Using selective human rights criteria to assign blame

Yesterday, former Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) Waldo Albarracín told the press that the deaths of David Callisaya Mamani (16) and Fidel Mario Hernan Jiménez (19) last week in Caranavi should make President Morales ineligible to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for which he was recently nominated.  It’s a valid argument that nevertheless presents some problematic contradictions.

Morales also received a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2007 when Albarracín was still Ombudsman.  From the time Morales took office until the October 2007 Nobel award ceremony honoring Al Gore, the Bolivian security forces killed five protestors in conflicts similar to the confrontation in Caranavi (see detailed list below).  Despite clear evidence of excessive use of force and human rights violations, Albarracín failed to take a strong stance on the deaths or criticize the Morales administration, nor did he oppose Morales’ Nobel nomination at that time.

A consistent, timely critique of protesters’ deaths and a parallel investigation in his official capacity as Defensor could have gone a long way to obligate the Morales government to develop and refine techniques for negotiation and conflict resolution as pragmatic alternatives to calling out the security forces.  Instead, Albarracín’s reluctance to use the institutional tools and considerable resources available to the Defensor to anticipate, diffuse, intervene in or mediate conflict – as well working to fight impunity for violations that did occur – fell far short of complying with the mandate of his office.

If any Human Rights Ombudsman fails to request information, observe and pressure the government, that officer has not fulfilled their mandate.  Moreover, this reticence to act becomes part of the greater problem.

In the following cases, AIN carried out independent investigations shortly after the incidents occurred.  Ombudsman Albarracín only made a few statements to the press and cursory inquiries, in many instances after a long delay.  The recently elected Ombudsman, Rolando Villena, has the opportunity to adopt a proactive, dynamic and energetic stance to guide individuals, government officials, security forces and interest groups towards meaningful, peaceful resolution of recurring conflicts to avoid violence. If violent confrontations do occur he has the responsibility to use the full force of his legislative mandate to press for transparent investigations that end in consequences for perpetrators and urge the Bolivian government to respect the rights of its citizens.

Protester deaths at the hands of security forces during Morales’ first term and Albarracín’s Defensor tenure:

Oruro Squatters – June 9, 2006

The Bolivian National Police and the 8th Cavalry Braun Regiment of the Bolivian Army forcibly evicted squatters from the Papel Pampa settlement outside Oruro (and three other communities).  The Bolivian Minister of Government, the MAS party Prefect of Oruro Department and the National Police Commander reportedly authorized the mission.  The combined military-police group tear-gassed the settlement at approximately 6 am.  Off duty police officer and squatter Santiago Orocondo was shot from the back in the left hip and died soon after from blood loss.  Another man was shot in the hand which later had to be amputated.  The subcommander of the Braun Regiment provided initial testimony that the Armed Forces did have firearms, although Morales administration officials denied this claim.  Since that initial testimony, the Armed Forces have refused to provide further testimony or cooperation in the investigation carried out by the Oruro District Attorney’s office.  Morales administration officials categorically deny any responsibility of the security forces in this incident and blame the squatters.  On August 25, 2006, then Defense Minister Walker San Miguel told the press that officers would testify, but he has not yet responded to prosecutors repeated requests

Vandiola Yungas – September 29, 2006

A confrontation occurred between the Joint Eradication Task Force, a combined military and police unit in charge of eradication.  The Joint Task Force shot and killed two coca growers. Two soldiers and one coca grower also suffered bullet wounds.  Although the police involved in the incident have provided testimony, members of the armed forces have not done so.  During this heated conflict, coca growers and the Joint Task force both took hostages. The large “cache of weapons” in the possession of coca growers, cited in the memorandum, actually belonged to the members of the Joint Task Force.  The coca grower withheld the arms and returned them to the armed forces upon the release of their Joint Task Force hostages.  Police testimony states that coca growers did not carry guns.

Villamontes – April 17, 2007

Members of the Villamontes community marched to a natural gas processing plant to pressure authorities to shut off production during a dispute over provincial borders.  Members of the Third Army division fired tear gas, rubber pellets and live ammunition into the crowd.  Protester Erman Ruiz Terrazas was shot in the thigh and died soon afterward.  The case has been opened in the military justice tribunal in spite of legal stipulations requiring that human rights cases be tried in civilian courts. On April 30, 2007, the general in charge of the military tribunal sent a letter to the civilian prosecutor, requesting all case documentation, citing that he had a presidential order to initiate military proceedings.

Arani – September 28, 2007

Approximately 2,000 students and parents blocked the road in the town of Arani and shut off a gas pipeline, demanding that a teacher’s school be transferred to Arani.  The police and military response to the protest left Osmar Flores dead and 14 people injured – two with bullet wounds. The autopsy revealed that Flores died from a high caliber bullet shot into the nape of his neck from a distance of approximately 50 yards.  Two other students received bullet wounds, one in the face, and another who had to have a portion of his lung removed. The military launched its own parallel investigation, and has resisted participating in the civilian investigation.

  • Military commanders subpoenaed by civilian prosecutors responded that they did not have authorization to testify, and that the district attorney’s office had to officially request information from the Minister of Defense.  One prosecutor informed AIN that the minister’s office stated they were “too busy” to respond to their request, although they have a legal obligation to do so.
  • Contrary to usual practice, the armed forces remained at the scene of the incident for four full days after the end of the conflict. Civilian prosecutors stated that they found two bullet holes in adobe houses at the scene of the shooting that had been filled in with mud and straw, suggesting that the members of the armed forces had attempted to hide them.
  • The Commander of the Seventh Army Division told the press that he could not provide information about the incident because he was not present at the confrontation due to “a blister on his foot” that day.