Peasants Massacred in Pando – Bolivian Government Declares State of Emergency

On Friday, September 12, we reported on the attack on pro-MAS peasants in the department of Pando, in the East of Bolivia. We said at the time that 9 people had been killed by the hired thugs of the opposition regional prefect (governor), Leopoldo Fernández. But only later was the full scale of the massacre revealed, with the death toll currently at 30, and many more still missing.

On Friday, September 12, we reported on the attack on pro-MAS peasants in the department of Pando, in the East of Bolivia. We said at the time that 9 people had been killed by the hired thugs of the opposition regional prefect (governor), Leopoldo Fernández. But only later was the full scale of the massacre revealed, with the death toll currently at 30, and many more still missing.

On Thursday, September 11, some 1,000 peasants from the rural communities of Puerto Rico, Madre de Diós and El Palmar, were marching on Cobija, the capital of Pando. They were going to take part in a mass meeting of peasants to oppose the fascist violence orchestrated by the reactionary governor. Gangs of heavily armed employees of the prefect's office had been taking over government buildings and the airport, creating a climate of terror in the streets of Cobija, as part of a general offensive of the oligarchy which Evo Morales correctly described as a "civic business coup".

Employees of the Departmental Roads Service, which in the last few months have been trained and armed and become a de facto paramilitary group, tried to stop them, but without success. They then set up a more effective road block near the city of Porvenir: a 10 metre-wide, 2 metre-deep trench to prevent anybody from getting through.

As the peasants arrived, armed men were already waiting for them and, coming out of tipper trucks (volquetas) of the Servicio de Caminos (Road Service) of the Department, opened fire on the peasants. "Suddenly we heard gun fire and some people fell, wounded. Men, women and children, we all ran to save our lives, but many were killed and wounded, and some were taken by force and then tortured", said Roberto Tito, an eyewitness.

"They killed us like pigs, with machine guns, rifles, hand guns. The peasants were only carrying sticks and slingshots, we did not have guns. After the first shots, some ran to the Tahuamanu river, but they followed them and shot at them". This, according to Shirley Segovia, a peasant leader in Porvenir (reports from bolpress)

One hundred people had to cross the border into Brazil, fearing for their lives. Eyewitness reports say that some of the hired thugs were Brazilians from across the border. Some of those who were assassinated had been executed with a single shot in the back. Relatives and comrades who tried to retrieve the bodies were also shot at, some of them were captured and tortured. The same treatment applied to those who were visiting the wounded in the local hospitals.

The violence continued throughout Thursday and into Friday. The hired thugs of the departmental prefect Leopoldo Fernández continued killing unarmed peasants, singling out leading activists. The prefect's version of events is that there was an armed clash between two groups of armed people. This is completely ludicrous if one takes into account that 95% of those who died or were injured were part of the peasant march or other peasants.

Karina Escalante Guerra, a local teacher from the Filadelfia rural council, expressed the anger which most Bolivian workers and peasants must have felt last week: "We appeal to the government to act; we have been threatened, they say they are coming to burn down the town hall, they want to get the mayor, I do not know what the government is doing, why are they not sending the Armed Forces? ... We are those who have given him [Evo Morales] the strongest support in the recall referendum, now he has to show that he is on our side, otherwise we will have to rise up against the government, because up until now we have shown that we are fighting for the change that he is promoting, but not so that our people get killed", she said in a phone interview to Red Erbol.

The situation was such that even the government representative in Pando, Nancy Texeira, was in tears as she criticised the government and demanded immediate action to save the people who were being killed.

Finally, at 7pm on Friday, the Evo Morales government stepped in, declared a state of emergency in Pando and sent the army to retake control of the airport in Cobija.

But even then, the first reaction of the prefect was to defy the state of emergency and curfew. Groups of right wing thugs assaulted two firearms shops to further arm themselves. In the clashes between the army and the right wing for the control of the airport, two people were killed, a civilian and a 17 year-old conscript.

By Saturday night, the Army had still not taken control of the airport, and the minister of the presidency Juan Ramón Quintana, arrived with more troops. Only on Sunday, September 14, did the army manage to take back the airport and start moving into the city of Cobija itself. According to reports from the government and the peasant organisations, some of the hired guns involved in the massacre then fled to Brazil.

A number of demonstrations called by the prefect and the "civic committee" took place on the same day, in defiance of the curfew, under the cynical slogan of "peace".

The military and other government officials have not yet reached the area of the massacre to fully ascertain the extent of it, so the number of dead could increase even further. While the army was fighting for control of the airport, the threat of burning down the humble wooden house which serves as town hall in Filadelfia was carried out by right wing gangs.

Army inaction?

None of this had to happen. For three days, from Tuesday, September 8 to Thursday, September 11, the oligarchy launched an offensive aimed at overthrowing the Morales government. They violently and illegally took over government buildings in the departments where they control the prefects, they closed down media outlets that did not follow their political line, they defied the power of the national government, attacked the offices of peasant organisations, threatened and fire-bombed workers' leaders, took over airports, gas fields and pipelines etc.

In some cases, workers and peasants resisted. The fascist gangs were prevented from entering Plan 3000, the heavily populated working class and poor neighbourhood in Santa Cruz. Road blockades were set up in San Julián, also in the departnment of Santa Cruz. In Tarija, the peasants managed to fight back and expel the fascist gangs which had taken over the local market.

But the government still did not take action. Soldiers and police were under strict orders not to open fire and not to fight back. As a result, they were overrun by small groups of well-organised and well-equipped fascists. The government ministers denounced what was going on as a "civic business coup" and appealed for the law to be respected. But these were just words. The State Prosecutor, Uribe, replied that he was being called to act as both the police and the army at the same time, that this was not his job, and that he was "washing his hands" of any responsibility.

