From the Mines to the Streets: a Bolivian activist’s life – Excerpts from New Book

From the Mines To the Streets draws on the life of Félix Muruchi from his birth in an indigenous family in 1946, just after the abolition of bonded labor, through the next sixty years of Bolivia’s turbulent history. As a teenager, Félix followed his father into the tin mines before serving a compulsory year in the military, during which he witnessed the 1964 coup d’état, and returned to the mines and became a union leader. The reward for his activism was imprisonment, torture, and exile. After he came home, he participated actively in the struggles against neoliberal governments, which led to the inauguration of Evo Morales as Bolivia’s first indigenous president.

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted work from the new book From the Mines to the Streets: a Bolivian Activist’s Life by Benjamin Kohl, Linda C. Farthing and Felix Muruchi (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), now available in paperback edition.

From the Mines To the Streets draws on the life of Félix Muruchi to depict the greater forces at play in Bolivia and elsewhere in South America during the last half of the twentieth century. It traces Félix from his birth in an indigenous family in 1946, just after the abolition of bonded labor, through the next sixty years of Bolivia’s turbulent history. As a teenager, Félix followed his father into the tin mines before serving a compulsory year in the military, during which he witnessed the 1964 coup d’état that plunged the country into eighteen years of military rule. He returned to work in the mines, where he quickly rose to become a union leader. The reward for his activism was imprisonment, torture, and exile. After he came home, he participated actively in the struggles against neoliberal governments, which led in 2006–the year of his sixtieth birthday–to the inauguration of Evo Morales as Bolivia’s first indigenous president.

From the preface:

When I returned from exile the second time in 1987 and settled in El Alto, I decided it was important to share my political experiences as I believed they could provide a story to help consolidate the memory of a generation of struggle.

In 2005, Linda Farthing asked me if I would be interested in doing a solidarity tour in the United States, and I enthusiastically accepted. At my first stop in Philadelphia at Temple University, Professor Art Schmidt was so interested that he invited me to present my testimonio for inclusion in the series he edits for the university press. I finally had found the chance to share my story.

From the introduction:

I remember January 21, 2006 as if it were yesterday. Along with hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country and the world, I witnessed Evo Morales’s symbolic possession of office, the first time since the founding of Bolivia’s Republic in 1826 that an indigenous person became President. The joy and emotion I felt were reinforced by the wonderful indigenous music playing everywhere in the ancient site where the ceremony unfolded. Throughout the dusty fields that surrounded the ruins of Tiwanaku, the center of an empire that endured six hundred years, I saw people dressed in all kinds of indigenous clothes: men in chullos, the characteristic Andean hats with flaps over the ears and red ponchos, women in traditional wide skirts and bowler hats that had actually been introduced by the Spanish. Everyone there had on something that could be identified as indigenous dress.

The thunder of drums and fireworks filled the air along with a powerful sensation of brother- and sisterhood that spread through the crowd like wildfire: coca, bread, bananas, and tea were freely distributed, and people shared whatever they had. Many people had travelled through the night along bumpy dirt roads in dilapidated buses or open trucks, but their hunger and exhaustion were forgotten in the contagion of enthusiasm and the joy of the moment. The hope was palpable that an indigenous leader—one of our own—would improve the lives of our people far more than the criollos, descendants of the Spanish conquerors, had ever done. I was among the multitude that danced to the rhythm of the music that pulsated and echoed throughout the valley.

Amidst the revelry, the pututus—large horns that serve to announce meetings, assemblies, and, during the times of the Inka, the arrival of the Chaskis, the empire’s messengers—boomed, focusing everyone’s attention. The rite that marked the transfer of authority was about to commence. People began to applaud, and the cry “¡jallalla Evo!” (long live Evo!) bounced off the hills surrounding the meadow. Evo gradually approached the stage that had been set up at the Door of the Sun. While I was quite far away, between the loudspeakers and the radios that people tuned to the event, we listened in a hushed silence to the transmission of office. A momentous change and it was over in only a few minutes. Around me people cried and embraced as through our tears we shared the dream that Evo’s taking office meant for all of us.

