Bolivia: Junta Hunts Down Last Remaining Dissidents

| Educate!

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With the right-wing coup in Bolivia nearly complete, the junta is hunting down the last remaining dissidents.

On the day of my scheduled interview with a leftist Bolivian journalist, I learned that he had been disappeared. Every outspoken opponent of the military junta is a target and subjected to charges of sedition.

La Paz, Bolivia – A brutal military junta that seized power from Bolivia’s democratically elected President Evo Morales is violently repressing a working-class indigenous-led uprising, and the country is rapidly falling under its control.

Soldiers in military fatigues prowl the streets, enforcing a series of choke points around the seat of power. Anyone perceived as standing against the status quo is now subject to being arrested on charges of sedition or terrorism. Dissident journalists and Morales sympathizers have been forced into hiding, leaving the house only when necessary. 

“It’s a fascist dictatorship, there’s no hiding it,” says Federico Koba, a left-wing journalist who asked that I not use his real name for fear of arrest. “There are paramilitary agents going around the city taking pictures and pinpointing who’s who. Who is a leader, who is recording the protests, who is recording the repression.”

I met with Koba, an activist and journalist with the leftist news site La Resistencia Bolivia, on the evening of November 24th. I had initially planned to meet with his co-worker, who asked that I refer to him by the pseudonym of Carlos Mujica because he too feared being jailed for his activism. 

But on the day of our scheduled interview, Mujica never showed up. He was lying low, having had his house searched and ransacked by police the night before the coup.

Hours later, I received a brief message from him: “Bro, I can’t talk right now. I’m in jail.”

Mujica’s friends went to every prison in the city looking for him, but he was nowhere to be found. The next day, he was released after an intense interrogation session in an unlisted facility. He immediately went into hiding, disconnecting himself completely from social media, which his peers now believe has been compromised by the coup regime.

The atmosphere was grim when I met with Koba and some of his colleagues. “We know for sure we’re on a list – we’ve seen it, and what they did to Carlos confirms it,” one member of La Resistencia told me.

After the interview with Koba, he waved off my suggestion that we get a beer.

“Maybe someday, after all this is over, we can do that,” he said. So we drove around under the cover of darkness instead, doubling back and making frequent turns to make sure we weren’t being followed.

“That truck could belong to the cops, or the paramilitaries,” he remarked, as we circled a roundabout multiple times to allow it to pass.

“Not a single shot was fired”

Since their country was taken over by far-right landowning elites, virtually every leftist Bolivian with a public profile has begun to feel the heat. Even relative newcomers to politics bear the scars of repression.

Minutes after I met another Bolivian citizen journalist, who had first picked up a camera just weeks before, as the coup kicked off, he hiked up his pant leg to show me the wound he’d sustained the day before. He had been shot with a rubber bullet while documenting the military’s offensive against the residents of El Alto.

Soldiers encircle the Senkata gas plant after a violent assault on indigenous protesters (photo by Wyatt Reed)

Days after the coup sent Morales into exile, residents of the mostly indigenous working-class city of El Alto encircled a gas plant called Senkata, cutting off the nearby Bolivian capital of La Paz from its main source of cooking gas. In response, the same military and police forces that had conspired with fascist paramilitaries to force Morales from office unleashed a ferocious wave of violence on the largely unarmed protesters.

I arrived just after the worst of the massacre. The “terrorists” – as the Bolivian military junta and press have dubbed the self-organized patrols of mainly unarmed indigenous youth and mothers – were decidedly less violent than one might expect. Instead of the guns and dynamite which coup-supporting Bolivians insist they wield, I saw only cell phones and polleras, the traditional dresses worn by many of Bolivia’s indigenous women.

But that did little to prevent them from being mowed down over the course of several hours. While the official death toll from the Senkata massacre now stands at nine, a seemingly endless series of victims’ family members told the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) that the real number was most certainly higher, as many as 25 deaths.

Their harrowing testimonies painted a picture of unhinged soldiers firing at random out of helicopters and from sniper perches. Mothers sobbed as they held up photos of their children. Many had been gunned down as they went to or from work; still more had simply disappeared.

Nearly a week later, their families are beginning to assume that they were killed by soldiers, who subsequently hid the bodies in order to lower the official number of casualties.

