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The Contested Streets of Cochabamba

by Becca Leaphart Jul 5, 2012
This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

THEY SAY THE STREETS OF POTOSÍ WERE PAVED WITH SILVER. They say that with all the silver the Spanish mined there, they could’ve built a bridge from the mines to the palace in Spain. They say the Incas knew about the treasure the mountain contained, but didn’t mine it because when they tried, a voice boomed a warning at them from the depths of the hill: The riches aren’t meant for you, but for another. They say an Indian discovered a vein of silver when he was alone and hungry. He pulled a plant out by the roots to eat it, and unleashed a river of silver. Or he started a fire, and silver flowed from the rock beneath the flame. He told only one person. But the Spanish heard.

The mountain, known as Cerro Rico, contained the largest silver lode in the Western world. In 1545, the Spanish declared themselves the rightful heirs to the peak of silver and used it to fund an empire. By the height of the 17th century, Potosí was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world.

The Spanish enlisted the energy of local people through a system of forced labor known as the mita. According to the mita, each rural, indigenous community in the surrounding area had to send 1/7 of its adult males to work in the mines every year.

For 200 years, the peasantry of present-day Bolivia was forced off the land that they farmed, and into the mines.


When you’re stuck in traffic on the streets of Cochabamba, it takes work to imagine you’re a vaquero riding the open range. Only the occasional dairy cow grazes the once-productive banks of the Rio Rocha. Cochabamba builds up and out to accommodate an influx of industry, developers, and migrant job seekers; the city’s streets pave the way towards a promised, but evasive, better future.

None of this concerns the boy who stands atop a pile of lumber in his father’s truckbed, waiting at a red light. When the truck lurches forward, he raises his right hand in the air and draws bold circles. In his mind, he wields a lasso and the surrounding cars are heads of cattle to be rounded up and tallied for his gain.

* * *
As the Spanish began mining the silver of Cerro Rico, Garci Ruiz de Orellano, a Spaniard, arrived in the fertile Cochabamba valley. He recognized the land’s agricultural potential and bought the land where the city of Cochabamba now stands for 130 silver pesos. He planted a farm there. More Spaniards followed Orellano’s lead, and eventually the settlers received permission from their Viceroy to establish a village at what is now Cochabamba’s central plaza, Plaza 14 de Septiembre.
Cerro Rico acquired a new, Quechua name: The Mountain That Eats Men.

Meanwhile, as the silver industry in Potosí boomed, the miners were dying by the thousands. They received little pay, suffered from harsh working conditions, and fell victim to European diseases and mercury poisoning. The Spaniards began importing African slaves to run the mines, and these workers died too.

Cerro Rico acquired a new, Quechua name: The Mountain That Eats Men. The Cochabamba valley became Bolivia’s breadbasket, supplying the grains and beef that fed Potosí’s man-eating mountain.


On Sunday mornings, a boy on horseback leads a second, riderless horse across the current of cars. He forges ahead amidst honking and the rev of engines, hardly looking back to see that his charge is still in tow. The following horse is skittish between the bumpers, crow hopping and rearing against his young master. If they make it to the park, the boy can charge five bolivianos for a ride.

* * *
A silversmith by the name of Alejo Calatayud led Cochabamba’s first uprising against Spanish colonial rule in 1730. With rocks, knives, sticks, and slingshots, indigenous and mixed-heritage Cochabambinos surrounded the city. A group of Catholic clergy stepped into the conflict, mediating a final solution: The province would no longer be ruled by the Spanish; instead, it would be governed by people who were of Spanish descent, but born on American soil. The men who came to power turned on Calatayud, strangling him and hanging his body in the city’s central plaza.

Almost a century later, the colonies of Bolivia, then considered to be “Upper Peru,” began fighting once again to be free of Spanish rule. On the 14th of September, 1810, Cochabamba announced its independence. Fifteen years of fighting ensued, not only in Cochabamba, but across the continent.

