Bolivian Troops Arrest Governor of Rebellious Region
September 16, 2008 - New York Times


SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia -- Army troops in a rebellious northern department on Tuesday arrested a governor accused of overseeing a massacre of peasants. The arrest increased tension between the central government of President Evo Morales and the authorities in the tropical lowlands.

The governor, Leopoldo Fernández of Pando, an Amazonian department that was the site of the worst violence last week between antigovernment and pro-Morales protesters, was arrested amid growing concern in Washington over the safety of American citizens in Bolivia.

The Peace Corps said Tuesday that it had suspended its operations in Bolivia, evacuating 113 volunteers there to Peru. The United States Embassy in La Paz authorized the departure of nonessential personnel amid fears of renewed violence.

The divisions that led to the violence involve disputes over petroleum royalties and Mr. Morales's efforts to overhaul the Constitution to empower the impoverished indigenous majority. The tensions also reflect a waning of American influence in Bolivia, which has blamed Washington for the crisis while it strengthens ties with Venezuela.

Mr. Morales expelled the American ambassador, Philip S. Goldberg, last week, accusing him of supporting rebellious lowland groups. The Bush administration called the accusation baseless.

American ties with Bolivia deteriorated further on Tuesday. The Bush administration determined that the country, a major producer of coca, the raw ingredient of cocaine, was no longer cooperating in antidrug efforts. The move may jeopardize about $30 million a year in American counternarcotics aid to Bolivia.

Felipe Cáceres, a coca grower in charge of Bolivia's antidrug operations, pre-empted the announcement by saying that Bolivia might secure new antidrug money from Russia. Mr. Cáceres said Russia's embassy had broached the possibility of also offering equipment like helicopters to help interdiction efforts.

Mr. Morales has fortified ties with Venezuela, Iran and Cuba. Moreover, South American leaders excluded the United States from talks on Monday in Chile to try to solve the crisis in Bolivia, which Mr. Morales labeled an attempted coup by his opponents.

The South American leaders hoping to mediate the dispute faced a sharply divided nation on Tuesday. Antigovernment sentiment festered in the lowlands, even though regional leaders demanded that control of federal office buildings, ransacked and looted in Santa Cruz by protesters last week, be returned to the central government.

The headquarters of the federal land reform office remained shut, its windows shattered. Municipal guards stood in front of the building, next to graffiti reading, "Evo murderer."

Morales supporters in Plan 3000, a Santa Cruz slum, vowed to retaliate if the buildings were not returned to the federal government by Wednesday. "We're prepared to take back those buildings with rocks, machetes, clubs, any weapon at our disposal," said Eduardo Rodríguez Puma, who leads youth brigades in Plan 3000.

Mr. Morales's opponents called the arrest of Mr. Fernández, the governor of Pando, a violation of the Constitution, and Gov. Mario Cossío of the department of Tarija said the arrest had jeopardized days of negotiations. But, in a promising sign, governors from lowland departments said Tuesday night that they had agreed on a framework for formal talks.

Disputes over matters like Mr. Fernández's detention and whether the charges over the killings in Pando last week had been politicized overshadowed the issues that fueled the crisis in the first place, like Mr. Morales's proposed new Constitution.