Dueling Bolivian Media Scandals: Death Squads and Pokemon Smugglers

Evo Morales of Bolivia is at war with the daily La Razón, and vice versa.

As far as I can tell, the government is accusing La Razón of printing lies about the Quintana case and refusing to talk to any but the international press, which it says is “more responsible.”

In a story that has yet to be picked up by the international press, as far as I can see — the AP wire story clipped below is a lonely exception, it seems — La Razón accuses a key Morales cabinet minister of involvement in a smuggling scheme in Pando.

A Google site: search of the site produces 10 pages of search results, mostly news coverage of developments in the smuggling allegations.

The minister, a Mr. Quintana, answered questions posed by a congressional panel yesterday about the incident, which supposedly involved negotiations over transport passes for a convoy of 33 contraband-laden trucks.

What sort of contraband? I have not been able to figure that out from reading the copious and somewhat hysterical coverage of the flap. Someone please explain this to me.

The government, meanwhile, is calling this a manufactured and specious scandal designed to divert attention from another development in Pando: The slaying and disappearance of Morales supporters by paramilitary death squads organized and commanded by the Pando provincial governor in September.

(The video reporting on the incident shown at the start and the end of this post was compiled by Mexico’s La Jornada. Armed men are shown being transported in official vehicles.)

Is that true? It will take some digging to figure out. I will reproduce the newspaper’s latest coverage below. I read La Razón from time to time and tend to suspect its editorial line is run from the U.S. Embassy. That sort of thing apparently still goes on down here: suborning the local press.

Meanwhile, Unasur, a regional body consisting of states neighboring Bolivia, put a commission together to investigate the incident — the massacre, that is, not the smuggling incident. The commission found that defenseless people were massacred.

I wish I could get a copy of that report. Oh, wait, here it is:

In a recent (23 December) editorial, La Razón questions the validity of the Unasur report on the Pando massacre without directly mentioning the substance of its findings: That death squads organized by the separatist provincial governor machine-gunned central government (Morales) supporters in Pando.

I translate pra inglês ver. Hastily.

Hace una semana, los presidentes sudamericanos, reunidos en Brasil, dieron su visto bueno a la investigación efectuada por una comisión de la Unasur con miras a esclarecer los penosos acontecimientos ocurridos en septiembre en el departamento de Pando. El bloque regional, que encabeza la presidenta chilena Michelle Bachelet, definió como procedimiento formar una comisión para que estudie el informe y luego sugiera una resolución.

A week ago, the South American presidents, meeting in Brazil, approved the investigation carried out by a Unasur commission in order to clarify the awful events of September in Pando province. The regional bloc, headed by Chilean president Bachelet, resolved to form a commission to study the report and suggest a resolution.

El informe presentado por el argentino Rodolfo Mattarollo ha recibido muchas observaciones y, pese a todo, la Unasur, aunque no ha aprobado formalmente ese documento, de principio ha respaldado el trabajo de la comisión. La aún no institucionalizada Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Unasur) está dando sus primeros pasos y, si piensa abocarse a asuntos delicados y particulares de cada país, deberá cuidar, como un principio, la imparcialidad de todos sus actos.

The report presented by the Argentine Rodolfo Mattarollo has received much comment, and despite everything, Unasur, though it has not formally approved this document, in principle has backed the commission’s work. The still informal Union of South American Nations (Unasur) is taking its first steps and, if it really thinks it should pronounce on extremely delicate and private affairs of its member nations, it ought to to care to observe the principle of impartiality in all its official acts.

Al crearse esta organización se espera contar con una fiel servidora de los pueblos y en caso alguno de los gobiernos, sea cual fuere su identidad político-ideológica en la región.

When Unasur was created it was expected to act as a faithful servant of the peoples of the region, and in no case as a servant of their governments, whatever their regional political and ideological orientation.

Por lo mismo que la Unasur ni siquiera tiene fecha de bautismo, quizá no ha sido lo más cauto formar una comisión investigadora de los graves hechos ocurridos en Pando y menos encomendarle la labor directiva a una persona que está cuestionada en su propio país, como es el caso de Rodolfo Mattarollo.

Perhaps because it has not yet even been officially baptized, Unasur has not taken the proper precautions in forming a commission to investigate the very serious events that took place in Pando, much less in entrusting that work to someone with a questionable reputation in his own country, as is the case with Rodolfo Mattarollo.

What is questionable about Mattarollo, a long-time human rights lawyer?

Perhaps the editorialist is making an insinuation about his reported ties to the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, an armed resistance group that opposed the Argentine generalíssimos during the 1970s.

Tampoco tiene sentido que la cumbre del balneario de Costa da Suípe haya decidido enviar el informe de los investigadores a la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos y al Alto Comisionado de Derechos Humanos de la ONU. Era mejor, en todo caso, pedir desde un inicio la intervención de estos organismos, si consideraba que son los más indicados para el efecto.

Neither does it make any sense for the summit that took place last week in Costa da Sauípe to send the report to investigators at the Interamerican Human Rights Commission and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It would have been better, in any case, to have invited these organizations in from the beginning, if they are considered best qualified for the job.

