Sunday, August 23, 2020

Bolivia's Right-wing Gangs

While the media rightly criticized Madura's use of informal paramilitaries to suppress protests, it seems that similar tactics used by conservatives who usurped power  in Bolivia does not deserve the same condemnation. 

Since late July, a mass protest movement has gripped Bolivia, including massive demonstrations blocking roads across the country, with people taking to the streets over the country's repeated election delays. However, many protesters have been harassed and beaten up by motorcycle gangs. Some call them paramilitary groups.

People are angry because the election has already been pushed back several times. Originally, it was set for May 3. Then, because of the pandemic, it was pushed back to August 2. Then, September 6. And, now, October 18.  On July 23, Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced that the general elections, set for September 6, would be pushed back to October 18 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The announcement that voters would have to wait to choose the president, vice president, representatives and senators sparked massive protests across the country. People called for a general strike on August 3. Protesters also set up a number of roadblocks.

many Bolivians want to cast their votes as soon as possible because the country is currently run by a transitional government put in place after former president Evo Morales resigned in November 2019. Morales was re-elected in October 2019, but the opposition argued that there were election irregularities, a claim seconded by the regional body the Organisation of American States. The claims of invalidity were later declared unfounded. The protesters believe that the current government is pushing back the elections to unfairly prolong Jeanine Añez’s tenure, even though the candidate from the Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism Party (MAS) is leading in the polls.

Violent gangs have been harassing and intimidating them. There are different groups in different towns. In Cochabamba, they are called "Resistencia Juvenil Cochala",  currently the most active group, while, in La Paz, the group is known as "Resistencia Km 0". The group operating in Santa Cruz is called "Unión Juvenil Cruceñista".

Resistencia Juvenil Cochala is made up mainly of young men between the ages of 20 and 30, seems to have been formed after the contested re-election of Evo Morales in October 2019. In a video posted online on August 9, leader Yasir Molina called on all Bolivians to "come out to clear out your area.” On Facebook, Resistencia Juvenil Cochala describes itself as a “rapid reaction group defending their town". Their aim is to get him out of office. "Resistencia Km 0" has essentially the same origin story. The members of these groups use intimidation and violence.

The Bolivian human rights group, published a statement about this group and other ones like it. The statement referenced the events that occurred on August 8 and 9 and said that "violent actions have been occuring in a constant and repeated manner since the start of the year".The statement also referred to "groups that have been infiltrated by private actors of a paramilitary nature who have illegally taken powers that belong to the Bolivian police to defend their political positions". In early February, Bolivian journalist Adair Pinto was threatened, insulted and eventually stabbed by a member of Resistencia Juvenil Cochala. Pinto has since left the country and his attacker was arrested. Other journalists had also been threatened by members of the group.  

The current transitional government and the security forces have largely tolerated, or sometimes outright supported, this group. In their statement published on August 9, the office of Defensoría del Pueblo criticised the "permissiveness of the state” with regards to the group’s actions. A few months ago, the interim president posted a tweet thanking Resistencia Juvenil Cochala. A photo of her holding a  the group's logo was also widely shared. At the end of 2019, government minister Arturo Murillo attended a ceremony meant to honour, among others, members of Resistencia Juvenil Cochala in Cochabamba. In January, Milton Navarro, who served as sports minister until June 4, declared that they were "courageous" and that they should be recognised.

"These groups enjoy a certain impunity," said Fernando López Ariñez, a Bolivian political commentator. “Moreover, traditional media outlets have not spoken out against these groups. Instead they sometimes try to legitimise the actions of these groups, presenting them as civilian actors."


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