Bolivian Conflict: September Stalemate in Sucre
September 8, 2007, Prepared by the Andean Information Network

Multiple conflicts have converged in the once-sleepy city of Sucre, resulting in growing and often violent protests. The bitter regional struggle over the location of the nation’s capital has the potential to turn into chaos with the announced arrival of pro-MAS social movements on Monday. In addition, friction over the Constitutional Tribunal and the consideration of the extradition request for ex-president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada are occurring simultaneously in Sucre.

The demand to move the capital, or part of it, from La Paz to Sucre has exploded into a divisive nationwide power struggle. Protests are ongoing in Sucre and on September 5, pro-Sucre protestors attempted to storm the Assembly’s meeting space to prevent the Constitutional Assembly from meeting because they would not be discussing the capital issue. The Assembly had been suspended for over three weeks due to previous protests. The MAS leadership of the Assembly called for a session, despite social unrest, ostensibly in order to deal with unresolved issues of Security and Defense and the National Vision. The police responded with tear gas and the protests continued for the next two days. Over 80 people have been injured.

Capital issue continues to divide country
The capital issue was initially introduced by Podemos (the leading opposition party) Assembly members from Sucre. Despite the lack of infrastructure there and the financial complexities of moving the capital to the small colonial city, the issue has once again brought deepening regional divisions to the foreground of Bolivian politics. On August 15, MAS put forward a proposal to end debate of the issue in the Assembly and it was approved. Subsequent protests by citizens of Sucre and those of the four eastern lowland departments forced the Assembly to suspend their meetings. Opposition Assembly member Javier Limpias (Podemos) announced “We are trying to impede the plenary session by any means necessary, we won’t let it happen.”[1] The protests effectively led to the cancellation of the session and MAS Assembly officers suggested moving the Assembly to another city in order to resume proceedings.

August 28, Six Department Strike
After a week of heightened tensions due to the MAS majority vote to end debate in the Assembly about capital issue, a 24 hour work stoppage was called for August 28. The Civic Committees in six of the nation’s nine departments agreed to carry out the strike. In the major cities the stoppages were partially obeyed, with some businesses remaining open and transportation functioning. The strikes had the strongest participation in Santa Cruz and Sucre while the strike had a negligible effect in rural areas.

Although the organizers billed the work stoppage as a peaceful method to protest the Assembly’s decision about the capital, there were violent acts in the cities of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba including attacks against sellers and stands in a Santa Cruz market, against journalists in Santa Cruz and fighting between strikers and MAS supporters in Cochabamba.

After the attacks on reporters during the strike, Reporters Without Borders, stated that “Press freedom is increasingly at risk from Bolivia’s political unrest, especially in the pro-autonomy department of Santa Cruz.”[2]

This is the first time that more than half the departments have simultaneously called strikes to oppose Morales administration actions and denotes a shift in alliances in Bolivia’s urban areas. Yet, the lack of compliance in rural areas simultaneously denotes a growing schism between largely impoverished rural areas, generally with greater support for MAS, and comparatively wealthy departmental capitals.

Governor resigns as protests swell
Despite pleas from the president, opposition governors and social organizations, the MAS prefect (governor) of Chuquisaca officially resigned on September 4. As tensions mounted in Sucre last week, the prefect announced his impending resignation stating, “I don’t want to be response for what might happen….an imminent and looming confrontation that could lead to injuries and deaths. As a result, in the absence of government (response), I want to say to the department and the nation that I have decided to leave this post.”[3]

As one of the three democratically elected prefects from the MAS party, Sanchez’s resignation occurred without clear guidelines to appoint a replacement. The Bolivian electoral court ruled quickly that the only existing laws dictated that the president appoint a replacement. MAS repeatedly publically urged Sanchez not to step down as his resignation was seen as a strategic loss for the party.

The resulting power void created yet another battleground as pro-Sucre protestors attempted to storm the doors of the prefect’s office in an effort to impede a MAS replacement; an act reminiscent of the clashes in Cochabamba in January 2006. Unable to reconcile his party’s stance with that of his neighbors and family, Sanchez’s predicament reflects the growing polarization in Bolivian politics.

On September 6, the “Democratic Junta of Bolivia,” a new umbrella organization made up of the civic committees of the departments of Chuquisaca, Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni, Tarija and Cochabamba, announced a hunger strike starting September 10 if the Assembly refuses to reinstate the discussion of the capital issue.

MAS has mobilized the social movements to attend a “Social Summit in Defense of the Constitutional Assembly” in Sucre on the same day. Coca grower unions from the Chapare region have pledged to bring 20,000 people to Sucre and the government predicts that over 50,000 people will be in Sucre on Monday. This creates the potential for larger and more violent conflicts.

Constitutional Tribunal judges reinstated
After two weeks of debate on a trial of responsibilities for four members of the Bolivian Constitutional Tribunal, the opposition-controlled Senate came to a conclusion on Thursday. The Tribunal is the independent judicial body in charge of determining the constitutionality of legal norms and is seated in Sucre. In an irregular, conflict-ridden session the senate voted to drop the charges and reinstate the judges. MAS congressional representatives had approved the trial because the judges overstepped their mandate and made a ruling based on outdated legislation, firing Morales appointees to the Supreme Court last May.

