Photo: ABI (Two of the 16 peasants killed by paramilitaries linked to the Pando Prefecture are laid out in the local Cobija Campesino Market, before being taken to their communities.)
Luigino Bracci Roa, with reporting from Erbol and ABI – ABI Yvke Mundial
Sunday, September 14, 2008 9:05 a.m.
Last Thursday, a thousand peasants marched toward Cobija to protest the violence driven by the Prefect Leopoldo Fernández, when they were ambushed on a bridge located 7 kilometers from the town of Porvenir, in the department of Pando. This was the scene of a massacre, executed by civilian groups who’d received weapons training by the government of Leopoldo Fernández.
Initially on Thursday there were 8 deaths reported. The figure was rising steadily, to 9 dead, then 14, later 15. This Saturday evening, the government minister Alfredo Rada confirmed that there were 30 dead. But other officials fear the figure could reach 50 or even 70.
The lack of exactness in the figures is due to the fact that the Prefect Fernández and the armed gangs he commanded prevented the arrival of humanitarian organizations at the scene of the massacre. The government declared a state of siege last Friday, after the soldier Ramiro Tañini Alvarado was killed by .22 caliber gunfire, when civilian groups faced off against the military over control of Pando’s airport.
Prefect Fernández had insisted that what took place on Thursday had to do with an armed confrontation “initiated” by the national Bolivian government. The facts contradicted him. Roberto Tito, one of the rural workers who was at the bridge when the shooting began against defenseless people, bore witness that they’d marched unarmed, but right away they heard the shots and some people began to fall, mortally wounded.
Snipers located in the upper reaches of the trees shot toward the crowd without considering that children and women were mixed in with the peasants, whose only weapons were sticks and machetes.
“We were unarmed, contrary to what they said. They stopped us some seven kilometers before Porvenir and afterwards they attacked us when we reached the bridge, where they ambushed us and began to shoot with automatic machine-guns,” said Tito, sorrowful over the deaths of at least 10 of his comrades, now that since Friday an undetermined number of missing have been reported.
“The comrades had to escape wherever they could. They didn’t spare even the children or the women. It was a massacre of the peasants; it’s something that we must not allow,” said the rural worker.
Tito’s testimony is backed by the version of Senator Abraham Cuellar, who insisted that at the height of the Bridge of Cachuelita, there was a gap 10 meters wide and deep so that neither trucks nor people could pass. It was in these circumstances that the shooting began.
“The people were walking on foot, there had been an ambush prepared by the Prefecture, planned with military weaponry and with the regrettable result that there were many deaths on the side of the peasants and the majority are from jurisdictions governed by mayors that are not associated with MAS [Movement Toward Socialism] but rather with organizations that support the government,” said Cuellar.
Fernández Had Been Denounced Since 2006 For Training Paramilitaries
As far back as September, 2006, the then Government Minister Alicia Muñoz denounced the Prefect Leopoldo Fernández for training at least a hundred paramilitaries in Cobija, under the pretense of forming a “citizen’s protection” force. Although Fernández denied the veracity of this denunciation, for which Muñoz had photos and videotape proof, the head of Citizens’ Security for the Pando Prefecture, Alberto Murakami, admitted to the training of civilians.
Murakami claimed at the time that it was a hundred “neighbors” trained to perform monitoring, in the face of “delinquency” and a “deficit of policemen.” Muñoz made the denunciation as proof that the opposition prefects were not acting as legitimately as they insisted. Time and the massacre of defenseless people, regrettably proved the ex-Minister correct.
Escape to the Bushes
In the middle of the massacre, the peasants had only one alternative to save their lives, and they ran for the bushes while the paramilitaries unloaded their weapons on the crowd. “They are people from the Prefecture and the Departmental Roads Service who are well armed with machine-guns and snipers, because they shot freely at us from the treetops,” said Tito.
The peasant leader’s denunciation was corroborated by Senator Abraham Cuellar, who said that this Friday, 24 hours after the massacre, the paramilitary persecution of the Pando peasants continued. “We know that the persecution has been relentless in Filadelfia and Cachuelita, which are provinces surrounding Cobija; the killings continue, they are continuing to murder people, unarmed people,” said the legislator.
He accused assassins hired by the Pando authorities, who go about armed with automatic weapons, something which has forced at least a hundred people to cross the border into Brazil to seek refuge.
In this context, the mobilization of people from the Prefecture, Sedcam, assassins and paramilitaries hired by Prefect Fernández, supposedly to reclaim a redirection of 30 percent of the resources from a Direct Tax on Hydrocarbons, was the cover for mounting a tough repression.
Machetera is a member of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, and translator are cited.