Bolivia’s Desperate Miners Are Doing Desperate Things—Like Murder

From Bloomberg Business Week:

Bolivia’s Desperate Miners Are Doing Desperate Things—Like Murder
Everyone knows who killed Rodolfo Illanes. So why is his death such a mystery?
by Monte Reel


Clashes at a roadblock on Aug. 25, the day Illanes was killed.
Photographer: Juan Karita/AP Photo

Rodolfo Illanes, the vice minister in charge of domestic affairs in Bolivia, held his cell phone to his left ear and struggled to hear the voice on the line. Dozens of angry men crowded around him, some holding heavy wooden sticks, some shouting insults. They were miners, and for a week they’d been blocking several strategic highways throughout the country, demanding changes to a new national mining law.

“They’ve taken me hostage, minister,” Illanes said, speaking on the phone to Carlos Romero, Bolivia’s minister of government affairs. “I was just entering Mantecani alone, and I was counting how many miners were on the hillsides. …”

He’d left the capital city, La Paz, early that morning, Aug. 25, with his driver, and they’d arrived at Mantecani about two hours later. Traffic on the four-lane highway was backed up for miles, blocked by piles of boulders, burning tires, and thousands of protesting miners. The driver steered his Toyota Land Cruiser off the pavement and parked on the rocky plain.

Illanes confronted a sweeping vista: At 13,500 feet above sea level, there were no trees on the chalky plateau, only scattered eruptions of scrub brush. Thin lines of white smoke uncoiled from distant fires. Hundreds of miners, members of a loose federation of mining cooperatives, walked the hills between their temporary encampments and the highway they’d paralyzed.

When the first miners confronted Illanes, they viewed him as an enemy spy. The day before, two miners had been killed at a roadblock in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba. The exact circumstances of their deaths were murky. Police had been tossing tear gas canisters to clear the roads, and miners were lobbing dynamite toward the police to push them back. Miners said federal police shot the two men, but the government insisted that none of the officers at the blockade had been armed. Dozens of miners were arrested, accused of inciting violence.

Now, as they surrounded Illanes, the workers wanted the jailed protesters released. Illanes handed his cell phone to the miners so they could explain their demands to his boss, Romero. With his hands now free, Illanes pressed a white handkerchief to his nose; when he pulled it away, it was bright red.

One of the miners admitted to Romero that several of the men had roughed up Illanes, but he said things had calmed down. “Listen, we’re not mistreating your friend—we’re guarding him,” the man told Romero. “But we need you to do your part, too.” To guarantee Illanes’s safety, the miner said, the government had to release the jailed miners and tell the police to back off.

About a half-hour later, Illanes called the minister again; his abductors were running out of patience, he said. A rumor was swirling around the blockade that another protesting miner had been struck by a bullet. As Illanes spoke to Romero, several of those crowding around him shouted threats.

“It’s life or death!”

“Ten minutes! Or else we butcher you!”

In La Paz, Romero announced news of the kidnapping, and the media scrambled to follow up. One radio station managed to call Illanes in the middle of the ordeal (“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he insisted), and cell phone video of the confrontation surfaced on the web, presumably uploaded by an anonymous miner. But Illanes stopped responding to calls late that afternoon. His driver, who had been separated from him that morning, had escaped to safety after being beaten, but he had no idea where the miners had taken Illanes. The blue Land Cruiser had been blasted with dynamite and burned to a colorless shell.

Shortly after midnight, a blue-striped blanket was found beside a dark stretch of highway a few miles from the blockade. Illanes’s body lay underneath. His ribs had been broken, his genitals mutilated, and his skull crushed. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy estimated that he’d been tortured for as long as seven hours.

“I don’t understand,” President Evo Morales said at a news conference the morning after the killing. For years he’d worked closely with Illanes, whom he considered a loyal surrogate. Morales, the leader of the Movement Toward Socialism party or MAS, had been elected in 2005 after promising to rebuild the poorest country in South America on behalf of its indigenous majority and its laborers. Miners—the heart of the industry that has historically been Bolivia’s most important and most iconic—helped get him elected. Illanes had spent years championing the rights of the impoverished miners who dug for tin, zinc, lead, and other minerals, and he became Morales’s point man for the sector. “I don’t understand how we could have brothers in the cooperatives who would attack in this way,” Morales said. [I on the other hand do not trust this “president” at all! same happened back in 2006 when he let the miners of Huanuni kill each other, there were 16 fatal casualties, he “allied” with both mining sectors, those who work for the state-mining companies and the ones who work under coops … he needs “martyrs” so the populace can forget he wasted over $180 billion dollars in luxuries for himself, corruption and narcotrafficking are rampant ever since he started in the presidency, now his only concern is to remain in power, no matter the cost!]

