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:
Emilio Fernández, a young man from Loayza province, became the eleventh known fatal victim of military and police repression of the blockade and protests at the Senkata gas installation in El Alto on November 19, 2019. (There have also been persistent and credible, if unverified, eyewitness reports of security forces removing the bodies of additional dead protesters from the scene at Senkata.) The Senkata massacre remains the deadliest event in Bolivian political conflict since 2008, and the deadliest act of state repression since the 2003 Gas War.
Another victim of the Senkata violence passes away, and now there are 11 deaths
David Inca, the representative of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights of the city of El Alto, yesterday confirmed the death of an eleventh person after the violent events in Senkata in November 2019.
He said that he was aware that one of the injured had died on Wednesday morning [, March 4]. “He was one of the youth who was wounded and returned to his community in Loayza province. He was Emilio Fernández.”
Inca denounced that the wounded did not receive the required medical attention and surgical operations to recover from the damage they suffered after being injured by bullets. “There are other wounded who returned to their community without due attention. The transitional government threatened them that they would go to prison for supposed terrorism.”
The Plurinational Legislative Assembly of Bolivia took its sessions to the largely indigenous city of El Alto yesterday in honor of the anniversary of the founding of Bolivia’s second most populous city. Relations between the city and the hard-right interim government of President Jeanine Áñez are still shadowed by the massacre of protesters and bystanders on November 19, 2019, shortly after she took power. (Prior coverage of the Senkata masscre.) During the anniversary procession, mourners marched with a black flag in remembrance of those killed.
A couple dozen Senkata residents, largely family members of those killed protested the lack of accountability for the Senkata massacre by attempting to block the Bolivian Senate’s special session in their part of El Alto. In response, the Bolivian police teargassed them, as the statement from the Defensoría del Pueblo below details. This was the second time that security forces have tear gassed the family members of Senkata massacre victims; the first time was in a politicized funeral march just days after the attack.
Meanwhile, news has broke of the death of an eleventh victim of state repression at Senkata. Emilio Fernández of Loayza province died of his wounds on Wednesday morning.
Today, [Bolivia’s] Human Rights Ombudsman Office condemns the indiscriminate use of force by agents of the Bolivian Police, who gassed the family members of the victims of the Senkata massacre, which occurred November of last year, and affected a hundred children in the [nearby] July 25 School.
The incidents occurred in the morning, when the Bolivian Senatae attempted to hold a session in the social headquarters of the July 25 neighborhood in the Senkata are of the city of El Alto, in honor of the the anniversary of the municipality. Then, some two dozen family members of last November’s massacre and neighbors of that zone posted themselves outside to call for “trial and punishment for those responsible” for the ten deaths in November.
The union office, inside which the legislators gathered, was surrounded by police troops, before whom the family members [of the Senkata massacre victims] displayed signs pleading for justice. “Justice and Punishment or those responsible for the Senkata massacre. Justice for Ruy Cristina Vásquez,” read one of the signs. Amid their cries, the family members approached the uniformed police to call out for justice for their dead.
The response of the police was tear gas, which they launched upon the demonstrators and which reached the July 25 School, located across from the union headquarters. A hundred children were affected and had to be evacuated amid their cries and even bleeding, because it could be seen that one of them broke out bleeding from their nose. The docents of the school had to set a fire in the patio to dissipate the gas that had penetrated throughout the installation. According to the report from RTP, the troops launched the chemical agents to protect the evacuation of the senators, partisans of the government, who had decided to suspend their session.
The Human Rights Ombudsman Office condemns this indiscriminate use of force and reminds the Ministry of Government and the Bolivian Police that their actions must be within the framework of the  Constitution and the national and international norms for the protection and guarantee of individual and collective rights.
Additionally, it noted that the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) has established that police operatives should have an operational plan that contemplates special attention and safeguard for children and adolescents, among other vulnerable groups. From the perspective of the Office, in this case the security forces did not act in accordance with this recommendation.
The Human Rights Ombudsman Office reiterates to political parties, citizen groups, political and social leaders, as well as to the government its exhortation to guarantee the peaceful carrying out of celebrations of the anniversary of the city of El Alto, as well as the current electoral process.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.