Bolivia 9/11: Bodies and Power on a Feudal Frontier

Source: Caterwaul Quarterly

Imagining politics as a form of war, we must ask:

What place is given to life, death, and the human body (in particular the wounded or slain body)?

How are they inscribed in the order of power? 

Achille Mbembe (2000) “Necropolitics”

A victim of the "Massacre of Porvenir," Pando, Bolivia, September 11, 2008.

The farmer’s body lay on a slab in a damp morgue. A camera’s flash brightened for an instant what otherwise looked to be a dim and lonely place. The man’storso was exposed, his pants soiled, and a pale hand hung limply to one side. Blood pooled on the tile by his head. His anonymous face was out of view. The photo arrived incongruously, part of a PowerPoint file that detailed with forensic clarity an armed assault on poor farmers marching across the Amazonian backwater of Pando, northern Bolivia.

America’s mainstream press buried the event amid bigger news and familiar distortions of recent Bolivian history. Yet images from Bolivian sources were popping up on YouTube and Indymedia, and being disseminated by email. Young men and women, bodies hardened by rural life, posed sadly with bloodied faces. In one scene, a camera panned over a charred body. On the wrist was a red, green, and yellow bracelet—the colors of the Bolivian flag. Another shot showed gleaming white coffins flanked by a portrait of Simón Bolívar. In yet another, bodies lying helter-skelter on a flat-bed truck. Other bodies were under sheets flanked with neatly arranged candles. An impromptu wake became a stage, as rubber-gloved health workers gingerly raised the cloth to reveal bullet holes to government cameras. In one scene, a Bolivian flag, black bunting of mourning attached, hung from a wall. A sign affixed to a wall in the background read Masacre del Cacique, the Massacre of the Bossman. Another labeled the dead, “Martyrs of Democracy.”

On September 11, 2008, at least eleven people – nine of them rural farmers, two partisans of the provincial elite – were killed in this northern corner of Bolivia. In the early morning hours, two caravans of peasant workers, including women, children, and men, converged on the town of Filadelfia. Their objective was to hold a meeting—an ampliado—bringing together union members from throughout the province. Intent on preventing the gathering, local authorities sent road crews to trench the highway and crowds of armed men to face them down. By high noon, at a little crossroads town called Porvenir, or Future, the confrontation descended into chaotic shooting.

Victims of the massacre. The paper hanging at the rear reads “Masacre del Cacique,” or Massacre of the Bossman.

The hired guns out on the highway that morning were allegedly organized and funded by the province’s governor, a wealthy landowner named Leopoldo Fernández. Fernández had constructed a backwater political machine and held an iron-grip over the region. He and other local elites of eastern Bolivia call themselves “civics,” a reference to their claim over public power and authority, often expressed through unelected chambers called “civic committees.” Fernández and other governors of the east argued that they were defending the region’s “autonomy.” Autonomy and civic elites were part of wider right-wing opposition to the country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, himself a former peasant union leader. These provincial elites, tied to agro-industry and large-scale farming, argue that Morales and his Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, along with the indigenous and poor who back it, represent an authoritarian threat to stability. It is a fair reading in Bolivia, given that stability refers to an antiquated order of political and economic inequality—and the civics’ extralegal grip on de facto power—that these local powers seek to defend. Having lost control of the government to Morales’ victory, these elites are now in a defensive mode, increasingly turning to violence to thwart change like that embodied in the rural peasant march. A national conflict had thus touched down in the Amazon on September 11.

As with much of Bolivia’s hardscrabble east, Pando is a rough place. In 2004, researchers from the International Labor Organization documented cases of debt slavery in Pando. The system of Brazil nut extraction is particularly frightful, relying on the subjugation of seasonal labor to brutal working conditions. Beyond Brazil nuts, there is also rubber, cattle, and timber – all extractive industries that concentrate wealth and power, frequently relying on illegal and fraudulent claims to ownership. Politics here is old-fashioned, with caciques controlling the law and meting out violence to maintain order. Bolivia’s east, in effect, is comprised of mini-states stubbornly carved out of the wider nation.

Indigenous and farmer’s rights groups in Pando have long been under siege, attacked for their pursuit of land and political power. Landowners and local civics have attacked individual leaders and their NGO advocates, harassing, beating, and threatening them for demanding rights to land. The atmosphere of heavily armed illegality is compounded by other kinds of shadowy operations, particularly cocaine and the dollars it moves, flowing downriver from Bolivian forests, across isolated borderlands and into Brazil, Peru, and beyond.

