On Saturday, October 12, dozens of people gathered at a simple church in El Alto, Bolivia. Families arranged flowers around the altar as the priest read the names of more than 60 people who were killed 10 years ago in Bolivia's gas war, an uprising by indigenous Bolivians that set in motion the most dramatic political and social changes in the country since it returned to democracy 31 years ago.
Stretching across Bolivia's plains, El Alto feels the intense high-altitude sun, freezing nights and harsh winds that whip fine plains dust into miniature cyclones. Fueled by rural to urban migration by Aymara Indian migrants seeking better education and jobs, it's quickly grown into Bolivia's second largest city with just under 1 million residents. Like many of the mourners arranging flowers and images of the dead around the church altar, most people here work in the informal economy, for example selling used clothes or food at tiny market stalls, which means they have little job security, pensions or healthcare. But poverty and that precarious way of life haven't stopped the people of El Alto from establishing it as Bolivia's most politically powerful city.
In October of 2003 El Alto changed from a traffic-clogged, bustling metropolis into the scene of violent confrontations between gun-wielding security forces and thousands of protesters mainly armed with slingshots, stones, and in some cases sticks of dynamite. Those protesters demanded the government cancel plans to export natural gas to the United States via Chile, Bolivia's historic foe. During the violent days that followed security forces killed dozens of civilians.
One of them was Jesúsa Ticona's father, an Aymara Indian farmer. In early October 2003, as roadblocks maintained by protesters made food scarce in El Alto and the neighboring city of La Paz, he traveled to his children's home in El Alto with supplies in hand. On October 12 the violence escalated, and he went out to the protests with Ticona's brothers.
"My dad left the house because there were people crying and shouting outside, carry the dead," she said. When he didn't arrive home by 9 o'clock that night Ticona and her siblings began a fruitless search on foot that lasted through the night. Five in the morning found them walking miles to the morgue in La Paz.
"We got to the morgue and I mistook another person for my father, because he had a mole right here," she indicates her temple. "And here on the person's face a bullet had gone in. I picked up the person and I called 'Dad, Dad.' He was so much like my father." Unable to recognize the bloody, swollen face, Ticona's siblings realized it was a case of mistaken identity when they saw the man's teeth didn't match their father’s.
The family's search led back to El Alto, where Ticona finally found her father in a coffin in one of the city's many churches.
"I never thought this would happen. …" she says. "Just in the morning he went out, everything was fine, and the next day there in a coffin." Today Ticona is vice president of ASOFAG-DG, an organization of family members of people killed in the gas war.
Rich but Impoverished
On October 17, after a week of intense protest across the country that concentrated in El Alto, then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada boarded a plane for the United States.
Understanding why a plan to export natural gas set off protests that toppled a president requires a look into Bolivia's history. Since the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, the country has served as a source of valuable raw materials like silver, tin, and later, oil and gas, for export. But despite those riches, Bolivia remains one of the poorest countries in Latin America. It reached a tipping point between 2000 and 2003 as discontent and violent conflict, including a historic uprising in the city of Cochabamba against plans to privatize water service, spread. Finally, a whole constellation of frustrations coalesced around a government plan to export gas through Chile and on to the United States. It was the spark that ignited years', if not centuries' worth, of anger.
"Bolivians were frustrated with 20 years of neoliberalization," says Brent Kaup, assistant professor of sociology at William and Mary, referring to an economic policy that included privatizing state-owned industries from the 1980s onward, leading to job loss, especially in the mining sector. "These frustrations came to a boiling point in the water war and later the gas wars, and taking this into account, one could probably say that the gas war wasn't really about gas, but about broader economic concerns."
El Alto and Evo Morales
The gas war still looms large in El Alto's collective mind as the moment that showed Bolivia, and the world, its strength and ability to mobilize. In 2005, two years and two short interim presidencies after the protests, the city threw that power behind coca farmer union leader and congressman Evo Morales, helping make him the country's first indigenous president, based partly on his promise that natural resources would now benefit Bolivians first. Today, El Alto remains Morales' largest base of support as he makes every sign of preparing for a third election in 2014.
President Morales prioritizes changes that help maintain his popularity in El Alto, and beyond. Perhaps the most symbolically and financially important was renegotiating oil and gas contracts so that Bolivia keeps more of the profits from those industries. Some of that money now reaches people such as students and the elderly across the country through programs like the Bono Juancito Pinto, which gives small amounts of cash to students who complete the school year.
"The state takes in a lot more money from its hydrocarbons now. This dramatic increase in funds has allowed the state to boost its external monetary reserves and its international credit rating, good things from an economic perspective if you are looking to stabilize your currency," Kaup said by e-mail. "In addition, the poverty rate has decreased in Bolivia quite a bit. It is still pretty high compared to most places in the world, but improvements have been made."
A Long Fight
For the families of civilians who died in the conflict, there is also the precedent-setting sentencing of five members of the military and two former ministers in 2011 for their roles in the October 2003 killings.
“I welcome this signal by yet another Latin American country that impunity for past human rights violations will no longer be tolerated,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said of the verdict, according to a 2011 press release by the United Nations. "Those who carry out torture, extrajudicial killings and other such crimes on other continents would do well to reflect on this very healthy and accelerating trend towards combatting long-standing impunity in Latin America.”
“If you get one day of jail for a member of the military because of those events, you could consider it a success,” says Rogelio Mayta, a lawyer for the families of the dead, noting that for the first time in Bolivian history high-ranking members of the military were tried in a civilian court and sentenced for crimes against their own people. "Now they are in prison for many days." The sentences for military officers ranged from 10 to 15 years.
But for some families the process has not yet reached far enough, because Bolivia's ongoing attempts to compel the U.S. to return the former president to face trial on charges relating to October 2003 have been unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Sanchez de Lozada's supporters consistently argue that he is politically persecuted by the Morales administration, and part of a wider pattern of this government's abusive legal pursuit of a broad range of former officials.
Still, Andrea Quispe, another member of ASOFAG-DG, hopes to see him return. "We have suffered too much," she says. "….I had to bury my son–Why did I have to bury my son? Because the military killed him. We want justice to be done, for Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to return, and we want him to pay."