<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Bolivia Heats Up Once Again

A "Communal Justice" Killing and the Imprisonment of a Landless Movement Activist Shake the Country


By Pablo Francischelli
2004 Narco News Authentic Journalism Scholar

August 24, 2004

La Paz, BOLIVIA: An unusual murder, a clash of cultures, and an upheaval in the social movements mark a new socio-political moment in Bolivia. On June 14, Benjamín Altamirano, mayor of the small town of Ayo Ayo, was kidnapped, tortured, assassinated, and burned. His body was then displayed in a public plaza. The town’s entire population, most of them ethnic Aymaras, took part in the act, which was explained as part of the tradition of communal justice. Since these events took place, several leaders of local social movements have been imprisoned, despite the lack of any concrete evidence against them. Among the most prominent of these detained leaders is Gabriel Pinto, regional head of the Bolivian Landless Movement (MST in its Spanish initials). Pinto’s August 12 imprisonment has the potential to set off a series of acts of resistance by social movements across the country.


Gabriel Pinto listens to his charges with his defense attorneys in La Paz
Photo: D.R. Manuela Aldabe 2004
The town’s residents had accused Benjamín Altamirano of incompetence and corruption. What’s more, Altimirano had ruled the town from the distant capital La Paz, protected by Bolivia’s so-called “Law of Municipalities.”

Tired of the state’s ineffective justice system, the residents of Ayo Ayo turned to their Aymara traditions and exercised their own communal justice. On the afternoon of June 14, an unknown number of rebels abducted the mayor as he left his house in the capital, taking him back to their community in the altiplano (the high Andean plateau of Bolivia) where the execution and public display of his body took place.

A History of Insurrection in the Andes

The crime brings up a historical pattern of Aymara insurrections in Bolivia, as well as the failings of a system that does not respect or recognize the rights, history, or customs of the indigenous. The indigenous mobilizations of today find their inspiration in the struggles of past leaders, such as Tupaj Katari in the eighteenth century, and Zárate Willka in the nineteenth.

In 1781, Tupaj Katari led thousands of Aymara rebels to surround La Paz, cutting off shipments of food to the city and nearly starving its inhabitants to death. The indigenous leader was condemned to death, but he promised to return, transformed into millions of rebel Indians.


Photo: D.R. Manuela Aldabe 2004
Toward the end of the 1800’s, the indigenous rebelled against their white rulers once again. Let this time by Pablo Zárate Willka, they created a military organization to confront the forces of the State, and governed the western part of the country for several months.

The masses of peasants and workers won important rights for the people as they fought in the Bolivian Revolution of 1952. That struggle, a major event in Latin American history, produced the Bolivian government in its current form.

The Andean culture of organization and rebellion has resulted in dozens of victories for the Bolivian masses. Those important revolutions still dwell today in the Aymara consciousness, fostering their resistance.

In the year 2000, in response to the privatization of the country’ water, the people revived the revolutionary image of Tupj Katari, surrounding the city of La Paz once again to reclaim their rights. In 2003, the people took the streets of Sucre (the nominal capital of the country, despite the government’s location in La Paz) and El Alto (the huge industrial suburb of La Paz), overthrowing then-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

Similar Cases of Communal Justice

Similar cases of indigenous communities implementing so-called communal justice can be seen around Lake Titicaca, both on the southern Bolivian side and near the Peruvian city of Puno.

On July 20, 2003, the Bolivian community of Calacoto used communal justice to condemn and execute two of its members. Elías Mamani and Velentín Ramos were killed for having stolen a neighbor’s cattle. In that case, the imprisonment of social leader Edwin Huampu let to a series of Aymara protests, which continued until last October.

And on April 26 of this year in the Peruvian town of Ilave, the local people tortured and killed then-mayor Cirilo Robales for corruption, in a case very similar to the events of Ayo Ayo.

The Collana Ranch

Benjamín Altamirano’s murder and the imprisonment of Gabriel Pinto make it necessary to tell the story of the Collana ranch and its importance to the current turbulent social and political scene in Bolivia.


Peasant-farmers working at the occupied Collana Ranch
Photo: D.R. Lucian Read 2003
The Collana ranch extends over some 1,883 hectares (4,653 acres) around Ayo Ayo, with hardly 300 in use. This disuse was one of the motives that recently drove about 300 farming families from the Bolivian Landless Movement (MST in its Spanish initials) to occupy the land. Aside from that, the ranchers are famous for their lack of respect and exploitation of local workers. It is no coincidence that in 1984, Gonzalo Iturralde, then the ranch’s owner and husband of future president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s sister, was also murdered by one of his employees.

The recent occupation of the ranch, led by Gabriel Pinto, is fundamental for understanding Pinto’s imprisonment. The MST leader was really arrested for defying the power of the Sánchez de Lozada family on their own property. It was also an attempt by the government to criminalize the country’s social movements.

Mobilization of the Social Movements

Obviously, obviously, Gabriel Pinto’s “preventative detention” by the justice system is linked more closely to the murder of Benjamín Altamirano than with the occupation of the Sánchez de Lozada family lands. Pinto was apprehended on the morning of Thursday, August 12, suspected of murder, kidnapping, and holding someone against his will. Though there is no evidence against him, he will remain in prison until all these charges are investigated, which could mean an eternity.

The consequences of all this cannot yet be measured, but according to recent declarations by some Bolivian social leaders, a civil war could be next.

“The social movements will unite to provoke an open war in this country, against injustice and against the government,” said Ángel Durán, the principal leader of the MST. For him, these actions will start right on the large estates of the country’s landed elite. “We will destroy all the large ranches, which are the symbol of oppression and oligarchy in this country,” he declared after the imprisonment of his comrade.


Felipe Quispe, Narco News file photo
Photo: D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Felipe Quispe, the highest leader of the Aymara people, said that “actions must begin in the coming days with roadblocks, a hunger strike, and united struggle by the Bolivian people against these injustices.”

Aside from Durán and Quispe, this movement has also passed into the hands of Oscar Olivera, spokesman for the National Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Gas and Hydrocarbons. “The idea is to begin a hunger strike with the country’s top social and labor leaders, combined with a mobilization in La Paz and Cochabamba, comprised of the MST, the peasant-farmers’ federation, the Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Gas, and other organizations,” said Olivera.

For Olivera, there are four main goals that this movement should seek: 1) the decriminalization of the social movements; 2) changes in the hydrocarbons law proposed by current president Carlos Mesa; 3) the nationalization of the country’s water; and 4) a new export policy for the country’s energy sources that creates direct benefits for the neediest members of society.

An Uncertain Future

Bolivia’s future remains uncertain. The only sure thing is that the people are rising up in a cyclical process of struggle and resistance. From the first historical insurrectionary movements, the Bolivian masses have proven themselves very capable of the level of organization needed to confront state oppression.

Indigenous ethnicities comprise about two thirds of the country’s population, and are part of the great majority of Bolivians that live in conditions of extreme poverty, misunderstood and disrespected. As long as this situation continues, the cycle of popular struggle will continue, growing ever stronger.

If the social movements are serious about uniting as mentioned in their comments and reaching a level of organization strong enough to resist the government’s repression, we might see one more historic revolution right in the heart of Latin America.

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