When I was born in 1946, some sixty years earlier, indigenous people lacked almost all basic rights. Our decades of struggle led us to this day: for the first time, the majority of the Bolivian people truly felt represented as Evo Morales assumed his position as President of the Republic.

From Chapter 1:

On April 30, 1946, I was born the fourth of thirteen children to an indigenous mining family in Maraq’a, the community of my mother Lucia Poma, located in the Karacha ayllu, in the department of Potosí. At that time my father worked in the mine in Llallagua and made the half day’s walk home to visit us once a month.

Just before my birth, my mother had walked ten hours to visit my father in the mining camp. When she went into labor, she hurried off to her parents’ home in Maraq’a, three hours by foot, far closer than our community in Wila Apacheta, but she still barely arrived in time for my birth. A few days later, she carried me home, a twelve-hour walk. At that time about fifty families lived in our community, each with an average of five children, so in all about 350 people were scattered over the ayllu’s territory. We lived so dispersed because we dedicated as much time to raising llamas, which we used as pack animals as well as for their meat and skins, and alpacas, which we used for their fine wool, as we did to our crops.

When I was born most of Bolivia’s people lived under a dictatorial political regime. “Democracy” was limited to an oligarchic minority because workers, indigenous people, and women did not have the right to vote. As well, the system of pongueaje—a kind of slavery—dominated on the haciendas, the large estates controlled by criollo families of Spanish descent.

Even though pongueaje was officially abolished in May 1945, semifeudal social relations and debt peonage existed throughout the country until the 1952 revolution. Unfortunately, these relations still persist in some of the more remote parts of Bolivia today. Pongos did not have the right to leave the hacienda, indigenous people were not allowed to walk freely in the plazas of the cities nor contract their labor independently, and workers were prevented from organizing freely. Many people, however, escaped either to the mines or distant rural areas. Wila Apacheta was one of those isolated free communities.

From Chapter 4: Joining the State Company

…At Frederico Escobar’s office, six men were seated in a line of chairs against the wall waiting their turn to talk to him. I listened curiously as the workers asked for advice or support on work or family problems, and Escobar paid careful attention to their entreaties, answering each one with authority and confidence. When my turn came, I enthusiastically blurted, “I want you to add my name to the list of miners looking for work.”

He just stared at me. “I’m sorry. We’re not signing anyone else up because there simply isn’t enough work. Besides, you’re young, not like the other compañero who was just here,” he said, pointing to an empty chair. “He has six children, so his needs are clearly greater. We have to find him work first.”

I stood there, dumbfounded and fixed on the spot, because it never occurred to me he would refuse my request. I plaintively responded, “But I’ve just completed my military service.” Something in my manner affected Escobar, and he looked at me long and hard. Then he picked up a piece of paper, where he wrote down my name and said, “Take this to the secretary, she’ll add your name to the list.”

There were about 640 people ahead of me, but because I lived at home and my father supported me, I had lots of time to go to the union hall every day, where, with 500 other unemployed men, I waited patiently for the newest list to be posted. If I missed a roll call, they dropped my name to the bottom. For two months, I showed up five days a week, first in the morning and again in the afternoon.

One day compañero Escobar announced, “All those who are unemployed should organize themselves to travel to the COMIBOL offices in La Paz and demand work. We’ll take you in one of the company trucks.” After naming a commission of six representatives to negotiate with the company, we set off the next day in one of those huge British Leyland trucks they use for hauling mineral. Many of the men weren’t able to get ready in time, so in the end only 320 of us traveled to La Paz. I had already moved halfway up the list.

We arrived after hours on the road, dusty and tired, at the headquarters of the Miners’ Federation (FSTMB) in La Paz, and we camped out in the large meeting room, which gave it the appearance of a military encampment as we spread our bedrolls on the floor. I remember sitting in the room studying two murals by Miguel Alandia Pantoja, a famous artist. The paintings, ten to fifteen feet high and twenty to twenty-five feet long, portrayed the struggles of the miners before the 1952 revolution. Unfortunately, they were destroyed after the 1980 coup of Luis García Meza.

