(AP Photo/Boris Heger)
PORVENIR, Bolivia - A deadly clash on a jungle highway has become the newest and bloodiest symbol of Bolivia's political crisis, pitting President Evo Morales against an autonomy movement in the eastern lowlands that is bitterly resisting his leftist reforms.
The shootout capped rioting across half of Bolivia, violence that Morales alleges was inspired by opposition governors and supported by the United States — a charge denied by U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg as he was expelled from the natural gas-rich country this month.
Morales, pushing for deep socialist reforms guided by traditional Bolivian indigenous values, says groups organized by his political opponents machine-gunned 16 of his poor Indian supporters in the Sept. 11 confrontation.
Lowland opposition leaders, guarding their region's frontier capitalism and more Euro-centric heritage, say they lost two of their own in a pitched battle to defend their provincial capital from marchers directed by Morales.
The Associated Press traveled to Bolivia's remote Amazonian province of Pando and interviewed police, witnesses, and participants on both sides. Their testimony and evidence from the scene suggests that the blockading of the marchers exploded into a shootout, and that the shootout quickly devolved into a one-sided rout.
Pando is now under martial law with soldiers keeping a fragile peace, and its governor, Leopoldo Fernandez, is in jail on charges of allegedly fomenting the violence.
Fernandez is part of a four-province alliance opposing Morales' proposed constitution, which would empower the long-oppressed indigenous majority and enable the president to run for re-election.
The lowlanders say the framework ignores their demands for political autonomy that would give them greater control of natural gas revenues and protection from Morales' land redistribution plans.
Talks on defusing the crisis have yet to yield a deal, and Morales vowed Saturday that the new constitution will be approved "one way or another." He also warned that some supporters are considering new marches that would "surround" the eastern city of Santa Cruz, a hotbed of the opposition.
Both sides hardened their positions after 67 percent of Bolivian voters ratified Morales' presidency in an Aug. 10 recall referendum.
Across the lowland east, Morales' opponents showed their anger by ransacking national government offices.
Determined to retake the offices seized in Pando's capital of Cobija, more than 1,000 Morales supporters, largely poor Indian migrants from the highland west, converged on the town in a convoy of buses and cars.
All accounts agree they got as far as the bridge over the Tahuamanu River, about 20 miles outside town, where they faced off against several hundred people — mostly mixed-race, middle class Bolivians, including civil servants loyal to Fernandez — who were blocking the dirt highway.
Police answering to the national government, wearing riot gear and some carrying sidearms, tried in vain to cool tempers, Pando Police Commander Silvio Magarzo said.
Witnesses on each side claim the others fired first.
"We were in the middle, but there was no way we were to going to stop the clash," Magarzo told the AP. "It was like another Vietnam."
Magarzo, speaking by telephone immediately afterward, said he quickly ordered his police to retreat. The Morales administration promptly fired Magarzo for failing to stop the violence, and he could not be reached for further interviews.
A shopkeeper in the nearby village of Porvenir who witnessed the violence said the pro-Morales marchers, only a few of whom carried shotguns and small-caliber rifles, turned and fled from their more heavily armed opponents. The shopkeeper, who said he is affiliated with neither side, declined to give his name for fear one of them might torch his store.
Opposition leaders deny their side used a machine gun. But a lightweight 9-mm submachine gun was among the weapons the military says it seized from 13 Fernandez supporters it arrested.
Also, neat lines of bullet holes sprayed across the caravan's vehicles before they were set ablaze by an opposition mob are consistent with automatic-weapons fire.
Morales supporters said they scattered into the jungle or dived into the river as shots rang out.
"There were bullets everywhere, and for a moment I didn't understand what was happening," said Wilma Hurtado, a 48-year-old Aymara Indian. "I just ran and jumped in the river, with my baby in my arms."
Morales supporters say their marchers were hunted down and shot as they fled. Opposition leaders deny this.
Eight people were found dead that evening — two Pando provincial officials and six from the pro-Morales camp. Seven more bodies were recovered the next day farther from the highway, in the river or surrounding jungle. All were Morales supporters, marchers said. The national government says the bodies of three more marchers were later discovered, raising the death toll to 18.
Some of the bodies were exhumed last week for outdoor forensic exams performed in Cobija's cemetery by national government investigators.
One of the exams revealed that Morales supporter Felix Roca, 58, was shot in the back, said investigator Esabelino Gomez, part of a team sent to Pando by Morales' attorney general.
As Roca's body was lifted from his humble concrete tomb, his weeping widow, Maria, told the AP that her husband had been paid to join the march. She refused to elaborate.
The president's opponents have long charged that the national government is orchestrating pro-Morales demonstrations by people who are generally too poor to pay for the fuel and supplies necessary to mount an event on the scale of the Pando march.
Opposition lawmakers, meanwhile, are helping organize a multiparty congressional commission to conduct its own inquiry in Pando.
Edgar Balcazar, a provincial security official, said Gov. Fernandez personally ordered him to have trenches dug across the highway to stop the pro-Morales group.
"We were trying to make sure that they did not arrive in the city, to avoid any conflicts," he said. Balcazar spoke to the AP on a park bench in the Brazilian border town of Brasilea, where many Fernandez loyalists fled in fear of retribution from Morales supporters.
Marchers say they managed to refill most of the trenches by hand as they advanced toward Cobija. But Balcazar said the caravan caught up with him and his crew at the last trench, just beyond the bridge, shortly before the gunfire began.
He said Morales supporters beat him with the butt of a shotgun and forced his workers to refill the trench. He displayed bruises and three stitches in his face.
The night after the shootout, anti-Morales mobs burned stores run by Aymara Indians in Cobija and community buildings in nearby Filadelfia, a local pro-Morales stronghold.
Opposition leaders fear the continuing eastward migration of Morales' highland Indian supporters is weakening their region's autonomy bid.
Pando, in particular, is a battleground state: While local politicians fiercely oppose Morales, 53 percent of Pando voters endorsed him in the recall.
Pando has no natural gas of its own — its biggest industries are cattle, timber and Brazil nuts. But Fernandez and other provincial governors resent Morales' decision to spend a portion of skyrocketing gas revenues on a nationwide pension program that benefits the largely indigenous poor.