Bolivia mining violence quelled, minister replaced

Bolivia mining violence quelled, minister replaced

A deadly dynamite battle between rival groups of Bolivian miners ended in a truce on Friday night and President Evo Morales fired his mining minister, who was criticized for not anticipating the violence.

The official death toll rose to 16, after state-employed miners and members of independent mining cooperatives fought with dynamite, sticks and stones on Thursday and part of Friday at the Huanuni mine, one of the world’s largest tin mines.

More than 60 people were wounded in the fighting in the impoverished town of Huanuni in the Andes southeast of La Paz, before hundreds of police arrived and government and church officials stepped in to mediate.

“We have reached a truce, both sides, to return the whole town to calm, so that this doesn’t happen again. I’ve promised the police there will not be any more dynamite explosions,” Prudencio Pacheco, leader of the mining cooperative that fought for more control of the mine, told Reuters.

Pacheco’s group and other independent miners stormed the mine on Thursday demanding larger concessions to exploit ore from the mine, in which both state-employed miners and independent cooperatives work. There were deaths on both sides.

The violence left the leftist Morales, who took office in January, caught between two groups whose political support helped lift him to power.

After opposition lawmakers called for the removal of Minister Walter Villaroel, a former president of the National Federation of Cooperative Miners, Morales replaced him with Guillermo Dalence, who was sworn in on Friday night.

“We’ve never done so much for the workers … in eight months you can’t resolve all the problems,” said Morales, who also removed the head of state mining company Comibol.


More than 200 mourners filled the cooperative federation’s Huanuni headquarters at a wake around six caskets with mining helmets on top of them.

Women in traditional Bolivian bowler hats decorated the room with flowers and candles and mourners chewed leaves of coca, a mild stimulant many Andeans use to stave off hunger and altitude sickness.

Earlier on Friday, hundreds of independent miners in hard hats, many crouched in the rocky hillsides overlooking Huanuni, a town of some 40,000 people, tossed lit dynamite sticks.

Some packed dynamite into tires, which they rolled down to explode near state-employed miners guarding mine entrances.

State-employed workers complain that while they earn a monthly wage, workers from the independent cooperatives are paid according to the amount of ore they extract, frequently earning more than mine staff.

“They are sucking the mine dry,” said Eliaterio Ancasi, 54, a worker at COMIBOL. “Within a month many of them have a car, while most of the state workers don’t even have a wheelbarrow.”

Some 1,200 state-employed miners and 4,000 independent miners work at Huanuni, which produces 10,000 tonnes of tin a year, slightly more than half Bolivia’s total production.

Traders said tin prices could jump sharply as supplies are squeezed by the violence in Bolivia and in Indonesia, where riots broke out after police closed down four illegal smelters this week.

Pacheco said: “We still haven’t reached an agreement on how to share the mine. The government must give us real solutions so this doesn’t happen again.”

Once a pillar of the economy in South America’s poorest country, the mining industry shriveled during the 1980s as pits closed and workers were let go amid an economic crisis and sagging international prices for minerals.

As prices rebounded in the 1990s the laid-off miners started working the idle mines themselves and eventually formed powerful independent cooperatives now fighting for more control over Bolivia’s rich minerals.

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