Bolivia’s namesake, Simon Bolivar, led the fight for South American freedom. Yet when the rebels emerged victorious, Bolivar opposed Bolivia’s becoming independent from Peru. Nonetheless, Marshal Antonio Jose de Sucre declared it separate, and went on to become the country’s first president when Bolivia established its autonomy on August 6th, 1825.


A four-year-old boy slides along the front bumper of a parked car. When he reaches the edge of the parking lane, he stops. Between the stiller world of pedestrians and the flow of oncoming night traffic is an alluring precipice. He balances there, with his heels on one side of the border and his toes on the other, and unzips his pants. No one stops him, not because he’s just a boy but because there is no better place to go. He thrusts his pelvis forward and arches his piss above the headlights.

* * *
As the countries of South America established their independence from Europe, many left their national borders ambiguously defined. When border-land became desirable, for arability, strategic geography, or resources, disputes arose. The Atacama Desert was a source of conflict between Bolivia and Chile. Rich with copper, the high desert was also home to sodium nitrate (used in explosives), and deposits of guano, or bird droppings (used for fertilizer). After five years of fighting, the two countries signed a truce that gave Chile Bolivia’s nitrate, guano, and copper. More importantly, it gave Chile Bolivia’s coast.

Bolivians bemoaned their landlocked state, so when they saw the Paraguay River, Bolivia’s only other means of accessing the sea, slipping from their grasp, they rallied for a fight. The Chaco War, waged between Bolivia and Paraguay from 1932-35, was the bloodiest on the South American continent in the 20th century.

Like Bolivia, Paraguay was poor, landlocked, and had just lost territory in another war. Besides wanting ownership of the Paraguay River, both countries were desperate to claim what they believed to be large reserves of oil under the Gran Chaco Boreal. When Paraguay initiated an attack in 1932, the war was on.

Paraguay’s guerilla tactics overcame Bolivia’s larger and more conventional army. Tens of thousands lost their lives. Yet despite their excruciating defeat, Bolivians emerged from the Chaco War with a newly created national pride. For the first time in the country’s history, soldiers of Aymara, Quechua, and Spanish descent fought beside one another for a common, Bolivian cause.


A man rolls his wheelchair the wrong direction up a one-way street. He lowers his head to oncoming traffic like it’s a fierce wind.

* * *
In the early 20th century, tin replaced silver as Bolivia’s most prized mineral. Tin money had financed the Chaco War, and when the railroad was extended to Oruro, Bolivia began to ship its tin to Europe, where another war was brewing. The landlocked country provided half of the tin required for the Second World War. Tin miners left their rural homes to labor under deplorable conditions and contract lung diseases at young ages.

Few Bolivians, however, reaped the benefits of the tin boom, as 80% of the industry was controlled by just three families. The most prominent of Bolivia’s tin barons, Simon Patiño, rose to be one of the wealthiest men in the world. He built palaces in Villa Albina and Cochabamba, but moved permanently to Europe in 1924.

It wasn’t until after his death, when he was buried in the Andes under a blue marble tomb, that he returned to the Bolivian soil that made him his fortune.


Speedbumps don’t deter the cab driver. He wants to pass the taxi in front of him, and he’s willing to create his own lane to do it. He runs a woman on a motorcycle into the parking lane; he preempts a green light, honking as he presses through an intersection: COMING THROUGH. His car is a registered, radio cab, but he has to assert himself to beat out the other taxis and buses, not to mention the unlicensed, illegal chauffeurs on his route. Neither he nor his passengers wear seat belts, and when he accelerates over a dip and then under a bridge, the vehicle leaves its riders behind for a moment, suspended in mid-air.

* * *
The Chaco War alerted Bolivians to the importance of controlling their remaining natural resources. And in 1936, Bolivia became the first Latin American country to nationalize its oil. The war also gave rise to a new movement of revolutionary nationalists known as the Movimiento Nationalista Revolutionario (MNR).
With each succeeding generation, the allotments grew smaller and smaller until eventually, the young people gave up on farming and migrated to the biggest cities.

