NEW YORK (June 30, 2020) – The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) calls on the government of Bolivia’s interim president Jeanine Añez to exercise maximum restrain the use of force.
The situation has grown increasingly dangerous as Morales’ supporters attempted to blow up the Senkata gas plant that would have would have killed up to 10,000 people in the city of El Alto on Nov. 19, they have vowed to attempt to do it again. Carlo Vercosa, a union leader and medical doctor who heads the union of medical workers of La Paz, described the incident as an “act of terrorism, plain and simple.” The result of the joint police-army operation resulted in eight deaths, and several dozen people arrested.
The Añez government must also exercise restraint as it faces an estimated forty-thousand coca farmers – many of them armed and allegedly linked to global cocaine cartels – in El Chapare, Cochabamba, Morales’ stronghold. Coca farmers have been blocking food transportation into the city of Cochabamba. While chanting “Finally Yes; Civil War” (“Ahora Sí; Guerra Civil,” in Spanish) the coca farmers threatened to march through Cochabamba but were prevented from doing so by government forces.
Bolivia’s interim government yesterday made public the recording of a telephone call between a voice that is allegedly Morales’ and coca leader Faustino Yucra in El Chapare. In the recording, Morales is heard providing explicit instructions to his followers to “tighten the blockade and prevent the access of food” to the millions of Bolivians who live in Cochabamba and La Paz. Yucra was arrested in 2010 at a cocaine crystallization plant discovered in El Torno, Santa Cruz. Released shortly thereafter, Yucra has been a fugitive since 2016, when an arrest warrant was issued against him on drug-trafficking charges.
Since both coca farmers and violent pro-Morales protesters in El Alto are preventing the transportation of food, food shortages have started to emerge in Cochabamba and La Paz.
“After being caught perpetrating electoral fraud, Morales is now engaged in a scorched earth attempt to cause violence and chaos. Morales and his supporters are sabotaging the Añez government’s attempts to name a new set of electoral authorities, and to call for free and fair elections as soon as possible, as encouraged by the international community and the Organization of American States (OAS),” said Thor Halvorssen, president of HRF.
“Reports published hours ago from the National Assembly suggest that a new law with opposition and Morales-party lawmakers jointly calling for elections is in the works. HRF applauds these efforts to stop the politically-fueled violence and resolving Bolivia’s political future through a free and fair electoral process.”
The methods used by Morales’ followers stand in stark contrast with the peaceful protests that brought about his ouster after blatant irregularities in the Oct. 20 election became evident. For 21 days, there were nationwide protests. During that time, armed mobs supportive of Morales killed at least three peaceful protesters in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. There were no fatalities in the pro-Morales camp. Additionally, unidentified snipers in Oruro shot at least five anti-Morales miners as they marched from Potosí to La Paz to join the anti-Morales protests.
As of today, the death toll in Bolivia’s protests stands at 30. A report from Bolivia’s governmental Forensic Research Institute indicates that a high number of the bullets that caused such deaths were not fired by police or military weapons. Government officials, based on police forensic reports, have suggested that at least nine of the protesters killed suffered wounds inconsistent with the weapons in use by the police and military officers.
“The Añez transitional government is responsible for providing conclusive evidence that those protesters were not killed by the state police or armed forces. Otherwise, the deceased must be presumed dead at the hands of state authorities,” said Halvorssen. “To determine the cause of death for all who have lost their lives in the context of these protests, the government must provide the Bolivian Ombudsman, as well as local and international investigators and human rights groups, full access to all witnesses and evidence.”
The protests that led to Morales’ ouster progressively increased in intensity as electoral fraud was documented by independent auditors and the Organization of American States (OAS). Secretary General Luis Almagro of the OAS called the fraud a “self-coup” by Morales. Almagro, in addition to the leaders of the European Union, the United States, and others, formally recognized the transitional government of interim president and former opposition Senator Jeanine Añez. Añez was recognized as the constitutional successor to the Presidency after former President Morales, former Vice President García-Linera, and both the first and second Senators of the former ruling party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS, in Spanish), resigned.
