In a makeshift hut by the ministry of justice in La Paz, Bolivia, a group of activists shuffle into place for a meeting. They are the survivors of the dictatorships that ruled Bolivia between 1964 and 1982; most are now in their 70s or 80s.
In 2012, fearing the country was moving on without a reckoning, they built the hut and moved in: a permanent protest to demand justice for the crimes committed against them.
Ten years later, they’re still there. Almost 50 of them have died since the protest began, and many of the rest are old and ailing. Yet their demands seem no closer to being met.
Operation Condor, the state terror network that targeted opponents of South America’s military dictatorships, is better known for its actions in Argentina and Chile. But it was present in Bolivia, too, where more than 200 people were murdered and 150 forcibly disappeared.
After its dictatorships, Bolivia had little transitional justice. When Evo Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) came to power in 2006, many victims believed the time had come, but ultimately, little changed: the military archives remained closed, and the government offered only partial reparations to the estimated 6,000 victims.
More than 200 people were murdered and 150 forcibly disappeared in Bolivia during the military dictatorships. Photograph: Sara Aliaga/The Guardian
And so, on 13 March 2012, the activists began their live-in protest.
“We all supported it, we all agreed,” said Victoria López, who leads the activists today. “But we never thought it would last so many years, that it would entail so much suffering.”
Inside the hut, there is a meeting room, with a kitchen to one side and a bedroom to the other. It is on one of the busiest streets in the city, and the noise is relentless. At an altitude of almost 4,000m, it gets bitterly cold at night. In 10 years it has never been empty.
Once a week, the activists gather to plan their next move. They are onetime politicians and union leaders, as well as teachers, miners and campesinos. The youngest are in their 60s, the oldest approaching 100.
The makeshift hut in front of the ministery of justice at 4000m altitude. Inside there is a meeting room, with a kitchen to one side and a bedroom to the other. Photograph: Sara Aliaga/The Guardian
In 2017, after five years in the hut, the activists achieved one of their goals: a truth commission. Five investigators were chosen, among them Nila Heredia, a former MAS politician and member of ASOFAMD, an association for families of the disappeared.
Heredia said that the commission lacked time and resources, but it did have access to military archives. Their report was handed to the government in March 2021. It has not been published online, but Heredia said it recommended reparations for the victims and their families – though not necessarily economic reparations. The government is yet to act on the report.
The activists have become sceptical about the commission. They believe that the report maintains impunity and offers no real advance on emblematic cases, such as that of socialist leader Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz, one of the many whose bodies were never found.
Another emblematic case is that of Juan Carlos Flores Bedregal, who at 27 years old was Bolivia’s youngest ever parliamentarian when he disappeared in 1980. His family, having exhausted the legal options in Bolivia, have taken the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
“Every country has created its own transitional mechanisms, some with more success than others,” said Karinna Fernández, the lawyer representing the family. “But from our assessment, without a doubt, the country that has the greatest debt with its victims is Bolivia.”
In 2017, after five years in the hut, the activists achieved one of their goals: a truth commission. Photograph: Sara Aliaga/The Guardian
Mark Goodale, an anthropologist who interviewed the activists, believes this neglect stems from the change that took place in the Bolivian left with the election of Morales in 2006. While the MAS is mostly centred around Indigenous politics, he says, the activists represent a traditional revolutionary left that is out of favour. “They are relics of an ideological past which doesn’t exist anymore.”
Fernández offers an alternative explanation. As a lawyer, she has dealt with various Bolivian governments – not just the MAS – and found no difference between them. “Why is it that they all have the same response of denials when it comes to forced disappearances? In my opinion, it reflects the influence of the armed forces.”
For Heredia, though, it is just a matter of priorities. “As it was not urgent, or more urgent, like the economic, social and development matters, we took too long to get to it.”
Yet the urgency is felt in the hut, where there is a banner with the number of years, months and days the protest has lasted – and a list with the name of each activist that has died in that time.
“We are what remains of those that stood up to the dictators,” said López. “We won democracy for our country. And today we are forgotten.”
There is no national campaign for them, said Goodale, nor is it something that gets into the news. The protest has gone on so long, it has become invisible. “And at some point, there won’t be any survivors left. Then it will fade away.”