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Latin America’s Red October: Chile, Ecuador, México, Bolivia and Guatemala in Turmoil

October has been a turbulent and worrying month for Latin America in general. The region itself seems to be boiling with political unrest, tensions are waiting to snap and a very uneasy and uncertain peace has struggled to prevail. In a period of just two months, the continent has observed revolts in Ecuador, open narcos terrorizing the streets of Mexico, riots in Chile, martial law in Guatemala and now unrest with Bolivia’s election.

As these events happen, it is important to get to know each one’s particular context and details. However, it is also important to get a bird’s eye view of “the big picture.” Although each country is radically different from its neighbors, there are multiple leading themes and common circumstances in the region. This is exactly why this set of 5 instances of unrest should not be taken lightly and should not be taken as separate events.

September 3, a military patrol in Guatemala is ambushed; multiple soldiers die, some are taken hostage and executed while the rest manage to escape. The government declares martial law in three municipalities. After tensions escalate, one month later on October 2, President Jimmy Morales orders that martial law be extended 30 more days and adds 2 municipalities to the list. By October 10, the list of municipalities enduring martial law had climbed to 22 out of Guatemala’s 340 municipalities..

The official versions of the events narrate that the assailants were narcotic smugglers discovered during the patrol operation. However multiple reputable sources and witnesses hold that it was the military who shot first, intimidated and confronted by a large congregation of villagers. The region where the patrol operation took place is a generally “unfriendly” zone where the population still remembers a massacre (Sepur Zarco) carried out by the government during the civil war, just 30 years ago.

On October 3rd, the streets of Ecuador shake after President Lenín Moreno makes a deal with the IMF, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. The deal, in brief, is the following: Ecuador will be placed in austerity and budgetary constriction in exchange for a $10 billion dollar loan. The most painful point in this spending reform plan was a massive cut in fuel subsidies. The cut happened to be much higher for diesel (used in agriculture, industry, and shipping) than gasoline (for cars, which only the richest 25% in Ecuador have access to).

This led to mass unrest, protests, riots, radio antennas being taken and the military being engaged by protesters. After approximately 10 days of chaos on the streets ─ and after the capital of Ecuador was moved from Quito to Guayaquil ─ the government reached a deal with the riot leaders. The fuel subsidy cancellation was taken back, along with other changes to the budget austerity plan.

On October 17th, protests arose in Santiago de Chile after the government raised the Santiago Metro subway rush-hour fares. In just 24 hours, the protests escalated and angered mobs vandalized, burned and ultimately destroyed stations and trains. By October 21, more than 50 stations had been attacked and almost all the subway system’s stations were destroyed or damaged. The government has imposed a curfew in 14 cities, and security forces have continuously tried to break up the riots.

On October 18th, Mexico’s federal security forces carried out a tremendously mismanaged raid at a drug cartel safe house in Sinaloa without informing the high-command of the operation. During the operation, Ovidio Guzmán, son of Joaquín Guzmán “El Chapo” was captured. Cartel de Sinaloa forces poured onto the streets and engaged the military and police for approximately 4 hours until Ovidio was released to pacify them. The city of Culiacán, Sinaloa’s capital, endured around 19 cartel blockades, 14 skirmishes with the army and multiple other shootouts with the police. The overwhelming force of the drug traffickers was enough to make authorities release Ovidio Guzmán, but reports of shootings kept flooding social media until about midnight.

On October 20th, Bolivia’s election was uneasy and tense and incumbent President Evo Morales claimed victory just short of the legal goalpost. Bolivia’s top electoral authority stopped reporting results at 7:45 PM when only 83% of the votes had been counted. At this point, Evo had 45.28% of the vote while Carlos Mesa held 38.16%. Bolivia has a runoff system, so if no candidate earns more than 50% of the vote, a second vote must be cast and the citizens must choose between the two most popular candidates to make sure one of them has at least won a majority vote. Carlos Mesa denounced electoral fraud when the electoral authority stopped reporting results and Evo claimed victory with just 83% of the votes counted.

Politically, the situation is bleak. Bolivian presidents can only be re-elected once (they can only serve two 5 year terms), but Evo Morales has served 3 terms and 14 years so far. His third candidacy was permitted after a constitutional tribunal granted him permission to run in the past election. This fourth candidacy was permitted after a referendum was held to make it legal for Evo to run for a fourth term.

MAS holds more than two-thirds of Congress. MAS also holds most of the Executive. Additionally, Morales has named many of the chiefs of Bolivia’s equivalent to the Justice Department. Finally, the Electoral Tribunal is held by 6 MAS supporters and one opposer. The opposition in the leadership of the 4 powers in Bolivia consists of 1 chief justice and one-third of Congress. Painting this slightly expanded picture explains why Bolivia might become the next spotlight of violence and riots in Latin America’s Red October. If Morales is not granted victory, elections will have to be held on the 15th of December. However, if Morales wins in the first count ─ with much-reduced legitimacy after three presidential terms, one of them being arguably unconstitutional ─ unrest is sure to come as accusations of fraud would gain much wind.

Such is the state of Latin America during this past month. October has been frightening for observers who keep an eye on the regional climate. Unrest has become widespread at alarming rates, as states across the region seem to fail and succumb under riots and protests. And of course, as political tensions rise, economies might also start seeing negative effects in the fine print.