Survivors and witnesses of lethal junta repression testify before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in La Paz (photo by Wyatt Reed)

But the military junta now in control begged to differ. Interior Minister Arturo Murillo has publicly insisted that “not a single shot was fired.”

It was an account echoed by the head doctor of the Corazon de Jesus Trauma Center. He allowed me inside the medical clinic only after a crew of five nurses had scrubbed the puddles of blood from the floors. The doctor then insisted that only two of the dead could be confirmed as gunshot victims, and that their wounds were consistent with a .22 caliber weapon – in his words, “non-military weapons.”

How someone with no training as a forensic pathologist could come to such a conclusion is confounding, but what is well known in Bolivia today is that any medical professional who contradicts the official narrative risks criminalization.

When a video of a crying medical professional in Senkata denouncing the horrific violence went viral, he was arrested days later. The Bolivian junta accused him of being a “fake doctor.”

A laboratory for junta’s post-truth information war

The wrath of the coup regime, led by a once fringe far-right politician named Jeanine Añez, is felt all across the Bolivian left. Virtually anyone who represents a perceived challenge to the status quo is liable to be hit with manufactured charges of “sedition” or “terrorism.”

Protesting the crackdown on leftist media and new sedition laws (photo by Wyatt Reed)

As Koba explained during our clandestine nighttime drive, “they are trying to repress not only protesters that march, but anyone that says something different from what the government says is happening. So they are repressing any media outlet that tries to show the repression and the assassinations, the killings, and show the evidence, and show the protests, and show the marches. Everything that’s against the coup is being harassed and is being attacked.”

He continued: “A lot of small and medium-sized media outlets have been shut down or have been forced to not show what’s going on, and others have been paid to show what they tell them to. So it’s a very serious situation in the freedom of speech department, not only the human rights department, because as I think the world has seen, these guys haven’t held back in using all the force at their disposal.”

Prestige and prominence is no protection under the rule of the junta. Even five-time Emmy-winning journalist Carlos Montero and Juan Manuel Karg were forced from the country after a fanatically right-wing senator labelled them “insufferable communists” who were “sticking their dirty noses in Bolivia.”

Police even hit an Al Jazeera reporter transmitting from the Plaza Murillo in La Paz in the face with tear gas as she attempted to deliver her report.

And TeleSUR, one of the last remaining news channels to give a voice to opponents of the coup government, had numerous correspondents kicked out of the country on accusations of “sedition” before the station was officially removed from the airwaves on November 21st. 

But the repression of international media has paled in comparison to the right-wing repression of local Bolivian media. Within days of the coup, José Aramayo, director of Radio CSUTCB – an ally of Morales – was chained to a tree as paramilitary members frogmarched his staff out of their office.

As Koba explained, Bolivian media outlets now face a choice: either you take a bribe, or your life will be made extremely difficult. In this atmosphere, opposing viewpoints are virtually non-existent on Bolivian TV, which now runs PSAs warning that Evo Morales is trying to starve the audience.

“We are almost alone in showing what’s going on,” Koba said of the threatened band of leftist reporters still active in Bolivia. “The traditional media is just showing what they can’t hide. But they of course deny the evidence. They say that these were inside jobs – that cocaleros and El Alto people are killing themselves.”

“Everything is upside down”

In the Alice in Wonderland “post-truth” reality enforced by the junta, Koba exclaimed, “The progressives are the fascists. They say that we are the fascists! They say that we are the violent ones, that we are the terrorists. They say that we are the ones who performed the coup from a long time before with this alleged fraud, this supposed fraud.” 

While a few scattered progressives in the US Congress have registered their condemnation of the coup, the damage has been done, and the plot has been fulfilled.

The far-right demagogues who forced out Morales have consolidated control, and as Koba says, “they tried to turn everything upside down so the ‘election fraud’ was a coup, and the coup was a return to democracy; the paramilitary forces are pacifying forces; the fascists are the democrats.”

Everything,” he says, “is upside down.” 

Bolivia has become “a huge laboratory for post-truth and 21st century coups that use everything that they have gathered from their experiences in Nicaragua and Venezuela, onto Honduras… Brazil and Argentina,” Koba explained.