From the viewpoint of Bolivia’s Marxist-inclined national government, backwaters like Pando are pre-modern feudal relics. From this perspective, full democracy and the possibility for equitable development mean that such feudal areas and the “local powers” that sustain them must be dismantled. In other revolutionary times and places this might have been carried out through force, with dispatches of revolutionary troops dragging landowners like Fernández before a firing squad. Yet Bolivia’s recent revolution, subject to a global audience and its judgment, has developed a new language of democracy and a different kind of mobilization. The farmers took to the roads that morning as part of a push for a deep social transformation, but this time to be carried out through a politics of nonviolent protest. It was a tactic that proponents hoped would reposition the roles of violence and revolutionary sacrifice. Much like African Americans who marched from Selma, Alabama in 1965, violence against the humble would produce a moral authority, and thus a law based in popular sovereignty. Local powers’ inevitably violent reactions would reveal a criminal and racist order, a revelation of brutality through their incriminating actions upon the bodies of protesters themselves.

Just before noon that day, video taken from behind the guns of the armed “civic” attackers offers a look down a dusty highway. The gathered farmers stand calmly, a tractor at the fore, showing no signs of aggression. There is no sign that they are armed, save a few sticks and slingshots, perhaps a few old rifles that rural people use for hunting. Two “civics” had died in an earlier shooting, though the circumstances of their death remained unclear. Nonetheless, this became the pretext for the assault on the peasants, and truckloads of armed men had arrived from the provincial capital of Cobija. Suddenly, responding to some unseen signal, the shooting erupts. The peasants scatter into the bush lining the road, fleeing as the rapid-fire staccato of automatic weapons is heard. Angry cursing and shouting surrounds the camera. “Métele bala a los hijos de puta, give the sons-a-bitches bullets! “Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop,” sound pistols and rifles.

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 Bolivian. This was not merely violence perpetrated against political adversaries; it was the sort of racist violence built upon denial of the victims’ humanity. “They killed us like pigs, like dogs,” said one survivor, his head bandaged and eye covered. “They have no pity for their fellow beings. They wanted to finish me off. I was not seen as a person in that moment, I was treated like a beast.” Rodolfo Matarollo, the head of a fact-finding mission sent later by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), declared the killings a “massacre.”

Bolivia is known for public spectacles that fuse indigenous folklore and Catholic ritual. Combined with a history of combative union politics and social protest, grassroots politics often takes the form of a participatory street theater. These spectacles turn collective and individual bodies into visual vehicles, a voice, in a country where democracy and law have long worked against the effective exercise of any semblance of equal citizenship. That visual markers should carry such potent meaning is unsurprising in a country marked by the legacy of colonialism, where the body and language—skin color, bone structure and ways of speaking— legitimated one’s access to or exclusion from a public voice. Against this aesthetics of exclusion, mass mobilizations of dark-skinned bodies always offered a challenge, a clamor for visibility and recognition that could bring down governments.

In 2003, the streets of the capital filled with the largely urban poor of La Paz and its sister city El Alto, marching to demand the nationalization of gas and the ouster of a free-market reformer (now in exile in Washington D.C.). Some seventy people died there as well, unarmed civilians brought down by army bullets. Democracy took another spectacular turn with the election of the indigenous peasant union leader Evo Morales in 2005. It was a watershed moment in Latin American history. Morales, the continent’s first indigenous president, had been elected in a landslide. His victory represented not just an Obama-like fissure in white privilege, but also a deep historical and ideological shift away from the laissez-faire logic of the markets and their reliance on violent frontiers of inequality like Pando. It raised expectations of what Morales and the movements called a nationalist and indigenous-led “process of change” to recover sovereignty. In their terms, it was a democratic cultural and political revolution. 

Yet elections in and of themselves yield neither real power nor real change. As the MAS seeks to deepen its transformative policies against the rural fiefdoms of the east, the opposition in wealthy cities like Santa Cruz and Tarija and satellite provinces like Pando dig in their heels. Indeed, the recent incident in Pando testifies to the government’s limited ability to project political control over the hinterlands. While fraught with racism and territorial strife, Bolivia’s conflict is not simply an ethnic or regional split, as most media observers misread. The battle pits traditional elites and their middle-class backers against those who labor in urban peripheries or in extractive rural industries. These laboring subjects are historically crucial to elites, but political and economically excluded from the benefits of a skewed economic growth. Now the pueblo, speaking a nationalist language of equality, seeks change. Here in Bolivia, the language and practice of popular democracy is not limited to the vote, but unfolds on streets and highways. In Bolivia, rights, like rule, are frequently exercised physically, manifest in collective corporal movement and in tactics of corporal punishment and submission.


