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Bolivian minister lynched by protesting miners

Government locked in standoff with workers over new legislation for the sector

Rodolfo Illanes viceministro boliviano
Interior Minister Rodolfo Illanes. EFE

Bolivia’s deputy interior minister, Rodolfo Illanes, was beaten to death on Thursday by striking mineworkers who had kidnapped him after he attempted to negotiate with them at a roadblock they had staged, which was cutting off the country’s main highway.

The incident took place at Panduro, some 185 kilometers from the capital, La Paz, after Illanes was kidnapped on Thursday morning. During the day, police attempted to clear the roadblock, and in one incident, shot and killed a 26-year-old miner, named as Rubén Aparaya. There were reports police killed another miner in Cochabamba province during another standoff.

“At this present time, all the indications are that our Deputy Minister Rodolfo Illanes has been brutally and cowardly murdered,” Minister of Government Carlos Romero said on television and radio. Authorities later said around 100 people had been arrested over the incident.

The cooperative mining system has been accused of enriching a tiny minority that exploits other miners, paying starvation wages

He said Illanes had gone to talk to protesters earlier on Thursday but was intercepted and kidnapped by striking miners.

The government was trying to recover his body, Romero said.

Illanes’ assistant, Freddy Bobarín, had escaped and was being treated in a hospital in La Paz, Romero explained, adding that around 100 people had been arrested in connection with the killing.

Protests by miners in Bolivia demanding changes to laws turned violent earlier this week after a highway was blockaded. Two workers were killed on Wednesday after shots were fired by police. The government said 17 police officers had been wounded.

The National Federation of Mining Cooperatives of Bolivia, once strong allies of leftist President Evo Morales, began what they said would be an indefinite protest after negotiations over mining legislation failed.

Protesters have been demanding more mining concessions with less-stringent environmental rules, the right to work for private companies, and greater union representation.

Illanes made several telephone calls over the course of the day to the government calling on it to send a delegation to talk with the miners. After police moved in to try to clear the roadblock, no more was heard from him. Once the police had succeeded in their operation, a journalist reported seeing a badly beaten body tied against a lamppost.

Around 100 people have been arrested in connection with the killing

Bobarín told police that the situation had been tense but had only turned violent when miners learned that a colleague had been killed.

The government was due to sit down to talk with the workers, but the meeting was delayed after the minister was kidnapped.

Bolivia’s long-running social unrest appeared to have been largely overcome under the leadership of Morales, who took office in 2006. But the collapse in commodity prices over the last year has plunged the economy into decline. Mining has been one of the worst-affected sectors.

The vast majority of miners in Bolivia, one of South America’s poorest countries, work in cooperatives, scraping a living producing silver, tin and zinc. There are few foreign-owned mining firms, unlike in neighboring Peru and Chile. Instead, most miners, around 100,000, work in so-called survival mines run as cooperatives made up of groups of independent miners who extract small quantities of minerals from otherwise abandoned mine shafts.

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 mining companies.

However, the cooperative mining system has been accused of enriching a tiny minority that exploits other miners, paying starvation wages.

In 2014, Bolivia approved a new mining law, which denies cooperatives the right to partner with private companies, whether domestic or foreign. Bolivians, however, can now form mixed business enterprises with or through the state mining agency, Comibol.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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