and death came on the second of two deadly days of confrontations between miners and police attempting to disperse their blockades of Bolivia’s principal highways.

Recent confrontations around the government’s effort to clear road blockades by cooperative miners have been unusually violent and intense. Two miners died of gunshot wounds on Wednesday at Sayari (on the Oruro–Cochabamba highway), Fermín Mamani (25 years old) and Severino Ichota (41), according to national government prosecutors who have opened investigations of their deaths. A third, Rubén Aparaya Pillco, was reportedly shot dead on Thursday at Panduro, near where Illanes was being held. At two more miner’s lives were cut short: Freddy Ambrosio Rojas (26) died on Saturday after suffering severe injuries while holding dynamite at the Panduro confrontation. Pedro Mamani Massi (41) suffered a gunshot to the head and suffered brain death in the hospital;  he remains on life support without prospect for recovery. he died on September 1 and was mourned by his family in El Alto.

As part of my research, I have been compiling a database of deaths in political conflict in Bolivia during the current (post-1982) democratic period. This work is still in process, but can help to put current events into context. This week’s events make 2016 the deadliest year since 2008, with 13 fatalities. In February, six municipal workers died in the city hall of El Alto (the nation’s second largest city) as the result of an arson attack by protesters. In January, soldiers beat a trucking worker to death during a pressure campaign by that sector.

Deaths in Bolivian protest have been less common under the presidency of Evo Morales than in the past and killings by state security forces (army and police) make up a smaller fraction of deaths than under Morales’ predecessors. We’ve identified 91 deaths during Morales’ ten years in office (including those this week), and fewer than a third of them were carried out by security forces. Meanwhile, at least twenty-one deaths under the Morales administration have come in conflicts among mineworkers or between mineworkers and community members: 16 in 2006, two in 2008; one in 2012; and two in 2015. Two cooperative miners were killed by police during 2014 protests in Cochabamba, during a confrontation in which police were also taken hostage. Altogether, four members of the police or military have died in political conflicts since 2006. Vice Minister Illanes is the first senior official to be killed.

This confrontation does not herald a general confrontation between state and society or among larger political forces. No other sectors have joined Fencomin’s protests and the group is at odds with waged mine workers who play a key role in the national labor movement. Cooperative miners are longtime allies of the MAS government, backed President Morales’ re-election in 2014, and endorsed another term for him as recently as May.

Since 2009, the most intense conflicts in Bolivian society have occurred within the broad grassroots left coalition that backed the rise of Evo Morales to power. The government has routinely alleged that protests from within the grassroots left have an anti-government political agenda, and did so again this week, but these claims are often unsubstantiated. The 2006-08 conflict between the Morales government and secession-oriented right-wing movements has long since concluded, and is unrelated to the current protests.Read More »

Bolivia: A Year in Ten Protests

I returned this week from nearly a full year researching mass protest in Bolivia. As luck would have it, 2010 has seen protests in greater numbers (67 per month!) than any year since 1971 , when the Center for Studies of Economic and Social Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social) began keeping records on the subject. And based on both a comparative look at Bolivian history and pure population growth, it’s safe to extend that title to the most protests in a single year since the beginning of the 19th century, or even Bolivia’s history as an independent country.

Unlike 2003 and 2005, Bolivian protests did not mount into an overarching national wave capable of toppling a sitting government. However, many of the forces involved in those years are showing increasing independence from President Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. Morales was ratified by a 64% majority in the December 2009 presidential elections and his party won the mayor’s office in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 337 municipalities in the April 2010 elections. However, this year many of the voters who backed the MAS in national fights showed their willingness to take to the streets to denounce its policies. Meanwhile, the MAS itself mobilized its base in a spectacular welcome to a global summit of climate change activists and against a 2011 workers’ strike.

Here, then, are the one election and ten mass mobilizations that defined the past year.

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