The MAS government announced that it would appeal the Senate ruling in the judiciary and as a result, the Tribunal issue will become a larger conflict. MAS minister Alfredo Rada stated, “This is not going to be the end of it, it’s going to continue. There are new accusations and it’s an open subject, I think that the people already have a verdict, they have made a judgment about these judges as a result of the opposition’s deplorable attitude in the Senate.”[4]

All sides have violated or bent established legal procedures to their advantage, while attacking their opponents for doing the same. As ex-Vice Minister of Justice Carlos Alarcón pointed out, “the only possible solution is political, whoever has the greatest force will prevail,” because if the government takes the legal course to appeal the decision, the challenged judges are the ones who will make the final ruling for or against themselves.[5]

Black October[6] extradition request submitted to Supreme Court
In Sucre on September 4, special prosecutors presented a request to the Bolivian Supreme Court for the extradition of ex-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and two of his ministers, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín and Jorge Berindoague, from the United States in order to be present for their trial of responsibilities in the October 2003 case. The request, which includes over 1,000 pages of documentation, will be reviewed by the Supreme Court and then sent to the US Department of Justice.

The lead prosecutor pointed out that the US and Bolivia signed an extradition treaty in 1995,[7]

“We hope the United States will honor this agreement that obligates both countries to fight crimes like genocide.”[8] He added, “There are over 1,000 pages where we substantiate the request for Sanchez de Lozada … to return and defend himself against these accusations.”[9]

The charge of “genocide in the form of bloody massacre,” has been a continual sticking point in the US, where the Bolivian definition is misinterpreted. According to Bolivian law anyone directly or indirectly responsible for a massacre (which Bolivian law defines as the death of two or more people resulting from violence perpetrated by one or more individuals against them) is charged with genocide. Genocide is punishable by ten to twenty years in prison, but there are additional penalties against government officials found responsible for such crimes.

After the Bolivian Supreme Court approves the extradition request, there will still be multiple logistical and political hurdles, including the translation of the document and over 1,000 pages of supporting evidence. The format of the request will also affect its reception. Consultation with an English-speaking international lawyer is crucial for this process.

Ironically, the two countries signed the extradition treaty during the first Sanchez de Lozada administration, and it contains several unclear clauses. Once the request reaches the US Department of Justice, the treaty allows U.S. officials to request additional information or modification of the text. In addition, the US government has previously hindered the process. U.S. Department of Justice never delivered the letters rogatory, to formally notify Sanchez de Lozada and the other accused of their impending trial.

The pending Supreme Court’s approval of the request is an important milestone in an extended, obstacle-ridden process to end impunity in the Black October case. Beyond impediments in the extradition proceedings, there is a great deal left to accomplish in Bolivia, including a genuine participation of the armed forces in the investigations, compensation for the victims and their families and an in-depth examination of individuals responsible for the human rights violations at all levels.

No compromise in sight
The government announced a meeting with representatives from La Paz and Sucre in Potosi on Friday afternoon to attempt to reach an agreement, but pro-Sucre leaders refused to meet, stating that they will only meet with La Paz representatives in Sucre with the church as mediator. Unfortunately, there has been friction between the Morales administration and the Catholic Church over education and other policy issues. As a result, MAS supporters no longer perceive the Church to be unbiased. The pro-Sucre faction equally believes that a meeting with the Morales administration as mediator will be biased against them. They have also rejected the participation of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) as being too closely allied with the government.

On September 7, the leadership of the Assembly announced a one month suspension citing security concerns and the need to lower tensions. The opposition has not decided whether or not they will go ahead with their hunger strike on Monday though MAS has announced the “Social Summit in Defense of the Constitutional Assembly” will continue as planned.

As opposition groups remain in the small city and social movements arrive on Monday, already high tensions could boil over into violent confrontations. An MNR opposition party Assembly member stated, “We are going to stay in Sucre. “If they...are willing to compromise we can reopen the Assembly; but we are going to stay here and if MAS wants to create their constitution, along with their Spanish advisors, and then wants to impose it on Bolivia, we are going to reject it.”[10]

As the void widens between groups, no person or institution appears able to breach that gap. The unwillingness to compromise on all sides has not only jeopardized the constitutional process, but has also exacerbated already acute racial, regional and social tensions. It remains to be seen whether the events on September 10 will break the stalemate and lead to a resolution or simply leave more Bolivians injured and angry in the streets.


[1] La Razón. “La Asamblea se reúne con riesgo de enfrentamientos.” September 6, 2007.
[2] Reporters Without Borders. “Violence against journalists during protest against strike by Morales opponents.” September 3, 2007.
[3] La Razón. “El prefecto Sánchez se va y advierte de enfrentamientos.” August 30, 2007.
[4] ABI. “Gobierno: Magistrados declarados inocentes no tienen moral para emitir fallos” September 5, 2007.
[5] Los Tiempos. “Oficialismo prolonga crisis por juicio a magistrados acusados por Morales.” September 6, 2007.
[6] For background on the Black October case see:
[7] The Extradition Treaty is available at
[8] La Razón. “La Fiscalía inicia el proceso para la extradición de Goni “ September 5, 2007.
[9] ABI. “Fiscalía solicita a la Suprema extradición de Goni para que enfrente a la justicia boliviana” September 4, 2007.
[10] La Razón. “Se habla de cerrar la Asamblea un tiempo.” September 7, 2007.