Striking Bolivian miners lifted Friday a roadblock where violent protests took place this week, a day after kidnapping and allegedly torturing and beating to death the country’s deputy interior minister, Rodolfo Illanes.
The miners, who have been demanding more mining concessions, the right to work for private companies, and greater union representation, seized Illanes (56) and his bodyguard early Thursday in Panduro, south of capital La Paz, Peruvian paper El Comercio reported (in Spanish).
He had travelled to the area to negotiate with the miners. His body was found in early Friday morning by the side of the highway that connects La Paz with the city of Oruro, wrapped in a blanket, Bolivia TV showed:
President Evo Morales called the brutal act a “political conspiracy,” criticizing the “cowardly attitude” of the protesters and insisting on that his government had “always been open” to negotiation, paper La Demajuana reported (in Spanish).
Long-running tensions between miners and the government over strict regulations approved in 2014 grew increasingly violent over the past few days. Just Wednesday, two miners were killed in a clash with police, Reuters reported.
After Illanes’ death, Defense Minister Reymi Ferreira broke down on national television.
“This crime will not go unpunished,” Ferreira said, telling audiences that about 100 people have been arrested.
On Twitter, Attorney General Hector Arce called Illanes “a great man and lawyer who served his country,” vowing that justice would be served.
Mining is deeply embedded in Bolivia’s national identity. During colonial times, so much silver was shipped from mines in the southern region of Potosi to Europe that people used to say a bridge of pure silver could be built from the top of Cerro Rico Mountain to the royal palace’s entrance in Spain.
But that boom came at an extremely high price tag — an estimated eight million slaves died in Potosi alone between 1500 and 1800 AD.
By the time mining was nationalized after the 1952 national revolution, tin had long since ousted silver as the main mineral product. In the 1980s a sharp fall in commodity prices led to a shutdown of the government mines, displacing 25,000 salaried miners.
The industry was privatized again in 1990s under neoliberal structural adjustment policies that ended up destroying Bolivia’s miners-led revolutionary trade union movement, once the most combative in Latin America.
When Morales, South America’s first indigenous President, took office in 2006, he immediately hiked mining taxes for foreigners and nationalized the country’s key natural gas industry. He also expropriated the telecommunications and electricity sectors, and seized several assets, including those of Vancouver-based South American Silver Corp. (TSX:SAC) in 2012, and Glencore’s (LON: GLEN), which recently announced it was taking Bolivia to an international court over the issue.
Bolivian mining cooperatives account for about 35% of the country’s mining output. They are tax-exempt organizations and pay royalties at lower rates than other mining companies.
Though rich in mineral and energy resources, data from the Unicef shows that Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and the weakest economy in all of South America.