Bolivia: Protestors Burn Cochabamba Governor’s Office and Demand His Resignation

Source: Andean Information Network

The Prefecture in Cochabamba’s main plaza has been blocked for five days here by social groups demanding the resignation of Prefect Manfred ReyesVilla. Protesting groups reject Reyes Villa’s tenure, as a result of his participation in the second Sánchez de Lozada governing coalition, accusations of corruption during his terms as the city’s mayor, and his role as bodyguard for dictator Luis García Meza. Since Reyes Villa won the prefecture elections in 2005 with 47.6 % of the vote, there has been constant friction with the MAS government. In December 2006, Reyes Villa called for a Departmental Referendum to declare greater autonomy for Cochabamba, heightening mounting tensions.

Things came to a head on January 8th. Over 20 people were injured, including several journalists. The police eventually tear-gassed the crowd as the conflict increased. In retaliation the group set the door of the prefecture on fire and rolled burning tires into the adjoining police station. The fire destroyed several offices.

Protestors also burned several vehicles in the plaza.

Government Minister Alicia Munoz fired the Cochabamba Police commander, hand-picked by the Morales administration as part of its police reform and sworn in only yesterday, for firing tear gas into the crowd. (Ironically, Munoz personally ordered the police and armed forces to forcibly evict four squatters’ settlements near Oruro in June 2006, leading to the shooting death of one squatter.) The conflict between regional and national governments have put the police between a rock and a hard place, and they are unsure whose orders to follow.

Munoz’s decision highlights the growing friction between the central and regional governments in six of Bolivia’s nine departments. She asserted her direct authority over the security forces stating, "When a minister is in charge, a prefect can’t give orders… There can be no repression; you can’t use the police to provoke social movements." (Red ATB, Los Tiempos) She also accused Cochabamba Prefect Reyes Villa of provoking social movements by requesting a departmental referendum to consult the Cochabamba residents about declaring greater autonomy for the department."1

Although MAS officials have openly opposed and aggressively critiqued Reyes Villa, high-ranking government officials have stated that the central administration is not demanding his resignation. Some social groups participating in protests, though, such as the Chapare coca growers make up the backbone of

the party’s rank and file. Tensions between the departmental and regional governments began soon after their respective inaugurations and have been exacerbated by confrontational attitudes on both sides and a lack of a clear legal framework defining the rights and responsibilities of regional and national authorities after direct election of prefects for the first time in Bolivia’s history.

The incident has increased the already extreme polarization throughout Bolivia and there is no apparent solution for the ballooning conflict. Some Cochabamba campesino groups are threatening to block roads in the department until Reyes Villa resigns.

The dramatic quote of the day: "Things are so bad now that the governors have to carry their wills under their arms." La Paz Prefect José Luis Paredes, repeating the statement of Luis Arce Gomez, Minister of Government during the García Meza dictatorship, who told opposition to the military regime that they would have to carry their wills with them.

Regional Conflicts Also Exacerbate Tensions between Police and Armed Forces

Last week Morales named Gen. Miguel Vasquez as national police commander to spearhead an apparently profound police reform. During his tenure as FELCN commander, Vazquez gained a reputation for honesty and improving the forces relationship with the population. What he is proposing, and acting on seems

solid and badly needed as petty crime continues to rise throughout the nation. The reform appears to be based on the findings of a consultancy done by Minister of the Presidency Juan Ramon Quintana for the Defensor del Pueblo in 2003.

Elements of the reform include:

* Taking a significant number of officers out of administrative tasks and back on the streets

* Investigation of the assets and origins of all police officers properties

* Quarterly evaluations of commanders’ compliance with reform objectives

* Zero tolerance for corruption

* Extended hours and seven day a week attention to provide legal ID cards

* More equitable distribution of personnel throughout the nation

* Public declaration of police income from the treasury and other sources (including ID cards, driver’s license, vehicle inspection and others—which far supersede the budget provided by the state).

Vasquez’s appointment seems to also be an effort to guarantee state control over the institution, which has been consistently frustrated with the broad concessions granted to the armed forces, including the largest salary raise given to any group for the military officer corps. There is no announced raise for the police this year. Opposition prefects have been reaching out to the police, both out of a true need to address citizen security issues, and as a way to curry their favor to strengthen their positions. The prefects have always been regional commanders of the security forces, which was not a problem when they were appointed by the executive, and merely carried out national orders. Now the lines have been blurred. During friction in December in Cochabamba over autonomy issues, the police followed prefecture orders and the military police responded to the central government.

Genuine reform efforts and an attack on corruption within the police force will improve popular support for the institution, but may also cut in to the direct income or potentially lead to the prosecution of corrupt cops.

Undoubtedly the institution’s workload will increase and the process will be fraught with conflict.

Although the armed forces also have corruption issues, no such purges or reforms have been announced, and instead the military has been repeatedly congratulated for its dedication. This suggests that there may be friction down the road. Competition between the two forces, within the framework of the drug war and beyond has been a persistent problem. On February 12, 2003 these same tensions between police and military exploded in the streets of La Paz leaving over thirty dead. This is something to watch.

[1] 63 percent of Cochabamba residents rejected departmental autonomy during the national autonomy referendum in July 2006. Bolivian law permits departmental referendums as a result of public initiative when there is upport from 8 percent of registered voters, "for topics related to and under the authority of a specific department" The law also says that the Bolivian Congress should convoke a departmental referendum, if there is no elected prefect, but does not specify how to call a referendum with electedgovernors. (La Ley Marco del Referéndum, República de Bolivia, 2004)