The violence in Bolivia worsened on Friday, November 15, leading to an unacceptable outcome — the deaths of at least nine demonstrators.
In the outskirts of Cochabamba, one of the country’s largest cities, thousands of supporters of former Bolivian President Evo Morales who had gathered to protest the exile of Morales to Mexico were confronted by security forces seeking to contain the demonstration. In addition to the deaths of at least nine protesters, more than 100 people were wounded, including members of the state forces.
According to Reuters, hospital records show that the vast majority of deaths and injuries were caused by gunfire. Protesters said that members of the police opened fire on the demonstrators after the group tried to cross a military checkpoint.
At a press conference this Saturday, November 16, the director of the Special Anti Crime Force, Yuri Tapia, told journalists that rifles, bazookas and grenades were found in possession of the demonstrators. According to the Minister of Government, Arturo Murillo, the security forces were attacked by firearms used by the protesters. He also said that the demonstrators may have attacked each other to try to incriminate the government.
Demonstrators have a different version. They accuse the security forces of promoting a massacre. Former President Evo Morales also used the term in interviews given to the media.
Nelson Cox, the representative of the Public Defender’s Office in Cochabamba, who is following the case, said there was “a disproportionate use of force to be investigated”. He denounced that the security forces at the checkpoints did not allow ambulances transporting the wounded to pass through.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), linked to the Organization of American States, condemned the “disproportionate use of military and police force”.
“Firearms must be eliminated from the provisions used to control social protests,” said the IACHR.
The High Commissioner of the United Nations for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, also expressed concern about the actions of the security forces. For her, the deaths “appear to be the result of unnecessary or disproportionate use of force by the police and army”.
In addition, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alerted that interim Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez signed a decree on Friday exempting members of the armed forces of legal responsibilities when “following their Constitutional functions, acting in self-defence or state of need”.
This kind of measure only aggravates the difficulty to reach a dialogue between the different political forces and brings justifiable concerns about the commitment of the State to reestablishing an environment of peace and justice.
The mission of the police and the armed forces of maintaining the order in the country must not represent a carte blanche for the unlimited use of force.
Attacks to the press have also been registered. A reporter from Al Jazeera was deliberately tear-gassed by a member of the security forces as she was reporting the protests live.
Also, journalists accuse the government of explicitly intimidating them. In an interview to the press, the Minister of Communications said that “journalists provoking sedition (uprising) will face the Bolivian law”.
350.org calls for respect for human rights and an end to violence
In this context, it is time for the Bolivian government to show its irrefutable commitment to an end to violence and full respect for human rights, democracy, and Indigenous Peoples.
In practice, this means carrying out a fair investigation into the murders of demonstrators in the outskirts of Cochabamba, bringing those responsible for these acts to justice, and ensuring compliance with Bolivian law in all situations, including at times of confrontation between protesters and state forces.
At a time when, unfortunately, some of the demonstrators for and against the resignation of former President Morales are resorting to violence, it is even more important for the State to demonstrate, beyond any doubt, that it is complying with the law and respecting the inalienable rights of all human beings.
350.org supports the right of all peoples in all parts of the world to protest. We believe that it is through the actions of ordinary citizens that change for a more sustainable, peaceful, equitable, and democratic world is possible.
Before this regrettable episode, 350.org had already manifested its position about the situation in Bolivia. The organization asked for full respect for the Indigenous Peoples, for their participation in decisions pertaining to the country’s future and for the public respect of their symbols, such as the Wiphala flag. 350.org will remain attentive to the situation in Bolivia and reinforce its support for such fundamental values.