Bodies of Sacrifice


Another dead body and a story of revolution has also long been a part of Bolivian history and public culture; it was an image brought to mind when the poor farmer on that tiled slab popped up on my computer screen. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was similarly displayed forty years ago, stretched Christ-like across a laundry-room sink in the country’s southern mountains. A light provided an eerie illumination at the moment the shot was taken. By now the display of Che is cliché in much of the world, but the meanings of his dead body in Bolivia are different.

Che Guevara, Vallegrande, Bolivia, October 12, 1967.  Photo: René Cadima.

Che was assassinated during his attempt to create “many Vietnams” on the continent, by launching a revolution in Bolivia. Unable to garner significant local support, Bolivian troops with U.S. Army and CIA backing tracked down Che and his men. Guevarra was unceremoniously executed in a burst of machine gun fire in a rural schoolroom and his body was taken to the nearest city and put on display for the public and the press. Briefly useful as a sign of a Bolivia’s military success, his corpse was also deeply threatening. It bore the makings of a martyr, a saint, an icon, a call for future generations to emulate revolutionary sacrifice, a call to fearlessly confront death through armed struggle. Che’s body was thus quickly disappeared, though this did little to tame the ongoing power of its images. 

In 1997, forensic anthropologists arrived in southern Bolivia to look for him. After several months scouring the airstrip of Vallegrande, the team unearthed the bones of Che and several comrades. His protruding brow, almost Neanderthal-like in its dimensions, was clearly visible on the skull. His hands, removed at his death, were still missing. The discovery provoked a frenzy of remembering in Bolivia and prompted renewed demands for justice in relation to other missing bodies, particularly former Socialist leader Marcelo Quiroga, who was assassinated by the military in a hail of machine-gun fire in 1980. Unlike Che, his body has not been found. 

The recent circulation of the images of the Pando dead is but the latest chapter in this longer history of bodies defiled and displayed, missing and found. Che himself, fascinated with death, saw in it the ultimate end of all revolutionaries. “Revolutionaries are not normal persons,” he said once, “that I can assure. The revolutionaries make the revolution, and the revolution makes the revolutionary, but the final fact is a result of the struggle and the action of the masses: sacrifice.” Bolivian movements often speak of the “mystique” and “sacrifice” of struggle, the push to the “final consequences” and “final victory.” The links seemed clear in bodies displayed for public viewing in all their grotesque beauty. The Pando bodies—like that of Che—conjure up narratives of struggle, martyrdom, liberation, and sacrifice.

In The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, anthropologist Katherine Verdery argues that corpses – whether of recent creation, long buried or unearthed – are universally powerful cultural and political vehicles. Why indeed, until a recent policy shift, were we not to see the dead returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or indeed, the dead produced en masse there? Bodies contain raw emotive power. They force those who contemplate them to confront their own mortality and, Verdery suggests, blurring the particularities of the moment with the absolutes of life, existence, and the order of the cosmos. A single material object reaches deep into our emotional core and stirs our human penchant for the creation of meaning. Dead bodies demand a narrative. As clearly evidenced in testimonials of the Pando massacre from both sides, the dead also demand a truth, la verdad. Even so, Verdery argues, in their stubborn materiality – whether bones, coffins, flesh or fragments – bodies are ambiguous, generating not forensic clarity but narrative ambiguity. What do they mean? Whose truth do they represent?

“The Truth about the Deaths in Pando, Bolivia.” Jimena Antelo on the “Wake Up” show (UNITEL/Youtube).

After the struggle on the dusty road outside Pando was over, the struggle continued in glossy media shows and online, where new viral capacities multiply displays of the dead and intensify the interpretive battle. In the days and weeks after the event, the farmers’ dead bodies were figuratively pulled between the government and the opposition. Were they “humble” citizens, slaughtered by a criminal elite? Or were they government cannon fodder, ignorant people manipulated into aggression and forcing a confrontation? Had the peasants not killed two civics as well? 

The elite-backed opposition media continued the brutal interrogation of the dead, like that which peasants had been subjected to under threat of the lash: “Who sent you? Who paid you?” The queries denied the possibility that rural people could act of their own accord. The media projected its own “show” against the government while anti-government channels called the killings a show, a government montage, a staged confrontation. 

