On August 6, the 188th anniversary of Bolivian independence, a traditional day of festive celebration was transformed into an act of protest  by indigenous groups in the Amazonian department of Beni, who demonstrated in the capital city of Trinidad with hands tied behind their backs and mouths covered with masking tape.
The episode reflects renewed tensions over President Evo Morales’s proposed construction of a highway through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park, as indigenous leaders face serious criminal charges over a recent community altercation. Adding fuel to the fire, the government has recently aroused indignation by confirming that undercover police agents infiltrated the landmark 2011 anti-highway mobilization.
Anti-highway leaders Adolfo Chávez, Fernando Vargas, and Pedro Nuni are currently facing judicial orders of detention for alleged criminal acts, including attempted homicide and femicide. The accusations stem from an incident  last June 22 in the TIPNIS community of San Pablo de Isiboro, when Gumercindo Pradel, an indigenous leader who supports the road, was subject to a public community whiplashing.
Pradel, president of the indigenous authority CONISUR, represents government-allied factions in the southern portion of the park, mostly outside the collective land title, who are bitterly at odds with groups opposed to the road. The conflict between pro- and anti-highway sectors within the TIPNIS has intensified since the government’s controversial consultation process  last year, which failed to reach consensus. Several other CONISUR supporters were injured in the course of the confrontation, including a pregnant woman who subsequently aborted, providing the basis for the femicide charge.
Pradel was allegedly in the process of convening an illegitimate assembly  in the TIPNIS, with the intention of ousting Vargas and other directors who participated in the anti-highway marches of 2011 and 2012. Similar tactics have recently been used to divide the lowlands indigenous federation CIDOB, the Secure Subcentral indigenous authority within the TIPNIS, and other groups that are resisting the highway.
The decision to punish Pradel, Vargas argues, was made democratically by consensus of the community assembly, in accordance with principles of traditional community justice  that are recognized by the Bolivian Constitution. In addition to receiving his public punishment, Pradel was forced to sign a statement—which he later revoked—renouncing any further involvement in the affairs of the indigenous territory and his advocacy of the TIPNIS highway.
The three leaders have refused to appear in court, considering their case to be outside the jurisdiction of the ordinary justice system. Nuni and Chávez have denied being physically present at the incident in San Pablo, although they are accused of being the “intellectual authors” of the alleged crimes.
Supporters of the TIPNIS leaders defend their right to resist what they regard as a criminalization of protest. Ex-human rights ombudsman Waldo Albarracín  argues that the practice of community justice to resolve internal disputes is consistent with tradition inside the TIPNIS. In 2009, he notes, Marcial Fabricano, ex-leader of CIDOB, was whiplashed by the community for allegedly betraying the collective trust, with no subsequent intervention by the courts or the government.
Since July 10, the 3 leaders have taken refuge at the headquarters of the TIPNIS Subcentral in Trinidad, protected by a round-the-clock vigil of indigenous supporters. Evidencing the new political alignment in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, on July 23 a civic strike  was convoked in solidarity by the Beni Civic Committee and local unions, with support from the current and former opposition governors of Beni and the Santa Cruz Civic Committee. Historically, these opposition groups were allied with the conservative, pro-autonomy—and anti-indigenous—forces that rebelled against Morales in 2008.
The strike effectively shut down business in Trinidad for the day. The Beni Civic Committee has declared the defense of the TIPNIS to be its current regional priority .
Supporters of the TIPNIS leaders have contrasted the unprecedented swiftness of the justice system in bringing charges in this case with the snail’s pace of the investigation into the police repression  of indigenous TIPNIS marchers at Chaparina nearly 2 years ago, for which no one has yet been formally charged or held accountable.
Meanwhile, government officials have identified an undercover female police agent who infiltrated the march and was present during the alleged “kidnapping”  of foreign minister David Choquehuanca the day before the Chaparina incident. The agent subsequently received a commendation for her efforts. Based on video evidence, TIPNIS leaders charge that she acted as a provocateur,  inciting the aggression against Choquehuanca that precipitated the police repression. The government denies these allegations, while confirming that undercover agents were widely utilized during the TIPNIS marches and other recent mobilizations as a “preventive” measure. The case is under investigation.
The embattled TIPNIS leaders are now seeking a ruling from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal, Bolivia’s highest court, to determine the applicability of community vs. ordinary justice to the charges pending against them. Their efforts are supported by UN Human Rights representative Dennis Racicot , who has criticized the actions taken against Pradel from a human rights perspective, while arguing that the respective jurisdictions of the two justice systems established by the Constitution must be clarified.
Officially, the Morales government has sought to distance itself from what it characterizes as an unfortunate inter-community conflict. “While others are fighting in the dirt down in Trinidad,” Vice President Alvaro García Linera recently lamented at a ceremony delivering public works to communities in the TIPNIS, “we are building a new school for children.”
But critics hold the government squarely responsible for failing to resolve, if not exacerbating, the TIPNIS conflict. As ex-deputy Guillermo Richter  recently noted, “To not have carried out the consulta at the proper moment, unfortunately, has brought us to this situation of permanent conflict. (The government) has not responded or offered an alternative solution, which can’t be other than dialogue.”
Still, the government’s much-criticized handling of the consulta, including its practice of distributing benefits to TIPNIS communities while soliciting their unbiased views on the proposed highway, has had some ironic consequences. As TIPNIS leaders have noted, the outboard motors and telecommunications systems delivered to many communities were critical in getting their representatives to San Pablo last June to resist Pradel’s attempted takeover. “The motors that they gave us,” says Fernando Vargas , “are helping to us mobilize the struggle in defense of our territory.”
Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and the author of NACLA’s weekly blog Rebel Currents, covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments (nacla.org/blog/rebel-currents ).