Peaceful Vigils Turn Violent in Bolivia: An Eyewitness Account

The main plaza of the Bolivian city of Cochabamba turned into a war zone on January 8th.  Protestors demanding the resignation of Cochabamba’s governor, Manfred Reyes Villa, were faced with violent police repression as they tried to take over the government offices. 

Loud gun shots could be heard all over the city center, as police fired tear gas into the crowds, sending protesters and civilians running. The protestors, predominately  coca farmers from the Chapare region of Cochabamba, started small fires all over the plaza to counteract the unbearable effects of the gasses. Other fires were more deststructive: several cars belonging to government officials smouldered in the plaza, while the locked door to the governor’s office was also set on fire.  Earlier, Bolivian citizens who had dared to get close to the police force hit the door with large sticks, attempting to break it down.

I was in a meeting just two blocks away from the main plaza, and noticed the smell of tear gas by 10:30 AM. As the confrontation grew more violent around noon, gun shots could be heard every few minutes.  I went with several co-workers to support the various Bolivian social movements—agricultural unions, women’s cooperatives, urban neighbourhood organizations, coca farmers—demanding the governor’s resignation.

As we approached, a woman hanging on the shoulder of a man began vomiting. A crowd of people surrounded her, while other people shouted, “Don’t get near her, give her room to breathe!” There was also an obvious dynamic unfolding between the crowds of people dispersing from the plaza.  Many were scared and looking to escape, but other groups of people shouted for everyone to stay, to surround the government offices again, and that the people’s power was in numbers. We continued walking towards the center of the plaza, where we saw overturned dumpsters, flaming piles of garbage, two burning cars, and the charred and smouldering door to the government office. Not a single police officer was left on the plaza.  They all had taken cover inside the government headquarters. Every few minutes a window opened and tear gas canisters were fired into the plaza. If we were lucky, a valiant person rushed to the canister, picked it up, and threw it back at the police. I was told to watch the windows and be extremely careful, because, although the gasses were not deadly, if the canister itself hit you, it could kill.

As more people slowly poured back into the plaza, having recovered form the last teargas attack, they began to chant: “¡El pueblo, unido, jamas será vencido!” (The people, united, will never be defeated!). Soon people surrounded me on all sides and seemed to become a united grass-roots force, demanding together the resignation of a corrupt governor impeding progressive change in Bolivia.   

Suddenly, the windows opened again and several gunshots were heard at once. I did not immediately realize the seriousness of the situation, but the screaming people around me were a pretty good forewarning. I was told specifically never to run, but rather to walk away quickly and calmly, so I began walking briskly with the running crowd, taking off my jacket to cover my nose and mouth.

When the gasses hit me it was unbearable. My eyes began burning and my throat felt like it was going to explode. My nose was running uncontrollably and it occurred to me that I might actually faint. People around me were running and crying from the pain. All I could think about was getting away, and so without a single thought about my co-workers, I began running as well. Only after ten minutes, and two blocks away from the plaza, could I began to think clearly again.  People continued to flock away from the gas, but the same dynamic started again, as some groups shouted at the retreating masses to stay, to remain in the plaza.

I looked around and saw my co-workers a block ahead of me, walking back towards the plaza. I ran to catch up with them. Now we were some of the only people in the area. Worried about facing the teargas again, since my eyes were still burning, I asked if the police were going to shoot more gas at us. No, I was told, not yet, there were not enough people. The police would wait until people found the confidence to come back, then they would shoot the teargas again, in full force. For the Bolivian police, they told me, this was all a game.

At the end of the day, the conflict left 33 injured on both sides, destroyed vehicles, and an entire section of the central plaza burned to the ground. Government minister Alicia Munoz immediately responded by firing Cochabamba’s police chief, Wilge Obleas, for his decision to use tear gas on a crowd of civilians. Obleas continues to deny that he issued these orders.

How did the conflict escalate to this level of violence? Why did peaceful protests turn into a war between civilians and police?

There is a short answer and a nlonger answer.  The short answer starts last Thursday, when members of social movements from all over the department [state] of Cochabamba came together to march for the resignation of the governor, Manfred Reyes Villa. Tens of thousands of Bolivians from neighbourhood organizations, labor unions and agrarian movements came to the capital to denounce Manfred and call for his resignation. The march ended with a large rally in main plaza and the symbolic “burning” of a representation of Manfred. For the next two days protesters held  vigils in the plaza, to continue the pressure on Manfred to resign. These vigils, however, was completely peaceful, as hundreds of people blanketed the plaza, sleeping, eating, laughing and sharing large piles of coca leafs. After a day’s pause in the vigil on Sunday, the social movements came together once again on Monday. Although the exact order of events is unclear, news reports say that the violent conflict started when the protestors tried to enter the governor’s office, and were immediately met with police violence. From this point on, protestors and police lost control of the situation, and violence escalated on both sides.

That is the short version of the story. The longer version of the story starts about a month ago, when Manfred Reyes Villa took a stand on two national issues that are currently incredibly polemic in Bolivia. In December, Reyes Villa announced his support of leaders in opposition to President Evo Morales.  These opposition leaders believe that all new articles passed in the Bolivian Constitutional Assembly must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the assembly’s delegates. The Constitutional Assembly is the legislative body currently charged with rewriting the Bolivian constitution. Members of Evo Morales’ party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), make up slightly more than fifty percent of the assembly, and believe that requiring two-thirds majority to pass new articles will impede the real change that the Bolivian people want to see.

In December, Reyes Villa also called for a second referendum vote in Cochabamba on the issue of state autonomy in Bolivia. Although this referendum had been voted down in a national vote in July, Reyes Villa called for a second vote in hopes that the state of Cochabamba would vote in favour of a regional autonomy, which would give states more freedom from Evo Morales’ government.

The truth is that these issues go far beyond Manfred Reyes and the recent protests for his resignation. Bolivia is a politically conscious country right now, on the brink of some very real changes, and these two issues—regional autonomy and two-thirds majority—are at the center of the debate. At the present moment, the right is calling for marches just as much as the left, just as aware of what they might lose as the left is of what they might gain. The right calls two-thirds majority in the Constitutional Assembly democracy, while they simultaneously call on the police to use violent repression on Bolivian citizens protesting democratically. The left marches against two-thirds majority, but often, they also denounce the entire Constitutional Assembly as a body that will never make radical change in Bolivia. Meanwhile, the MASistas (strong Evo Morales supporters) are willing to put their lives on the line for Evo, and refuse to hear any critiques of him from the left or the right. Even the gringo (foreign) activists in Bolivia all have their opinion on the situation. Personally, I can’t get through a single bus ride without being told what I should think.

For these reasons, it is not surprising that the events in the main plaza of Cochabamba accelerated so rapidly. Even as I write this article, the Bolivian Left is blockading roads all over the city to continue to pressure Manfred to resign, while the Right has announced a march in favour of Manfred and two-thirds majority, which will take place tomorrow. This is another critical point in Bolivia’s history, and everyone feels that everything is at stake. Perhaps Manfred’s resignation in itself is not of great importance, but the current volatile political scene in Bolivia that this event represents could mean everything.  

Rebecca Tarlau is currently working for the Bolivian NGO Center of Documentation and Information (CEDIB), her blog is

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