Skip to main content

Ultimate Consequences Project Overview

Posted by on Wednesday, September 8, 2021 in News.

A comprehensive database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict during the democratic era, 1982–present

Mass grassroots politics in Bolivia has found highly contentious forms of action that were nonetheless distinct from a conventional military conflict. Its longer history, marked by indigenous uprisings, labor militancy, and frequent military rule has been described in terms of blood, fire, dynamite, and massacres. The social movement traditions that have resulted include proclamations of fearlessness (even protesting high schoolers shout, “Rifle, machine gun, we will not be silenced!”) and vows to carry struggles “until the final consequences.”

The database enumerates individual deaths in Bolivian political conflict since 1982, the end of military rule in the country. It is compiled by a research team based on multiple sources, including media reports, governmental, intergovernmental, and private human rights reports, and use of the research literature on political conflict. The dataset now includes nearly all of the deaths identified by a Permanent Assembly of Human Rights-Bolivia (APDHB) study of deaths from 1988 to 2003, and a study of the coca conflict from 1982 to 2005 (Navarro Miranda 2006; Llorenti 2009; Salazar Ortuño 2008). Unlike prior compilations by human rights organizations, however, this database includes a variety of qualitative variables designed to understand how and why the deaths occurred and what policies and patterns underpin them.

We designed the database to both catalog the lethal consequences of participation in social movements and political activism, and to assess responsibility, accountability, and impunity for violent deaths. All deaths are significant as signs of the price that has been paid to seek social change. Some deaths are also significant as elements of repression or violence for which someone might ultimately be held accountable. Rather than begin by asking, “Is this death someone’s fault?,” we are coding each death according to multiple factors that enable us to extract different subsets of the overall database for different purposes. We estimate there were between 580 to 620 deaths associated with Bolivian political conflict from October 1982 until December 2019. As of August 2021, the project had identified 574 to 589 of these deaths, including those of 546 named individuals. The database is maintained as a Google Docs spreadsheet, which can be queried by R scripts, and whose reports can be generated internally or exported for further manual coding. (Bold numbers in this paragraph were updated automatically using R scripts on September 6, 2021.)

Through this process, we have become familiar with reading multiple and conflicting reports, evaluating official denials (we have created a data column for such denials), collecting narrative accounts, coding what we can based on the information, and signaling remaining questions. One thing that we have learned through this process is that making informed judgements, rather than marking all disputed facts with some kind of asterisk, is absolutely foundational to being able to do comparative work. The scale of the dataset for this period is both large enough to identify significant patterns and small enough (unlike the situation in some other Latin American countries) to permit the construction of a database that includes detailed information about every death. Precisely because its coverage is nearly comprehensive, the database offers a systematic sample of cases for quantitative and/or qualitative analysis, untainted by selection bias. We can say with near certainty that the dataset includes all episodes of political conflict that caused three or more deaths since 1982.

The dataset offers a grounded view on such questions as: What practices and political choices result in some presidencies being far less violent than others? What is the relative importance of different forms of political violence, from repression of protest to guerrilla movements to fratricidal disputes among movements? Which movements have succeeded despite deadly repression? This database will serve as a new tool for social scientists, oral historians, and human rights advocates to use in answering these and other questions.

The situations described in the dataset principally involve the following:

  1. Deaths from repression or confrontations with security forces during protest
  2. Deaths from security force incursions into politically active communities that are related to their activism
  3. Deaths from inter-movement and intra-movement confrontations
  4. Deaths of all kinds related to guerrilla or paramilitary activity
  5. Deaths of all kinds related to the conflict over coca growing
  6. Political assassinations of all kinds, including public officials, political activists, and journalists
  7. Deaths of social movement participants while in police custody for their activism
  8. Deaths from the hardships of protests and acts of self-sacrifice such as hunger strikes, long-distance marches etc.
  9. Acts of suicide as a form of protest
  10. All deaths related to land conflicts that involve a collective/social movement organization on at least one side.

