New Report on Human Rights Violations in Bolivia in 2019 Sheds Light on the Role of the OAS

Members of the GIEI Bolivia team present their report in Sacaba, scene of a post-coup massacre in November 2019. Photo by IACHR.

August 27, 2021

On August 17, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI in Spanish) released its report on human rights violations committed in the context of the 2019 coup d’état that overthrew President Evo Morales and installed the de facto government of Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia. The 468-page report, based on eight months of research, sheds light on a series of major human rights abuses committed between September and December 2019.

Among its many findings, the report clearly establishes that “massacres” were perpetrated by Bolivian state security forces in the communities of Senkata and Sacaba. The report also includes a number of recommendations regarding the treatment of victims, calls for those responsible for human rights violations to be held accountable, and stresses the need for a greater autonomy and depoliticization of the Bolivian judiciary. Many of the report’s recommendations seek to address structural issues, including the pervasive racism in both the Bolivian state and in Bolivian society. The report concludes “that the [2019] violence had a racial and anti-indigenous character, and that the security forces used excessive or disproportionate force and did not adequately prevent acts of violence.”[1]

In the preliminary section of the GIEI report, which provides general background on the events that preceded the Senkata and Sacaba massacres, the authors clearly identify the audit of the 2019 elections carried out by the Organization of American States (OAS) as a major factor that contributed to the political crisis that led to the forced resignation of President Morales and the installment of Jeanine Añez as de facto president. The report states:

The worsening of the crisis was marked by multiple events, including the police riot, the publication of the preliminary report of the results of the audit of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the statements of the commanders of the Armed Forces and the Police to pressure the resignation of Evo Morales.

The OAS’s delegitimization of the outcome of the 2019 elections in Bolivia was debunked by dozens of statisticians, and in-depth reports and academic papers from researchers at CEPR and by scholars from the MIT and the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Tulane, whose findings were eventually published in The Washington Post and The New York Times, respectively. 

A June 2020 New York Times article stated that the OAS’s claims “heightened doubts about the fairness of the vote and fueled a chain of events that changed the South American nation’s history. The opposition seized on the claim to escalate protests, gather international support, and push Mr. Morales from power with military support weeks later.”

The OAS’s flawed claims were not just used to justify the forced removal of Morales. As the GIEI report shows, they also served to justify the criminalization of electoral officials — both former members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), in charge of overseeing elections nationwide, and former members of the Departmental Electoral Tribunals (TEDs).

Whereas the GIEI report clearly establishes that “the GIEI does not have the mandate nor does it qualify, as valid or invalid, the October 2019 election,” it does show how the OAS’s accusations of fraud helped pave the way for “the human rights violations that were committed against the election officials in the context of the process of alleged electoral fraud.”

The GIEI report finds that “as a general rule, the accusations [against electoral officials] were based on the preliminary report of the OAS, which did not attribute individual responsibility, as well as on information obtained in the media, on statements of the persons detained and, in a few cases, on some testimonies of electoral officials. The detention of all the electoral officials was a generalized measure lacking objective motivation, applied without prior investigation.”

The GIEI report describes how on November 10, the day that the OAS published its preliminary audit report, and the day of the coup d’état, “… the Prosecutor General’s Office … initiated the ex officio prosecution of the members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE)” based on “the conclusions of the OAS Preliminary Report.” The GIEI report also cites a statement from the Prosecutor General’s Office that states:

… in view of the report issued by the Organization of American States […]: [the Prosecutor General’s Office] has INSTRUCTED the Departmental Prosecutor’s Office of La Paz, early this morning, to IMMEDIATELY START ALL CORRESPONDING LEGAL ACTIONS for the prosecution and trial of the members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and other authors and participants of these alleged irregular acts. … Likewise, the nine departmental prosecutors of the country have been instructed to immediately initiate criminal actions against the members and public servants of the Departmental Electoral Tribunals.

The GIEI report describes how “an investigation was opened against the president of the TSE, María Eugenia Choque Quispe, and others, for the alleged commission of the electoral crimes of forging documents or use of forged documents, computer manipulation, alteration and concealment of results,” as well as a long list of other crimes, including violating Bolivia’s laws and constitution. Choque was arrested a few hours after the OAS preliminary audit report was published, alongside the other members of the TSE: Antonio José Iván Costas Sitic, Lucy Cruz Vilca, Lidia Iriarte Tórrez, Idelfonso Mamani Romero, and Edgar Gonzales López.

The GIEI report recalls that “in a press conference at the police headquarters, the recently apprehended María Eugenia Choque and Antonio José Iván Costas Sitic, president and vice-president of the TSE, respectively, were shown handcuffed.” They were paraded as trophies in a live press conference, looking confused and restrained in images that could only be described as deeply disturbing. Costas held a heap of prison blankets. 

The GIEI report finds that, in Santa Cruz, “most of the [TED] members were deprived of their freedom for periods ranging from one to eight months, until they were granted alternative measures to incarceration.” The GIEI also notes: 

The proceedings against the members of the departmental tribunals were dismissed in March 2021 because of ‘insufficient evidence to support the accusation.’ However, in the case of the TSE officials, as of July 2021, almost all of them were still under alternative measures to pretrial detention, including house arrest without authorization to leave the premises and with work restrictions, freezing of accounts and asset seizure.