The day after we arrived, the FSTMB head, Juan Lechín Oquendo, a machinist and star soccer player in the miners’ league, met with us. We immediately told him that we were beginning a hunger strike if we were not given jobs. In the early 1960s, the Housewives Committee had used hunger strikes with some success, and by the middle of the decade they were regularly incorporated into social movement strategies. Lechín looked us up and down and commented, “You must be the group that Escobar sent. I’m sure Pimentel will send his own group shortly, but we’ll arrange a meeting for you with the president of COMIBOL.”

Then leaders of the local unemployed workers’ union showed up and told us that if we wanted to find work, we had to join their federation, which would cost us five pesos per person. They were all very well dressed in suits and ties, and we stared at them in disbelief. “Why should we join your union?” we retorted. “Our problem is far more urgent than yours. Even if you have no jobs, you obviously still receive some income from your union, and so you can hold out longer.” We couldn’t figure out any reason to join, as our union was based in Siglo XX, not La Paz. We figured they were looking for an excuse to collect five pesos from us.

While this was the first time I had travelled to La Paz, I didn’t have any chance to see the city. Every day we were busy in meetings, being interviewed, or filling out forms required both by the union and COMIBOL. After three days, we were summoned to a meeting in the COMIBOL offices in La Paz’s fanciest building, which had been owned by mine-owner Simon Patiño before the 1952 revolution. The main entrance was built in polished black granite, with beautifully detailed revolving doors. We had never seen anything like it. We walked through the lobby, which was completely done up in marble, awestruck. It seemed that we were the only people who weren’t dressed in suits and ties, but there were enough of us that I didn’t feel out of place. The meeting was held in the wood-paneled auditorium on the third floor, and even though more than 300 of us filed into the room, there was space for more. When we were seated, the president of COMIBOL, Lechín, and other mining leaders took the podium, and the president announced a plan to survey and sample Siglo XX. He said this new project would allow him to hire 390 additional workers.

We were overjoyed, and with agreement in hand, we returned to Catavi in the back of the truck, standing squeezed together for the freezing twelve-hour trip. But we neither got tired nor felt the cold, because we were so excited that we had won the right to work. A couple of days later, they posted the list of those of us who had been hired. The first fifty names included the neediest men with families and children to support, and young, single men like me were down at the bottom. But they systematically went through the entire list, and, after a few months, on April 15, 1965, I started work as a miner.


…On Saturday night, September 19, 1965, a confrontation erupted between police and students at the secondary school where I studied at night after working in the mines all day. When we were heading home at 11 p.m., the police refused us passage through the main plaza of Llallagua, the shortest route to the mining camps of Siglo XX. We were exhausted as many of us had worked all day and then studied in the evening, and not going through the plaza meant a far longer walk. Despite our exhaustion, this infuriated us, and we hurled rocks at the police, who reacted by setting off tear gas and firing their guns. We rapidly retreated, but several students were arrested and others wounded. This made the miners, both students and nonstudents, even angrier, and we decided to take to the streets again on Monday, even though it was clear that the military was trying to provoke a confrontation to justify their occupation of the mines.

The media called us communist agitators, and government officials proclaimed it was their duty to remove the troublemakers to ensure public safety, so they sought to install handpicked union leaders who would represent state rather than worker interests. They arrested three principal leaders Filemón Escobar, another leader whose name I don’t remember, and Isaac Camacho, who disappeared in 1967 and was assassinated.

On Monday, September 21, 1965 [National Students’ Day], we learned, as we were heading off to work, that as many as 200 workers had been pulled out of their houses, arrested, and some even shot and killed. We were enraged rather than frightened. We organized emergency meetings inside the mine and announced a walkout to demand freedom for the detained union leaders and workers. Several family members of those arrested told us that the prisoners were held at the police station. We marched there, but before we took to the streets we raided the warehouse where dynamite for underground blasting is stored. The aboveground workers joined the 1,200 underground miners. We were close to 3,000 strikers in all.

