Bolivia a Year After the October Insurrection

Translated by Forrest Hylton

La Paz/Chukiyawu.

Leaning against a concrete tombstone, nine men dressed in denim overalls of various colors drink beer and soda, taking care to pour the first sip on the dry and dusty ground as an offering to the Pacha Mama — Mother Earth. A few meters away, on the high plain that extends between the two hills covered with crosses and tombs, coffins of equal size are spread out in a row. Together with them, almost a hundred men, women, and children, seated and standing, most dressed entirely in black, mourn the dead for a second time. “On a day like today, October 12, the armed forces fired on unarmed people,” a young man with brown skin and straight black hair says to the assembled through a microphone marred by static. “It is time, as relatives, to show that this is not over, that we are mourning our dead again,” concludes Nestor Salinas, the president of the Association of the Relatives of the Fallen Martyrs in the so-called “Gas War” in El Alto, sister city of La Paz. Then Salinas passes “the word” to a priest who, in mixed Spanish and Aymara, presides over the Eucharist that begins the exhumation ceremony for twenty-two of the sixty-seven people who died during “Black October.”

Dug Up from the Bowels

Exactly a year ago, a caravan of tanks, truckloads of soldiers, and trucks full of gas passed through the better part of El Alto, leaving in their dusty path thirty-one dead and twelve injured. Five days after the military incursion, in a country exploding with protest, hunger strikes, and indignation, what had seemed impossible happened: then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a leading member of the political-economic elite and the second-richest man in Bolivia, flew to Miami after presenting his resignation to Congress, due to the non-negotiable demand of the majority of the country’s inhabitants, who refused to stand for the government’s brutal repression of protests against the export of Bolivian gas to California via a Chilean port.

Now, a year later, the hundred or so people gather around the coffins of their dead to summon up energy and hope so that the impossible happens; so that Sánchez de Lozada is extradited to Bolivia to receive punishment for genocide — among other charges, including corruption — that will be presented now that Congress has approved the “trial of responsibilities.” As relatives and volunteers from the different organizations tried to convince the nine men in overalls to charge the widow of the last body exhumed eighty Bs. ($10), Nestor Salinas made the position of alteños abundantly clear: “Now we’ll see who’s for and who’s against the people,” he said, referring to the parliamentary vote that would take place the following day, October 13.


Without bars, signs, or walls, the cemetery in the alteño neighborhood of Villa Ingenio extends over an immense, undulating plain as far as the eyes can see, from which one can glimpse the largest indigenous city in Latin America on one side, and, on the other, the cordillera of the Andes, with its snow-capped peaks. The previous day, October 11, a similar scene had been enacted in Santiago I, another of El Alto’s neighborhoods. While rumors of hot money designed to buy votes in parliament circulated through offices and corridors of power, the families that lost loved ones a year ago had to deal with the painful process of disinterring the bodies and transferring them to the two mausoleums built for the “Martyrs and Heroes in Defense of Gas.”

For over twelve hours, relatives and members of the commissions made up of delegates from different organizations determined to obtain justice waited patiently for the DA’s Office to comply with the order from the Ministry of the Public. While some, finally, were able to let their dead rest in the humble mausoleums built for them, others, like Nestor Salinas, saw their pain prolonged due to the obstacles functionaries from the DA’s Office put in the way — they put off the necropsy and digging up of Nestor’s brother, David, until the cold, early morning hours. “The doctors have handed out incorrect certificates,” said Marcial Canaviri, President of the Association of the Injured in Defense of Gas, thus clearing up the issue of the necropsies, and the urgency of performing them as part of the process of gathering evidence to be used in the much-awaited trial against Sánchez de Lozada and his ministers.

The Long March

In the second week of October, commemorative acts began, and in order to exert pressure, social organizations and the organizations of those directly affected by the bloody days of October were on the march, not only to demand the nationalization of gas and petroleum in a new Hydrocarbons Law, but also to let legislators know that the perpetuation of impunity would not be tolerated. From Monday, October 11, as a dozen cadavers were disinterred in Santiago I, some three thousand coca farmers and workers, led by Evo Morales and Roman Loayza, carrying only what was strictly necessary on their backs, started off for the long march to La Paz, planning to arrive in the capital on October 18. While the exhumation ceremony took place in Villa Ingenio on the 12, the Mixed Constitutional Commission approved debate on the “trial of responsibilities,” which — according to Rogelio Mayta, Legal Coordinator of the Committee for a Trial of Responsibilities ­ demonstrated that “the first hurdle has been overcome.”