The GIEI report also denounces the “various irregularities and arbitrariness on the part of the Prosecutor’s Office, the police and the judicial authorities” in the prosecution of the presidents of the TSE and the nine departmental electoral tribunals (TEDs). The GIEI criticized the “lack of objective criteria in the determination of [the electoral authorities’] legal situation, the treatment they received from the authorities, and the serious procedural irregularities that hindered their right to due process and the presumption of innocence. The same pattern of persecution was identified in basically all cases against election officials in the country.”

The GIEI report finds that the Bolivian police, which mutinied against the Morales government on November 8, 2019, played a central role along with the Prosecutor General’s Office in the persecution and intimidation of election officials, going as far as exerting pressures to force the resignation of a number of the members of the electoral tribunals. The report establishes that:

…the police did not intervene in the face of the threats and the burning of the facilities of several departmental tribunals [TEDs], which considerably affected personnel, property, and electoral material. Nor did it intervene in the persecution and public harassment that took place against the members [of the TEDs] until November 10. Among other events, it is worth mentioning what happened in Chuquisaca, where, when a group of people arrived at the TED to burn it down, the electoral personnel had to escape from the building by jumping over a wall to a neighboring building. The election officials remained hidden in a mezzanine until the following morning when they were rescued by their acquaintances. Most of the election officials interviewed told the GIEI that they decided to leave their homes due to the threats in the media of an attempt on their lives and property.

On [November] 10th and the following days, most of the departmental electoral officials were arrested. It is noteworthy that almost all of the officials interviewed reported having received aggressive and discriminatory treatment since their arrival at the police or Prosecutor’s Office. Similarly, all were deprived of their freedom until they were presented before the judicial authority for the hearing of precautionary measures and during this time were subjected to degrading conditions of incarceration. The prison authorities did not grant them sanitary privacy, did not take into account the preexisting health conditions of some of them, kept them in unhealthy places and intimidated them.

At this stage there was pressure from police, ministerial, and judicial authorities for the members to resign from their positions before the hearing on precautionary measures. Of the 21 people interviewed, only one said that he had not agreed to this measure [resigning], and one had already done so previously.

The OAS did nothing to prevent the persecution of former electoral officials.

It is clear, from the GIEI’s report, that Bolivia’s judicial authorities used the OAS preliminary audit report as a justification for the arrests and for the charges brought forward against Bolivia’s election officials. The GIEI report cites the La Paz Southern Zone’s First Criminal Court, which justified the charges against Bolivia’s electoral authorities by stipulating that whereas “the OAS report does not directly establish criminal responsibility,” “it is clear that this [OAS] audit report makes references to irregularities in the electoral process, as a result, there are indications that illicit acts may have arisen during the course of the elections.”

Throughout Áñez’s de facto rule, the OAS did nothing to oppose the heavy-handed treatment of former election officials. The OAS did not protest the arrest and public humiliation of the members of the TSE who had invited the OAS in good faith to come to Bolivia to act as impartial observers of their country’s elections. Nor has the OAS said anything, to date, to stop its flawed report from being used in legal proceedings against the former members of the TSE and TEDs, or to alleviate the plight of the electoral officials being tried with scant respect for due process, as the GIEI report clearly illustrates.

CEPR has highlighted in the past that the OAS went further than merely listing the irregularities that it considered invalidated the electoral results; the OAS added political and juridical opinions that clearly exceeded its mandate. In presenting the November 10 preliminary report to the OAS, Secretary General Luis Almagro declared that a “coup d’état” had occurred on October 20 in the form of “electoral fraud” in Bolivia. The December 2019 OAS final audit report and accompanying press release in particular spoke of “intentional manipulation.” The Spanish version of the same release — aimed at Latin American and particularly Bolivian audiences at a time when Bolivia’s de facto government, police, and armed forces were cracking down on the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) opposition — used the term “manipulación dolosa.” In Spanish, “doloso” — which can be roughly translated as “fraudulent” — is used in criminal law to signify a criminal act. These claims made by the OAS in communications about its report heightened the sense of grievances felt by large sectors of Bolivian society, further polarized Bolivian politics, and set the stage for the witch hunt, incarceration, and public humiliation of election officials.

In a recent interview with the Bolivian daily Página Siete, former TSE member Antonio Costas, whose resignation from the TSE on October 21, 2019 has often been hailed by the OAS as a strong indication of wrongdoing on the TSE’s behalf, accused the OAS of being “the trigger for [the events of] that night and the night of Tuesday [October 22, 2019] when the Departmental Electoral Tribunals were burned down, and that was the responsibility of the head of the OAS Observation Mission.” Costas stated that the OAS’s 2019 election audit was “an extremely superficial report, not technical at all. It’s not an audit.” Costas also questioned whether the auditors were in fact the authors of the OAS report, and hinted at the possibility of manipulation from higher up. He raised the question of whether Secretary General Almagro could be prosecuted for being behind a report that caused “such havoc” in Bolivia.

The findings of the GIEI, which were welcomed by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, are likely to reignite calls for an investigation into the role that the OAS played in delegitimizing the 2019 elections in Bolivia and in helping to pave the way for the November 2019 coup d’état and the human rights violations that took place during Jeanine Áñez’s de facto rule.

[1] This and the following quotations from the GIEI report are this author’s translations.

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