Bolivia’s 9/11: The Pando Massacre and the TIPNIS Conflict

Source: NACLA Report on the Americas

On September 11, Bolivians observed the third anniversary of the Pando massacre, a brutal attack on indigenous peasants and students in the Amazonian lowlands and the most deadly act of political violence in the country since 2003. Little known outside Bolivia, the tragic event marked a turning point in Bolivia’s recent history, and has special relevance today for the escalating conflict over the TIPNIS highway.

The Pando Massacre

The massacre took place at the height of a 2008 revolt against President Evo Morales’ MAS government by conservative elites and their allied “prefects” (governors) in Bolivia’s four lowlands “Media Luna” departments, that brought the country to the brink of a “civil coup.” Under the banner of regional autonomy—in reality, a demand by local elites to retain control of land and hydrocarbons resources—the anti-MAS power bloc seized public buildings and airports, attacked MAS government officials, and blocked the transport of goods to western highlands regions in a massive effort to destabilize the government.

In Pando, a protest march on September 11 by some 1,000 pro-MAS indigenous peasants and their supporters was ambushed by truckloads of armed “civicos,” waiting behind trenches dug by local road crews to block their passage along the road to the departmental capital of Cobija. At least 11 died, and more than 50 were wounded. The brutality and racist nature of the assault is captured in this description by anthropologist Bret Gustafson:

The farmers bore the brunt of the attack, fleeing helter-skelter into the jungle, jumping into a nearby river, and falling under the attack. Wounded peasants transported to hospitals for treatment were reportedly dragged from ambulances and beaten. Others were seized and taken to the main plaza of Cobija. There they were beaten and whipped with barbed wire in an exercise of plantation-style punishment inherited from an earlier colonial order. Some of the victims, outsiders from the high, cold Andes of La Paz, were students at a local teachers’ college. They had marched with the local peasants to back their demands for change and suffered for their solidarity. Three were brutally killed, and their bodies mutilated. Gangs of men dragged others into the city and kicked, beat, and interrogated them. “Who sent you here?” Rifle butts slam into heads; fists and kicks fly. “For this shitty people, there is no compassion,” shouts one of the civics, invoking local prejudices against Andeans. “You have to make him suffer!” “Tell us who sent you or you’re going to the wall (el paredón).” “Kill the shitty kolla,” shouts another, using a derogatory term for Andean Bolivians. This was not merely violence perpetrated against political adversaries; it was the sort of racist violence built upon denial of the victims’ humanity.

In the aftermath of the massacre,  the MAS government—which had been reluctant to forcefully confront the opposition—declared a state of siege in Pando and moved aggressively to reassert control. Prefect Leopoldo Fernández was arrested and charged with spearheading the massacre. Morales expelled U.S. Ambassador Goldberg for openly consorting with autonomist forces and the U.S. reciprocated in kind, precipitating a break in relations that has not been repaired to this day.

Continue reading