(IPS) – The Bolivian government declared martial law in the northern province of Pando after as many as 15 indigenous supporters of President Evo Morales were killed by rightwing protesters near the town of Cobija.
A group of public employees of the provincial government of Pando, in the hands of the rightwing opposition, intercepted the victims as they were heading to a meeting of Morales supporters from Amazon jungle communities, where they planned to organise resistance against the pro-autonomy demonstrators who have been occupying public offices and holding protests over the past few days.
The killings occurred in the context of a wave of demonstrations that broke out on Tuesday, when members of the rightwing Santa Cruz Youth Union (UCJ) took control of public offices in the central Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, after breaking past the military and police cordons protecting the buildings.
The pro-autonomy movement led by Santa Cruz Governor Rubén Costas and backed by the regional governments of Beni, Pando, Tarija and Chuquisaca, which with Santa Cruz make up Bolivia’s relatively wealthy "eastern crescent," has in practice put an economic stranglehold on the country by blocking the main highways and partially cutting off supplies of natural gas to Brazil and Argentina.
On Thursday, leftwing President Morales, the first indigenous president in the history of Bolivia, accused groups of landowners in the eastern lowlands provinces of "financing a criminal mentality," and warned that "patience also has a limit."
The Roberto Galindo hospital in Cobija presented a dramatic scene as emergency room personnel tended those injured in the attack. They had deep slash cuts from machetes and axes, as well as bullet wounds from shotguns and rifles.
Some of the dead had bullet wounds from firearms used in the "ambush" of the government supporters, which took place in the early hours of Thursday morning with the goal of preventing a meeting in the small town of Filadelfia, 50 kilometres south of Cobija, according to the local representative on the Comité de Vigilancia (Citizen’s Watch committee), Leyla Tudela.
Former Mayor of Cobija and leader of the Movimiento Amazónico de Renovación Democrática (MAR, Amazon Movement for Democratic Renewal) Miguel Becerra told a local radio station that it was "a massacre of the campesinos (indigenous peasants), some of whom were run over by a truck belonging to the governor’s office."
For their part, supporters of the governor of Pando, Leopoldo Fernández, accused Becerra of instigating the violence.
The Deputy Minister of Social Movements, Sacha Llorenti, a close Morales adviser, said the victims were shot in an armed attack by "hired killers" in what he described as "an outright massacre" in Cobija.
Llorenti blamed the incident on Governor Fernández, a rightwing landowner with a long track record in Bolivian politics.
Fernández called for a truce in the conflict to pacify the province. But in response to the national government’s statements, he said he would be "the last to walk away from the fight."
On Friday, the executive branch asked Congress to take action against Governor Fernández for the Porvenir massacre, according to the government news agency Agencia Boliviana de Información (ABI).
Former President Jorge Quiroga, the head of the rightwing Social and Democratic Power (Podemos) party, appealed to the Morales administration and called on both sides of the conflict to rein in their groups of organised activists.
"This is an entreaty, as an ex-president I know that this conflict can spill over and run out of control, causing many deaths," he said.
Violence continued Thursday in the slum neighbourhood of Plan Tres Mil on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, which is basically populated by Aymara and Quechua Indians from Bolivia’s impoverished western highlands provinces.
UJC groups attacked a neighbourhood market where indigenous people sell their wares, and local residents showed up to protect the vendors.
Native people who have settled in the neighbourhood, originally from the western provinces of La Paz, Oruro and Potosí, are in fear of being attacked by the radical rightwing youth groups.
Meanwhile, in the town of Yacuiba, on the border with Argentina, a group of demonstrators swarmed a natural gas facility that exports fuel to Buenos Aires, and managed to cut off supplies.
Bolivia exports six million cubic metres a day of natural gas to Argentina, Bolivia’s second largest gas export market after Brazil.
An attack on the gas pipeline to Brazil Wednesday reduced the volume of gas flow from 26 to 23 million cubic metres per day, creating concern among diplomats at the Brazilian embassy in La Paz.