6 Dead in Bolivia After Workers Locked Inside During Protest


Organizers of the protest said "infiltrators" were to blame for the violence, while the mayor said responsibility lay with the government.

Six local government workers died of asphyxiation in the opposition-controlled Bolivian city of El Alto Wednesday after city officials allegedly refused to let workers leave the building despite a demonstration outside that culminated with people setting the municipal office on fire.

In a video shared by Bolivia's Ministry of Communication, city workers testified that Human Resources Director Marcelo Plata prohibited people from leaving the building.

"We knew the march was coming, we wanted to leave but the director gave instructions saying that leaving was forbidden … we know what it is like (when there are protests). We wanted to escape but they said that no one could leave," said one unidentified woman in the video as she fights back tears.

The workers said they complied with the director's demands out of fear of losing their jobs. Another worker said officials went around taking attendance to ensure no one had left.

Wednesday's protest was organized by residents of El Alto, a working-class city next to La Paz, over learning about conditions at local schools.

Luis Limachi, the coordinator of the municipal school boards, said they decided to march to the offices of the municipal government to demand a meeting with El Alto's Mayor Soledad Chapeton.

Demonstrators accused her government of failing to live up to prior agreements regarding school conditions.

Chapeton reportedly could not meet with the demonstrators because she was out of the office attending a rally organized by opponents of the government of Evo Morales.

Her absence allegedly provoked the ire of the demonstrators who then tried to occupy the building, a common protest tactic used throughout Bolivia, however the doors to the building had already been locked.

Unable to enter the building and concerned about the presence of people Limachi described as "infiltrators," the organizers of the protest called on demonstrators to leave the area. The fire was allegedly set after the call to disperse.

However, the mayor of El Alto, who aligned with the opposition, said activists tied to the ruling Movement Toward Socialism party were responsible for the violence and deaths.

"Total responsibility of these acts lies with the government," said Chapeton. She accused police of being slow to respond to calls for assistance.

Limanchi denied that demonstrators were tied to the government.

Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Romero said five people allegedly involved in the violence had already been apprehended and called on the opposition to refrain from attempting to politicize the tragedy.

Tensions between government supporters and the opposition in Bolivia is high ahead of an upcoming national referendum on Sunday that will ask Bolivians if they wish to alter the constitution to allow President Morales to run for a fourth term.

Bolivia's electoral authority said Sunday's vote would proceed as planned.

Bolivian President Evo Morales expressed his condolences to the relatives of those killed.

Morales said he had instructed his government ministers to provide whatever assistance they could to the families of the deceased and called for the masterminds behind the acts of violence to be brought to justice.