Protesters in Bolivia’s farming region of Santa Cruz are blocking highways out of the province, threatening to snarl the domestic transport of grains and food, as anger simmers following the arrest of local governor Luis Camacho.
The region, a stronghold of the conservative opposition to socialist President Luis Arce, is in its sixth day of protests that have seen thousands of people take to the streets and nights of clashes with weaponized fireworks and cars burned.
On Tuesday hundreds of women marched to the city police headquarters in support of Camacho, demanding his release.
On the nearby streets were burnt-out vehicles, smoldering fires and blockades from the overnight clashes.
The protests, sparked by the Dec. 28 arrest of Camacho over an alleged coup in 2019, are deepening divides between lowland Santa Cruz and the highland, more indigenous political capital La Paz, which have long butted heads over politics and state funds.
Camacho was seized by special police forces, taken out of the province by helicopter and is now in a maximum security jail in the highland city El Alto. He denies all charges that relate to the divisive removal of former socialist leader Evo Morales in 2019.
Santa Cruz leaders pledge to fight until Camacho is released, picketing government buildings and stopping transport of grains. There are also calls for a federal system giving the city more autonomy and state funds.
“We have a mandate from our assembly that nothing leaves Santa Cruz and that is what we are going to do,” said Rómulo Calvo, head of the powerful Pro Santa Cruz civic group.
Marcelo Cruz, President of the International Heavy Transport Association of Santa Cruz, said routes were being blocked so no trucks could leave the province.
“No grain, animal or supply from the factories should leave Santa Cruz for the rest of the country. The blocking points are being reinforced,” he said.
Morales and allies – including current president Arce – say his ouster was a coup and have prosecuted opposition figures they blame for it. Jeanine Anez, who became interim president after his removal, was jailed for 10 years in 2022.
Human rights groups say the government is using a weak justice system to go after its opponents.
“We are no longer a state of law, we are an outlaw state,” said Erwin Bazan, from the right-wing Creemos party, saying the charges against Camacho were politically motivated.
Others blame Camacho for tensions in 2019 which saw dozens killed in protests, including supporters of Morales.
“Let him go to jail for 30 years. We want justice,” said Maria Laura, a supporter of the ruling Movement for Socialism (MAS) party.
Morales remains the party’s leader though has at times clashed with new president Arce.
Paul Coca, a lawyer and analyst in La Paz, said the internal divisions in the ruling party were partly behind the arrest, with Arce trying to neutralize criticism from Morales.
“(Arce) had to confront his party leader or directly go against Luis Fernando Camacho. And he obviously chose to go all out against Camacho,” he said.
The blockade could dent food supply to other parts of the country as well as exports and growth as Bolivia grapples with a large fiscal deficit and low reserves.
“Santa Cruz is the economic stronghold of Bolivia,” said Gary Rodríguez, General Manager of the Bolivian Institute of Foreign Trade (IBCE).
The region is the main producer of soy, sugar cane, wheat, rice, corn, and livestock.
“All this great private productive effort is now in danger.”