For each death, we record identifying information about the person who died, the individual or group who caused the death, the place and time of the death, the cause and circumstances of the death, whether the death appears to be deliberate or intended, the geographic location, the death’s connection to social movements and social movement campaigns, sources of information available about the death, types of investigation that have been performed, accountability processes, and relationship to the Bolivian state. Analytical variables used so far include: political assassination (a binary yes/no category); protest domain (aggregating all protest campaigns into a small number of topics such as “labor” and “municipal governance”); and denial (a binary yes/no category indicating whether the perpetrator denied responsibility for the death). In creating database entries, we create brief narrative descriptions of the events involved and/or quote such descriptions directly from sources of reporting. We also are collecting textual segments of reporting and testimonial narrative relevant to each death.

Which deaths are we recording

Included, but excluded from summary calculations: When aggregating deaths for comparative purposes over time, we will exclude “non-conflict accidents”: any unintended death that occurs through no deliberate attempt to harm, and outside the context of open physical confrontation. We anticipate that such deaths are unevenly recorded over time (i.e., more frequently noted in recent years) and have no particular bearing on research questions we are exploring. We also exclude incidental deaths (due to indirect effects of blockades, or

Excluded, but recorded: We are coding and maintaining in a parallel list (currently an extra page in our spreadsheet) verifiable deaths that appear to fall outside of our inclusion criteria (e.g., deaths from criminal activity, deaths before the democratic period, apparently apolitical deaths in police custody), and deaths during highly complex events wih great flux among sources (currently only the 2003 Gas War, but we may add other events to this), when the death is only listed in a single source without verifying details.

Beyond the scope of the project

There are other politically charged forms of death in Bolivia including lynchings and capital punishment in community-based justicefeminicide and gender-based homicide; and deaths emerging from politically controversial policies or social failure. We can expect that prominent figures in social movements have been the victims of all of these types of violence. Where that has occurred, we will record their deaths separately from the main database and consider highlighting them in our work, but not attempt quantitative comparisons around these kinds of deaths.

Methodology for data gathering for the database

Principal investigator Carwil Bjork-James began maintaining a file of violent incidents related to Bolivian protest movements during his doctoral research and fieldwork around 2010. A spreadsheet format, initially with 35 data columns was designed in 2016 and some 290 deaths that occurred after 2000 were at least listed in the database by November 2016.

Our data collection began with published newspaper articles that listed deaths across multiple conflicts (Agencia Noticias Fides 2002; Agencia Noticias Fides 2003; Delgado and Navia 2008). We reviewed compilations by the human rights organizations such as the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights–Bolivia (Llorenti 2009; Navarro Miranda 1999; 2006), and annual reports by Bolivia’s Defensoría del Pueblo (Informe Defensorial), the United States Department of State (chapters on Bolivia in the Annual Report on Human Rights Practices), Human Rights Watch (World Report and predecessor reports by Americas Watch), and Amnesty International. We also drew from incident- and topic-specific (e.g., on the drug war) reports by APDH-B, Amnesty International, Andean Commission of Jurists, and the Defensoría (Defensoría del Pueblo 2010; Comisión Andina de Juristas 1988). Detailed data and sometimes individual event descriptions on deaths during the Chapare coca eradication were compiled by Fernando Salazar Ortuño (Salazar Ortuño 2008b; 2008a). We consulted several detailed documents on the exceptional quantity of deaths during the 2003 Water War, including the national prosecutor’s report and two private efforts by human rights advocates (Hacer justicia: argumentos de las victimas en el juicio por la masacre de Septiembre y Octubre de 2003 en Bolivia : Bracamonte, Delgadillo, Mayta. 2011; Ramos Andrade 2004; 2013). Numerous other works of social science scholarship include details on lethal conflicts (e.g., Mamani Ramírez 2004; Quintana Taborga, Tellería Escobar, and Atahuchi Quispe 2005; García Linera 2004; Gianotten 2006).

We have access to numerous news media sources, including to newspapers across the entire study period (though our archival work using these sources is still underway). Bolivian social conflict has been systematically documented from these sources by two remarkable archiving organizations. The now-defunct CEDOIN compiled social movement news into the twice-monthly newsletter Informe R, most of whose issues include a brief day-by-day chronology of events related to social movements. So far, we have reviewed issues from 1989 to 1996 for relevant events. The Cochabamba-based CEDIB began compiling a newsclipping collection in the 1970s. Beginning in the late 1990s, this service was produced in digital form in the monthly all-topic 30 Días compilations and annual topical collections. We have searched the latter from 2004 through 2010 using a variety of search words related to death in conflict. During visits to the archives held by the Archivo y Biblioteca Nacionales de Bolivia in Sucre, and more often to the Biblioteca y Archivo Histórico de la Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional in La Paz, we consulted and photographed original newspapers, held chronologically in month or half-month sets for each newspaper.

