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.
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.
Before the dust had settled in either massacre, the interim government of Jeanine Áñez issued blanket denials of any responsibility for the shootings of scores of protesters before hundreds of witnesses including members of the press. Those denials were buttressed by claims that protesters shot one another, that bullet wounds were in the back (and therefore “must” have been from the protesters’ side), and that the weapons involve did not correspond to military weapons. Defense Minister Luis Fernando López claimed, “In November, in the worst epoch of our democracy, the Armed Forces did not fire a single cartridge; not one death is due to the Police or the Armed Forces.” The legislative commission now rejects all these points, which had always strained credibility.
Its report is based on visits to the massacre sides, reports from prosecutors and the forensic institute, and over 150 witness declarations. Among its conclusions disclosed today by Borda: “We have not received a single forensic medical certificate from any injured police officer or soldier.” Borda further identified three calibers of ammunition fired: 5.5mm used in light weapons given to officers, but not soldiers, of the Armed Forces, 7.62mm used in automatic weapons by the military, and 22 caliber used by the police.
The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts for Bolivia, a five-person team of human rights experts named by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), has been formally cleared to begin the work of investigating all human rights violations during Bolivia’s 2019 political crisis (prior coverage|Wikipedia) and expects to start work in the country on October 2, 2020. The Group was authorized by agreement between the Commission and the Bolivian government on December 2 of last year, following a dramatic visit by IACHR members to the country in the wake of the Sacaba and Senkata massacres. While the IACHR quickly appointed four members of the Group back in January, its work has yet to start and the interim government Jeanine Áñez has raised objections to both its membership and methods.
On April 28, however, the IACHR and the Foreign Ministry announced their agreement to a full investigation of last year’s often-violent events. The IACHR describes the Group as
[my English translation:] an international investigation mechanism on the acts of violence that occurred in the country … with guarantees of autonomy and independence, to secure the right to the truth and to duly identify those responsible for human rights violations.
un mecanismo de investigación internacional sobre los hechos de violencia ocurridos en el país, específicamente un Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (GIEI), con garantías de autonomía e independencia, para asegurar el derecho a la verdad e identificar debidamente a los responsables de violaciones de los derechos humanos.
The agreement between the Bolivian state and the IACHR guarantees the Group the right to conduct an elaborate investigation with full access to the files and records of the government. Its designated powers are reminiscent of a truth commission:
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 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.
Below, I break down the events involved and describe what we know about who was responsible for and who suffered these deaths.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which visited Bolivia November 22 to 25, has released a visually and emotionally arresting video that highlights the testimony of survivors of the Bolivian government’s massacres of protesters in the town of Sacaba and the El Alto neighborhood of Senkata. The video interweaves survivors’ pleas with crowd shouts for “justice” and does far more to humanize the participants in protests than nearly any coverage in the mainstream Bolivian press. (Click on “CC” for English subtitles, and on “vimeo” to see a larger version.)
The Commission’s report on its visit, currently available only in Spanish, includes extensive discussion of these two massacres. What follows is my translation of a relevant portion of their text:
Massacres and murders
In the context of the crisis, and as of November 27, the IACHR received news of 36 people who lost their lives in Bolivia. During its visit, the IACHR delegation received abundant information about two massacres committed in Sacaba and in Senkata, on November 15 and 19, respectively, in which at least 18 people lost their lives.
The Sacaba massacre occurred on November 15. The Commission received information from witnesses, according to which members of the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba arrived in a peaceful demonstration to the Sacaba municipality, demanding the return of Evo Morales to the government and recject the interim government. At the Huayllani bridge, located at kilometer 10 of the highway from Cochabamba, the combined forces of the Police and Armed Forces had established a security cordon. At the moment the demonstrators attempted to pass through, they were first contained and told verbally that the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) was on its way to mediate; nevertheless, according to information received, a few moments later the police and military agents would open fire against the civilian population gathered there, which they also would attack with tear gas, beatings, and kicks. In these acts, nine people were killed: Omar Calle, César Sipe, Juan López, Emilio Colque, Lucas Sánchez, Plácido Rojas Delgadillo, Armando Carvallo Escobar, Marco Vargas Martínez, and Roberto Sejas. Numerous people were wounded, including by bullets, who were received by various hospitals in Sacaba and Cochabamba.
