Rodolfo Illanes, the vice minister in charge of domestic affairs in Bolivia, held his cell phone to his left ear and struggled to hear the voice on the line. Dozens of angry men crowded around him, some holding heavy wooden sticks, some shouting insults. They were miners, and for a week they’d been blocking several strategic highways throughout the country, demanding changes to a new national mining law.
“They’ve taken me hostage, minister,” Illanes said, speaking on the phone to Carlos Romero, Bolivia’s minister of government affairs. “I was just entering Mantecani alone, and I was counting how many miners were on the hillsides. …”
He’d left the capital city, La Paz, early that morning, Aug. 25, with his driver, and they’d arrived at Mantecani about two hours later. Traffic on the four-lane highway was backed up for miles, blocked by piles of boulders, burning tires, and thousands of protesting miners. The driver steered his Toyota Land Cruiser off the pavement and parked on the rocky plain.
Illanes confronted a sweeping vista: At 13,500 feet above sea level, there were no trees on the chalky plateau, only scattered eruptions of scrub brush. Thin lines of white smoke uncoiled from distant fires. Hundreds of miners, members of a loose federation of mining cooperatives, walked the hills between their temporary encampments and the highway they’d paralyzed. …