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Bolivia: where justice bows down to power

The independence of the judiciary is in question



Banner image, above. From the website of the Ministry of Justice and Institutional Transparency: “Investigations will proceed into 592 former government officials and their relatives to recover deposits made abroad.”

Some weeks ago nobody would have imagined that the Bolivian Prosecution Service would issue an arrest warrant against the former president, Evo Morales, whose government had complete control over that institution and the whole justice system. But this action, and the prosecutions launched against Morales’ closest collaborators since the populist leader resigned on 10 November, reinforce the appearance of a judicial system whose most senior officials cannot be relied upon to maintain an independent and impartial system of justice.

It seems that for many years now prosecutors and judges merely tow ‘the official line’, the one established by those who are in power or the one that accords most closely with predominant public opinion. Now that Morales has left Bolivia and his government has ended, legal actions against members of his political party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), the Electoral Court, and former ministers, have become the new tendency.

On the other hand, those who had long criticized the former government and were imprisoned for various reasons (in truth often political reasons) have been released during recent weeks.

It could be, as the current interim government claims, that now the judges are working according to law. But that seems doubtful.

One example of the erratic process of justice concerns the Prosecution Service. After the 20 October general elections, when the perpetration of electoral fraud was evident, not a single prosecutor launched an investigation to clarify what had happened to the electronic system that had been illegally manipulated to change people’s vote. The only action taken by the general prosecutor, Juan Lanchipa, was to warn that any ‘crime’ committed during civilian protests against the fraud would be investigated and sanctioned.

Interview with deputy Erik Morón, 25 November 2019, in which he demands that Lanchipa resign and traces his links to the Morales government and MAS.

Twenty-one days were to elapse before prosecutors took any action to investigate the fraud. This, despite the denounciations made by a group of software engineers on 24 October, the first OAS report published on 23 October that pointed out some irregularities in the election process, the sudden halting of the system to count the votes, the interruption of the internet service on the election night , and the inexplicable result that gave victory to Evo in the first round by over 10 per cent.

To be precise, Lanchipa announced the official investigation 35 minutes after Morales’ resignation was made public.

The witch hunt begins

Tweet from the Ministry of Justice announcing: If you suffered political persecution between 22/01/2006 and 10/11/2019, denounce it. Download a form here 🖐️ 📢

Now the ‘witch hunt’ could begin. One day after Morales resigned 34 members of the Electoral Court were arrested all over the country, allegedly for perpetrating one of the largest frauds in Bolivian history.  The criminal investigation extended to members of the Civilian Register Service (Sereci); to the director of Neotec, the private company that managed the software system to count the votes; and also to the former director of the Government Technology and Communication Agency (Agetic), an office under control of the Ministry of Presidency, whose offices were recently raided by the Police. According to the investigators, all of these were involved in the fraud.

Details of arrest of governor Estban Urquizu. Video: Unitel, Bolivia. 22 November 2019

However, besides the alleged fraud itself, other investigations began after the change of government and after Jeanine Añez assumed the presidency. The governor of Chuquisaca (member of the political party MAS), Esteban Urquizu, was sent to jail for abandoning his duties, breach of obligations and misuse of public goods. Two MAS deputy candidates also were sent to prison: Deisy Choque, allegedly involved in the murders of two people opposed to the Morales government; and Jesús Vera, allegedly linked to the burning of 64 public buses.

Two people with important positions in the Ministry of Culture were arrested for allegedly preparing Molotov cocktails to be used in the protests after Morales resigned, and an arrest warrant was released against the minister of Culture, Wilma Alanoca, for ordering people to prepare these bombs. Another arrest warrant was issued for the former minister of Presidency, Juan Ramón Quintana. He is being accused of terrorism and sedition because on 1 November he publicly warned that Bolivia would become a war zone if the protests against the Morales regime continued. The same investigation was extended to the former minister of Defence, Javier Zavaleta, and a regional MAS official, Gustavo Torrico.