Dicho informe es ambiguo y hasta contradictorio, empezando por la cifra de muertos. En este punto de tanta sensibilidad social, muestra una imprecisión alarmante. Luego, se inmiscuye en asuntos de índole jurídica al definir que el prefecto suspendido Leopoldo Fernández debe ser juzgado por la vía ordinaria y no en un juicio de responsabilidades, pese a las disposiciones de la legislación nacional. Y las ligerezas no terminan ahí.

This report is ambiguous and even self-contradictory, starting with the number of persons who were killed. At this highly sensitive juncture, the report is alarmingly imprecise. It also gets into areas of a legal nature when it recommends that the suspended provincial governor Leopoldo Fernandez be judged in a common court and not in a political forum, despite the provisions of Bolivian law. And its defects do not end there.

Very rough translation, mind you.

The AP reported on December 5:

A top adviser to President Evo Morales arranged for trucks carrying contraband goods to slip past a government checkpoint, a former head of Bolivian customs has testified.

Former Bolivian customs director Cesar López testified before Congress that Presidential Minister Juan Ramon Quintana arranged on July 26 for a caravan of 17 trucks loaded with contraband goods to pass without inspection through a government checkpoint near the city of Cobija, on the Brazilian border.

Quintana, arguably the most influential member of Morales’ cabinet, denied the charges, calling them ”absurd.” He pointed out that the caravan of trucks was later seized by the government’s own anti-contraband task force.

But López testified that the drivers ”said that they had authorization from Minister Quintana” to pass. A total of 33 trucks eventually passed through that day without inspection, and Quintana became angry with the truck drivers for not honoring the deal, López said.

A month later, a mob of truck drivers overwhelmed customs officials at the impound lot and stole their caravan and its contraband load back.

It was not immediately clear what the caravan carried. Local news media has quoted Bolivian customs officials as saying their load contained electronics and other goods worth more than $1 million.

Smugglers take advantage of Bolivia’s porous northern border to haul subsidized fuel, inexpensive electronics and illegal rainforest wood into Brazil.

Quintana had made some wild accusations at the time Bolivia kicked the DEA out of the country:

Bolivian leader Evo Morales on Thursday accused the US government of encouraging drug-trafficking as he explained his decision to banish the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Morales, a staunch opponent of the Washington government, said the staff from the US agency had three months to prepare to leave the country, because “the DEA did not respect the police, or even the (Bolivian) armed forces.”

“The worst thing is, it did not fight drug trafficking; It encouraged it,” the Bolivian leader said, adding that he had “quite a bit of evidence” backing up his charges.

Presidential Minister Juan Ramon Quintana presented a series of documents and press clippings at a news conference, which he described as “object data” that had influenced Morales’ decision to suspend DEA activities last week. Quintana said Morales was ready to present the evidence to incoming US president Barack Obama “to prove the illegality, abuse and arrogance of the DEA in Bolivia.”

Throughout the 1990s, the DEA in Bolivia “bribed police officers, violated human rights, covered up murders, destroyed bridges and roads,” said Quintana.

Morales earlier Thursday said that after a 1986 operation in Huanchaca National Park, it was determined that the largest cocaine processing plant “was under DEA protection.” He also charged that the DEA had investigated political and union leaders opposed to neoliberal economic policies, which he said amounted to political persecution. On Wednesday, he had accused the DEA of shooting and killing Bolivians during their anti-drug operations, including members of the coca farmers’ movement.

Preliminary diagnosis: Fritura, as they say here in Brazil, in progress.

Most likely, Quintana is being “fried” by a coopted news media, and disinformation is flying on both sides of the question, driven by the DEA expulsion.

The Bolivian APDH, or Permanent Assembly on Human Rights, cited media distortions of the facts in the region as part of its contribution to the Unasur report. The PDF is a mess, so I will translate directly from the screen (hastily):

[Physicians working for the APDH said] that in the case of Pando, in the view of the APDH, there was no doubt that paramilitary groups existed there, that persons of indigenous origin were attacked on previous days, that the peasant march was peaceful in nature, and that problem of land reform was the central topic of the political dispute. The APDH reported that it took more than 79 witness statements. APDH estimates 19 dead (plus 3 killed in the storming of the Pando airport), 68 disappeared (provisional estimate) and 47 wounded. It pointed to the presence of the narcotraffic in the region, the absence of police, and the manipulation of information by the news media in general, and especially by news media controlled by the political opposition.

You can see quite a few video spots offering “alternative” accounts of the massacre on YouTube, in fact.

There is testimony in the report that student teachers were tortured in order to be filmed by news media admitting they were agitators paid by MAS.

Ears allegedly cut off.

The entire report is one big exercise in the Rashomon Effect, once you start reading the testimony of the persons heard by the commission. Father Jaime Soussly Alvis-Obispando of Cobija is heard saying that gunfire was exchanged by both sides, for example. The good father’s account was not, ultimately, believed by the commission, which concluded, among other things,

… that is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that numerous summary or extralegal executions occurred … and were carried out by agents of the provincial government of Pando, or persons affiliated with it, who acted with the connivance of acquiescence of said government.

And that there was no evidence the campesinos and student teachers were armed.

They used Greenstone library software to index all the evidence.

Still reading.

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