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Bolivian Police Gas Funeral March in Latest Crack-Down

Photo by Olivia Arigho Stiles.

La Paz, Bolivia

Last Thursday thousands of people descended into La Paz from El Alto carrying the caskets of eight people shot dead by police earlier that week. Emotions were running high and protestors had tears streaming down their faces. They had assembled peacefully to demand justice.

“Áñez, murderer. We want your resignation”, they shouted. “Justicia!”. It was not a march in support of a political party; it was a march of grief and fury.

Around thirty minutes later, the police dropped cans of tear gas over the marchers, forcing the families to abandon the coffins on the ground under the hot sun. As the tear gas floated across Plaza San Francisco, people implored “calma, calma” to prevent a crush as the crowd fled.

The dead had been among those blockading the natural gas plant at Senkata, El Alto in protest at the new interim government of Bolivia. In total, nine were shot by state forces on Tuesday in a military operation to unblock the plant, which supplies most of La Paz’s gas.

The Interamerican Commission on Human Rights this week convened open meetings across Bolivia to assess the current human rights situation. At one, a woman described how her husband was not involved directly in the Senkata blockade but was shot by the military “like a dog in the street”.

The protest on Thursday comes as Bolivia enters a deep impasse following the removal of former President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous leader. The present juncture is marked by institutional breakdown, political reprisals and near-unprecedented state violence. The week before, eight cocaleros (coca growers) were massacred by state security forces as they protested against the new government in Sacaba, Cochabamba.

According to Bolivian human rights organization CIDOB, there have been 32 people killed and 700 injured in the several weeks of unrest which engulfed Bolivia after the elections on October 20. Speaking to some at the protests, many fear the unofficial count is higher. The security forces have impunity after the new government passed a decree which exempts them from criminal responsibility when using force.

On Thursday there was a sizeable contingent of students from Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (UMSA), the main public university in La Paz, who formed a human chain to pass water to the protestors. This marks a shift from previous anti-coup marches in which university students as a bloc, were largely absent. Under the leadership of opposition-supporting rector Waldo Albarracin, UMSA has been a nexus of anti-Morales activity and in the two weeks after the elections, UMSA students were key instigators of anti-Morales blockades. But these students shouted “Fascistas, no pasaran”, indicating that the violence of the post-coup government may have provoked a volte-face.

Meanwhile, the government, headed by religious conservative Jeanine Áñez, continues its McCarthy-esque purge of officials appointed under the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), issuing highly politicized and seemingly arbitrary arrest warrants. It should be remembered that Áñez’s party only received 4% of the popular vote in the election.

It is clear that the scale of the new government’s clampdown far exceeds the mandate for an interim government. On Friday the new Minister of Government Arturo Murillo issued an arrest warrant against Morales and former minister Juan Ramon Quintana for “sedition and terrorism”, and promised that he would be seeking the maximum sentence of thirty years in prison. This follows the circulation of an audio recording apparently between Morales and cocalero leader Faustino Yucra Yarwi, in which Morales is heard ordering the blocking of food entering La Paz. The recording has not been independently verified. Morales is currently in political exile in Mexico.

But it is not only Morales and high-profile Masistas who have been targeted. Trade unions, mayors and local officials linked to the MAS have faced threats and reprisals, and in some cases, arrest warrants. Officials have had their houses burnt down. The heads of both Chambers of government were forced to resign after threats of violence. This week the State Attorney General also announced an arrest warrant for Nicolas Laguna, the former director of the Digital Communications agency known as Agetic. He is wanted as part of an investigation of alleged electoral fraud in the elections of October 20.

Morales first took power in 2006 with his social movement backed party, the MAS. His resignation on November 10 came after the head of the Bolivian armed forces ‘suggested’ that he resign following a police mutiny in cities across the country. This followed two weeks of mobilization by anti-government protestors over accusations of fraud in the elections on October 20. It also coincided with the release of the report by the organization of American States which suggested there had been ‘manipulation’ in the vote count. These allegations of fraud have been contested by US thinktank, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).

Many of the blockades across the country have now lifted after negotiations with the government and protestors, but La Paz and other cities are still experiencing food and gas shortages and food price increases. There are long queues to buy bread, chicken, eggs and petrol, amongst other items and chicken has been rationed to avoid speculation. On Saturday the government arranged for twelve tones of meat to arrive by air in El Alto, to circumvent the blockades.

On Friday there were confrontations at a landfill site in K’ara K’ara in Cochabamba which had been the site of several protests. 26 soldiers were reportedly injured as they attempted to unblock the dump.

However, there are signs that an uneasy deténte may have been reached. On Saturday night the political parties in the legislature agreed for new elections to take place, which was ratified by Anez on Sunday. There will be a new electoral court within 20 days and following that, elections within 120 days in which neither Morales nor ex-Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera will be permitted to run. But as families mourn those assassinated by the state and with the country enveloped in fear and repression, an enduring political settlement looks unlikely.

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Olivia Arigho-Stiles is a Phd candidate at the University of Essex researching indigenous mobilization in twentieth century Bolivia. She is also a contributing editor of Alborada magazine.

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