EL ALTO, Bolivia – “They weren’t criminals,” reads a sign outside a church in this largely indigenous Bolivian highland city where nine civilians were killed a week ago during a military operation.
Located in El Alto’s Senkata neighborhood and named after St. Francis of Assisi, that church has become a makeshift morgue and a place where dozens of relatives of those killed, wounded or arrested mourn and comfort one another but also fight the label of terrorists or insurgents that has been placed on their loved ones.
The memory is still fresh in their minds of that Nov. 19 demonstration against interim President Jeanine Añez, an incident in which, according to the victims and their kin, people blockading a major gas plant in El Alto to protest the ouster of longtime indigenous president Evo Morales were fired on by the security forces.
NON-PROTESTERS AMONG THE DEAD
Antonio Ronald Quispe Ticona, 24, is among those who died in Senkata.
He was traveling from his mother’s house in El Alto to his sister’s home in the neighboring city of La Paz on Nov. 19, taking a route through Senkata that placed him at the epicenter of the conflict, his sister Gloria told Efe.
No one in the family knew what had happened to him until photos began circulating on Facebook showing a young man in a red shirt and green pants who had suffered a bullet wound, his uncle, Pascual Ticona, the first to recognize his nephew in the images, told Efe.
“The first thing I did was call his mother, my sister,” Ticona said, recalling that he described what the young man was wearing.
The description “matched. I broke down. His mother had already ended the cellphone call,” he added.
The relatives allege that Antonio Ronald died when soldiers flying in a helicopter began firing on the crowd below.
“A bullet struck him in the head, from above. It wasn’t straight ahead. He was hit twice. One (bullet) passed through his neck and the other stayed inside” his body, the young man’s uncle said.
Doubts remained after the autopsy, because even though Ticona was present for that post-mortem examination he was not allowed to witness the moment when forensic pathologists removed the bullet.
Antonio Ronald supposedly was hit by a “small bullet,” Ticona said, though adding that his wounds indicate an impact by a larger round.
The autopsies have confirmed that the deaths were caused by gunshots but have not determined who fired them, while Añez’s government has denied that the military was to blame.
HARRASSED AFTER WITNESSING THREE DEATHS
A 75-year-old woman who asked to remain anonymous told Efe amid tears that she has been harassed after seeing three people shot and killed during the events in Senkata.
She said she was heading to a medical appointment when she was frightened by shouts of “They’re shooting! Run!” amid an apparent attack by the security forces.
“I saw three,” she recalled, referring to people struck by gunfire.
The first was a “woman who was running,” while the second was a man who was struck in the head with a bullet and the third was a person who was shot first in the arm and then in the chest, she said.
The elderly woman, who walks with a cane, said her image was recorded and has been circulated on social media.
She said that has led to her receiving harassing phone calls and being identified as one of the protesters.
Añez’s interim government has said that the wounds of those killed and wounded do not correspond to the weapons used by Bolivia’s police and armed forces.
Her caretaker administration says the protest in Senkata had aspects of “terrorism” and “sedition,” but the family members of those killed and injured reject those accusations.
Nearly three-dozen people have been killed in violence following a disputed Oct. 20 presidential election that an Organization of American States audit said was marred by irregularities.
Morales, who had been in office since 2006, had initially been declared the winner in the first round but was forced to flee the country on Nov. 10 after losing the support of the military.
The Ombudsman’s Office says at least 33 people have died since the election – many of them of gunshot wounds during security force operations – and more than 800 have been wounded.