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The Prosecutor’s Office has tendered its list of witnesses (article in Spanish) in the trial of twenty-five officials and right-wing activists for the 2008 massacre in and around El Porvenir, Pando. The witness list includes 314 people, reflecting an extensive investigation of the day’s deadly events. The key defendant in the trial is Leopoldo Fernández, then Prefect of Pando, who is accused of coordinating the massacre of at least 19 campesino protesters on September 11, 2008. Fernández was removed from office shortly thereafter and has remained in prison for the past 20 months. During last year’s presidential elections, the right-wing Progress Plan for Bolivia slate nominated him as their Vice Presidential candidate.
Some background: The large massacre of MAS-aligned campesinos occurred on September 11, 2008, the deadliest political violence in Bolivia since 2003. The confrontations of that day are the subject of a recent documentary by César Brie, the playwright and director who produced the documentary about the May 2008 public humiliation of peasant activists in Sucre. Brie’s documentary, Morir en Pando (To Die in Pando), broadly confirms the investigation by UNASUR, South America’s equivalent of the European Union. I saw it in its depressing length during my first week here. As the media luna governors mounted their most serious challenge to national power, local campesinos (and in Santa Cruz, slum dwellers) mobilized against them. Two contingents of campesinos were marching to Pando’s capital by way of Cobija on that fateful day. Right-wing civicos (there is no good translation for this “civic movement”) attempted to block both marches, threatening the use of deadly force. A complex series of confronations, during which Brie argues a civico was brought down by “friendly fire” gave way to an all out assault by civicos on the peasant protesters. At least twenty were killed; and angry right-wing crowds outside the hospital in Pando’s capital Cobija attempted to assault wounded campesinos receiving treatment. Some were evacuated to La Paz for their own safety, and many had their injuries downgraded and misrepresented in their eventual autopsies.
This dire event was in several ways a turning point for the 2008 political crisis. The MAS government, which had been pursuing an apparent strategy of falling back in the face of right-wing violence, cancelling presidential visits for example when right-wing protesters threatened to disrupt them, made its first major show of force. Pando’s Prefect (the new, post-2010, title is Governor) Leopoldo Fernandez was linked to the civic movement and the violence, a state of emergency was declared, and Fernandez was arrested.
Stunning political turnaround: Despite the clear depth of the right-wing movement in Pando, the department broke from the so-called media luna block of four eastern departments in this past April’s regional elections. Both the new governor of Pando, Luis Flores, and the new mayor of its capital Cobija, Ana Lucía Reis, represent the indigenous-popular Movement towards Socialism, Bolivia’s governing party.