On the surface, the murder wasn’t a mystery at all. Everyone knew who’d done it (the miners in the video), why they’d done it (revenge), and how (bludgeoning with sticks, stones, and mining helmets). But in the months after the killings, Bolivians sought deeper explanations, trying to identify the social and economic forces behind the violence—underlying causes of death that didn’t show up in the coroner’s report.

“The prices of minerals went down, and production costs went up—that’s the cause,” Samuel Doria Medina, a businessman and the leader of a political party opposing Morales, told the Bolivian press.

By most reckonings, the plot was much thicker than that. Morales publicly blamed the violence on “certain foreign interests” that were trying to manipulate the mining industry to destabilize his socialist government. The law that had so upset the cooperatives prevented them from directly entering into new business partnerships with private companies—partnerships that the cooperatives argued were necessary for them to be competitive and profitable and that the government said unfairly exploited Bolivia’s resources. Morales was suggesting that U.S.-backed opponents of his administration, eager to install a government more friendly to multinational corporations, had stoked the mining conflict to trigger an unconventional coup.

To his critics, it sounded as if he’d ripped a well-worn page from the autocrat’s playbook—when economic pressures expose the government’s vulnerabilities, find an external enemy to blame. They countered Morales’s conspiracy theory with one of their own: The president and his political allies had secretly orchestrated the murder of their own man to turn public opinion against the miners, thereby allowing the state to seize the cooperatives’ business operations without resistance. If the president’s populist rhetoric had once convinced the miners that he’d help lift them out of economic hardship, they said, the commodities crisis had exposed his true, overriding motives—to consolidate more power for himself.

The story has played out like a murder mystery in reverse. With each passing month, a brutal yet relatively uncomplicated killing has grown increasingly complex. Only one clear conclusion has emerged: As a tiny country that pulls most of its revenue out of holes in the ground, Bolivia is still defined by its struggle to assert control of its own fate. The country has long considered itself a poor man sitting on a pile of riches, unable to cash in under the rules of international capitalism, the victim of ironies too tragic to reconcile. Illanes walked straight into that storyline, and it overpowered him.

Cerro Rico, or the “rich mountain,” looms over the city of Potosí. Once it was the most valuable property in the New World, the closest thing to El Dorado that the conquistadors would find. After the Spaniards discovered it in 1545, the silver inside Cerro Rico transformed Potosí into the Western Hemisphere’s biggest metropolis, with a population greater than that of London, Seville, or Milan.

Obviously it didn’t last. The bottom first fell out of the local economy around the end of the 17th century; the mountain’s easiest-to-reach veins ran dry, and a shortage of mercury, a vital ingredient for extracting silver, drove up processing costs. Speculators moved on, and most of the vitality drained out of the city. But mining remained Potosí’s only real industry, and it has endured cycles of modest booms and painful busts ever since.

Today, next to the city’s central square, a museum occupies the building that once served as Spain’s most important mint. On the day I visited, two months after Illanes’s death, a guide led a group of Bolivian schoolchildren through its halls, explaining that the world’s first global currency was made here, and that, as a result, Potosí can be considered the cradle of international capitalism. After the students examined some old Spanish coins, the guide led them down a flight of stairs to a room where indigenous slaves had labored in subhuman conditions to press and cut all that metal. He said that a few miles away, inside the tunnels of Cerro Rico, as many as 8 million slaves had died to enrich a foreign empire. The lesson the students took with them was clear: The global economy had a dark side from the beginning.

That same day, I hired a former miner to take me to an active shaft on Cerro Rico. The stones supporting the entrance, which was about 5 feet wide and a few inches taller, were darkened with black blotches. The stains, my guide explained, were from the blood of a llama slaughtered four months before, a ceremonial ritual meant to slake the bloodthirst of the god of the mine. Better llama blood than human blood—that’s the thinking. But rituals go only so far. After almost 500 years of digging and dynamiting, Cerro Rico is honeycombed with unstable shafts that occasionally collapse. According to local humanitarian groups, the life expectancy for miners in Potosí is somewhere between 35 and 45.

A narrow-gauge rail track exited the mine and twisted around the mountainside. Near the entrance, sitting atop the rusted hulk of an overturned mining cart, I found two members of Unificada, one of the largest mining cooperatives in Potosí. Every so often, a pair of sweating miners would push a cart freighted with hundreds of pounds of rocks past them on those rails.