In 2008, “they tried to carry out a coup here, and they were unsuccessful, but they learned from their mistakes… This has been a laboratory to use all of their guns – the post-truth, the paramilitary, the civil movements being financed by NGOs and by foreign fascist organizations.”

Now, Koba warns, “anyone who says that this isn’t a transitional government is accused of creating sedition. And everything is sedition. Posting on social media is sedition; talking about the violent repression is sedition; saying what you think is sedition.”

According to Koba, “The only thing that they haven’t been able to do is to convince the international community that this is a democratic transition. Of course, that’s the only thing that we have in our favor, that the international community has seen the repression, has seen all the human rights violations.”

As Bolivia returns to the dark days of de facto rule by a ruthless, US-backed military junta, Koba’s voice is among only a few who still dare to speak out in protest.

After a long and sobering discussion, we returned to downtown La Paz. I shook his hand and wished him well, unsure when, or if, I would see him again.

A choke point in La Paz manned by soldiers (photo by Wyatt Reed)

Wyatt Reed is a Virginia-based activist and journalist who covers climate and racial justice movements and foreign policy issues. Follow him on Twitter at @wyattreed13.

  • jemcgloin

    Anyone that doesn’t want the Party of Trump to do the same thing here needs to vote in the Democratic Primaries so we don’t end up with Biden or Bloomberg against Trump, then vote in the election for the Democrat.
    I know you don’t trust Democrats. I know many of them are sell outs. I know they are part of the problem.

    But the Democratic party did not threaten us with “the military, the police, and Bikers for Trump.”

    The Democrats are corporate and that is bad. The Right is violent fascists who would have no problem machine gunning protesters in the streets.

    A second term of Trump could mean 50 million dead Americans, including your friends and family, just because you visit this site.

    The Democtats don’t know how to win. They need smart Left activists to take over and beat Trump. Don’t let violent fascists shred the Constitution and control state violence without checks. The state terror we have now will not compare.

  • Tony

    Very sad. I will be shocked if their is an election.

  • kevinzeese

    And if there is one, it is hard to imagine it will be fair because the right wing coup plotters would surely lose.

  • rgaura

    The democrats have become a well oiled mafia. Voting them into power means they will have immunity from prosecutions, and destroy evidence. I think your strategy is very bad. Most voters are independents. At least half of the people don’t vote. The whole democratic primary show is being used to extract data from social media in order to manipulate the votes. Our elections are not clean, and democrats have avoided cleaning them up. Not saying individual democrats may have integrity, but you will not get accountability or a functional government by voting for a mafia. Go independent while you may. Give the majority a voice.

  • mwildfire

    Yes. But to save face, they need to stage one–they will insist at gunpoint on controlling the process so they can ensure victory. It doesn’t matter how obvious their cheating is; the media will report it as they’re told to report it, both the surviving domestic media and the western mass media.

  • blessthebeasts

    Democrats: the more effective of the two evils because they have convinced naive voters like you that they are on our side. Bullshit! The coup in Honduras happened under Saint Obama.

  • kevinzeese

    50 million dead Americans?

    Absurd exaggeration that undermines your credibility.

    KZ

  • Fat J

    The Obama Administration overturned the Posse Comitatus Act, allowing our military to be deployed as a domestic police force. The Democrat establishment is no ally to decency.

  • jemcgloin

    You’re probably right, so here is a more accurate illustration:

    About 75,000 were killed by Right-wing death squads in El Salvador. The population was about 4.5 million at the time. That is about .016 of the population.

    If you multiple the population of the US, about 329 million by. .016, you get about 5 million dead.

    Sorry that my off the top of my head estimate was off by a factor of ten.

    If you use the US civil war as a reference that killed about 20% of the population .2 times 329 million is about 6.5 million dead. Since Trump, Steve King Republican Congressman of Iowa and many other Republicans use the words “civil war,” this might be a better estimate.

    Trump is not Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, or Obama. And I voted against Obama because he violated the Constitution once.

    Trump literally calls for violence against US citizens and has threatened us with “the military, the police, and bikers for Trump.”

    We all know that state terror by the Right-wing is an historic fact in the USA. Jim Crow resulted in over 4,000 lynchings.

