SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Clashes between pro-autonomy and pro-government groups in Bolivia’s eastern capital this week have led to the firing of the Santa Cruz police chief and army deployments to halt further violence, as ruling party militias move to take over local facilities.
Fired police chief Col. Wilfredo Torrico accused the government of trying to force him to support militants of President Evo Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS), who tried to evict local workers from union offices, using clubs and firing homemade rockets.
“I received orders from government ministers to expel the autonomists … and allow MAS to take the premises,” said Col. Torrico, who says that he refused the order to “prevent a massacre.”
The police colonel has stated in a legal deposition that Bolivian Interior Minister Alicia Munoz ordered him to use “maximum force” to hand over control of the union to MAS. Col. Torrico accused the government of “manipulating” when military police were deployed on Tuesday to protect administrative buildings being held by MAS militants.
MAS has forcibly occupied public offices in Santa Cruz in defiance of a resounding victory for eastern autonomy, as seen in a referendum held last Sunday. In response, MAS leaders in La Paz and the central city of Cochabamba have called for the “dissolution” of eastern civic committees and pro-autonomy groups.
Mr. Morales campaigned against regional autonomy, securing a “No” vote in Bolivia’s western highlands and central valleys, where majority Quechua and Aymara Indians support the Morales government. But autonomy won with majorities of over 70 percent in all four eastern lowland departments, where separatist sentiment is growing among the local white and Guarani Indian mixed-race population.
Street battles erupted on Monday when a mob tried to pull down the gate to the headquarters of the Santa Cruz Departmental Labor Confederation (COD) whose leadership is violently disputed between independent local labor groups and MAS peasant organizer, Lucio Vedia.
In Santa Cruz’ colonial center, MAS militants hurled sharp objects and shot fireworks at defenders perched on the building’s rooftop waving the green and white Santa Cruz flag and crying “autonomia.”
Riot police stood by as pro-autonomy militants of the Santa Cruz Youth Union charged the mob swinging sticks at pro-government activists and kicking an Indian woman. The images were shown on television and government officials called the autonomists “destabilizers, “racists”, “fascists” and “criminals.”
The troops were used to secure pro-government custody of installations that administer local payrolls and other public funds. Soldiers were withdrawn from some areas to be replaced by civilian clothed guards who, according to officers of the Santa Cruz 8th Army Division Garrison, “are organized by a MAS syndicate boss.”
“The MAS moves against Santa Cruz are a reaction to the government’s defeat in the referendum” said Santa Cruz bar association president, Hugo Acha. “The government is in a panic, and hard-line sectors are asserting themselves.”