When the people of San Julian wanted to march to Santa Cruz to put an end to fascist attacks and help their brothers and sisters in Plan 3000, they were advised not to do so by local MAS leaders. The argument was that "we should not fall for provocations ... We must prevent clashes that lead to people being killed which can then be used by the opposition".

It took the massacre of Porvenir to push the government to take action.

Was it a surprise that the prefect of Pando acted in the way he did? It was not. Leonel Fernández was a functionary in two dictatorial governments in the 1980s. He is a well-connected representative of the local oligarchy in Pando which has ruled this sparsely populated department in an almost feudal way for many decades.

He represents the interests of landowners, timber industry and ranch owners, and is linked to the narco-traffic that takes place over the border with Brazil. In 2006, the then government minister Alicia Muñoz, already warned that the prefect was arming and training paramilitary groups through the Servicio de Caminos (the Departmental Road Service). Last year he had the house of a regional senator who had voted in favour of land reform burned down.

And then, on August 10th, in the recall referendum, Evo Morales won in Pando with 52% of the vote. This,  Fernández could not tolerate. The provinces where these peasants came from were those which voted massively for Evo.Fernández feared losing his seat as prefect, which he used to dominate the department for the oligarchy.

So why didn't the army act sooner? A big public polemic has opened in Bolivia and in Venezuela over this matter. On Sunday, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez accused the Bolivian Army High Command of declaring themselves "on strike" during those days, and specifically mentioned Bolivian commander in chief general Trigo, as having been responsible for this. "I know that this general, and other generals are conducting a kind of ‘strike'. They have allowed the fascists, paramilitaries, to massacre the people of Bolivia". Some well-informed Argentinean journalists have reported that the Army High Command met with Evo Morales last week and told him that if he wanted the Army to stop the fascist gangs they wanted a written and signed order allowing them to use force.

Chávez had already warned the Bolivian military that if there was a coup, or Evo Morales was killed, he would intervene to support any armed movement of the people in Bolivia. Trigo replied that Bolivia was a sovereign country and rejected "any foreign intervention". On Sunday, Chávez insisted that, if there was a coup in Bolivia, he would not remain with his "arms folded" and while conceding that Trigo was correct in rejecting foreign intervention, challenged him to make a public statement against the meddling of the U.S. in the internal affairs of Bolivia.

Chávez was even more specific in his accusations against general Trigo when he said that he had information that, "instead of implementing the presidential decree of state of emergency, he ordered the troops to remain in their barracks and abandon the airport" in Cobija. This, if true, might explain why it took the army nearly 24 hours to retake the airport and why the Minister of the Presidency had to go personally to supervise the operation.

Despite the reassurances of the Defence Minister that the Army remains united and loyal to the government, everything points in the opposite direction. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

More negotiations?

Last week, we saw the oligarchy launch an attempt to overthrow the government. That attempt has failed, for now. They did not manage to take power and were starting to provoke a massive response on behalf of the workers and peasants. They have therefore now taken half a step back. In Santa Cruz, the leader of the civic committee, Marinkovic, declared an end to road blockades, but insisted they would keep all public buildings they had taken by force.

On Friday, a meeting took place between the government and the governor of Tarija, Cossio, representing the prefects of the Eastern departments. Why would the government want to talk with the leaders of a movement which they have themselves described as a "coup"? A follow up meeting took place on Monday, at the end of which Cossio said that "we have set 80% of the basis for meaningful agreement".

Meanwhile, Evo Morales and other government ministers insisted that there had to be punishment for Pando prefect Fernández and that he was not a legitimate party to negotiations. However, the other prefects have come out in defence of Fernández. And how is he different from Ruben Costas, the prefect of Santa Cruz, who is responsible for the organisation of the violent assaults on public buildings over the last few days, and who earlier in August called for a military coup?

Today, a meeting of the UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) has been called in Chile, and amongst those attending will be Evo Morales, Argentinean president Kirchner, Brazilian president Lula and Venezuelan president Chávez. The likely outcome of this meeting will be a statement in defence of Bolivia's national unity and sovereignty, the repudiation of all illegal and violent acts and ... the need for a negotiated solution to the conflict.

Whatever the immediate outcome of the present episode of this confrontation in Bolivia, it is clear that the interests of the oligarchy and those of the Bolivian workers and peasants cannot be reconciled. If Evo Morales pushes ahead with the referendum for the new political constitution (which includes agrarian reform), then sooner or later, the oligarchy will attempt another coup.

On the other hand, the mass organisations of workers and peasants are also under intense pressure to take action. Fidel Surco, president of the National Coordination of Organisations for Change (CONALCAM) announced that "if the prefects do not give up the buildings they have taken, we are going to take over their land". The powerful Miners' Federation (FSTMB) declared a state of emergency of all their members, and announced mobilisations. "We are not going to allow another massacre", they said. The COB national meeting on Friday announced nationwide mobilisations for tomorrow, Tuesday and raised the idea of a national march on Santa Cruz by "workers, peasants and the poor people in general".

This conflict can only be settled in one of two ways: either the oligarchy, with the help of U.S. imperialism is victorious and Bolivia sees another bloody military dictatorship, or the workers and peasants finally complete the revolution by expropriating the oligarchy's political and economic power.

On Saturday night, Evo Morales, addressing a gathering of workers and peasants in Cochabamba, declared that this was a struggle for national liberation and national unity and that the process of change "will not be reversed". It is time to draw the necessary conclusions from these correct words. There will inevitably be a new offensive of the ruling class. But the people must not be caught unaware; the slogans of the day are: the formation of action committees (Popular Assemblies, cabildos abiertos, etc.) and the arming of the people.

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