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 armed with homemade bazookas. Some call them paramilitary groups.
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. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there have been 95,071 recorded cases of Covid-19 in Bolivia since March and 3,827 deaths.
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.
What’s the source of the anger?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.
But 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. After weeks of protests, Morales accepted calls to organise another election. Ultimately, however, he resigned after he lost the support of the police and the army. His vice president also resigned, as did the next in line, the president and vice president of the Senate. Jeanine Áñez, who was serving as the second vice president of the Senate, was named interim president. However, there was a quorum in Parliament.
The current protesters believe that the current government is pushing back the elections to unfairly prolong Añez’s tenure, even though the candidate from the Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism Party (MAS) is leading in the polls.
While tensions mount across the country, some protesters shared recent posts about violent civilian groups who have been harassing and intimidating them. There are different groups in different towns. In Cochabamba, they are called "Resistencia Juvenil Cochala" while, in La Paz, the group is known as "Resistencia Km 0". The group operating in Santa Cruz is called "Unión Juvenil Cruceñista".
"They said that we had ten minutes to leave or else they would use force.”
Kevin Luna is a 25-year-old protester who lives in La Paz. Between August 3 and 10, he took part in a hunger strike to protest the election postponement. Participants gathered on Abaroa Square, in front of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
Around 7pm on August 8, about 50 people showed up. I believe some were part of the group known as "Resistencia Km 0," but others were from "Resistencia Juvenil Cochala." You could tell from their accents and the license plates on their motorcycles. That didn’t surprise us because a threatening audio message from Resistencia Juvenil Cochala circulated on Whatsapp the night before.
They accused us of being affiliated with MAS [former President Morales’ political party]. They also said that we weren’t letting trucks carrying oxygen pass our roadblocks [In early August, protesters blocked a truck carrying oxygen on the road between Cochabamba and Oruro]. They said that we had ten minutes to leave the site or they’d use force. We refused.
Then, they started yelling and throwing stones and firecrackers at us. We tried to protect ourselves with cardboard and the tents where we had been sleeping for the past few days. We also used firecrackers to call for back-up.
Then the police arrived to keep them from getting too close to us. But they also told us to leave so there wouldn't be any more problems. It was really tense for about two hours. Then the men from Resistencia left because there were more of us.
What do we know about Resistencia Juvenil Cochala?
Resistencia Juvenil Cochala is opposed to the current protest movement and anything pro-MAS. They claim that their aim is to “defend democracy.” In a video posted online on August 9 (see below), 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".
"Paramilitary actors," according to a Bolivian human rights group
The members of this group use intimidation and violence, explained our Observer Kevin Luna. On August 9, the office of Defensoría del Pueblo, 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".
Photos posted online (some by the group itself) show members of Resistencia Juvenil Cochala riding motorcycles while wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying homemade bazookas or batons. Some members were seen carrying pistols.
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 before him.
Authorities tolerate, even openly support, the group
Furthermore, at the end of 2019, a government minister named 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 based in neighbouring Chile. “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."
The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted Resistencia Juvenil Cochala on Facebook, but didn’t receive a response.
In reaction to the recent movement, armed groups with close links to MAS have been training over the past few weeks, raising fears that there will be an escalation in violence.
Article by Chloé Lauvergnier.