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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Añez government redefines “sedition” and “terrorism” in its mission to arrest Evo Morales

Today, December 18, the Bolivian government issued an arrest warrant against Evo Morales, charging him with sedition, terrorism, and financing terrorism, for his efforts to encourage and organize protests within the country after his November 10 ouster from the presidency of Bolivia. Specifically, the charges seem to stem from a single phone call between Morales and Faustino Yucra, the only named co-defendant in the arrest warrant and the initial investigative documents released in November (see below for details). The call was recorded in a cell phone video first revealed by Government Minister Arturo Murillo (photo above, by APG).

The December 18, 2019, arrest warrant for Evo Morales

The charges represent a dramatic, and extremely one-sided, redefinition of the basic contours of legality in Bolivia, where widespread mass protests frequently use road blockades as pressure tactics and demand the resignation of presidents, and where neither “sedition” nor “terrorism” have regularly been used as means to criminalize such political acts. Insofar as these charges are directed at Morales, three-times elected president and currently the “campaign chief” for his party in as-yet-unscheduled 2020 elections, they represent an attack on the country’s largest political party, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples. As signals of a new legal standard for protest, they represent a dramatic shift in the behavior of prosecutors that could criminalize common forms of protest. (Similar charges have been levied against demonstrators arrested in Sacaba and Senkata after their fellow demonstrators were massacred.) In both cases, the current government is overlooking the similar practices of the movement that challenged Morales for alleged electoral fraud in October and November, demonstrating a double standard that could compromise free and fair elections.

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Blockade: The Power of Interruption

Think of this as the trailer for my ethnography, photography, and the book I’m revising for publication…

On June 23, 2008, three of us ascend an eerily empty highway from the tropical town of Coroico to Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. Foreigners, we stare at the majestic valley below as we pass above the line where the tropical tree cover of the Yungas gives way to pure rock. The so-called Death Highway has been rebuilt on a more secure footing, but it is still marked by hairpin turns, intruded upon by fallen boulders of a terrifying scale, and undermined by landslides. Its predecessor, once calculated as the world’s deadliest roadway, has been preserved as a downhill biking path for tourists seeking “100 percent adrenaline.” Where the road has fallen or washed out, drivers let their wheels dig tracks into the mud and gravel tracks, and peer over the edges of their vehicles to avoid falling off the side.

Today, however, both roads are nearly silent. None of the half dozen minibus unions are operating their vehicles, bike tours are cancelled, and the taxi we found cruises over empty roads and easily steers clear of both the rock faces and the treacherous edges. Once finally inside La Paz however, it comes to a stop at the cause of all the earlier silence: an urban road blockade. Residents of the northeastern District 13, organized through 46 neighborhood councils, have plugged the main arteries through their neighborhood with stones and their collective presence. They are calling on the municipality to meet an eight-point platform of demands concerning crime, public works, and water provision. Taxis like ours can approach the protest zone but only to discharge their passengers. Dozens of men and women walk—their goods stacked on their heads, bundled in fabric on their backs, or dragged along in suitcases—across the vehicle-free stretch of urban pavement, littered with stones and occupied by protesters who gather in the middle.

Every point along the road we have travelled is a potential chokepoint. Since the main road from La Paz to the Yungas passes through this district, a single blockade is enough to cut off all traffic to Coroico, the Yungas, Caranavi, and the northern Bolivian Amazon. Whether accomplished by simply sitting down in the street, dragging in boulders and tree limbs, or coordinating crowds of thousands to take over key thoroughfares, road blockades bring a sudden urgency to political protest. By blocking the circulation of people and goods, they ensure that the impacts of protest ripple across an entire region.

Read more at Limn Magazine…

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.

 

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.

 

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 »

Untangling Puno mining protest reports (or, why English-language wire reporters should read the local press)

The wave of anti-mining protests in the Puno Region of Peru reached day 50 today. Yesterday, June 24, was a particularly dramatic day, however: the Peruvian government announced that it will annul the mining concession for the proposed Santa Ana silver mine in Huacullani District, near the Bolivian border southeast of Puno; other protesters took over the Manco Capac airport in Juliaca, north of Puno, only to be shot with live ammunition by police. These were both very important events in the seven-week-long protests. But they were also the two kinds of events that the English-language press steps in to cover: economic loss to Western corporations and deadly violence. If it bleeds, it leads is a key phrase for journalism, but if it bites the bottom line, it makes the business pages is just as important.

