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The World

Young Bolivians fuel mob violence in civil conflict

Untrained 'defense' groups are springing up in the pro-government high plains and in the rebellious lowlands.

September 20, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

SANTA CRUZ, BOLIVIA — His mother pleaded: Don't go to the road blockade.

"I had a bad feeling," she recalled. "It was dangerous."

But her son insisted. Edson Abad Ruiz was a proud member of the Juvenile Union of Santa Cruz, a group dedicated to defending this rebellious eastern region of Bolivia from its chief foe, the leftist administration of President Evo Morales.

Bolivia's polarization has reached the point where "defense" bands -- some call them militias -- are popping up here in the defiant lowlands and in the pro-government high plains to the west.

"Win or Die With Glory" is the Juvenile Union's motto.

The slogan adorned a green banner hoisted by mourning colleagues at the front of Ruiz's funeral cortege. The 25-year-old had been badly beaten Sept. 13, a nail perforated his head, when unionistas brawled with pro-government activists at a roadblock west of town, police say.

Mob violence has been the inevitable outcome of the jump in the number of Bolivians aligned with one faction or another.

Both sides in the conflict insist that they are defending their regions, and their very identities, in a nation split by social, geographic and ethnic rifts.

In Santa Cruz, a semitropical city of 1.2 million that is the epicenter of the opposition to Morales, Ruiz has become the posthumous inspiration for the youthful militants of the right. His slaying is seen as a call to the barricades against the collas (pronounced COY-yas), as Indians from the mountainous west are disparagingly called by Santa Cruz natives, known as cambas.

"He is a martyr of Santa Cruz," declared Angelo Cespedes, president of the Juvenile Union.

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Conflict escalates

To supporters, the union loyalists armed with sticks, stones and Roman candles are the foot soldiers of democracy, a bulwark against Morales, the country's first indigenous president, and his allied Indian multitudes. The Santa Cruz union has been in existence for almost 50 years, but the country's political crisis has spurred new growth and generated copycat organizations in four other opposition-controlled states.

"War has been declared against us," said Jose Marcio Melgar, 34, a Juvenile Union leader who says he heads a contingent of more than 300 unionistas. "Evo Morales wants to make Bolivia another Cuba. We won't permit it."

The Juvenile Union claims about 120,000 members statewide, a number that critics call exaggerated. They are mostly untrained, undisciplined teens and people in their 20s with only rustic weapons but itching for action.

"I'd rather die free than be a slave," said Arnold Arredondo, 17, one of scores of unionistas, many carrying sticks, gathered on a recent day on the grounds of the group's headquarters.

Providing pointers was Marcelo Terrazas, 37, a bingo parlor guard who acts as an "advisor" to the union.

"We are at the forefront of the defense of our region," said Terrazas, who has tinted blond hair and a ring piercing his lip.

But detractors label the union a neo-fascist gang of modern-day brownshirts whose adherents crack heads in the service of the eastern landlord elite.

"They're a bunch of delinquents and hooligans paid for by civic officials," said Edgar Rivero, a representative in Santa Cruz of Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party.

Union leaders call their group an all-volunteer effort funded by private donations.

The stereotype of unionists as light-skinned progeny of the European-descended "oligarchy" certainly didn't fit Ruiz. He was a shopkeeper's son who was nicknamed Negro for his dark complexion and mixed-race ancestry.

"We're not oligarchs; we're not landlords," said his first cousin Eliana Aguilera as she served sandwiches and soft drinks at his wake at the simple family home in the suburb of La Guardia. "He didn't hate anyone. He loved to teach kids sports. It didn't matter what color their skin was, whether they were collas or cambas."

Ruiz, a chubby soccer fanatic who dreamed of coaching semipro ball, became caught up in a fatal mix of youthful passion and political strife.

"He was firm in his ideals," said his cousin Joaquin Soliz, president of the local chapter of the Juvenile Union.

On Sept 13, Soliz said, a large contingent of unionists, including Ruiz, decided to head out in vehicles to a blockade at the nearby town of Tiquipaya, a Morales stronghold. Supporters of the president had been obstructing traffic, a common form of social protest.

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'It was an ambush'

The unionistas expected a rumble. They now say a trap awaited them.

"It was an ambush," Soliz said. "We had 100, but they had 500. They were hidden and had a strategy of attack, a military strategy."

There was a blizzard of sticks, stones and fireworks as the unionistas fell back in a frantic retreat.

Ruiz couldn't keep up with his fleeing allies and tripped, relatives said. He was set upon by pro-government protesters, his friends and family said.

Two neighborhood women helped rescue him, unconscious, from thugs who sought to burn him, relatives said. Ruiz was in a coma with brain damage for four days before he died.

Friends and loved ones bid farewell Thursday as Ruiz was interred in the La Guardia cemetery. About 50 unionistas attended the funeral, raising the group's green banner and donning black T-shirts emblazoned with the epitaph "Edson Ruiz, Martyr."

"It would be nice to think that my son died for something, that his death would bring peace and reconciliation," said his mother, Gladys Aguayo. "But I don't see that. There's too much rancor now, too much hatred."

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Special correspondent Martin Monasterio in Santa Cruz contributed to this report.

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