“Little by little, it saps your strength,” said Mario Marino, watching the rocks rattle past. He guessed that, at 52, he was one of the oldest miners on the mountain. He started mining Cerro Rico when he was 13, just as his father had. Since then, he calculated, he’s spent more of his waking hours in total darkness than in light. He’d inhaled countless lungfuls of dust, cultivating a hair-trigger cough.

“Silicosis,” he said.

Marino explained how the mines run. Almost 40 cooperatives operate in Potosí, and each has the right to work different shafts. The smallest of the cooperatives might have just a couple dozen members; the largest, such as Unificada, can have 1,000 or more. The cooperatives aren’t traditional profit-sharing outfits. Individual members, or socios, share the rights to specific concessions, but it’s up to the miner to find and exploit profitable deposits within the concessions. If a member is lucky, he (or, in extremely rare cases, she) might make enough money to outsource his labor, hiring a low-level miner—a peón—to dig on his behalf. Peónes lack insurance and job security, and they scratch out a pittance. Some socios become wealthy, and critics of the system have accused them of conspiring with private companies to exploit the peónes.

Marino started as a peón in the 1960s, and he dug mostly for tin, which has replaced silver as Cerro Rico’s, and Bolivia’s, dominant mineral. He became a full-fledged socio in the mid-1980s, around the same time the international tin market went bust. The Bolivian government began closing state-owned mines, laying off thousands of miners. Cooperatives such as Unificada absorbed many of those displaced workers, a trend that continued into the ’90s, when successive governments embraced free-market economics and continued to privatize state-controlled industries. Today, cooperatives account for about 90 percent of all miners in Bolivia, or about 120,000 people. The remaining 10 percent work directly for private companies or the state.

Despite this manpower advantage, the cooperatives aren’t particularly productive, accounting for only about 30 percent of Bolivia’s mining output. State and private companies generally get the most sought-after concessions, leaving the cooperatives with mines where the best veins have already been bled dry. Making matters worse, many cooperatives lag decades behind when it comes to extraction and processing technology. To extend the mine shafts, they depend on dynamite, picks, and shovels.

The margins are slim, even in the best of times. And these are far from the best of times. In late 2015, the Bloomberg Commodity Index, a measure of 22 raw materials, reached a 16-year low, and in some cases the prices the miners got were half what they’d been five years before. The prices of a few minerals, including lead and zinc, have bounced back, but others remain depressed, and Marino says the slump has cost him more than money. He always assumed his four sons would follow him into the mines; the two oldest have, but his youngest sons have fled Potosí in the past year for brighter prospects—one to La Paz and the other to Argentina.

This was the context in which Marino and other members of his cooperative began establishing partnerships with international mining corporations. The cooperatives could offer manpower and access to deposits, and the corporations could bring technology and processing know-how. With the new law restricting future deals and potentially threatening existing arrangements, the anxiety the miners were already feeling took on a sharper edge.

Marino, like almost everyone else in his cooperative, didn’t hesitate to join the road blockades around the country in the week before Illanes was killed. (He demonstrated close to home, some distance from Mantecani.) The protests felt like an assertion of will, he said, a refusal to sit idly by while someone else decided their fates.

If anyone should have understood the miners’ point of view, he added, it was Evo Morales. Not too long ago, the president had been a lot like them.

In August 2006, a group of cooperative miners climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck in the highland town of Llallagua for a 30-hour journey to the city of Sucre, where a newly formed citizen’s assembly was getting ready to rewrite the Bolivian constitution. Morales had been elected president months before, on the promise to “refound Bolivia” through constitutional reforms that would for the first time guarantee social and economic justice for the country’s indigenous citizens, who make up more than 60 percent of the total population. None of the miners in Sucre were from the 255-member constituent assembly, but almost all were of either Quechua or Aymara descent. They wanted to witness history.

I climbed onto the truck with them, to report an article about the significance of the event among members of the indigenous majority. When we started out, about two dozen men crowded together in the back. The 250-mile journey wasn’t smooth—a flat tire, brake worries, frequent stops in tiny villages to let more people squeeze on. The narrow switchback roads were unpaved, with no guardrails along the edges of the steep cliffs. Every bump sent a vibration up the spine and into the teeth, which were full of grit kicked up from the roads. As the ride neared its end, about 40 people were crammed in back. It should have been miserable, but it was a party. The miners banged on goatskin drums, blew into pan flutes, and passed around jugs of cocoroco, a crude liquor that’s 96 percent alcohol. Every so often someone would shout, “Viva la asamblea constituyente!”