The day after Añez was sworn in as President, the Bolivian Constitutional Tribunal – the same body that controversially authorized Morales’s fourth unconstitutional term as president by ignoring the results of the Feb. 2016 referendum – issued a resolution declaring that the succession to interim president Añez was in compliance with the Bolivian constitution. The Constitutional Tribunal reasoned that Senator Añez was the next in line to succeed Morales as a result of his absence from the country after being granted political asylum in Mexico. While at the time no orders to prosecute Morales had been issued, Áñez has since said Morales could face prosecution for fraud if he returns to the country.
Opposition congressman Rafael “Tata” Quispe – an indigenous Aymara critic of Morales and a victim of politically-motivated prosecutions by the former president’s government – has since filed a criminal complaint for sedition, armed uprising and terrorism against Morales.
HRF joins the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in calling on the Añez government to repeal executive order (“decreto supremo,” in Spanish) No. 4078. Requested by police who called on the military to join the operations in order to counter the pro-Morales violence, the executive order provides an exemption for “the military from criminal liability in the event that they are acting in self-defense, state of necessity, and [if they] use force proportionally.”
“Even when self-defense, necessity and proportionality are common affirmative defenses to criminal liability under Bolivian and customary international law, the use of military force is highly discouraged in the neutralization of violent protests by civilians,” said Halvorssen. “HRF believes the executive order is unnecessary, and could have the effect of encouraging the excessive use of force by both military and police officers. Above all, Bolivia’s transition government must maintain strict compliance with international human rights standards.”
On Nov. 10, the day that Morales announced his resignation, violent mobs attacked civilians, looted businesses, and burnt houses in La Paz and Cochabamba, while chanting “Finally yes; Civil War!”. These armed groups vandalized and burned down a police station in El Alto, beating a police officer to death.
That same night, pro-Morales protesters attacked and set fire to various homes, among those the home of human rights defender Waldo Albarracin and that of the journalist who first exposed the electoral fraud, Casimira Lema. Violent attacks of that nature have continued until today. Last night, pro-Morales mobs burned down the house of El Alto’s mayor and Morales critic Soledad Chapetón, an indigenous Aymara woman who has been calling for peace since the conflict started. Before Morales’s resignation, violent opposition groups had also burned the home of the pro-Morales governor of Oruro Víctor Hugo Vásquez.
The interim government has ordered the arrest of Juan Ramón Quintana. Quintana was Morales’s minister of the presidency since January 2019 – formerly minister of government between 2012-2017 – until his disappearance from the public eye in the context of the anti-fraud protests in November, and is suspected of being behind some of the coordinated violent actions by armed pro-Morales groups.
A military officer by career, Quintana was trained in the infamous U.S. Army School of the Americas and served under the Defense Ministry of Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer Suarez before working in the Morales government. Between 2017 and 2019, Quintana was Bolivian ambassador to Cuba. Quintana has been accused of gross human rights violations in Bolivia, including violent repression against people with disabilities protesting in 2016, and also allegedly orchestrated the political violence that led to the 2011 Porvenir massacre, in which 12 people died, and the Hotel Las Americas massacre, where the Morales government is believed to have executed three foreign citizens, who the government claimed were plotting to “assassinate Morales.” In an interview last month, while still in government, Quintana threatened that Bolivia would become a “big battle field, a modern Vietnam” should protests against Morales continue.
HRF condemns the irresponsible hyperbole in the statements by Bolivia’s Minister of Government Arturo Murillo in which he referred to Quintana as committing the crime of “sedition” and as an “animal who thirsts for the blood of Bolivians” when announcing the police operation to catch him.
On Nov. 13, Bolivian police identified a member of the Colombia FARC guerrillas among pro-Morales groups who had clashes with civilians in Santa Cruz, causing the death of two opposition protesters. On Nov. 15, the police arrested nine Venezuelan citizens carrying Venezuelan police uniforms and ID cards. They were escaping with weapons through the border with Brazil, and have since been charged with “sedition” in Bolivia.
HRF further condemns a statement by Bolivia’s new Minister of Communications who, in an interview with reporters, stated that the law would be fully enforced against “Argentine journalists” who were also committing “sedition.” While she later backtracked and expressed the government would guarantee freedom of the press for everyone, all interim government officials must exercise a standard of utmost care given the degree of violence in the current crisis. The Añez government must guarantee that journalists of all domestic and international media are allowed to carry out their work freely.
“Acting government officials must respond to the threats posed by protesters with maximum restraint and avoid irreparable damage to the transition government’s international standing by speaking and acting in accordance with international law,” said Halvorssen.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.