We all had sticks of dynamite strung across our chests like old-fashioned cartridge belts. But suddenly we realized that almost all our leaders had been arrested, and so we had no one to address the crowd. We were accustomed to having a leader direct the assembly, and so no one dared speak and, honestly, no one had the skills to forcefully address us either. Finally we convinced compañero Vargas to lead the meeting. Of course, he didn’t have the oratory power of our leaders, and instead gave a simple talk about our arrested comrades in the jail. The assembly demanded they be freed by noon. Meanwhile, groups of strikers surrounded the police station. My section was assigned to the west part of the jail. The younger students were responsible for keeping us informed about the ongoing negotiations. At noon the police still refused to meet our demands.

We had agreed that if we couldn’t free the prisoners, we would attack and break the military’s siege. There was no lack of people willing to initiate the offensive against the police, who by then had climbed on the roof of the jail in an effort to better control the area. One of my comrades set off a stick of dynamite near the city hall, and the police, more out of fright than anything else, I think, began to fire.

We only had dynamite against the police rifles, machine guns, and grenades, but our numbers gave us an advantage. I felt all fired up that this was our chance to free the prisoners. We had a great sense that we were right, and this, along with our superior numbers, and the feeling that we were braver than the police, gave us the strength to attack the jail even though we were largely unarmed. The immediate goal was to wrest guns away from the police so we could arm ourselves and engage in a more equal combat.

As miners, we were accustomed to danger, as we lived under an indeterminate death sentence: the only question was whether we would die in a mining accident or live long enough to fall victim to the slow drowning of black lung. So we confronted the police fueled by rage and without fear. In retrospect, perhaps we were not conscious of what we were going up against; however, in the heat of the moment, and with the knowledge that we were part of a group of 3,000 fighting for our brothers’ freedom, we advanced. We simply did not consider the consequences.

We were steadily closing in on the jail, forcing the police to retreat, when I realized that shots were raining down from the hillsides. We had been surrounded by the army, who were attacking us from behind. At just this moment, I felt a sharp sting in my left buttock, and then wetness from blood flowing down my leg. I think it was probably a piece of a grenade that hit me. I gradually backed out of the combat in the direction of the river and headed home as quickly as I could by way of the Río Seco (Dry River), the only place out of sight of the army. At that moment I was not so much worried about the wound, which turned out not to be serious, but rather about the brutal massacre that was about to take place.

My poor mother was horribly frightened by the sounds of nearby battle and was enormously relieved to see me. So as not to worry her more, I didn’t tell her about being shot and instead headed to one of my cousin’s houses. He was a nurse, and he expertly bandaged me up. A bit later, and much more relaxed, I returned home.

During the course of the afternoon, the company, with police support, forcibly evicted a group of workers from a Patiño-era army barracks that had been turned into informal housing. They quickly loaded the miners, along with their few belongings, into trucks and hauled them off to schools and other locations. About five o’clock, prisoners from the confrontation, with their hands behind their heads, were forced into the now-vacant barracks.

Military units, originally from Santa Cruz, transported the prisoners. They were the ones who had landed at the Uncía airport before attacking us from behind. The event, which left more than thirty people dead and hundreds wounded, including miners and police, was called the September Massacre. Many of the prisoners were detained in the district and others moved to Oruro. This was the beginning of constant military occupations of the mine. Once they began, no one had any desire to work, and so repeated radio announcements demanded that we go back to our jobs. For three days we held out, but eventually we had little choice but to return into the mines when the company threatened to fire anyone who didn’t show up.