The revolving doors of Bolivia’s prisons

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Nemesia Achacollo

The now rapidly turning wheels of justice didn’t stop there. Once Morales was no longer in charge, they remembered Nemesia Achacollo, former minister of Development and Lands (2010-2015) who was under house arrest for corruption. She was imprisoned in 2016 under the Morales government and in December 2017 released to house arrest. Anyway, on 18 December a judge ordered her back to prison. Something similar happened with the former vice-minister of Coordination with Social Movements, Alfredo Rada, who is under investigation in a case dating back to 2007.

Alfredo Rada

But probably the most high profile case is the one against Evo Morales and Faustino Yucra. Yucra is a coca grower under investigation for drug trafficking since 2016. Now, both of them are being prosecuted for terrorism and sedition because the Police obtained a recording of a phone conversation in which Morales, already in Mexico after being replaced in the presidency by Añez, explained to Yucra how to organize MAS supporters to block main roads in the country and prevent food from entering the cities – in an attempt to force the interim president to resign. In another coincidence, the arrest warrant was not issued until after Añez announced it, something that was not part of her duties as president.

Who fired the shots?

On the other hand, nobody is so far being investigated for the killings in Sacaba (Cochabamba) or Senkata (El Alto), where some of the former president’s supporters were killed by shots allegedly fired by the police and military. In Sacaba nine people were killed on November 15 when they were marching among thousands to the city. There are two different versions of what had happened that day. The victims explained later that they were engaged in peaceful protest when they were attacked by the state agents. In some videos from the scene, the police could be seen seizing homemade weapons from the protestors. At the time there were fears that the people who marched from El Chapare, the region from which Morales emerged as a political leader, would try to start a confrontation in the city of Cochabamba, in revenge for their leader’s defeat.

Video report: Europa Press. Reports from CNN, RT and Telesur can also be easily found, giving different interpretations of events.

On 19 November another 10 people were killed in Senkata in circumstances that are not yet completely clear. The most probable explanation is that they too were shot by the police and military. One version suggests that some of the victims were killed who were not even part of the conflict and were just passing near the conflict zone. Another version states that they were killed when they were trying to blow up a gas plant, an action that would have caused enormous damage and hundreds of deaths. Some of the protestors that supported Morales managed to destroy the perimeter wall of the gas plant using dynamite.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) published a preliminary report on 10 December that qualified the killings in Sacaba and Senkata as massacres with ‘serious human rights violations’ and ‘hints of extrajudicial executions’ committed by state forces against unarmed and peaceful demonstrators. This report was criticized by the interim government because it didn’t consider the context of the conflicts. Later, on 12 December, the IACHR and the Bolivian government agreed to set up a group including international experts to investigate the human rights violations between September and December of 2019.

Persecuting the no-longer powerful

The commission also signalled its concern about the ‘judicial persecution’ against former authorities of the MAS and the lack of guarantees for those related to the political party who could face prosecutions.

Unfortunately, the lack of guarantees for those who face a criminal investigation has also been the common denominator in Bolivian justice during the past 14 years, with prosecutors and judges that change their interpretation of law according to who is in the government, and betray a complete absence of independence.

Immediately after Morales left the presidency, the coca-grower leader from Los Yungas (La Paz), Franklin Gutiérrez, left the jail where he had been for 15 months under pressure from the Morales government. The same happened with Sergio Pampa, another coca-grower from Los Yungas, a region with a historical rivalry in coca production with El Chapare, which is controlled by the former president. 

Another surprising change of the judges’ interpretation was identified in the case of the former governor of Pando (2006-2008), Leopoldo Fernández, who was accused by the MAS government of ordering a massacre against indigenous people in 2008. On 9 December a judicial court cancelled his house arrest and granted him freedom with no restriction.

If the cases cited above were not enough, on 4 December the Prosecution Service promised its collaboration in analysing the judicial situation of those who left the country during the 14 years of Morales’ government for political and ideological reasons, some of them with criminal charges brought by this same institution.

As of now, this how it is: the very institutions that are supposed to be independent to guarantee democracy in the country have not fulfilled their constitutional roles. The justice system is by no means the only example, but to discuss others such as the Electoral Court or even the media, will require another articles.