In 1951, an MNR candidate won the presidential elections. Opponents accused MNR of fraud, however, and instead of taking command of the country, party members went into exile. MNR members returned to lead the people of Bolivia in a 1952 revolt. The civilians overcame the army, and established a new government.

The new MNR president, Victor Paz Estenssoro, nationalized Bolivia’s tin mines, gave every Bolivian adult the right to vote and initiated sweeping land reforms to give the indigenous people the land they farmed on. These reforms released people from forced servitude, but failed to outfit everyone with papers documenting their ownership of the land they’d been given.

Unable to sell without this proof of ownership, families divided land among their children. With each succeeding generation, the allotments grew smaller and smaller until eventually, the young people gave up on farming and migrated to the biggest cities: La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba.


Pedestrian Day comes three times a year. From 9 until 5, only the rogue truck or motorcycle dares fire up an engine within city limits; vehicles powered by gasoline, diesel, or natural gas are prohibited. Cochabamba’s claim to the most contaminated air in the country gave the mayor the idea. To conserve the environment. To protect mother earth. To offer the people a space to breathe.

The absence of traffic strips the city of its familiar background noises, and families emerge from their walled-in houses to have a look. Packs of middle- and upper-class children, the kind that rarely walk the streets unaccompanied, circulate as though the streets were their familiar playground.

Pedestrian Day has the festivity of a holiday, with ice cream, balloons, and puppies, yet the quiet is like the aftermath of a battle. Powerful forces have been upended, but not forgotten. Kids pedal down the middle of the road in audacious packs. They lap up the freedom in happy gulps, but they know enough to glance over their shoulders, wondering when normality will catch up.

* * *
President Estenssoro re-privatized the country’s oil in 1955. When Bolivia discovered its first natural gas reserves in the 1960s, then dictator General Rene Barrientos gave a US company, Gulf Oil, the rights to extract it.

A coup in 1971 ushered in over a decade of brutal military dictatorships, and dissidents were exiled. Bolivians who could afford to leave fled the country’s political and economic instability.

Though democracy returned in 1982, tin prices collapsed just three years later. Estenssoro, serving for the third time as president, privatized the mines.

20,000 miners were suddenly unemployed and once again, Bolivians left home in search of the next frontier. Some found their way to the tropical Chapare lowlands where they began to grow coca, first for domestic consumption, and then to satisfy an international appetite for cocaine.

Other migrants fled to the cities. In 1985, the displaced laborers turned El Alto, a suburb on the cliffs overlooking La Paz, into the country’s most rapidly growing city.


Stay out of the street, a woman warns her toddling daughter. The girl is obedient; she sits on the tall curb and dangles her feet over the black tar. Her mother, too, remains on the sidewalk. But she leans over the curb to arrange a plastic basin full of water in the street.

Likely she’s carried the water from a nearby fountain, a cleaner source than the river that flows through town, brown with the waste of the valley’s nearly one million people. She shakes the basin and gazes down through the water as though she’s panning for gold. Then she lowers a baby from her back, unswaddles and undresses him. She plops the baby into his bath and gives him a scrub. Her daughter sits by, tossing pebbles into the current of cars. When the baby is clothed again, the woman pours the bathwater into the road. It trickles along the curb toward a garbage-choked street drain.

* * *
The streets of Cochabamba became the front lines in the fight against corporate power in early 2000. The city’s mayor had signed the city’s water supply over to Agua Tunari, a transnational company that privatized the system and raised rates. The World Bank pressured the mayor to make the sale, threatening to withhold $600 million in international debt relief if Cochabamba refused to privatize.
Police and soldiers descended on Cochabamba from around the country, and the streets became a battlefield.

To reclaim their water, the people seized the streets. Three times in four months, thousands of people took the Plaza 14 de Septiembre. The miners’ unions contributed their organizing know-how; protestors took the bridges and the highways, parking semi-trucks perpendicular to traffic and amassing crowds behind the Bolivian flag.

