Bolivian regional commissioner arrested after peasant supporters of the president are murdered.
"We scattered, since we had no way to defend ourselves," explains Rodrigo Melina, an escapee from the carnage. "People were throwing themselves in the river and it was unbelievable: they machine-gunned those who tried to cross." Since the beginning of the week, chilling testimonies proliferate and they all tell how a group of peasants faithful to President Evo Morales, armed only with sticks, fell into an ambush laid by armed men last week, about 30 kilometers from Cobija, capital of the Amazonian Pando region (northern Bolivia).
Moved to the capital by the authorities for their protection and brought together Tuesday in the halls of Parliament, some escapees even assert that young children figured among the victims. "We got to the river," Claudia Alpire, an indigenous peasant from the Filadelfia commune, relates, "and that was where they killed the children. One year-old, six-year-old, eight-year-old children, who cried and begged their mothers not to be killed. First they beat them; then they shot them in the back. Those children are there and I believe the fish have eaten them." The government, which reckons the carnage killed at least 15, wounded about 30 and left a hundred disappeared - some sources cite 30, even 100 victims - has still not confirmed the deaths of children while the search for bodies continues.
An investigatory commission from the Bolivian Human Rights Assembly is already on the ground, pending the arrival of international organizations. According to Rodrigo Melina, the local authorities are involved: "The man in charge is Leopoldo Fernandez [the governor of Pando. We saw local authority vehicles carrying over thirty men armed with rifles, machine guns and pistols." The escapees emphasize that many bodies have been recovered by the authors of the massacre to be buried in a communal grave.
Accused by the government of responsibility for the massacre and also of having engaged mercenaries, including Brazilians and Peruvians, to do the dirty work, Governor Fernandez was arrested Tuesday in Cobija by the military, officially for "refusal to submit to the state of emergency," before being transferred to La Paz and detained in a secret location.
The Pando events were the most violent of the week of confrontations that opposed militant autonomists and President Morales's adherents. And on Friday, the head of state declared a state of emergency in this region bordering Brazil and Peru.
"There will be no impunity in this case," warned Vice Minister for Social Relations Sacha Llorenti on Sunday, even adding: "Leopoldo Fernandez will be eligible for a thirty-year prison term." Targeted in an investigation opened by the attorney general of the Republic for "genocide in the bloody massacre category," the prefect does, in fact, run the risk of a maximum sentence of thirty years with no possibility of early release.
Regime of Terror
Fifty-six-year-old Leopoldo Fernandez was an MP and Pando senator from 1979 to 2005, before being elected prefect. Within the Democratic and Social Action Party, he participated in the return to power of former military dictator Hugo Banzer in 1997. Opponents to Fernandez - who is also an entrepreneur in the agro-industrial sector - accuse him of having established a regime of terror on behalf of the great land owners. The Civic Committee ProSanta Cruz, the principal autonomist organization, demanded the Pando governor's immediate release yesterday, without - all the same - raising the possibility of breaking off the fragile dialogue between the government and the opposition.
t r u t h o u t | Morales Adherents Gunned Down in Pando