Like Mayta and the legal team working in co-ordination with the Justice and Peace Commission, the Mixed Constitutional Commission in charge of parliamentary debate feared the maneuvers that would be utilized by Sánchez de Lozada’s party, MNR (National Revolutionary Movement), which pushed for, and got, the trial of all fifteen ministers. There was hope that the two other coalition partners in October, MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement) and NFR (New Republican Force), would vote against the trial of fifteen ministers, thereby refusing to judge their own. The Commission therefore pushed for the charge of genocide to be brought against Sánchez de Lozada and his closest collaborators, ex-Minister of Defense Carlos Sánchez Berzaín and ex-Minister of Government Yerko Kukoc, in order to get the parliamentary majority needed to bring them to trial. On Wednesday, October 13, parliament initiated debate on the Commission’s proposal. From the beginning, the desperate attempts of the MNR to save their jefe from standing trial led them into a trap. After discussing procedure and following an intermission taken in order to decide what course of action to pursue, the MNR decided to vote. The party was so sure that a two-thirds majority would not approve either of the proposals that during the discussion of the first, the majority of deputies argued publicly that they would vote for the second, given that the entire cabinet, rather than the MNR itself, was guilty for October, whether directly or due to “the responsibilities of solidarity” that came with agreeing with the former president’s decisions.

The first vote ended with 103 votes in favor, 13 against, and 25 blank, two votes short of the number required to put the Constitutional Commission’s recommendations into effect. Once voting on the second proposal took place, and in spite of what they had pledged during the discussion of the first proposal, only one MNR senator voted in favor of the trial. Although it was feared that senators from MIR and NFR would vote against judging an entire cabinet, each and every one of them voted in favor. 126 votes determined the authorization that parliament gave to the Supreme Court in order that the judicial process begin, thus opening a period of calm and momentary truce in a country that was ready to burn had impunity been officially approved.

“Muddy Terrain”

With the “trial of responsibilities” already approved, on Friday, October 15, some fifteen to twenty thousand people marched down from El Alto to the seat of government in La Paz shouting, “Goni a Chonchocoro!” Miners from Huanuni, factory workers, water warriors, and activists from Cochabamba, neighborhood associations and vendors’ associations from El Alto, and trade unionists and the unemployed from La Paz and El Alto arrived in the Plaza San Francisco, where last year’s concentrations forced Sánchez de Lozada from power. Another, smaller contingent composed of coca farmers, mining co-operativists**, the Regional Workers’ Central (COR) from El Alto, and students from Warisata — a town in the province of Omasuyos where a political-military incursion on September 20, 2003, left four dead, including an eight year-old girl — arrived in La Paz on Monday, October 18. For the next three days, the city center was shut down as it had been during the early afternoon hours of the 15, as co-operativists and Indian communities as well as coca growers arrived to stay. The co-operativists, demanding a reactivation of the dormant mining sector, began to blockade Caracollo, the crossroads town that unites La Paz with Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, and promised to continue until a suitable Hydrocarbons law was approved in parliament, which began debate on President Mesa’s proposal on October 20, the date of the infamous 1904 treaty with Chile, which ratified Chile’s territorial and commercial conquests over Bolivia in the War of the Pacific (1879-80). In his address to Congress, Mesa did not fail to play the nationalist card, which he favors whenever domestic social protest is on the rise.


On October 20, in contrast to what happened in the mobilizations of a year ago, when mining co-operativists arrived in San Francisco as last-minute reinforcements, this year they acted as a vanguard, descending from the city center to blockade the exclusive neighborhoods Calacoto and the Zona Sur, even as they expanded their blockade out from Caracollo to Acayhuasi and Coral. Unlike last year’s uprising, this year the militant action of urban, peasant, and mining sectors did not spread to progressive urban middle classes, who are firmly behind the Mesa regime, which, for the first time since it came to power on the back of the October insurrection, found itself with serious “public order” problems, and close to home — Mesa, his friends, and his family live in the Zona Sur and Calacoto. By nightfall of October 20, the Mesa administration had negotiated a deal with the co-operativists and the roads were once again transitable. The chief of police had earlier made it clear that he did not plan to repress protests, as Mesa’s political legitimacy (his approval rate, 44%, is dramatically lower that what it was two or three months ago) depends upon his willingness to negotiate with protestors rather than kill them.

