The San Juan mining massacre, which took place in the early hours of June 24, 1967, does not appear in the official pages of Bolivia’s history, although it remains alive in the collective memory, passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth, becoming in some cases a tale or legend, as occurs with historical events that refuse to die hidden by the mists of oblivion. And if I speak of it here and now, it is because I witnessed that horrible massacre just three days after my ninth birthday.
It all began when the mining families were returning home to sleep after celebrating the winter solstice around bonfires, where they had danced and sung to the rhythm of cuecas and huayños, accompanied by alcohol-spiked punches, traditional foods, coca, cigarettes, bursts of dynamite and firecrackers. As this was going on among the civilian population of Llallagua and the mining camps of Siglo XX (20th Century), troops from the Ranger and Camacho regiments, which just hours before had surrounded them under cover of night, opened fire from every direction, with a toll of some twenty killed and seventy wounded amid stabs of cold and the whistling of the wind.
It is estimated that the soldiers and officials, who entered from the north between nine and eleven that night, had left from the city of Oruro by train on the afternoon of June 23rd. The railroad watchman who saw them arrive, armed, in the train cars tried to get the word out to union leaders and the radio stations, but was intimidated by the military officials, who continued their march. And so, at about five in the morning, the shooting began, targeting men, women and children. At first, surprised by the attack, some confused the machine-gun bursts with firecrackers, and the booming of the mortars with their own dynamite explosions.
The company, complicit with those committing the massacre, cut off the electricity at dawn, so that the radio stations could not alert the local people; while the soldiers, stationed on San Miguel hill, near Canañiri, La Salvadora, and Río Seco, descended steep slopes like donkey pack trains, occupying by firepower the camps, the Miners’ Plaza, the union headquarters, and the Voice of the Miner radio station. There they murdered union leader Rosendo García Maismann, who, barricaded behind a window, defended the radio station with an old rifle in hand.
The killing lasted for several hours under the sun of June 24th. The dead bled next to the ashes of the bonfires, and the wounded sought help at the hospital, while mothers, terrorized by the gunfire and the screaming, attempted to calm their children’s fear and weeping. Amidst the chaos and the terror, there were also men who, in a desperate attempt at self-defense, armed themselves with dynamite and captured some of the soldiers, whom they stripped of their uniforms and their weapons. But everything seemed to indicate that it was already too late to prepare any organized resistance. Soldiers filled the Miners’ Plaza, and all of Bustillo province was declared a “military zone”.
The massacre was carried out under specific orders from René
Barrientos Ortuño, whose government cut wages down to hunger levels, emptied
the general stores, forbade union activity, and launched a furiously cruel
persecution against political and union leaders, with a view to breaking systematically
the backbone of resistance at the heart of the labor movement. In fact, we
know from first-hand accounts that a national open meeting of miners had been
planned for June 24th at Siglo XX, with a goal of demanding an increase in
wages and support for Che’s guerrilla with “two shares from their earnings”,
equivalent to two workdays’ wages--an important sum, considering the approximately
20,000 workers employed by COMIBOL (the Bolivian Mining Corporation) at that
The government and the Armed Forces, informed of preparations for the open meeting, and advised by the CIA, rushed to occupy the mining centers to prevent any sending of moral and material support to the guerillas fighting in the mountains of Nancahuazú. As a result, far from the dream of lighting a flame of liberation in the Americas, the highland miners and the guerillas led by Che were gunned down by the same weapons and the same enemies, separated from one another, without ever seeing each other’s face or sharing the same trench against the CIA mercenaries and Bolivian Army troops.
René Barrientos Ortuño, who knew how to orchestrate his sinister plans, backed by the “military-campesino pact” which he himself had set up with pro-government bureaucracy of the agricultural unions, justified the massacre on the pretext that the army had to fire in self-defense and that it was necessary “to combat the subversive process” of the miners at Siglo XX, ready to organize a core guerilla group to join the armed struggle of “the bearded foreigners” in Ñancahuazú.
While popular indignation raced through the length and breadth of the country like a trail of lit gunpowder, the “underground unions”, organized inside the mines, besides declaring unanimously a 48-hour strike to protest the massacre, ratified their just demands: withdrawal of the army troops; return of the union headquarters and the “Voice of the Miners” radio station; respect for union activity; unconditional release for leaders detained and still being held; indemnification for the widows of those assassinated and that they not be evicted from the camps; a return to the salary levels May 1965; and, as if this were not enough, a two-week ten-peso quota per worker for union expenses and to acquire arms. The popular resistance found its indisputable vanguard at the national level in the mining sectors which, due to their high level of political consciousness and combative commitment, were determined to defend their most elemental rights and to continue to declare Siglo XX a “free territory,” in an open challenge to the military dictatorship.
The massacre was followed by repression and the firing of “agitators” from their workplaces. Some ended up in the dungeon and others in exile. The widows and orphans were expelled from the camps without indemnification or the right to anything, and the San Juan Massacre remained in impunity. The wave of persecution was planned within the Military High Command, with the clear objective of liquidating physically the brightest leaders of the labor resistance. And so it was that the military found the whereabouts of Isaac Camacho, one of the main leaders of the “underground unions”, and, after his detention on July 29th at a house near the New Plaza in Llallagua, brutally tortured and disappeared him without a trace.
René Barrientos Ortuño was directly responsible, other than for the mining massacre, for the murder, imprisonment, torture and disappearance of several opponents to his government, until the day he was burned alive in the very helicopter given to him by his allies in the north.
Nevertheless, despite multiple testimonies
to this somber history, there are still those who exalt the “patriotism” of
Barrientos, calling him “the people’s general”, when in reality he was no
more than a mere general who led a coup, an aviator trained in the USA, and
a servile lackey of imperialism, who took advantage of his presidential mandate
to plunder the natural resources amid a country bleeding its misery and mourning
its dead under the boot of militarism.
VÍCTOR MONTOYA was born in La Paz (Bolivia) in 1958. He spent his childhood and early youth in the miner's town of Siglo XX-Llallagua, north of Potosí, where the largest vein of tin in the world was discovered. In 1976 he was persecuted, tortured, and jailed. He remained in the concentration camp of Chonchocoro-Viacha until, in 1977, he was freed following a campaign by Amnesty International. Since then he has resided in Sweden, where he is dedicated professionally to literature.
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▫ Artículo publicado en Revista Almiar, n. º 46, mayo-junio de 2009. Reeditado en junio de 2019.