So many of their dreams were tied up in Morales. Not only was he the first Bolivian president of indigenous descent, but he was also a compañero—the former leader of a coca growers’ union and a hell-raising thorn in the government’s side. He’d led a series of road blockades and demonstrations that in 2003 ousted a president and turned Bolivian politics upside down. That conflict left about 80 people dead; almost all the casualties had been protesters, several of them miners, who were shot by government police forces. The initial demonstrations had been fueled by discontent over the distribution of profits from natural gas—specifically, by the belief that foreign corporations were filling their pockets at Bolivians’ expense. The subject resonated with many miners. “How much longer,” Morales asked an audience during the conflict, “will the natural resources of Latin America remain in the hands of transnational companies?”

When the truck from Llallagua rolled into Sucre, the miners joined a huge street rally celebrating all things Evo, while the assembly got down to the contentious business of drafting a national charter. A 179-page document was eventually approved in 2009. One of its articles pledged support to the mining cooperatives “that contributed to the country’s social and economic development.” As far as the miners were concerned, the government had officially endorsed them.

The economy took off in the early years of the Morales presidency, assisted by a commodities boom. He fulfilled many promises that his critics had insisted would sink the economy. He nationalized the natural gas industry, increased government spending on social services 45 percent, and raised the real minimum wage more than 85 percent. Extreme poverty declined more than 45 percent, according to government statistics, and in a country that had burned through five presidents in the five years before he took office, Morales pulled off the most unlikely of feats: He restored political stability to South America’s most volatile country.

Morales was part of the “New Left,” an informal coalition of presidents elected in the 2000s throughout South America. All were openly skeptical of market-based solutions to social problems. Several, including Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, considered themselves economic pragmatists, careful to preserve foreign investment opportunities and private-sector growth. Others—Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez among them—cast themselves as fist-shaking revolutionaries. Morales favored the Chávez model. Like Chávez, he railed at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and he expressed particular contempt for the U.S.—“the Empire,” as he calls it. In 2008 he expelled the U.S. ambassador, whom he accused of plotting to overthrow him, and he hasn’t allowed another one in the country since.

Through it all, Morales treated mining with a light touch. He targeted a few high-profile concessions for state takeovers, including three run by Glencore Plc of Switzerland, but the broad nationalization of the sector that some investors feared never came. He continued to court foreign mining investment, and the U.S., despite diplomatic tensions, remained his country’s most valued buyer of minerals.

When commodities prices began falling in 2011, Bolivia’s South American neighbors suffered badly. Chávez’s oil-based economy in Venezuela was almost destroyed; his protégé, Nicolás Maduro, now rules over a country in a state of prolonged collapse. The biggest economies on the continent, including those of Brazil and Argentina, began to stagnate, and many leaders of the New Left were replaced by more conservative successors. Morales has fared better than most. Although the days of 7 percent gross domestic product growth are gone, forecasts indicate a respectable pace of about 3.5 percent until 2020.

The strain, however, is starting to show. Groups that once supported Morales have grown frustrated. Bus drivers blocked roads to protest a fuel price hike in 2011, and a general strike against the government’s pension system was joined by miners, teachers, and health-care workers in 2013. Early in 2016, Bolivia held a referendum to decide whether Morales could, despite term-limit restrictions, run for a fourth presidential term in 2019. The proposition was defeated, with 51.3 percent of voters opposing. It was a low point for Morales, and he insisted that his opponents had manufactured a scandal—one involving political graft and a child born out of wedlock—to sabotage his chances.

The new mining law soon followed. The protests suggested that Morales had misjudged the loyalty of the mining cooperatives—it was situational, not ideological. But to the president’s backers, it seemed as if the miners, in choosing private corporations over government protectionism, were volunteering to be exploited. The government needed someone to talk to the protesters, to assure them that their outrage was unwarranted. Rodolfo Illanes had practically spent his life preparing for the role.


Illanes’s funeral in La Paz.
Photographer: Marcelo Perez Del Carpio/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Illanes was a short, round-faced man whose eyes seemed to disappear behind his glasses when he smiled. The camera rarely captured those moments, though. More often than not, the quality that shone through was a bookish solemnity. He was a lawyer who’d spent much of his career in academia, and his lectures always underscored his conviction that words on paper—statutes, resolutions, preambles, amendments—held the power to change lives.

He’d grown up in Garita de Lima, a gritty La Paz neighborhood of market stalls, pickpockets, and skinny, bat-eared dogs. In law school his politics veered left, toward the opposition movements challenging the military dictatorship that ruled Bolivia from the 1960s to the early 1980s. He immersed himself in labor law and fashioned himself a champion of the worker. In the mid-’80s he moved to Llallagua to help establish a national university tailored to miners and their families. The school, he believed, was a first step in reversing centuries of exploitation.