From Chapter 7: Exile in Chile: A “Guest” of Pinochet

Escape from Chiloe

We decided to make our move before Christmas. We developed a travel plan, and it involved a combination of buses, boats, and train. At six in the morning, Fausto and I set off north on the first bus. We didn’t get on at the bus stop, but flagged it down on the road just past the police checkpoint. But when the bus stopped, we were dismayed to spot one of the most unpleasant policemen we knew from Quellón sitting right beside the driver. We were in a panic: we couldn’t postpone our plans, because everything was set up for that day and we didn’t have a fallback. We saw no choice but to take the risk. We didn’t have a clue if the authorities had discovered our plan or if the policeman’s presence was merely a coincidence. Luckily for us, the bus had both front and back doors. We quietly entered the rear door and found an inconspicuous seat. It is likely that because we looked so much like local indigenous people, even if the policeman noticed us, he assumed we were just another pair of local men traveling north in search of work. Fortunately, we were able to pay our fare and remain seated at the back of the bus.

When we arrived at the next town, Castro, where Jorge Moya was waiting for us, the policeman got off. It was clear he hadn’t recognized us. But we needed to hurry to the next bus, which was the tightest connection of the entire trip, and the policeman was strolling casually in the direction we needed to go. We were incredibly lucky, as not only was he completely oblivious to our presence, but he turned when he came to the first corner. As soon as he was gone, we took off as fast as we could. We leapt on the bus seconds before it pulled out and headed for the ferry that crossed the Chacao Canal to the mainland. This was our only opportunity to catch the ferry, because it ran precisely on schedule. Six policemen, three on each side of the walkway, were checking luggage and the documents of people boarding the boat. But because our bags were the same as those used by the locals, the police assumed we were migrants and didn’t pay us much attention. We showed them our identity cards from as far away as we could. They barely looked at them, and then they waved us through, “Go on. Go on.” But just past the checkpoint one of them suddenly turned towards us, and we began to shake with fear. But he only asked, “Where are you heading?” We answered, “Santiago.” “Okay,” he replied. “Good luck. I hope things go well for you there.”

Once the boat was crossing the canal, we were enormously relieved, because we had overcome the first big hurdle without a hitch and were right on schedule. When the boat docked, we found ourselves confronting an even stricter checkpoint, which turned out to be the worst of the whole trip. Policemen were everywhere, but once again, seeing our Indian faces and our meager bags, they tended to ignore us. Some people were pulled out of line to have their documents, bodies, and suitcases checked for contraband coming from Argentina, but as we looked poor, they decided we couldn’t possibly have anything of value.

Once we passed the control, our immediate tension eased, and Jorge’s girlfriend was waiting just as she promised. She hailed a taxi that took us to the bus station, where again we arrived with just enough time to board the bus clutching the tickets she had purchased for us. She traveled with us several hours north until we boarded an express train that only stopped in Concepción before arriving in Santiago. She had figured out this was not only quicker, but would allow us to avoid the multiple police checkpoints that dotted the road. In Concepción, a lot of people got off and on the train. Conductors, but not police, walked through and checked our tickets. Seven hours later we arrived in Santiago.

Our fellow Bolivian exiles, Rodolfo Siñani and Walter Villagra, were anxiously waiting for us. They were lodged in a small hotel under United Nations protection. They took us to a hostel they figured could serve as a safe house, and once settled in we discussed the next step. By then news of our escape was being broadcast all over the radio and newspapers, warning the public to be on the lookout for three dangerous Bolivians–Jorge Moya, Fausto Arce, and Félix Muruchi—who had escaped from Chiloé. According to the announcements, all trains and highways to Santiago from the south were under strict surveillance. As well, the authorities had blockaded the routes to the border with Argentina. We realized how incredibly lucky we were that we had made all our connections. While they thought they had us surrounded, we had escaped their dragnet and were already in Santiago.

From Chapter 12: Activist in El Alto

2003 was a historic year in Bolivia. With its mishandling of Black February, Goni’s administration forfeited all respect and its ability to ensure order deteriorated. The events of February marked the beginning of almost constant demonstrations against government policies until October when we alteños led protests that culminated in Goni’s resignation and expulsion from the country. Our success in rebelling against the corruption embedded in alteño neighborhood organizations was vital to our success.

