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The Bullets, the Threats, the Endless Violence

MIdnight on the bridge… a scream… a shot… a splash, after the third shot people stopped counting. That morning, the military took over the small capital city of Cobija, after the crude fighting near the river in the village of Porvenir, one year ago, in a day like this.

Many bullets were shot, anywhere between 11 and 20 people died, while more than 300 were wounded. One side, the local government side, was fighting because their tax income from natural gas sales had been cut in half, as in other five states (departments), in the other side were Evo Morales’ followers, aroused by hatred against the non-MAS people, bullying them, teasing them, threatening to kill them.

A day before, September 10th, bricklayer Tomás Oña, 18, was walking behind the hundreds of men and women blocking the roads in the midst of political differences between the government and local authorities of his natal Tarija, in the other end of Bolivia.

There were five different frontline civic blockage points. Morales’s followers were gathering in the peasant’s market up north and had taken over one local government office by the force. When the march of civic local leaders was coming closer to the market to get the office back, Morales’s followers detonated dynamite, and the fight begun.

A warm, bright day in Tarija turned into a nightmare in the afternoon. Local radio stations were calling to slow down the pace, while national government radio station PATRIA NUEVA called Morales’s people to fight in the streets. Right before sunset wounded people from civic lines filled up hospitals. They didn’t know the others were throwing dynamite at them, and police shot them with rubber bullets.

The civic lines were filled up by people from all classes, Tomas was a bricklayer but next to him was Jose, a middle aged accountant who was angry too, Monica, a retired teacher, the Calasas brothers, peasants from a nearby location, university students from all careers, etc., all colors, all races, all ages.

An ambulance got near the place where Tomas was standing, to pick up Alicia, a woman hit by rocks and sticks from the newly arrived peasants from La Paz and miners from Potosí, paid and sent by the government to scare Tarija, to quail the people, to kill some if meant to be … Hundreds of them yelling at Tomas, making his heart beat fast, adrenaline filling his body, nowhere to run, ready to clash.

Less than an hour later the thousands of rocks thrown had caused many bruises, arms and legs broken by sticks in both sides, José felt an intense pain in his finger when a rock hit him. Between the blood and the dust it took him some time to realize he had lost it. Help, help! He shouted at the paramedics who desperately tried to find his finger in the midst of the waves of people running back and forth, fighting each other.

Suddenly, a big truck arrived to the scene and Tomas realized the miners and peasants from La Paz were receiving fire arms. Guns! Guns! Everyone leave! The truck is full of guns and dynamite! He shouted. Some local people got scared, others got angrier. The heat was unbearable by then. The bullying from the miners had turned into a real threat with dynamite and guns. Everyone started running back and forth while the first explosions took place. The afternoon turned orange and the road was exhaling vapor from the heat. It was hard to tell if anyone would give in. The yelling was unbearable, the beating was unstoppable.

Guns! They are firing guns! Tomas shouted. Get back! Scud up! He warned his friends when he saw the miners holding bigger objects in their hands, which he thought were guns. They were being surpassed. They didn’t have arms. Suddenly, while on the run, he saw an object being thrown at him. It wasn’t a gun, so he took it without a doubt, and tried to throw it back to the owners, but it wasn’t meant to be. It exploded in his hand, it was dynamite.

Tomas hit the floor of the paved road as the faces of his companions passed around him without making sense. Excruciating pain was the only feeling. Someone saw him fall down and immediately tried to make him get up. ‘Brother don’t go down on me’, ‘come on brother, come with me’ , ‘come on, come on, let’s go to the ambulance!’

He was listening. He tried to follow his friend’s directions, until he passed out. He didn’t know what really happened until he was in the ambulance. He had suffered an explosion of dynamite in his hand, which was totally destructed, torn in small pieces scattered in the paved road. Most people didn’t realize they could really lose a part of their bodies until they saw Tomas.

Television reports came out immediately. Tomas, the first victim to lose a part of his body in the fight, was seen all over the city by everyone, and this young man, an example of bravery and resilience in the fight for the rights of his land, accomplished the impossible. His innocent face filled with the tragic trace of pain and devastation for the loss of his hand, transformed the hearts of the fighters who decided to stop and take a break to talk things over again.

