Turning Point for Morales: Bolivian Police Repress and Detain Indigenous Marchers

On September 25 at 5 pm, approximately 500 Bolivian police officers tear-gassed and used excessive force against camping indigenous protestors outside of Yucumo, in Beni Department.   Initial reports listed one child dead and multiple wounded,[i] although human rights groups have not confirmed any casualties.   The violent police action presents the most dramatic example yet in a series of incidents that have acutely eroded Morales’s credibility as a representative of indigenous and environmental rights.  These growing contradictions, and the administration’s apparent inability to change course has put into question the long-term viability of this government.

Indigenous demonstrators began marching from Trinidad, Beni in mid-August to reach the capital La Paz, in protest of proposed highway construction through their indigenous and protected territory, Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Sécure (TIPNIS), without prior consultation as stipulated by the Bolivian constitution.[ii] Colonists, indigenous migrants from other regions sustained blockades to impede the march’s progress, in support of the TIPNIS highway for over a week.  The day before, marchers forced Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, who had been by Morales as part of a negotiation team, to march with them to pass through part of colonizers’ blockade.

Police Tear Gas Marchers’ Camp

However, as protestors camped on the road about 5 km outside of Yucumo, 500 police officers swarmed the campsite.  After firing tear gas, police rounded up and detained approximately 700 protestors, who they put into buses and trucks to transport to San Borja, a larger town with an airport.  However, residents resisted police by blocking the road and would not allow the buses and trucks to enter the city.  Police changed route and took protestors to Rurrenabanque, which also has an airport. This morning, Rurrenabanque residents also blocked their airport and prevented police from taking prisoners away by plane, allowing approximately 300 of the detained marchers to be released from the buses.[iii] The destination of the scheduled flight remains unclear.

Widespread Condemnation of Police Action

The police action provoked widespread rejection from human rights monitors, the press and the general population.  The Morales administration’s initial reaction left much to be desired. After spending the day in TIPNIS in an attempt to drum up support for their initiative and proposing a referendum in the two affected departments, Morales officials denied that the police intervention had been violent, and argued that it was merely an effort to impede confrontations between marchers and colonizers.  As testimonies, footage and photographers circulated, it became clear that, in the best-case scenario, government officials are badly out of touch.

Police Action Provokes Internal Divisions and Resignations

In La Paz, Defense Minister Cecilia Chacón resigned her post, stating in a letter to President Morales, “I made this decision because I do not agree with the intervention ordered by the government and I cannot defend or justify it.”[iv] CIDOB, an umbrella indigenous organizations involved in the march and others claim four to seven people died from tear gas inhalation; the most significant count being five children, one baby, and an elderly person.[v] Journalists, many who had their cameras confiscated and are being kept at bay by police, reported at least one death, a baby, and 37 people unaccounted for after escaping police intervention.[vi] However, these initial have yet to be confirmed. Government officials denied that there were any casualties.

In a press conference, Minister of Government, Sacha Llorenti claimed that police were sent it to prevent conformation between colonizers and indigenous marchers.  Furthermore, he claimed the marchers carried bows and arrows, which they used to attack police officers.  He also denied that anyone had died or gone missing. He further affirmed that he maintained Morales’ support and would not resign.[vii] Press Minister Ivan Canelas later announced a complete investigation of the incident.

Morales’ Silence Deepens Crisis of Credibility

Protests rejecting the administration’s actions are spreading across the country and a nationwide strike is set for Wednesday. Today, Morales and his cabinet meet in private.  In spite of demands for Llorenti’s firing and unfounded rumors regarding Foreign Minister Choquehuanca’s potential resignation in protest, the prolonged silence exacerbated the crisis.  At this time it appears that the next twenty-fours hours could define the future of the Morales government. Without decisive action to provide guarantees for marchers’ safety acceptance of their demands, legal consequences for the officials ordering and carrying out the violent intervention, the administration may not be able to overcome this scandal. At any rate, Morales reputation as an indigenous crusader for environmental protection has been irreparably damaged.


[i] Erbol, “Denuncian un bebé muerto y 37 desaparecidos, de los cuales siete son niños,” 25 Sept 2011.

[ii] Bolivian Political Constitution of the State, Feb 2009.

CAPÍTULO CUARTO
DERECHOS DE LAS NACIONES Y PUEBLOS INDÍGENA ORIGINARIO CAMPESINOS. ARTICULO 30.-I. Es nación y pueblo indígena originario campesino toda la colectividad humana que comparta identidad cultural, idioma, tradición histórica, instituciones, territorialidad y cosmovisión, cuya existencia es anterior a la invasión colonial española.II. En el marco de la unidad del Estado y de acuerdo con esta Constitución las naciones y pueblos indígena originario campesinos gozan de los siguientes derechos:
A existir libremente……4. A la libre determinación y territorialidad….6. A la titulación colectiva de tierras y territorios….7. A la protección de sus lugares sagrados…..10. A vivir en un medio ambiente sano, con manejo y aprovechamiento adecuado de los ecosistemas…. A ser consultados mediante procedimientos apropiados, y en particular a través de sus instituciones, cada vez que se prevean medidas legislativas o administrativas susceptibles de afectarles. En este marco, se respetará y garantizará el derecho a la consulta previa obligatoria, realizada por el Estado, de buena fe y concertada, respecto a la explotación de los recursos naturales no renovables en el territorio que habitan..16. A la participación en los beneficios de la explotación de los recursos naturales en sus territorios.  17. A la gestión territorial indígena autónoma, y al uso y aprovechamiento exclusivo de los recursos naturales renovables existentes en su territorio sin perjuicio de los derechos legítimamente adquiridos por terceros…III. El Estado garantiza, respeta y protege los derechos de las naciones y pueblos indígena originario campesinos consagrados en esta Constitución y la ley.

[iii] TIPNIS Resiste, “Liberación de 300 marchistas en Rurrenabaque,” 26 September 2011.

[iv]Los Tiempos, “La ministra de Defensa renuncia por la represión de marcha indígena,” 26 Sept. 2011, Chacón: “Asumo esta decisión porque no comparto la medida de intervención de la marcha que ha asumido el Gobierno y no puedo defender o justificar la misma.”

[v] CIDOB, “Nos Reportan al 7 muertos, entre ellos niños,” 26 Sept 2011.

[vi] [vi] There have been no further reports on there whereabouts, but they should not be counted as “disappeared” in a traditional human rights sense, and many could reappear after communication lines between marchers are reestablished.

[vii] Los Tiempos, “Ministro de gobierno: “Propósito de intervención era evitar enfrentamientos entre pobladores de Yucumo y marchistas” 26 Sept. 2011.