Several are reported dead after National Police and army troops opened fire on indigenous demonstrators marching on the Bolivian city of Cochabamba Nov. 15. A march demanding the reinstatement of ousted president Evo Morales started that morning from the town of Sacaba, gateway to the Chapare region where Morales began his career as a campesino leader in the 1990s and still the heartland of his support base. When it arrived at the pueblo of Huayllani, on the edge of Sacaba municipality, security forces attempted to block their way over a bridge, and a clash ensued. The Defensoría del Pueblo, Bolivia’s official human rights office, has confirmed the death of five, with 29 injured, but local media put the death toll at nine. Some 200 were also detained. The National Police claimed on Twitter that protesters attacked troops with “improvised firearms.” No casualties among the security forces were reported.
Campesinos from the coca-growers union formerly led by Morales, the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba, launched a new mobilization from Sacaba the following day, and actually reached the outer periphery of Cochabamba city before they were turned back by a police charge and tear-gas. The elite anti-riot force, UTOP, the first unit of the security forces to rebel against Morales in the prelude to his resignation, lead these operations.
Over the past days, scattered clashes between protesters and police were reported at various places in the country, with two killed Nov. 13 at Yapacaní in Santa Cruz department. Police also fired tear-gas to disperse demonstrators outside the presidential palace in La Paz that day, where a march from the outlying working-class city of El Alto had culminated to oppose the power transfer to Jeanine Áñez, the conservative Senate leader now assuming the role of interim president. Many of the protesters from El Alto were armed with clubs and shields improvised from metal sheets, and chanted “¡Ahora si, guerra civil!” (Yes now, civil war!)
The Defensoría issued a statement Nov. 16 counting 18 killed across the country “throughout the days of the conflict,” although it did make clear if this just means in the days since Morales’ resignation Nov. 10 or also in the preceding weeks of unrest. (Los Tiempos, Los Tiempos, Los Tiempos, Cochabamba, Nov. 16; Los Tiempos, Los Tiempos, La Razón, La Paz, InfoBae, Argentina, Nov. 15; BBC News, DeIinformemonos, Nov. 14)
Hours after the killings at Sacaba, de facto interim president Áñez issued a decree exempting the security forces from legal responsibility for acts of repression, for an unspecified period. “Personnel of the Armed Forces who participate in operations for the restoration of order and public security will be exempt from penal responsibility when in compliance with their constitutional functions, acting in legitimate defense or a state of necessity,” the decree read. (La Gaceta, Tucumán, Argentina, Nov. 16)
Áñez—who has now been recognized by several foreign governments, including the US, Russia and Brazil—met with UN envoy Jean Arnault after the Sacaba violence. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet issued a statement calling the deaths “an extremely dangerous development.” She added: “I am really concerned that the situation in Bolivia could spin out of control if the authorities do not handle it sensitively and in accordance with international norms.” (AP, Nov. 16; Moscow Times, Nov. 14)
After the Sacaba bloodshed, Evo Morales, now exiled in Mexico, tweeted: “The dictatorship of Jeanine Áñez and the coup-plotters [golpistas] Mesa and Camacho enjoy the complicity of ex-defenders of the people Albarracín and Villena to massacre the humble people who march peacefully to return to democracy. They will have to answer for serious crimes against humanity.” This is a reference to opposition leaders Carlos Mesa and Luis Fernando Camacho, and to Waldo Albarracín and Rolando Villena, rights advocates who had both served as chief of the Defensoría del Pueblo under Morales but threw in their lot with the opposition after last month’s contested elections. On Oct. 22, Amnesty International issued an alert saying that Albarracín had been attacked by Morales supporters during a protest.
Morales later tweeted, “To justify the coup, Mesa and Camacho accused us of ‘dictatorship’. Now their self-appointed ‘president’ and her cabinet of defenders of rapists and repressors massacre the people with the Armed Forces and the Police, like the real dictatorship. #NoAlGolpeDeEstadoEnBolivia”
In another tweet, he noted that the Sacaba massacre took place on the same day the Aymara revolutionary leader Tupac Katari was executed by the Spanish in 1781. “Now, the coup-plotters [golpistas] massacre indigenous and humble people for asking for democracy.”
Morales told reporters in Mexico that Washington “is the great conspirator” behind the “coup d’etat.” He added: “I want to say that we are going to have to recover democracy, but with great patience, with peaceful struggle.” He admitted that there is no “guarantee” that he will return to power. (Nación, Mexico, Nov. 16)
Image: Alba TV via Twitter