Violence, deaths mark passage of draft version of new Bolivian constitution

SUCRE, Bolivia - Burning vehicles, police stations and other buildings in their path, as well as kidnapping and assaulting legislators and trashing every area they visited, forces controlled by the opposition to Bolivian President Evo Morales in late November attempted to chase government authorities out of the city of Sucre where the Constituent Assembly was passing a draft of a new constitution.

The measure did pass, with the remaining lawmakers from Morales' party meeting in a military facility; and the police have begun to return; but the battle between Morales' allies and his wealthy opponents in the Media Luna (''Half Moon'') region has turned even more violent than previous confrontations. Both sides are calling for regional and international assistance for the investigation and mediation.

The last estimate on the human damage of the bloody weekend of Nov. 24 was more than 100 wounded and three dead, including one policeman, as well as a recent report of three assembly members who claim to have been kidnapped and beaten by protesters.

By all available accounts, the tensions started Nov. 23 in Sucre, a city politically aligned with the Half Moon group. The young crowd had gathered to protest the recent meeting of the assembly, and that members of the opposition were not present in the assembly's proceeding. (Whether opposition legislators were not there due to their own decisions or whether they were prevented from entering has not been established, although in the previous three months pro-Morales people have been harassed and threatened as they attempted to enter the building. The indigenous female president of the assembly, Silvia Lazarte, has asserted that she was assaulted on more than one occasion.)

Some of the demonstrators got into a confrontation with police; and from that point, the details of the ensuing chaos have not been fully explained, but a few events have been verified. Between Nov. 23 and the night of Nov. 24, crowds of anti-Morales, anti-MAS party youth and others began attacking police and police buildings. There were reports of gunfire coming from the crowd, but most of the violent acts were committed by young men with rocks, sticks and Molotov cocktails. Before the end of the day Nov. 25, Sucre police had left the city and local hospitals and clinics were packed with wounded demonstrators and bystanders.

As of press time, three people had died in the melee: Gonzalo Duran Sacarani, 29, a lawyer, was killed by a bullet; Juan Carlos Cerrado Murillo, 27, a carpenter and college student, was killed by a tear gas canister; and police officer Jimmy Quispe, who was allegedly lynched by the crowd. Sacarani and Murillo were known to be MAS supporters. At least 50 police vehicles were burned and three large precinct buildings were also severely burned. Some of the violent demonstrators were identified in various reports as being members of the Santa Cruz Youth Union and the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz. (No specific names had been published as of press time.)

Assembly member Felix Cardenas, of the National Coalition party, held a press conference a few days after the disturbance to say that he and Assembly members Felix Vasquez and Mario Machicado were kidnapped and beaten by protesters as they attempted to flee the city.

''I don't know how they intercepted us, but they beat us, insulted us, humiliated us,'' Cardenas asserted. ''They took my cell phone, my credentials, my ID card; and the only thing I was hoping for was to die with dignity, all for the change and for my country.''

Both Morales and religious leaders called for peace from the onset of the hostilities. Regional leaders from Sucre and Santa Cruz also took to the airwaves to call for calm, but they blamed the violence on the president and his party for causing the disturbance.

In the two weeks that followed, several major events took place: the opposition held a daylong work stoppage in at least six regions, followed by a brief hunger strike; the assembly voted to allow them the right to meet in other cities; Morales passed a law increasing social security payments to older persons by using money from the new fees on oil and gas production, as well as granting 444,600 acres of land to the indigenous Guarani people that came as a result of last year's Agrarian Reform Act; and United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues Rodolfo Stavenhagen came to investigate claims of persecution, assault and racist treatment of indigenous peoples. In press conferences held after his initial investigations, Stavenhagen confirmed the systematic repression was still occurring in regions of the country - especially in the Half Moon area - and he congratulated Morales for his advocacy on behalf of the Native people and for passing a national law based on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Since that time, both sides of the debate have been talking about rights: the Half Moon delegations have approached U.S. officials and the Organization of American States for support, asserting that the new constitution is illegal and that recent laws passed by Morales were also unjust; Morales and his allies have also spoken with OAS executives and have invited all international human rights organizations to come to Bolivia to help investigate the claims and counterclaims.

Rick Kearns is a freelance writer, poet and teacher of Boricua heritage who focuses on indigenous issues in Latin America.