In October the people united in what we called the Gas War. This grew out of a cycle of protests that exploded when the government decided to build a pipeline through Chile. We organized a group, mostly ex-miners from Siglo XX, to march together in the huge demonstrations in El Alto.

The spirit in these marches was incredible: tens of thousands of people full of energy and optimism that we could transform our country. Many shouted, “It’s now or never.” I remember one day on Sagarnaga Street, just above La Paz’s main cathedral in the Plaza San Francisco, we spotted paramilitaries on the roof of a building, shooting at the crowd. Moments later the demonstrators torched the large wooden entrance doors, and it gave us great satisfaction to see those killers fleeing from the smoking building. The air was filled with energy, passion, political commitment and determination, and I was hopeful that this time we would win. Throughout the long days of demonstrations, even though by now I was well into my 50s, I never felt tired or worn out.

During the confrontations between the soldiers and unarmed civilians, a number of people were killed in El Alto. One morning I passed by the office of the neighborhood federation, FEJUVE, where I ran into the top leader, Mauricio Cori, sobbing, “I haven’t slept for two nights. I never thought this would happen to me. Why was I elected? It seems like it was only so someone could push me around. I really can’t lead.”

I tried to calm him down, “Look I know this is hard for you. But you have to be brave and rise to the occasion. We are all depending on you.”

He kept weeping, “They’ve already killed a lot of people. What am I going to do?”

To me the answer was obvious, “It’s simple.” I told him, “Get all the dead bodies brought to this office so we can arrange a public wake. We’ll hold a huge daylong memorial event to canonize our dead and publicly mourn them. Our grieving will draw the attention of the national and international press to the repressive policies of Goni’s government and demonstrate that the government has committed an act of mass murder against the Aymara people.”

He looked at me dubiously, “What if the families aren’t willing to bring those killed here?”

I responded, “Well then we’ll use the coffins that have been donated and present them to the public in a symbolic act.” And that’s exactly what we did. The next day a peaceful march of nearly half a million Bolivians wound its way from El Alto to the Plaza San Francisco in the center of La Paz. Combined with marches of support throughout the country, nearly a million people took to the streets out of a population of nine million. On October 17, Goni resigned and fled to exile in the United States. Ever since then we have demanded his extradition to Bolivia to stand trial for the murders of civilians in El Alto.


…. Despite the challenges, as I look back over my life, I feel that I was able to contribute a grain of sand to the historic processes of change in my country. I am proud that I have lived as an activist, an agent, who along with thousands of other Bolivians, many of whom sacrificed far more than I to achieve some measure of social and economic justice. There is still much to do, however, and these tasks remain essential missions for this and for future generations. We will not achieve national liberation until we completely eradicate poverty, whether the poor are indigenous or q’haras (whites). As history tells us we will only achieve this through strong and broadly participatory social movements that respect the will of the majority and the rights of the minorities.

Table of Contents

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Tiwanaku, January 21, 2006
  • Introduction to Bolivia
  • Part One: Growing Up in the Fields and the Mines
    • Chapter 1: Rural Life
    • Chapter 2: Moving to the Mines
    • Chapter 3: The Army
  • Part Two: The Mines
    • Introduction to Part Two: Life in the Nationalized Mines
    • Chapter 4: Joining the State Company
    • Chapter 5: Union Activist
    • Chapter 6: Bolivia under Banzer
  • Part Three: From Exile to Exile
    • Chapter 7: Exile in Chile: A “Guest” of Pinochet
    • Chapter 8: Exile in Holland
    • Chapter 9: Return Home
    • Chapter 10: García Meza Coup: Back to Holland
  • Part Four: Activist in El Alto
    • Introduction to Part Four: El Alto
    • Chapter 11: Life in El Alto
    • Chapter 12: Politics in El Alto
  • Appendix: Bibliographic Sources and Information on Bolivia
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index