Though two coca growers have been killed recently in confrontations over forced eradication, with the backing of US AID, President Mesa came to a formal agreement about the legitimacy of the major cocalero demand: a cato (.5 hectares) of coca per family — in spite of US Embassy insistence on the maintenance of forced eradication programs in accordance with Law 1008***. Mesa’s ties to Evo Morales, leader of the coca growers and the chief opposition party, MAS (Movement Toward Socialism), remain strong, though the issue of nationalization will divide them as long as the social movements insist on it. The coca growers maintain that they will not leave La Paz until parliament approves a law that asserts sovereignty over Bolivian gas and petroleum, reversing Sánchez de Lozada’s 1997 Hydrocarbons decree. While nationalization via parliamentary decree seems an unlikely outcome of this round of the contest for the right to rule, the point to note is that direct action on the roads and in the neighborhoods of the capital will have a considerable influence over the vote in parliament on October 21, just as direct action influenced the vote on the “trial of responsibilities” on the 13.

The judicial process has now passed to the Supreme Court, which will dictate the initial summary — the gathering of evidence to establish the existence (or not) of culpability. Thereafter, the Ministry of the Public will determine how many people are to be judged. The court then has twenty days to dictate the initial summary, which can be prolonged on the basis of the judicial principal of the right to defense. Once the initial summary is over, the trial will begin in the Supreme Court, and the sentence handed down will not be subject to appeal. Although the procedure sounds simple, the fear shared by those who filled the center of La Paz on October 15 stemmed from the number of people to be tried. Eulogia Tapia, a leader from the Gregoria Apaza Center for the Promotion of Women in El Alto, and one of those who marched, sat on the stone steps of Plaza San Francisco, trying to bring down the swelling in her legs, caused by the heat of the pavement, before heading home. Fixing her hat over her braids, Tapia spoke of her fear that with fifteen people to be tried, the process could get bogged down in and people’s attention distracted from the issue of impunity. Like Tapia, Rogelio Mayta is convinced that the most complicated phase of the process has just begun. “Now we begin to walk through muddy terrain,” Mayta explains, as the new penal code is anything but clear with respect to the procedure for such cases. Plus, the majority of Supreme Court justices are MNRistas. Going over recent history, it is apparent that in Bolivia political influences can draw such trials out to the point where they are archived, as happened in the “trial of responsibilities” initiated against Hugo Banzer Suárez, the dictator who died in impunity after being elected president in 1997. The trial against former dictator Luis García Meza, who currently resides in Chonchocoro with a life sentence, took longer than ten years to conclude.

With injuries still fresh and the dead buried once again, rage and pain are felt with great intensity. “If they hadn’t approved the trial, I was prepared to blow myself up into a thousand pieces in Congress, taking people with me,” asserted Luis Villca from Villa Ingenio, who lost his right eye and had a leg crippled last October 12. With a tattoo on his right hand reminding him of the time he served as a military policeman some twenty years ago, Villca explained why he was willing to blow himself up: “October was painful, ugly, and I’ve been tremendously traumatized. Why would I go on living if not to struggle for justice?” Although Villca’s inclinations are far from general, the people who filled San Francisco are sure that only popular pressure and control over authorities can guarantee the trial of Sánchez de Lozada. Thus the public assemblies, people’s tribunals, meetings, debates, and vigils that greeted the first anniversary of Sánchez de Lozada’s flight to Miami. And thus the painful need to exhume the bodies of loved ones turned almost to dust — to find out what types of weapons perforated their bodies and killed them, so that forgetting doesn’t win out over justice, and so that a country that remains injured doesn’t burn again.

Lina Britto and Lucía Suarez are journalists and movement activists living in La Paz. Forrest Hylton can be reached at

Translator’s Notes:

* Chonchocoro: Bolivia’s Maximum Security Prison.

** Co-operativists: unlike other miners, cooperativistas do not work for private enterprise, and would likely be classified by economists as “independent contractors.” Though some cooperativistas become rich, most depend on intense self-exploitation in order to survive, and conflicts between miners working for private enterprise and cooperativistas have at times been intense.

*** Law 1008: a US-dictated anti-drug law, which, in 1988, installed forced eradication as part of the neoliberal status quo (See: In promising the US Embassy that he will comply with Law 1008 while simultaneously negotiating the cato, Mesa follows in the footsteps of Jaime Paz Zamora (1989-1993) and the first Sánchez de Lozada administration (1993-1997). It is interesting to note that in terms of counterinsurgency, US AID and the US Embassy are not on the same page (State Department vs. Pentagon-CIA?), reflecting the overall incoherence of current US foreign policy toward Bolivia.



Forrest Hylton is visiting professor of history at the graduate school at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. He taught for four years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín as well as three years at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and has written about Colombia for New Left Review, Nueva Sociedad (Buenos Aires), London Review of Books, Historical Materialism, Against the Current, Nacla Report on the Americas – and, last but certainly not least, CounterPunch.