Journalist Percy Suárez holds the camera shot by protesters who abducted him and several other Bolivian journalists. (Photo: Percy Suárez)

Bolivian journalists abducted, assaulted by armed men while covering land dispute

Bogotá, November 4, 2021 – Bolivian authorities must conduct a swift and thorough investigation into the abduction and assault of six journalists by a group of armed men and hold those responsible to account, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On October 28, seven reporters, photographers, and camera operators for several Bolivian media outlets were covering a land dispute in the eastern province of Guarayos when they were surrounded by armed men who shot at them, punched and kicked them, destroyed some of their equipment, and held six of them captive for about seven hours, according to CPJ interviews with two of the journalists via messaging app and news reports.

“The abduction and assault of a group of journalists in Guarayos, Santa Cruz, is extremely serious, and authorities cannot attempt to downplay it for political reasons,” said CPJ Latin America and the Caribbean Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “Bolivian authorities must bring those responsible to justice and send an unequivocal message that such violent abuses against the press are unacceptable.”

Jorge Gutiérrez, a photographer for the daily El Deber newspaper in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, told CPJ that the journalists had been invited by a soybean producers’ association to inspect private farmland in Guarayos occupied by protesters who claimed the land for themselves. He said the journalists flew from Santa Cruz to an area near the estate of Las Londras, about 110 miles north of Santa Cruz.

From there, Gutiérrez said the journalists and members of the soybean producers’ association were driven in several vehicles provided by the association to the disputed land. Four police officers who met the journalists approached about 20 gun-toting protesters to see if they would talk to the reporters about why they had occupied the land. Instead, Gutiérrez said, the men disarmed the police officers before charging at the journalists, shooting the tires of their vehicles, and firing on two of the vehicles, one of which managed to escape with camera operator Róger Tinoca of the TV station PAT.

“I didn’t think we were going to get out of there alive,” Gutiérrez told CPJ.

Percy Suárez, a camera operator for the private TV station ATB, told CPJ that he filmed the initial encounter. In the video, which was published on the Facebook page of ATB, four men with backpacks and rifles can be seen shooting at the vehicles. Then, one of the men orders Suárez to stop filming and points his rifle at Suárez, who drops his camera to the ground.

Suárez said the man then destroyed the camera with a gunshot and struck him on the side of his head with the rifle butt. Suárez and Gutiérrez, along with reporter Silvia Gómez and camera operator Sergio Martínez of Unitel TV, and reporter Mauricio Egüez and camera operator Nicolás García of Red UNO TV station, were then taken to the protesters’ nearby base camp.

There, the journalists, along with the four police officers and several of the drivers and property owners who had organized the trip, were forced to lie face down and were kicked and stepped on “as if we were a rug,” Suárez told CPJ. He said their captors threatened to burn alive one of the landowners accompanying them.

Suárez said the police finally convinced the gunmen to release the group at about 6 p.m. They drove back to Santa Cruz where Suárez received a head X-ray at a local hospital and was released. He said the other journalists were not seriously injured.

Bolivia’s national police commander Jhonny Aguilera dispatched 200 police agents to Las Londras to gather evidence about the incident after it was over, according to El Deber. He also called the episode an “altercation,” prompting Bolivia’s National Press Association to accuse the police commander in a statement of downplaying the incident.

“What happened was, unquestionably, an ambush and a kidnapping. Aguilera should not insult the intelligence of the country by camouflaging what happened there,” the association said.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Adalberto Rojas, who heads the Santa Cruz office of the government land reform agency, expressed his solidarity with the affected journalists, according to El Deber. The same newspaper reported that when Rojas visited Las Londras the day after the attack, he was applauded by the protesters.

At the news conference, Rojas refused to answer questions about the armed men who attacked the journalists, according to El Deber. Roberto Ruíz, the prosecuting attorney who is investigating the case, told reporters that on Wednesday Rojas had been summoned in to provide testimony about the gunmen, according to a video posted by El Deber. Ruíz said his office has identified four suspects but that so far there had been no arrests.

CPJ called Rojas’s office but a spokeswoman, Wendy Zambrana, said he was not available to comment. CPJ wrote via messaging app to Lt. Col. Marco Torres, who is leading the police investigation of the case, but he did not respond.