Bolivia: Governor Arrested for "Porvenir Massacre"

A supporter of Bolivia's President Evo Morales lifts her hands during a protest against the governor of Pando province Leopoldo Fernandez, near the U.S embassy in La Paz September 15, 2008. (Gaston Brito/Reuters)

Bolivia: Governor Arrested for "Porvenir Massacre"

LA PAZ - The governor of the northern Bolivian province of Pando was detained by the military Tuesday and is being flown to the capital to face prosecution for allegedly instigating the killings of at least 15 local indigenous people.

In addition to the supporters of leftist President Evo Morales who were killed Thursday, Sept. 11 in what was described by survivors as an "ambush," and who may number more than 30, dozens remain missing. Families continue to comb the forest around the town of Porvenir in the northern Amazon jungle province in search of their missing loved ones.

President Evo Morales said the arrest of the rightwing "prefect" or governor of Pando, Leopoldo Fernandez, was carried out strictly in line with the constitution and the state of siege in force in that province since Friday, Sept. 12.

"The armed forces have carried out their function," said Morales.

He highlighted the backing that his government received from the rest of South America, which was expressed late Monday after an emergency presidential summit in the Chilean capital.

The leaders' statement of support was interpreted by the Morales administration as a signal that allowed it to go ahead with the arrest of the governor, who is accused of hiring thugs to attack the group of Morales supporters on Sept. 11 outside of Porvenir, 30 km from Cobija, the provincial capital.

A number of survivors of the attack were treated for injuries at the hospital in Cobija, but around 100 others remain missing.

Standing next to the coffins of students Johnny Cori, Alfonso Cruz and Wilson Castillo, who were among the Sept. 11 victims, the head of a group of Aymara Indians known as "red ponchos", Bernabe Gutierrez, swore Monday that he would fight until justice was served.

According to the results of the forensic report announced Monday by investigators in La Paz, Cori and Castillo were shot to death and Cruz was strangled.

Gutierrez told IPS that he would press the Morales administration to bring Fernandez to justice.

The governor is accused of organising a group of hired Bolivian, Peruvian and Brazilian thugs with ties to the drug trade.

Attorney general Mario Uribe decided to bring charges of "massacre" and "genocide" against Fernandez, whose arrest was ordered Sept. 12.

In Congress, Senator Ricardo Diaz of the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) began to take steps to set up a special committee to investigate the incidents in Pando, interviewing survivors and those accused of taking part and organising what is referred to by the media as "the Porvenir massacre."

Prior to his arrest, Fernandez spoke to the press in Cobija, accusing Morales's chief of staff Juan Ramon Quintana of staging a "show" and trying to deceive the public, and demanding an independent investigation.

After Morales declared a state of siege in Pando on Sept. 12, the military took control of Cobija, and two days later searched the homes of supposed organisers of the Sept. 11 killings.

A military chief showed the media guns and expanding bullets, which are banned by international conventions.

Defence Minister Walker San Miguel announced that 12 people were arrested under the state of siege and taken to La Paz, and that they are to be held and questioned in relation to the activities of irregular armed groups.

Fernandez interpreted the military mission as "political persecution" that has nothing to do with the events in Porvenir, and confirmed the arrest of civic leaders and employees of his provincial government.

With a cut on his right cheek and a bruised ear from being hit by the butt of a rifle, Raul Lucas marched Monday alongside the coffins of Cori, Cruz and Castillo, who were studying with him at the teacher training school in the village of Filadelfia, 40 km from Porvenir.

"They wanted to set me on fire," he told IPS in a subdued voice.

Lucas is one of the 120 students at the teacher training school who had come out on Sept. 11 in solidarity with the group of MAS supporters who were ambushed, allegedly by people hired by the Pando provincial government.

Most of the students at the teacher training school, where young people from different provinces are studying, are Aymara Indians from Bolivia's western highlands who found this chance to earn a degree and a job as teachers in impoverished tropical jungle areas.

On Sunday, Esperanza Sanchez and around 50 other students were rescued by the military and put on a troop carrier plane to La Paz, she told IPS.

In Filadelfia, "we feared for our lives, because there are no guarantees or protection," said Sanchez. "'Damn 'collas' (a derogatory term for indigenous people), you will all pay'," was the threat she said she heard a few hours after the first indigenous people were killed, when the students had lit candles in homage to the victims.

In the face of an imminent attack on the school by armed men, Sanchez and other students fled into the surrounding jungle, where they hid for 48 hours, eating wild fruit.

Filadelfia is a poor village of indigenous people from Amazon jungle ethnic groups, who have been joined by the Aymara Indian students from the western highlands. The mayor belongs to the MAS.

In the funeral Monday, the aggrieved families of the three students who were killed accused governor Fernandez of promoting racist violence, and called for justice.

Lucas, one of the supporters of MAS who were injured in the Sept. 11 attack, was taken unconscious to the hospital in Cobija. He said he was frightened because the thugs who carried out the attack had threatened to kill the survivors.

"I had to escape from the hospital," he explained. He and Sanchez said dozens of people were still hiding in the jungle, and that many had probably been killed by armed civilians acting with the support of governor Fernandez.

Interior Minister Alfredo Rada said the government has information that points to possible collusion between drug traffickers and paramilitary groups, which allegedly used their weapons to selectively eliminate pro-MAS rural and community leaders and activists.

Rada speculates that the killings are linked with the presence of drug trafficking groups in Pando, which borders Brazil. A few months ago, the authorities captured the alleged head of the drug mafia in Pando, Mauro Vasquez.

"There is a connection with the local political powers-that-be, which has created paramilitary groups" with the participation of those involved in the drug trade, said Rada.

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