On November 19, Analía, aged 18, went out to bake bread at a children’s foundation near her home in El Alto, a city that sprawls across the Andean plains above La Paz. She never arrived. Hours later, she was kneeling in a road littered with bullet casings and detritus, her lungs burning from clouds of tear gas, as a soldier pointed his gun at her and screamed at her to beg for her life.
“When we wanted to run, but they told us to stay still or they’d shoot,” she told VICE News.
That day, the Bolivian military opened fire on protesters blockading a gas plant in the El Alto neighbourhood of Senkata, killing 10 people and wounding dozens. It was the second massacre in less than a week. Just a few days earlier, security forces killed 10 people during a protest march near the town of Sacaba.
The violence took place after former president Evo Morales was forced to resign when electoral fraud allegations sparked an outbreak of protests.
Ten months on, survivors are still waiting for justice. Bolivia’s interim president Jeanine Áñez announced in September that she was pulling out of the presidential elections on October 18. But with free and fair elections in doubt, a new government won’t necessarily mean justice for the survivors.
Áñez’s government has stated that the military didn’t fire a single shot in Senkata, that shots in Sacaba came from the direction of the march, and that the protesters shot each other. Bolivia’s defense ministry claimed that the protesters in Senkata were vandals trying to blow up the gas plant with dynamite, which could have destroyed the entire neighbourhood.
Analía, who asked VICE News not to use her real name, deliberately took the back road that day to avoid trouble, but got caught up in the violence anyway. When she stopped to revive a woman who had inhaled so much tear gas she couldn’t breathe, five soldiers surrounded her group, holding them at gunpoint. They told them to kneel and beg for forgiveness, beating a man to the ground when he refused.
Then, the soldiers ordered Analía and two other young women to come with them. An older woman in the group screamed that they were rapists and pigs. In response, the soldiers beat her bloody. “Him beating the woman hurt me too, but I didn’t know what to do. I knew if I did anything they might hit me too or take me away,” she said. “I was in shock.”
Suddenly, voices in the distance shouted: “The miners have arrived!”. Bolivia’s miners are renowned for their militancy. Nervous that they would bring trouble, the soldiers let Analía’s group go.
She never saw any protesters with guns or dynamite. Later, some demonstrators improvised molotov cocktails with glass drinks bottles from a toppled roadside kiosk. One young man threw them at the soldiers, but they were out of reach. As Analía watched, they shot him in the head, she told VICE News.
As interim president, Áñez’ actions have created the conditions for human rights abuses, say observers. On November 14, she signed a decree saying that members of the armed forces wouldn’t be held criminally responsible for their actions as part of the “re-establishment of internal order” as long as they acted in self-defense or out of “necessity”.
Amnesty International warned that it gave a “carte blanche for impunity”.
The decree was illegal, according to Thomas Becker, a human rights lawyer with the University Network for Human Rights who has investigated rights abuses during Áñez’s tenure. “In international law and Bolivian law, you cannot give immunity to people for massacring civilians,” he said.
In December, Áñez signed another decree offering compensation of 50,000 Bolivianos ($7,230) to families of those killed during the post-electoral violence. But the decree said they would waive their right to seek justice in international courts if they accepted. The offer was met with disgust by families and survivors, who viewed it as an attempt to buy their silence.
“Not being able to report it, keep your mouth shut, it’s a mockery,” said Teodoro, a survivor of the Senkata massacre who also asked VICE News not to use his real name. He defended himself with the lid of a trash can from the pellets soldiers were firing as he retreated down the avenue. Soon, they switched to bullets. The man next to him was fatally shot, he said. “I’ll never forget that avenue, or the man who fought at my side,” he said, in tears. “I don’t know how I got out of there alive.”
“Indemnization has to be understood in an integral way,” said David Inca of the El Alto Permanent Assembly on Human Rights. “It isn’t just, give 50,000 Bolivianos and I’ll forget about it.”
Áñez became president after Morales’ resignation because the vice president and leaders of the senate and the house of deputies, who would normally assume the presidency, had also resigned. A Christian conservative from the lowland department of Beni, she trained as a lawyer and had a career as a television presenter before becoming a senator.
Her blonde hair and glamorous appearance marked a stark contrast to her predecessor. Morales was in power for almost 14 years and was Bolivia’s first indigenous president. He enjoyed strong working-class and indigenous support.
The government has made some gestures towards reconciliation. The health ministry agreed to set up a commission with the Senkata Victims’ Association to guarantee medical care to those injured. Investigators eventually arranged a reconstruction of the Sacaba massacre. But to many, this is too little, too late. “The Sacaba reconstruction was months after it happened,” said Becker. “The blood’s gone, the bullets are gone.”
A month before the elections, human rights defenders continue to face denial and secrecy. Ombudswoman Nadia Cruz has accused the government of withholding information vital to establishing what happened during the killings.
Far from acknowledging the abuses highlighted by major rights watchdogs, Áñez and her ministers have deflected criticism and accused organizations of bias, a situation Becker described as “Orwellian”. When Human Rights Watch sounded the alarm earlier this month over political persecution of Morales’ allies during her government, Áñez accused the organization of being “ignorant of reality”, falsely claiming that they had never criticized abuses under Morales.
“There’s not the context right now where families can get justice,” Becker said.
Cover: A woman gestures and shouts during the funeral of people killed yesterday during clashes between supporters of Evo Morales and security forces in Senkata in November 2019. Photo by Gaston Brito Miserocchi/Getty Images.