Police Attack on TIPNIS Marchers Roils Bolivia

Source: NACLA Report on the Americas

Last Sunday federal police brutally repressed lowland indigenous marchers protesting the TIPNIS highway. The move has sparked widespread public outrage in Bolivia, while the response from the government of President Evo Morales—including the sudden resignation of Minister of Interior Sacha Llorenti on Tuesday evening—raises more questions than answers.

On Sunday afternoon, 500 federal police using tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons launched a surprise raid on the protesters’ camp near Yucumo, in the department of Beni. Just hours earlier, the protesters had received an invitation from the government to send a delegation to La Paz to resume negotiations, which they were about to consider in a community-wide meeting.

According to still unconfirmed reports, the raid resulted in one death (a baby), 45 wounded, and at least 37 unaccounted for, including 7 children. In the confusion, many protesters fled into the woods and children were separated from their families. The police also broke up a nearby road blockade maintained by several hundred “colonists” (highland indigenous farmers), which had been impeding the passage of the march—with the government’s tacit support—for several weeks.

The raid came the day after Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, who had arrived at the march in an effort to mediate the impasse with the colonists, was forced by a group of indigenous women to act as a “human shield,” leading the protest past a police barricade positioned ahead of the roadblock. Later released unharmed, Choquehuanca said that he wanted to continue discussions with the protesters. However, the government officially labeled this incident a “kidnapping.”

On Monday morning, government officials cited this episode as a rationale for the police action. According to press secretary Iván Canelas, the march had become a “focus of violence.” Minister of Interior Sacha Llorenti maintained that police had been threatened by marchers with bows and arrows, and that the intervention was necessary to save the protestors from a confrontation with the colonists.

But as TV footage showed indigenous men and women being beaten, gagged with adhesive tape, and dragged on their knees to waiting vehicles, protests against the police repression mounted and spread to regions throughout the country. In Beni, indigenous supporters blocked buses of detained marchers from arriving in San Borja, forcing them to detour to Rurrenabaque, where another group of protestors liberated many of the apparent prisoners before they could be boarded onto a plane to an unknown destination.

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