SANTA CRUZ/LA PAZ, Bolivia, Jan 2 (Reuters) – Protesters in Bolivia’s agricultural region of Santa Cruz are blocking roads out of the province, threatening to disrupt the national transportation of grain and food, as anger boils over slow fire after the arrest of the local governor. Luis Camacho.
The region, a stronghold of the conservative opposition to socialist President Luis Arce, is in its sixth day of protests that have seen thousands of people take to the streets and nights of clashes with armed fireworks and burned-out cars.
On Tuesday, hundreds of women marched to the city’s police headquarters in support of Camacho, demanding his release.
In the nearby streets there were burned vehicles, smoldering fires and roadblocks due to nighttime clashes.
The protests, sparked by Camacho’s arrest on December 28 for an alleged 2019 coup, are deepening divisions between lowland Santa Cruz and highland, more indigenous political capital La Paz, which has long They have long argued about state policy and funding.
Camacho was kidnapped by special police forces, taken out of the province by helicopter and is now in a maximum security prison in the mountain city of El Alto. He denies all charges related to the divisive ouster of former socialist leader Evo Morales in 2019.
The Santa Cruz leaders vow to fight until Camacho is released, picketing government buildings and stopping the transportation of grain. There are also calls for a federal system that gives the city more autonomy and state funding.
“We have a mandate from our assembly that nothing leaves Santa Cruz and that is what we are going to do,” said Rómulo Calvo, leader of the powerful Pro Santa Cruz civic group.
Marcelo Cruz, president of the International Association of Heavy Transport of Santa Cruz, said that the routes were being blocked so that the trucks could not leave the province.
“No grain, animal or supply from the factories should leave Santa Cruz for the rest of the country. The blocking points are being reinforced, ”he said.
Morales and his allies, including current President Arce, say his ouster was a coup and have prosecuted opposition figures they blame. Jeanine Anez, who became interim president after her removal, was jailed for 10 years in 2022.
Human rights groups say the government is using a weak justice system to go after its opponents.
“We are no longer a state of law, we are a state outside the law,” said Erwin Bazán of the right-wing Creemos party, saying the charges against Camacho were politically motivated.
Others blame Camacho for the tensions in 2019, in which dozens of people were killed in protests, including Morales supporters.
“Let him go to jail for 30 years. We want justice,” said María Laura, a supporter of the ruling Movement for Socialism (MAS) party.
Morales remains the party’s leader, although he has clashed with the new president Arce at times.
Paul Coca, a lawyer and analyst in La Paz, said internal divisions in the ruling party were partly behind the arrest, with Arce trying to neutralize Morales’ criticism.
“(Arce) had to face the leader of his party or go directly against Luis Fernando Camacho. And he obviously chose to go all out against Camacho,” he said.
The blockade could affect food supplies to other parts of the country, as well as exports and growth, as Bolivia faces a large fiscal deficit and low reserves.
“Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s economic stronghold,” said Gary Rodríguez, General Manager of the Bolivian Institute of Foreign Trade (IBCE).
The region is the main producer of soybeans, sugar cane, wheat, rice, corn and livestock.
“All this great private productive effort is now in jeopardy.”
Reporting by Adam Jourdan and Daniel Ramos; Additional reporting by Monica Machicao, Editing by Angus MacSwan
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