Police and soldiers descended on Cochabamba from around the country, and the streets became a battlefield. The protestors held their ground with whatever ammunition they could find: sticks, stones, bricks, flames. Newspaper photos showed unarmed citizens staring down men in riot gear and taking cover from tear gas in doorways. A line of policia spanned a side street. The officers crouched low to the ground and took aim at civilians.

The protestors triumphed; Agua Tunari fled the country. Cochabamba’s “Water Wars” were hailed around the world as a grassroots victory. But returning control of the water to the city didn’t guarantee new infrastructure. Cochabamba’s population had surpassed half a million and between deforestation and rapid urbanization, the valley’s water table was sinking. The Water Wars had left hundreds injured, an unarmed 17-year-old named Victor Huga Daza had been shot dead, and the people still didn’t have water to drink.


Two teenage boys leap from the curb as the light turns yellow. They are window-washers, and they reach with long-handled squeegees, beginning their work without permission. Their services aren’t charitable and a reputation precedes them: It’s rumored they’re glue-sniffers who attack stingy drivers with fists or pocket-knives. Windows roll up in their faces and windshield wipers flick them away.

Then a girl in short shorts joins the effort. She hardly wrings out her cloth before stretching her belly-shirt across the car and mopping the windshield. The driver shells out change for the show and the window washer returns to her cohorts, smiling. She drops her rag in the bucket: That, my friends, is how it’s done.

* * *
Evo Morales’ election to the presidency in 2005 was hailed as a victory for both working-class Bolivians and for the country’s majority indigenous population. An Aymara Indian, Morales was born near the mining town of Oruro, but migrated with his family to grow coca in the Chapare. He rose to be the leader of the coca growers’ unions and ran for the Bolivian legislature after he and his fellow cocaleros participated in the Cochabamba Water Wars.

Morales campaigned on the platform of re-nationalizing the gas that had been privatized in the 1990s. This promise resonated with the Bolivian people who remembered the violence that had erupted in the streets when the government tried to ship Bolivia’s gas to Chile. The 2003 conflict, known as the “Bolivian gas war,” left 60 people dead, and forced the president to flee the country.

Just months into his first term in office, Morales announced that the military had occupied the oil and gas fields. People hung banners from filling stations and refineries: “Nationalized: Property of the Bolivian People.”

Bolivia’s first indigenous president spoke from the San Alberto gas field: “This is the end of the looting of our natural resources by multinational oil companies.”


The plum seller holds her two bags of fruit out like Lady Justice’s scales — transparent goldens in one hand, foggy purples in the other. She doesn’t call out in advertisement, or chase potential buyers down. The level hem of her skirt and the identical reach of two thick braids down her back prove the quality of her wares.

* * *
In August of 2006, President Morales rode into the village of Ucurena on a tractor. Ucurena, situated in the heart of the Cochabamba department, was the same place that the 1953 land reforms were announced. Morales returned to hand out land titles and farming equipment to the Bolivian indigenous people, vowing that his administration would make good on the 1953 promise by redistributing 200,000 square kilometers of land.

Much of the land available for the government to give lay in Bolivia’s lowlands. Though the land was state-owned and idle, the region was home to prosperous, non-indigenous Morales opponents, who swore they’d fight the reforms. They believed that the president aimed to repopulate the lowlands — which were fertile and rich in natural gas — with his political supporters.

Settlers who took the president up on his offer, mainly indigenous people from the high altiplano region, arrived at their new homes to find not only a foreign climate, but unwelcoming neighbors.


In the market, an elderly woman swats the hood of a car like it’s a stray dog needing to be reminded who’s boss. Traffic stands still, a line of vehicles stretching two blocks back, unable to part the throngs of people and their goods. The car lays on its horn, and bus drivers curse from their perches above, but the woman and her fellow market-goers push back: If you’re in a hurry, get out and walk.