Yet the media spectacle concealed a deeper battle over bodies and truth. The most prominent outlet of the autonomist Right is the powerful UNITEL station in Santa Cruz. One of their key anchors, Jimena Antelo is a former fashion model and sharp-tongued critic of the Morales regime. Once ‘elected’ in a newspaper poll the most beautiful woman of Santa Cruz, Antelo projected an eroticized sense of almost sadistic pleasure as she establishes authority over the truth and the dark-skinned subjects she often interrogates on her show. After the Pando killings she beckoned visitors to come and see, “what really happened on the 11th of September” and to hear the “truth of the dead at Pando.” Similarly juxtaposing sexual desire and innuendo with the nasty business of reporting on the dead, her competitors on Channel 14 spun the story on a morning show called “El Mañanero,” inviting viewers to “wake up in a different way.” As with Antelo’s Fox-like accounts, their stories of the dead could be consumed like a morning quickie, mañanero’s English translation.

Jimeno Antelo, Telepais (UNITEL), February 20, 2009.

Antelo spun all the angles: The peasants had been armed. They had killed first. The government provoked the violence and planned the confrontation. The peasants were manipulated; the killings, the responsibility of the government itself. Pando was indeed a montage, an image, a show, Antelo reminded us with a smile. As we confuse fantasy with reality, we consume her and her truth.

For its part, government postings on YouTube decried the killings as an action of a retrograde, racist and fascist Right. The government dissected the event with a detailed attention to authoritative legality, voiced in the language of the righteous struggle of humble people. The Minister of Health, reporting on state TV, described the injuries with a doctor’s attention to technical detail and a revolutionary’s sincerity: These were “humble” “peasants,” of the pueblo, of the people. The civics were not autonomists defending themselves against government aggression, but grand assassins (grandisimos sicarios) and criminals (maleantes). Witness, one poster asks a viewer, the evidence of the images of the bodies.

In an age of nationalism and ethnic conflict, bodies are often equated with whole territories and peoples. Killing produces narratives that ascribe a moral quality to the dead and to the identities and lands they are said to represent. A popular reading might be that American soldiers who fall in Iraq are part of ‘our’ nation, fallen in righteous struggle. Those killed in sectarian struggle over there are ‘their’ ethnics, destroyed (or worthy of destruction) by virtue of their impulses. In return perhaps, our dead are seen similarly. In such narratives of collective selves and places, violence, dying, and killing are self-justifying and self-replicating. One calls for another. Nationalism and revolutionary struggle alike share a celebration of death and sacrifice.

Government poster. “The images are evident” and “No to Impunity.” With Leopoldo Fernández, the “Massacrer of Pando” and bodies and names of the victims. Fernández’ eyes appear to have been reddened and

Do bodies like that of Che and the farmer yield the same stories in Bolivia? While it may be tempting for some—and certainly for the Right—to see in the MAS and its movement supporters a nostalgia for guerrilla struggle, it strikes me that things are different. The deaths in Pando were not narrated in the language of Che and the martyrdom of armed struggle. Nor did they fit, as Antelo luridly suggested, a model of ethnic aggression. This was not the expression of an absolutist logic of territorial struggle between peoples. The farmers of Pando were innocents who fell in the face of criminality. Their bodies call neither for emulation nor revenge, but revelation and justice. They were evidence, mute witnesses made to speak from death to reveal, revelar, a moral and social order that demanded to be made right. These revelatory bodies became a kind of foundation on which law could later act. They were like legislative parchments where sovereignty—and hopefully a new order—emerged out of the truth and body of the people, a call to dismantle older orders of power and rule.

As social movements take center stage in the reconfiguration of Global South politics, it is tempting to embrace them as bearers of utopian alternative orders. Yet critical solidarity is preferable to naïve romanticism. Writing about events like Pando risks demonizing aggressors and glorifying victims. The MAS government has its share of internal problems to confront, from corruption to its own brand of authoritarianism. In crude struggles for power—from the state, the opposition, and the movements in between—truth and moral clarity are almost always elusive. Even so, Bolivia beckons us to envision the crafting of a more humane social order and at least offer a nod of respect to a people in struggle. From the Bolivian farmers and their tactics of revelation, we might even take a lesson for change in our own media-numbed political arenas. Yet this is not a call for revolutionary sacrifice or the obliteration of imagined enemies. The farmer in the picture did not go out that day to die or kill, but to live as part of a wider nation. As one leader said in angry voice, speaking through tears, “we are going to tell their truth, but we are not going to tell it with arms, with beatings.” Another bandaged survivor added, “We are still on our feet, because we are carrying out the total transformation of our country.” 


Bret Gustafson has worked with indigenous movements and issues in Bolivia since 1992.  He received a PhD in Social Anthropology from Harvard in 2002 and currently teaches anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of ïNew Languages of the State: Indigenous Resurgence and the Politics of Knowledge in Boliviaï(Duke, 2009).