Following the violent clashes between protesters and security forces, Human Rights Watch said today that the incident must be thoroughly investigated, and that the Bolivian government must ensure that restraints on the use of lethal force were followed.
A reported twenty-seven people were killed and many more injured after protests degenerated into violent clashes in La Paz. The violence occurred when some 7,000 striking police officers and civilian protesters clashed with military troops, as protesters demanded that President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada rescind a new income tax.
The violence was concentrated around the Plaza Murillo and neighboring streets. The striking police and military reportedly engaged in a gun battle for control of the area, with snipers also reported.
"The large number of deaths raises serious concerns that security forces failed to exercise proper care in responding to the protests," said Joanne Mariner, Deputy Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "The Bolivian government could take a big step towards restoring confidence in its authority by making a firm commitment to ensuring that these killings will be properly investigated."
A number of civilian protesters were reportedly beaten and taken away by military police. Widespread looting was also reported, and buildings were burned.
It is still not known exactly how many of the victims were civilians, police or government troops. Under international standards, the intentional use of lethal force by law enforcement officials is permissible only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
The day's violence is the most lethal since civilian government was established in Bolivia in 1982. It takes place against a backdrop of escalating political and social unrest.
On January 13, 2003, coca growers and other groups began to block roads and stage large and aggressive protests across the country. Over the past month, eleven people have been reported killed in clashes, including two members of the security forces, and many more have been injured.