* * *
Morales’ reforms didn’t revive Bolivia’s economy overnight. The country’s urban centers had neared their capacities, and by the end of 2006, a quarter of people born in Bolivia had left the country. Each day, hundreds escaped the country on buses to Argentina, or planes to Spain and the United States. Abroad, Bolivians could make as much as six times the money they made at home.


Stacks of both bolivianos and crisp American dollars travel through Cochabamba’s streets. The money changers wait for them on islands of pavement amidst a chaotic junction of traffic where a roundabout casts vehicles in all directions: the overpass into town, an exit ramp to the highway, the north hills of Cochabamba. The money-changers are middle-aged women in sensible shoes and wide-billed sun bonnets, lounging under beach umbrellas. “Dolares?” they call to all who pass. “Se venden o compran.” We sell and buy. 6.9 bolivianos per dollar is the going rate.

Two money-changers spot a prime customer at the same time: a modest-looking man in cargo pants and a button-down shirt. Perhaps he has relatives abroad who send money. Or he works construction, building cement mansions on the hillsides for clients who pay in dollars. Nobody mentions another possibility: narcotraficante.

Regardless, the money-changers know him as a lucrative catch; they run to beat the other to his side. But the customer strides on, dismissing them both. He deals only with the woman who wears a large flower on her sun hat. She’s been seated all morning, but rises to greet him and they cross the exit ramp to a sidewalk cafe. He orders a Fanta and the money-changer sets a folded wad of bolivianos on the table. He counts out eight hundred dollars in exchange, downs the orange soda, and they’re through. Her competitors watch as the man steps back into the flow of cars, patting a fat pocket that tugs at the waist of his pants.

* * *
Ten years after Cochabamba’s famous Water Wars, Morales drew international attention to the valley again. Over 15,000 people from more than 120 countries arrived in the small town of Tiquipaya to express their anger with the outcome of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference of 2009. Morales called the meeting the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth; he touted it as an opportunity for the poor and global south to voice their opinions.

His invitation appealed to countries who felt that the Copenhagen Climate Summit had been exclusive, ignoring the opinions of developing countries and allowing developed countries to get away without limiting their emissions while glaciers in the Andes melted away.

Bolivia’s UN ambassador Pablo Solon explained the climate crisis as an unfair occupation of atmospheric space:

80% of the atmospheric space of the world has been occupied by 20% of the population that is in developed countries. We don’t have any space for any kind of development.


At five o’clock, rush hour, a father pushes a stroller in the middle lane of one of Cochabamba’s busiest streets. He ignores the congestion, the screeching of brakes, the puffs of exhaust. It’s time for his child to take a nap, and he is singing a lullaby.

* * *
As coca growers stood up for their traditions and livelihoods, the US military responded with tear-gas, and Bolivia’s coca fields became battlefields.

Beginning in the late 1980s, the US Drug Enforcement Administration spearheaded anti-drug activities in Bolivia. Their policies rested on the idea of minimizing US cocaine use by eliminating production of the coca leaf. The US military arrived to enforce eradication of coca crops. Their focus on eradication overlooked the cultural significance of coca as well as the potential of coca to provide income for Bolivian families. As coca growers stood up for their traditions and livelihoods, the US military responded with tear-gas, and Bolivia’s coca fields became battlefields.

When Morales took office in 2005, he promoted a policy of “coca yes, cocaine no,” and initiated a program of cooperative, rather than forced, coca eradication. His proposal that Bolivia increase its allowed area of legal coca production intensified friction between the US and Bolivia.

Despite the fact that US studies showed no increase in Bolivian coca production since 2005, in 2008 the US placed Bolivia on a list of countries that had failed to meet its “drug war” goals. Less than two months later, declaring the need to protect national sovereignty, the Morales administration ejected the DEA from Bolivian territory.


Two lone officers on motorcycles prevent cars from plowing through the people that have assembled on the plaza today. One parks his bike mid-intersection and leaves it to chat with his fellow officer. It’s ten years since the famous Water Wars erupted in Cochabamba, pitting the Bolivian military and police against civilians in the city’s streets. The banner — 50 feet long and red — that hung from the union building on Plaza 14 de Septiembre and put words to the protestors’ indignation — “El agua es nuestro, carajo,” The water is ours, dammit — is long gone.