Unfortunately, the coincidence of these two newsworthy events led a string of English-language outlets to treat one as causing the other. In fact, there is quite a bit of separation: the Santa Ana mine was the lead issue for the primarily Natural Resources Defense Front of the Southern Zone of Puno (Frente de Defensa de los Recursos Naturales de la Zona Sur de Puno), which joined forces with National Confederation of Peruvian Communities Affeted by Mining (Spanish: Confederación Nacional de Comunidades del Perú Afectadas por la Minería; Conami). The Defense Front, a predominantly Aymara organization, is based near the border and had organized an earlier regional general strike against the Santa Ana Mine in April. It joined forces with the largely Quechua Conami for a larger regional protest from May 7 to June 1. When protests resumed after the victory of Ollanta Humala, new forces got involved, many but not all also concerned with mining elsewhere in the Puno Region. These include protests in Carabaya province [the Puno region has 13 provinces, divided in 107 districts] against mining concessions and the Inambari hydroelectric power plant; protests in Melgar, Juli, and Sandia over local mines; and Azángaro (whose capital is Juliaca) demanding decontamination of the Ramis river from pollution caused by small-scale mining. Outside of the Defense Front, most peasants in these regions are Quechua-speakers, not Aymaras.

The story is the strike wave, which has rippled across the region. And the other surprising story is the willingness of the government to deal openly with the strikers: even in May, substantial concessions were granted to the protests (including a 12-month delay in the Santa Ana mine and a regional commission to study all mining in southern Puno Region). The possibilities of protest and the limits of resource extraction are being rewritten in Peru. However, it didn’t bleed, so it didn’t lead. Indeed, for English-reading outsiders, it didn’t even get covered. Blame this on editors and the priorities of understaffed media organizations.

However, when things got interesting for the newswires, they assigned the story, apparently to reporters far from the scene. And the results juxtaposed the shootings in Juliaca and the victory in Chuquito Province in ways that distort the truth:

  • Associated Press, “Peru cancels mine after 6 killed in clash” somehow fails to mention the demands of protesters in Juliaca, and gives the false impression that the clash led to the concession.
  • Agence France-Presse, “Peru halts Canada mining operations amid protests“: “Peru suspended a Canadian company’s mining project in the south of the country on Saturday following intense negotiations in the wake of deadly protests by mostly indigenous anti-mining activists, authorities said.” “In the wake of” is fuzzy talk for afterwards without committing to a connection. In fact, the negotiations preceded the deadly violence, with a commitment to annul the Santa Ana mine being made verbally to the Defense Front on Wednesday and Thursday, with confirmation on Saturday. As discussed above, anti-mining protesters in Juliaca have other demands. Later in the article, “Protests have since spread to the provinces of Azangaro, Melgar and now the city of Juliaca.” Juliaca is the capital of Azangaro, and protests occurred there in late May, as well as early June. Nonetheless, AFP did some homework; this is spot on: “They then expanded to include opposition to other area mines, and now include opposition to the Inambari project, an ambitious plan to damn several Andean rivers and build what would become one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in South America.”
  • Voice of America, “3 Killed in Peru Airport Clash“: Contributes one fact: the result of a hospital phone call to Juliaca (“A doctor said the three people killed died from gunshot wounds Friday at Manco Capac airport in the city of Juliaca in Puno state.”), but mis-identifies the protesters as Aymara Indians—0.28% of Azángaro Province is Aymara. The hospital workers, through no fault of their own, understated the death toll by half.

Reporting like this is far less effective than paying translators to read the local press (Los Andes in Puno has been among the most comprehensive; see their chronology) and fact-check one against the other. If you’re reporting on these issues, I’d really like to know your process and point you in the direction of reliable background information. Seriously, where are you and what do you read?

Credit where credit is due: Reuters got the story right, noting “On Friday, hours before the deadly clash at the airport, Garcia’s cabinet revoked the license of Canadian mining firm Bear Creek in a bid to persuade locals residents to end protests that have dragged on for more than a month.”

p.s. A look at the same problem in Bolivia ten months ago: Potosí isolated by 12-day regional strike.