On September 11, Bolivians observed the third anniversary of the Pando massacre, a brutal attack on indigenous peasants and students in the Amazonian lowlands and the most deadly act of political violence in the country since 2003. Little known outside Bolivia, the tragic event marked a turning point in Bolivia’s recent history, and has special relevance today for the escalating conflict over the TIPNIS highway.
The Pando Massacre
The massacre took place at the height of a 2008 revolt against President Evo Morales’ MAS government by conservative elites and their allied “prefects” (governors) in Bolivia’s four lowlands “Media Luna” departments, that brought the country to the brink of a “civil coup.” Under the banner of regional autonomy—in reality, a demand by local elites to retain control of land and hydrocarbons resources—the anti-MAS power bloc seized public buildings and airports, attacked MAS government officials, and blocked the transport of goods to western highlands regions in a massive effort to destabilize the government.
In Pando, a protest march on September 11 by some 1,000 pro-MAS indigenous peasants and their supporters was ambushed by truckloads of armed “civicos,” waiting behind trenches dug by local road crews to block their passage along the road to the departmental capital of Cobija. At least 11 died, and more than 50 were wounded. The brutality and racist nature of the assault is captured in this description by anthropologist Bret Gustafson:
The farmers bore the brunt of the attack, fleeing helter-skelter into the jungle, jumping into a nearby river, and falling under the attack. Wounded peasants transported to hospitals for treatment were reportedly dragged from ambulances and beaten. Others were seized and taken to the main plaza of Cobija. There they were beaten and whipped with barbed wire in an exercise of plantation-style punishment inherited from an earlier colonial order. Some of the victims, outsiders from the high, cold Andes of La Paz, were students at a local teachers’ college. They had marched with the local peasants to back their demands for change and suffered for their solidarity. Three were brutally killed, and their bodies mutilated. Gangs of men dragged others into the city and kicked, beat, and interrogated them. “Who sent you here?” Rifle butts slam into heads; fists and kicks fly. “For this shitty people, there is no compassion,” shouts one of the civics, invoking local prejudices against Andeans. “You have to make him suffer!” “Tell us who sent you or you’re going to the wall (el paredón).” “Kill the shitty kolla,” shouts another, using a derogatory term for Andean Bolivians. This was not merely violence perpetrated against political adversaries; it was the sort of racist violence built upon denial of the victims' humanity.
In the aftermath of the massacre, the MAS government—which had been reluctant to forcefully confront the opposition—declared a state of siege in Pando and moved aggressively to reassert control. Prefect Leopoldo Fernández was arrested and charged with spearheading the massacre. Morales expelled U.S. Ambassador Goldberg for openly consorting with autonomist forces and the U.S. reciprocated in kind, precipitating a break in relations that has not been repaired to this day.
The violent attacks gave rise to a sense of national outrage that mobilized indigenous groups and other social movements in defense of the government and consolidated support by neighboring countries. In an unprecedented action, UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) issued a declaration condemning the Pando massacre and firmly supporting Morales. Evoking the memory of the coup against Salvador Allende on another September 11 thirty-five years earlier. UNASUR warned that its respective governments “will not recognize any situation that implies an intent of civil coup d’etat, the rupture of institutional order, or that compromises the territorial integrity of…Bolivia.”
At the insistence of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the declaration also called for dialogue between the MAS government and pro-autonomy forces to resolve their differences. With major agribusiness and hydrocarbons investments in Bolivia’s lowlands departments, and a dependency on the region’s natural gas, Brazil has a significant interest in maintaining the viability of the Media Luna economy as well as Bolivia’s overall political stability. Due to Lula’s forceful intervention, the conservative opposition eventually agreed to a new constitution, with compromises on autonomy, land, and other key issues.
The TIPNIS Conflict
Three years later, some 27 former civic leaders charged with crimes related to the massacre, including ex-prefect Fernández, have yet to be brought to trial under Bolivia’s notoriously sluggish judicial system. Fernández, who has admitted to authorizing the digging of the trenches as a “precautionary measure,” remains in custody (but is seeking a release now that the 3-year statute of limitations for preventive detention has expired). Meanwhile, a UNASUR investigation has concluded that the Pando massacre was a crime against humanity.
The Media Luna opposition has fragmented and is no longer a significant political force in Bolivia. The MAS government has consolidated its control over 2/3 of the national legislative assembly and 6 out of 9 governorships (including Pando, where an estimated 1,000 autonomistas have fled across the border to Brazil).
Today the MAS government faces a substantial challenge from social movement sectors formerly allied with it, especially lowlands indigenous groups whose interests appear to stand in the way of a strong developmentalist agenda. At the epicenter of this conflict, some 1,700 indigenous residents of the TIPNIS (Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory) and their supporters are in the 35th day of a 300+ mile march from the Amazonian department of Beni to La Paz, to protest a proposed highway that will bifurcate their ancestral lands.
Last week, the seventh effort at negotiations between the marchers and government ministers ended in deadlock. The marchers want the road to be re-routed outside the TIPNIS and refuse to participate in the official consultation process scheduled to start September 25, which Morales now insists will not consider alternative routes.
Since the construction contract for the road was executed 3 years ago, with Brazilian conglomerate OAS, the marchers say that the consulta violates the government’s obligation to seek their “free, prior, and informed consent” in accordance with the Bolivian constitution and international accords. They also believe the government is acting in bad faith since Morales has repeatedly refused to meet directly with the marchers. This week, Morales traveled to the TIPNIS to negotiate with dissident groups who support the road.
In an interview last week, Alejandro Almaraz, ex-viceminister of lands for the MAS government and now an ardent critic of the TIPNIS highway, told me that the TIPNIS road is part of Morales’ payback to Brazil for its intervention in 2008 to support the MAS government following the Pando massacre. In addition to the $415 million “turnkey” contract awarded to OAS without competitive bidding, with 80% financing from the Brazilian government, the road will facilitate Brazil’s grand plan for a bioceanic corridor as well as access to Petrobras’ petroleum concession in the TIPNIS.
The march is now less than 10 miles from Yucumo at the Beni/ La Paz border, where some 200 MAS-affiliated “colonists” (typically Quechua/ Aymará peasants who have migrated from the western highlands) have established a road blockade behind trenches dug with heavy machinery, eerily reminiscent of Pando. Their intent, they say, is to force the marchers to negotiate with the government.
Some 450 national police have been deployed to the area for the ostensible purpose of avoiding confrontation; but press reports indicate that the police are coordinating with the colonists and are under orders to deter the march. The government has insisted that the blockade is only a “peaceful vigil”—a characterization now denied by the colonists themselves. The government’s refusal to break up the blockade contrasts sharply with actions taken in Santa Cruz last month, where two roadblocks by indigenous groups supporting the TIPNIS march were quickly dispersed.
Whether or not the MAS government is directly responsible for organizing the colonist “shock troops,” as some have claimed, its relentless effort to discredit, demean, and intimidate the marchers, and its refusal now to protect their fundamental rights, has created a hostile climate conducive to violence. The prospect of a confrontation between highland indigenous peasants and lowland indigenous groups, formerly allied as MAS supporters, is particularly disheartening, as is the virtually inconceivable notion of repression by the MAS government of its former indigenous allies.
Could violence against the indigenous marchers at Yucumo precipitate a national outrage, as happened after Pando, that would force the government to reconsider the TIPNIS route? In a country with too many martyrs, it’s a question that no one wants to ask.