That night a tense calm took over the city. The nightmare stopped when both parties agreed to stop battling. But the deadly plan had to go on. Politics and politicians in Bolivia needed a confrontation to become heroes in front of the world’s eyes. Those eyes that never look at the south when it is peaceful. The plan didn’t work in Tarija. Nobody died. They needed a strikingly big happening.

Where to turn? How to break the opposition lines? The airport was closed in a wise way to stop the military from coming into Tarija. So, they decided to hit Pando. They knew the people there would fight back. They knew there were firearms for the hunters in the forests In that northern state, inside the Amazonia, the green forests, full of good hunting prey.

Leopoldo Fernandez, the governor elected by more than 70% of the voting, had sent a petition to the national government on September 8th to bring troops to stop the La Paz peasants from coming to fight the local people in Pando. The conflict had been on for nearly two weeks already. Roads were blocked in five states asking for the government to give the tax money back to local governments.

Leopoldo warned the government appropriately: peasants were coming with guns and dynamite to fight the local people. He asked the police to help him stop the fight also. Neither the military, nor the police showed any sign of intervention until it was too late.

It was a starry night in the Amazonian city of Cobija, small and beautiful, surrounded by rainforests, located in the border of Bolivia and Brazil. The usual activity in the airport comes from one passenger airplane that arrives every afternoon. Only one flight a day for the small airport. That night the chanting of the frogs and the howling of the owls were interrupted by the roaring of the military jets arriving there.

Tarija had closed the airport, thus stopping the military from getting into the city. Leopoldo and the local people thought the military were coming to help, so they allowed their landing. Press videos show the military shooting at the air and going after the local people.

The flight that tried to arrive in Tarija, full of military men and weapons, was forced to turn around and leave before touching ground. They hit Pando right afterwards. The airport in Cobija was the center of operations of the military. Their target: Leopoldo Fernandez.

On September 16th, 2008, the military coup was consummated. Fernandez was flown to La Paz after being assaulted in his home at four in the morning, before the sun came up. No legal order of detention, no attorney present. His hands were tied, his head was covered and he was ordered in badly manners to get into the plane. The next day he woke up in jail, under accusations of genocide. Since then the military commanding officer in Pando became the Governor. Until today, he rules, within accusations of cocaine traficking by Brazilian authorities, that cannot be proved.

He was treated as guilty from the beginning. The amount of deaths was determined by the government in 14, but three people presented themselves to the press clarifying they were alive. Two hundred local people were forced to leave Cobija and asked for asylum in Brazil. Four trials were installed up to now against Leopoldo for the same felonies.

After one complete year, Evo Morales’s government has not been able to prove Leopoldo is guilty. They treat him as guilty but are not able to prove anything. One whole year this man has been in jail, waiting for a fair trial that never takes place. As elections will be held in December, Leo has decided to run for vice president, causing commotion in all politicians.

What will his future be like? The government cannot impede his candidature, as he doesn’t have an executed sentence. Morales’s projections are to win Pando big, so the government spends millions to bring peasants from La Paz and Cochabamba to vote in Pando. Around 8,000 people are being transferred. They are only there to register to vote, to go back home and come back right before the election. The reward: 100 hectares of land, taken away from the local indigenous tribes who cannot say or do much.

Local governments need to be respected, they have been elected by the people, the sovereign, as press here call it. Military coup d’etats can also take place internally, as this lesson shows. International organizations must intervene to give an end to internal coups. The laws and the constitution must be respected too. Otherwise, when the government turns into the judge and the accusing party, we will never know the truth. The world needs to know, the people in the world need to see both sides of the story. The worst deaf and blind are the ones who don’t want to hear, or see, what is in front of them.


Maria Cuellar's picture


Hi Jacquie,

Isn't it ironic that the town is called Cobija (blanket)?! And they're fighting in porvenir (future)!
Thanks for telling us the story about people fighting for their freedom and for what they believe is right. The story of this battle sounds gruesome, but it needs to be heard around the world.

Thanks again,

jap21's picture

You are so right

If the world listens, we have hope, if the world plays to be deaf, we are lost. We do the only thing we can: try to make them listen.

Thanks for reading, and for the feedback. It encourages me to keep telling these stories.



Jacqueline Patiño FundActiva
Tarija - Bolivia
South America

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