Our research process was repeated iteratively across different sources. The goal of this research is to fill in data for as many of the study variables as possible (with the exception of variables related to accountability which we postponed to a future phase of the project), to confirm information across multiple sources (focusing on increasing the quality and reliability of sources), and to steadily increase the quality of our descriptions. In addition to keeping track of which categorical variables are known for each death, we evaluate the completeness of our descriptions at four levels: enumerated (a death is recorded but not named), named (we also name the person who died), narrative (we have a brief account of the event), or detailed (we have complied our sources into a detailed account of the death).

For each event that was merely named or enumerated, we performed searches for additional sources using the bibliographic sources we had access to, Internet search engines, and Google Books. Archival visits are used to locate newspaper articles describing events prior to 2010. In the course of these archival visits, the approach was to locate the lethal event and then work forward and backward through the half- or whole-month book, reading all headlines to see if any additional lethal events were mentioned during those timeframes. These searches yielded additional events which were then added to the database.

Works Cited

Agencia Noticias Fides. 2002. “Hasta la fecha: Banzer y ‘Tuto’ son responsables de 50 muertes,” January 23, 2002.

———. 2003. “Defensor confirma 59 muertes en conflictos de septiembre y octubre.,” November 7, 2003.

Comisión Andina de Juristas. 1988. Bolivia: neoliberalismo y derechos humanos. Lima, Peru: Comisión Andina de Juristas.

Defensoría del Pueblo. 2010. “Informe defensorial de los hechos suscitados en Caranavi.”

Delgado, C., and R. Navia. 2008. “Después de Goni, van Más de 50 Muertos.” El Deber, October 16, 2008.

García Linera, Alvaro. 2004. Sociología De Los Movimientos Sociales En Bolivia: Estructuras De Movilización, Repertorios Culturales Y Acción Política. 1. ed.⬚: DIAKONIA, Accion Ecuménica Sueca.

Gianotten, Vera. 2006. CIPCA y Poder Campesino Indígena: 35 Años de Historia. La Paz, Bolivia: CIPCA.

Hacer justicia: argumentos de las victimas en el juicio por la masacre de Septiembre y Octubre de 2003 en Bolivia : Bracamonte, Delgadillo, Mayta. 2011.

Llorenti, Sacha. 2009. La democracia traicionada: derechos humanos, crímenes de lesa humanidad e impunidad. Bolivia 1982-2005. La Paz (Bolivia): Cervantes.

Mamani Ramírez, Pablo. 2004. El Rugir de Las Multitudes: La Fuerza de Los Levantamientos Indígenas En Bolivia/Qullasuyu. La Paz: Aruwiyiri.

Navarro Miranda, César. 1999. Bolivia: Estados de sitio en democracia. Potosi: Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos de Potosí.

———. 2006. Crímenes de la democracia neoliberal y movimientos sociales: desde la masacre de Villa Tunari a El Alto. La Paz: Fondo Editorial de los Diputados.

Quintana Taborga, Juan R, Loreta Tellería Escobar, and Daniel Atahuchi Quispe. 2005. Policía y democracia en Bolivia una política institucional pendiente. La Paz: Programa de Investigación Estratégica en Bolivia.

Ramos Andrade, Edgar. 2004. Agonía y rebelión social: 543 motivos de justicia urgente. La Paz: Capítulo Boliviano de Derechos Humanos, Democraia y Desarrollo.

———. 2013. Agonía y rebelión social: 543 motivos de justicia urgente. 2da ed. La Paz: Más claro… agua Ediciones.

Salazar Ortuño, Fernando. 2008a. “Conflicto y Negociación En Políticas de Erradicación de Cultivos de Coca.” In De La Coca al Poder: Políticas Públicas de Sustitución de La Economía de La Coca y Pobreza En Bolivia, 1975-2004, 137–238. Quito: Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales.

———. 2008b. Kawsachun coca. Cochabamba? UMSS, IESE, Instituto de Estudios Sociales y Económicos : UDESTRO, Unidad de Desarrollo Económico y Social de Trópico.