    We can either take over the Democratic Party and stop Trump, or risk millions on the left murdered by the Right.

    They arm, train, and call for civil war.

  • jemcgloin

    I never sainted Obama. I voted against him and called him out for numerous crimes like assassinating an American citizen and expanding illegal surveillance, not to mention hiring Hillary, who orchestrated the Coup in Honduras, and the failed state in Libya, among other things.

    But it makes no sense for the Left to sit around watching centrist Democrats surrender to Trump so he can become president for life.

    The Left has surrendered it’s political power by refusing to take back the Democratic Party, from corporate centrists who lose on purpose.
    Let’s have them lose to the left for a change.

    We can either watch Trump win, or we can try to win.

    Trump represents the most violent and well armed fascists in the country. If Trump wins another term, I guarantee that within four years protesters will be met with machine guns in the streets.

  • jemcgloin

    Yes, the centrists that control the Democratic Party are not our friends. Notice that I said we need to beat Biden and Bloomberg not support them.

    Obama gave Trump the ability to deploy our military as a domestic police force, and gave him the keys to the most intrusive surveillance state in world history.

    Instead of leaving Trump with that power, while he calls for violence against the left and journalists, maybe we should take back the government and put Constitutional controls back on the power of state violence.

    There is no Freedom Of Speech without the Constitution. If Trump wins a second term, the Constitution will be meaningless.

    Look at who he pardons. He started with a sheriff who ran self described “concentration camps” and now pardons War criminals.

    Trump doesn’t want to go back to 1950. He wants to go back to 1050.

    Trump literally rules like a king, and centrist Democrats refuse to say it.

    Save the Constitution to save your friends alnd family.

  • jemcgloin

    Yes, if the Independents and non-voters picked a good candidate, we could take over the Democratic Party and make it fight for workers.

    I usually vote for third parties. I voted for Jill Stein on 2016. We got rid of Hillary. Now we have to get rid of Trump.

    Hillary may have been the frying pan, but now we are in the fire. The only thing worse than apologists for fascists are the actual fascists who actually commit thousands of actual of terrorism every year, and who want a Purge, just like they see on TV.

    Ever since the Left surrendered to centrist Democrats, the Democrats have been surrendering to Republicans. This has greatly employees the Right, and weakened the Left.

    Countries do not decline in a smooth line. It doesn’t take long to go from two corrupt parties to mass graves.

    Most of the 300 million guns are owned by the Right and they are itching to shoot some socialists and anarchists and liberals.
    Hate crimes and mass murder are already up. What do you think happens when Trump makes himself “president for life?”

  • jemcgloin

    To be more specific. The Democrats are not on our side, but they are surrendering to the Party of Trump on our behalf.

    Hope do we stop them from doing that?

    What plan do you have to stop Trump?

    I keep telling Democratic voters who are told by the centrists to compromise with Republicans that they have decide whether they want the Left or the Right, and if they don’t want the Right, they need to compromise with the Left I keep explaining that the Left is moderate compared to the Right. But if the Left are not willing to tteam up with Democrats

  • jemcgloin

    (I accidently hit send. This thing won’t let her me edit anymore. )

    But I’d the Left is not willing to team up with Democratic voters, then the united Right wins by default.

    Do you all really want to let Trump win?

  • blessthebeasts

    Makes no difference. They are all on the same side–not ours.

  • jemcgloin

    The point is that we have allowed these people who are not on our side to sieze control of all of the levers of power, and we are just letting them win.

    Once upon a time, the Left organized to make Government do the right thing.

    When the Left decided to surrender to centrist Democrats who surrender to the Right on our behalf things did not get better. They got steadily worse.

    They will not get steadily worse much longer.

    The world is at numerous tipping points.

    If the Left does not take over the Democratic Party over the next year, and beat the Party of Trump, most of those tipping points will tip the wrong way, and the result will be environmental, economic, and political disaster.

    It’s time to stop playing at revolution and save the world.

    The Founders might have been old white men, but they were at least willing to defy the king of England to fight for their own freedom.

    Just letting the corporate establishment undo the Constitution is surrender to their distopian world model.

    If we do not vastly outnumber the Right and their apologists now, all is lost.

    Stop making excuses and organize the People to protect freedom.