LA PAZ – Bolivian Interior Minister Sancha Llorenti became the latest top official to resign in the wake of last weekend’s brutal repression of an indigenous protest against a jungle highway.
The crackdown on marchers opposed to the construction of the highway through a 600-square-mile indigenous reserve touched off nationwide protests and has led to one of the biggest crisis of leftist President Evo Morales’ five-and-a-half-year tenure.
Other officials who stepped down in the aftermath of the weekend action included Llorenti’s deputy, Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon and several ruling party lawmakers.
Llorenti resigned on Tuesday and was immediately replaced by Wilfredo Chavez, a close Morales ally who until now had served as deputy government coordination minister.
Ruben Saavedra, meanwhile, was chosen Tuesday to resume leadership of the Defense Ministry. He had left that post in April to head Bolivia’s legal fight to regain access to the Pacific Ocean, which it lost in a 19th century war.
Morales, who on Monday said the violent crackdown on the protest against the Brazil-funded highway was “unpardonable,” said a day later that the Indians were being manipulated by his political enemies.
“Evo Morales’ only sin is that he’s a peasant, an Indian leader who is now president. Some people can’t tolerate that and some of our brothers are being used by those people who can’t accept that a peasant has become president,” Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state said.
Morales insisted that the media had exaggerated the news of the police repression and simply echoed the complaints of indigenous leaders and other groups.
Neither he nor his ministers have accepted responsibility for the crackdown on the protesters.
Morales, an Aymara Indian, announced that a high-level commission made up of representatives of international organizations and the National Ombud’s Office would conduct a thorough investigation into the police action.
The march, launched on Aug. 15 in the northern provincial capital of Trinidad with the participation of some 1,500 Amazonian Indians, was violently broken up on Sunday at a spot more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) from La Paz.
Some 500 police fired tear gas at the Indian protesters and beat them with clubs at their campsite near the town of Yucumo. They also gagged Indian leaders and women with adhesive tape, bound their hands and forced dozens into buses and vans to be moved off to nearby villages.
Llorenti, who had been the target of much of the criticism, said he stepped down because he did not want to be “a tool of the right, of the opposition, which intends to attack the process of structural transformations.”
He had earlier promised to provide a list of officers who violently cracked down on the demonstration.
For her part, Chacon denounced the decision to repress the march, saying there were alternatives “in the framework of dialogue, respect for human rights, non-violence and defense of Mother Earth.”
Llorenti initially justified the police operation by saying the officers were executing an order from prosecutors.
After Attorney General Mario Uribe denied issuing any such order, he placed the blame on his deputy, Marcos Farfan, who resigned Tuesday but also denied ordering the law-enforcement action.
Migration Director Maria Rene Quiroga and an official with the Rural Development Ministry, Roxana Liendo, also stepped down to protest the repression.
Indigenous leaders said they would resume their march to La Paz shortly to press demands that Morales definitively – not just temporarily – halt plans to build the highway through the Tipnis National Park.
Both Indians and conservation groups are opposed to the Brazilian-financed highway crossing the Tipnis because of the environmental damage the project will cause and because they fear an invasion of illegal loggers and coca growers.
The goal of the project is to link the Brazilian Amazon with Pacific ports in Peru and Chile. EFE