A protestor wanders the outskirts of the crowd, looking for a place to leave his wad of used-up coca leaves. He stops to spit in the shadows of parked cars, then disappears into the fray. A dimpled boy spills fresh leaves on the asphalt in an attempt to keep up with his mother. She has joined a group of women and is unfolding a bundle of striped cloth to reveal a mountain of coca leaves. Arranging the blanket like a beach towel on the street, she declares a plot of ground for her family and the supply of coca they’ve brought to share. When her son arrives, he adds the remainder of his collection to the pile. Protestors stop by and hold out hats, bags, or shirt hems to be filled.

Hundreds have come from around Cochabamba to chew coca in public defiance of a United Nations’ prohibition on this traditional practice. From their stashes they draw pinch-fulls of the leaves and stuff them into their mouths. A businessman pauses in his walk to sprinkle a few leaves on the pavement: an offering to Pachamama. The sun doesn’t let up on the protestors all afternoon. They take cover under umbrellas and palms. They buy watermelon and sweet grapes out of wheelbarrows. They sit in the street. They chew.

By evening, traffic around the plaza flows as usual, no more posters, stalls, or people parked and chewing in its path. The only signs of the protest are the two workers shoveling the event’s remains into a dump truck. And in the wake of cars cruising around the plaza, a confetti of coca leaves.

* * *
In August of 2011, inhabitants of Bolivia’s Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), struck out for the capital city, some 375 miles from their home, to protest the construction of a road through their land. The road was designed to connect Brazil to the Pacific Ocean by way of Bolivia. Despite a constitutional requirement that the president consult with affected indigenous people, Morales signed onto the project without asking any of the three indigenous groups who inhabit the park.

Residents of the park disagreed on the issue of the road. Supporters, primarily farmers and ex-miners who had been relocated to the park from the highlands, said it was necessary to increase access to clinics and markets. Opponents, many of whom depend on hunting and gathering within the park, claimed that it was designed to open markets for the cocaleros and loggers and would threaten their existence.

Protestors marched for days, though the president insisted he wouldn’t meet with them. Tensions came to a head on September 25, when police followed orders from the Morales administration to raid the marchers’ camp and send the protestors home.


A blast explodes near the Cala Cala bridge. “Don’t worry,” a woman laughs, “it’s only dynamite.” She takes a break from her Coca-Cola to point down the on-ramp where a group of men in helmets stands in the way of traffic. “You see,” she says, “it’s just the miners.”

The miners have shut down the bridge to the city center in an act of solidarity with the indigenous protestors whose march to the capital was broken up in a violent confrontation with police. Footage of officers beating protestors and gagging them with tape spurred vigils and protests around the country. Law enforcement leaves the riot gear and tear gas at home for today’s demonstration.

Besides the explosions of dynamite, the miners’ efforts to halt vehicles are good natured; a motorbike driver argues with the group of men in hard hats, then turns around without so much as a parting middle finger. A miner nods as a pedestrian high steps over the tree limbs that block the bridge. Beyond the miners’ blockade, other protesters have placed large obstacles mid-street: boulders, tires, dumpsters. The city is quiet. Then the miners light another stick.

* * *
Today, over 60% of Bolivians live in poverty. The Morales administration looks optimistically towards a future in which Bolivia could capitalize on the treasure buried beneath its vast salt flats and become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

But for now, Bolivia remains one of the poorest countries on the continent. So much silver has been extracted from the veins of Cerro Rico that the mountain has imploded. The Andean mountain of riches has shrunk hundreds of meters from the height it reached when the Spanish first saw it in 1545.


Outside La Catanata, one of Cochabamba’s finest dining establishments, a simple wooden chair occupies an entire parking spot. Bathed in the yellow of a streetlight, it stands unquestioned by passing pedestrians and drivers, reserving the space. [Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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