The commission takes note of the existence of different versions of how these events unfolded. On one hand, some state authorities, including the Forensic Investigation Unit (Instituto de Investigaciones Forenses; IDIF) and the police command, have accused the demonstrators of having shot one another, proposing reasons such as the caliber of the bullets that were recovered from the bodies of the dead and wounded. On the other hand, the numerous testimonies received by the IACHR are consistent in indicating that the demonstrating people were unarmed, advanced peacefully by their own initiative, and were attacked with fire arms, teargas canisters, batons, and other weapons by the security forces, in a sudden and surprising manner. Security force helicopters participated in the operation, as even the Police Commander of Cochabamba testified before the IACHR.
The Senkata massacre occurred on November 19. According to information received, a group of partisans of the MAS carried out a blockade around the oil and gas plant of the Senkata sector, in El Alto. That morning, sixty container trucks of gasoline and natural gas were allowed to leave the plant, after which the demonstrators had knocked down one of the walls on the perimeter of the plant, at which time they were contained by the firearms of the combined forces of the Police and Army. In these acts, nine people were killed by gunshots: Devi Posto Cusi, Pedro Quisberth Mamani, Edwin Jamachi Paniagua, José Colque Patty, Juan José Tenorio Mamani, Antonio Ronald Quispe, Clemente Mamani Santander, Rudy Cristian Vásquez Condori, and Calixto Huanacu Aguilar. Among those who were killed are several people who do not seem to have participated in the blockade, but rather were simply passing through the zone on the way to their homes or workplaces. There were also numerous people wounded by gunshots, beatings, inhalation of gas, and other related causes, who were attended in various hospitals in El Alto. Just as in the Sacaba massacre, some public functionaries, both forensic and police, have questioned whether the bullets that killed these citizens had been shot by the regulation weapons of the security forces. With respect to that, according to public declarations and those made before the IACHR, insistently reiterated by the victims themselves, these people were publicly demonstrating without violence and were the object of repression by state agents using firearms. There have also been public denunciations of the disappearance over various lifeless bodies of people who had died in the the same massacre, which would have been taken by state agents so that no one would have word of these dead people. In particular, cases of [such disappearances] denounced before the IACHR include that of a peasant woman, and of a girl around 12 years old, among others. The victims of this massacre consistently signal that the number of those killed is much more than the nine that have been reported up to now.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights emphatically condemns the massacres of Sacaba and Senkata, in which [the perpetrators] incurred in grave violations of human rights. According to the Commission’s criteria, these acts can be characterized as massacres given the number of people who lost their lives in the same way, time, and place, and because they were committed against a specific group of people. In addition, the patterns of the wounds that have been recorded offer serious indications of practices of extrajudicial execution. The right to life, protected under the American Convention [on Human Rights], is inviolable, and due to its essential character is the precondition for the exercise of all other human rights. The organs of the Inter-American System [of Human Rights] have reiterated that the use of force by the state must be bound by the principles of exceptionality, legality, necessity, and proportionality. As well, the Bolivian state is reminded that lethal force many not be used merely to maintain or re-institute public order; only protection of life itself and physical integrity against imminent and real threats is a legitimate objective for the application of deadly force by state agents. In this sense, the IACHR urges the [Bolivian] state to immediately and urgently implement mechanisms to prohibit and effectively impede the use of lethal force as a control measure for public order in cases of public demonstrations. The Commission also reiterates that firearms and their munitions must be excluded from control operations of social protest, and that police or military functionaries that may enter into contact with a demonstration should not carry fire arms or other lethal weapons. Additionally, the Commission urges the state to rapidly carry out its international obligation to investigate, judge, and sanction those responsible for these criminal acts.