Bolivia crisis: Death toll rises, security forces overwhelm protesters

Three people were killed Tuesday when Bolivian security services attempted to clear a path for gas tanks to leave the Senkata gas plant near La Paz.

Their deaths take the number of people killed in political unrest to 23 since the October 20 president election, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Protests erupted after reports of electoral irregularities during the election, plunging the country into chaos.

Former President Evo Morales denied any electoral fraud, but he eventually resigned amid pressure and fled to Mexico where he was granted political asylum.

An interim government has taken power and vowed to hold new elections at “the earliest possible time,” but Morales’ supporters have echoed the longtime leader’s claim that he was the victim of a coup — and have since taken to the streets, where they’ve faced riot police and the military.

The Bolivian Ombudsman’s office said the three protesters were killed Tuesday as Bolivian Armed Forces and police worked to “enable the exit of gasoline tanks” from the Senkata plant.

The military released a statement saying it was attempting to preserve a “strategic essential public service,” and had exhausted options of dialogue. Bolivian Defense Minister Luis Lopez said at a news conference he regretted the event but maintained that “not a single projectile was from the army.”

International monitors have warned about potential human rights abuses and called on Bolivia’s government and opposition to resolve the political crisis peacefully.

Morales said in an interview with CNN Friday he was willing to return to Bolivia and not run in the next election for the sake of peace and stability if his resignation is accepted.

Interim President Jeanine Anez blamed Morales for the uptick in violence.

“I am astonished by the shape of violence Evo Morales has generated within the country by simply holding on to power,” she told CNN Friday.

Human Rights Watch accused the Anez government of giving the military sweeping powers that “appear to prioritize brutally cracking down on opponents and critics and give the armed forces a blank check to commit abuses instead of working to restore the rule of law in the country.”

“The priority should be to ensure that the fundamental rights of Bolivians, including to peaceful protest and other peaceful assembly, are upheld,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Morales was the first indigenous Bolivian elected president and led the country for 14 years. He had long enjoyed support among many for his leftist policies to reduce poverty and support indigenous Bolivians. Indigenous people make up some 20% of Bolivia’s population, while 68% of the country has some Amerindian ancestry, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Many of those who have come out to protest have been indigenous Bolivians who are angry that the new government is both unelected and does not represent them in terms of both religion and race.

Anez and her cabinet has no indigenous representation.

“The new government is composed of many figures who are self-declared evangelical Christians,” Bret Gustafson, an associate professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a statement.

“Many are arguing that Morales, who was indigenous, had taken God out of government and that they want to bring God back in. Women’s rights groups, who were not necessarily big supporters of Morales, are concerned that the new regime will roll back progress on gender and sexuality rights. Other social gains made under Morales, including the redistribution of money generated by the natural gas industry, may also be at risk.”

CNN’s Gustavo Valdes, Matt Rivers, Bethlehem Feleke and Madeline Holcombe contributed to this report