Illanes considered himself ethnically indigenous, a Bolivian of Aymara descent. When Morales, also Aymara, burst onto the national stage in the late 1990s, Illanes discovered a kindred spirit. He joined Morales’s party, MAS, and quickly found a niche. Morales could fire up followers and get them to turn out at protests, but he lacked legal and administrative fundamentals. That’s where Illanes fit in. After Morales became president, Illanes filled a number of roles: legal adviser, civil service superintendent, senior official in the labor ministry. About five years ago, he began working directly with Morales in the presidential palace.

The official cause of Illanes’s death was blunt force trauma to the head and thorax. Morales offered an alternative postmortem. “This is a political conspiracy,” he announced. Foreign interests, he said, had taken advantage of the cooperatives to sow chaos and, ultimately, to try to overthrow his government. When it came to the Illanes case, he and his allies suggested, nothing was what it seemed.

José Luis Quiroga, Illanes’s protégé at the ministry, had traveled to the blockade the same day Illanes was kidnapped, and he helped collect his boss’s body early the next morning. Quiroga told me he believed the deaths of the miners at the roadblock had been effectively staged. The bullet wounds of one man, he said, showed that he’d been shot at close range with a small-caliber firearm. Yet that miner had been standing among a group that had backed away from police, he said, and no officers could have been close enough to fire the shot. The miners themselves, he suggested, had sacrificed one of their own to foment outrage against the government and undermine the state.

Less than a week after Illanes was killed, the government lashed back at the cooperatives. By emergency decree, it invalidated dozens of concessions where they were working directly with private corporations and took control of 31 of those properties. The government also called for thorough audits of the cooperatives’ finances and outlawed the use of dynamite at protests.

The miners felt defeated, victimized almost, and they developed their own theory to explain Illanes’s murder. In their version, he was a pawn in a plot engineered by the government to sink the cooperatives. Why hadn’t the government responded to the miners’ demands? Why hadn’t the authorities attempted to rescue Illanes after he was kidnapped? The miners insisted the answer was clear: Morales and his cronies sacrificed Illanes, knowing his death would turn the public against the cooperatives. None of the miners I spoke with expressed anything resembling remorse, or even indirect responsibility, for what essentially amounted to a lynching. This explanation, which each of them echoed with convincing sincerity, relieved them of those burdens.

On my last day in La Paz, I spotted Illanes’s face—grim, bespectacled, and staring out from a kiosk papered over with newsprint and magazine covers. His picture was on the front of an edition of Crucimaniacos, a magazine of crosswords and other word games. I bought a copy. The first puzzle I tried was a word search with the mining conflict as its theme. Most of the key words, hidden inside a mess of jumbled letters, were common nouns that seemed to suggest the possibility of an amicable resolution: generosity, equality, solidarity, tolerance, dialogue, and peace. All were easy to find, on paper.

Elsewhere, the concepts proved elusive. In the six months following Illanes’s murder, almost 50 people were arrested in connection with the crime; 14 remain in custody, and investigations into their alleged involvement continue. Among those arrested have been the leaders of a national federation of cooperatives. New leaders, more friendly to Morales’s government, have taken over.

In February another suspect in the killing was apprehended. The man, the government said, had been living inside a Llallagua mine shaft, his fellow miners helping keep him hidden. The same week, an opposition politician, Arturo Murillo, published a list of cell phone calls and text messages that he said Illanes had made on the day of his murder. There were more than 130 of them, many to police and government officials to whom he appealed for assistance. In March the former commander of the regional police—one of the people Illanes had turned to for help—is expected to appear in court, charged with abdicating his duties.

All of this has only reinforced the idea that Illanes’s murder underscored: Truth in Bolivia is relative. In late February the central worker’s union, the COB, led countrywide protests against Morales, who in recent months has hinted that he’ll ignore last year’s plebiscite and pursue another term in 2019. Government officials organized counterprotests, claiming the referendum results were irrelevant; the opposition had floated false news stories about Morales right before the vote, they said, unfairly spoiling the results.

At a pro-Morales march in Potosí, the mining minister, Carlos Navarro, told a Bolivian newspaper that he and other officials were participating to commemorate last year’s referendum, which the government now calls “the Day of the Lie.” Even though the “no” side had won, he suggested, few things in Bolivia are what they seem. “It is a day,” he said, “to reaffirm that Bolivians also said, ‘Yes.’ ” [This statement clearly outlines the real nature of these individuals, they have no honor at all, they are what the Greeks described as Ochlocrats, the worst of the society in government functions. No wonder the “socialism of the 21st century with Chavez/Maduro, Kirschner, Lula/Dilma, Correa, Ortega and this petty egocentric maniac have destroyed our countries!]

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