Chronicle of a Disappeared

por Víctor Montoya

(Translation by Elizabeth Gamble Miller)

Isaac Camacho, a handsome Mestizo of average height and slim build, wore his hair pulled back, his moustache trimmed, and had brown, penetrating eyes. On observation, the outstanding feature of this photograph, taken in a studio for an ID card, is the brilliance of his eyes, as if he wished to communicate a message through the photographic lens. His shirt is buttoned to the top and he wears a gray, rough wool jacket that at the time was a sort of uniform identifying the militant porista dissidents in the mining district of the town Siglo XX.

Camacho was born in the town of Llallagua and studied in La Paz in the Instituto Americano, but he lived a bohemian existence and was careless about his studies. His mother, who owned the most prosperous brewery in the town, invested its profits in the future of her son, sending him a weekly stipend so he could live as a respected individual among those he knew. But he, along with other frustrated students, frequented the neighborhood cantinas in the city wasting the money he received for his room and board and tuition. Some say he was mixed up with the underworld in the capital. Then one day, by one of those strange coincidences of fate, he ran into the magnetic personality of César Lora, who yanked him out of the jaws of alcohol and delivered him to the mines in Siglo XX, where he was hired to work the lethal Block-Caving section, thus refusing to take advantage of his cultural baggage.

In time, stimulated by reading the classics of Marxism and by the iron discipline of the party, he turned into an indomitable fighter, an exemplary revolutionary militant and a genuine voice for those without a voice. He showed great skill in the task of bringing sympathizers in and finally became one of the visible forces of the union movement of the miners. Undoubtedly, Isaac Camacho was a man with a rebellious spirit, capable of combating word for word and hand to hand the adversaries of revolutionary ideas that he considered his own because of their connection to the reality of his compañeros, those men who sacrificed their lungs, a little piece at a time, in the sinister caverns, from where they extracted the riches from the Pachamama, Mother Earth, with hopes of forging a nation of greater dignity than the one proposed by the enemies of liberty and justice.

In mid-1965, facing the repression unleashed by the regime of René Barrientos Ortuño, and after the massive withdrawal of the unions of the Mining Corporation of Bolivia (COMIBOL), both Isaac Camacho and César Lora, in an effort to foil persecution and find a safe haven, left Siglo XX and headed for Sucre, where they lived hidden for a time. On the 26th of July, discovering that the agents of Criminal Investigation (D.I.C.) were on their trail, they decided to return to Siglo XX, with the plan of organizing clandestine unions inside the mine.

As they were passing through the Huañuma Valley, going toward a village to the north of Potosi, they were detected by the agent Enrique Mareño, who, after renting them a mule to carry their belongings, took the action of denouncing them before the repressive government. So it was that on the 29th of July, near Sacana, three leagues from San Pedro de Buena Vista, their captors, dressed as civilians and under the command of Próspero Rojas, were waiting for them at the confluence of the Toracari and Ventilla rivers, to execute the orders of the Secretary of the Interior, who under express orders from the CIA, had determined to physically eliminate the leader of the miners, Cesar Lora.

Isaac Camacho, referring to the circumstances of the crime, said that first there were some words and then a struggle that ended with a gunshot. He immediately freed himself from the arms of his captives, looked all around for his compañero and, seized by panic and confusion, he found him on the ground, his face covered in blood and with a bullet hole in his forehead.

For a moment the agents were quiet and looked at each other, then at the revolver and at the victim, while Isaac Camacho, horrified and still hearing the sound of the shot in his ears, knelt beside the body lying there without a sign of life. He cried and kissed the cheek of his inseparable comrade. He admired Lora as a leader of innate talent, not just because of his extraordinary ability in talking but especially because of his brilliant ideas that converted into definite actions, and which brought about his premature death.

When the government agents prepared to leave, Isaac Camacho reacted as if hit by lightning. He stood up and faced the assassins yelling,

"Kill me too, damn it!"

"We don't have orders," they answered in unison and withdrew from the scene.

Then with grief welling up from his soul and wind blowing in his face, alone with the body, he had no one to ask for help in the desolate, barren wilderness. He washed the wound in the river and carried the body to San Pedro de Buena Vista, where he found campesinos who supplied blankets and woolen cloth to wrap César Lora in a temporary preparation for burial.

No sooner had the painter Miguel Alandia Pantoja received the news than he took his palette, easel, and brushes, to give form to his disturbing sentiments on canvass. He wanted to perpetuate the memory of two miners struggling for their ideals and fighting for their class, ready to offer their lives for national liberation and the socialist revolution. The artist, who so ably painted the epic stories of the Bolivian labor movement, helps us through his painting to appreciate the drama and the scenery where the crime took place. Against a dark background of hills and gorges we have the image of a fleeing Isaac Camacho clad in poncho and guardatojo hardhat, carrying the body of César Lora, whose face covered in blood reveals the shot was to the head, and whose bare feet suggests the murder was perpetuated on the banks of a river.

Isaac Camacho, at the beginning of August, shortly after the body was buried, with no other thought than to denounce the criminal politics of the government, arrived in La Paz exhausted after having attended clandestine meetings in Potosi, Siglo XX and Oruro. The miners, when they heard the sad news of the murder by brute force of the military, not only grieved the death of the leader who gave his life and his name to the cause of the oppressed, but also shouted to the four winds glorifying his image in the collective memory, aware that this kind of a man, whose ideals of justice are banners for liberty, doesn't die, no matter how much his enemies try to bury him in the dust of the forgotten.

Isaac Camacho, a month after denouncing those responsible for the death of César Lora, was taken prisoner, led to a concentration camp in Alto Madidi and finally locked up in the Panóptico Nacional, from which he was freed through strong popular pressure. Upon his return to Siglo XX, he continued his fight against the dictatorship through the clandestine unions. This was the case until the night of the 23 of June of 1967, the initial day of the traditional bonfires of the Day of San Juan, celebrated by setting fire to kindling and old junk in the streets, while around the crackling fire mining families gather, shooting fireworks and offering toasts on that coldest night of the year.

However, what many didn't know was that a few hours later the meeting of the Ampliado Minero, the general meeting of miners, was to take place. For that occasion due precautions had been taken and various delegations of workers from the interior of Bolivia had arrived the day before. The plan was to come to an agreement on concrete actions: to demand respect for the union charter, an increase in wages, reincorporation of the fired miners, and amnesty for the exiled, jailed and hunted labor leaders. At the same time, they were to consider moral and material aid for the guerrilla fighters commanded by Che Guevara in the mountains of Ñancahuazú.

The President René Barrientos Ortuño and the Armed Forces, when they discovered the preparations and intentions of the Ampliado Minero, mobilized the army troops to occupy the districts of Catavi, Llallagua and Siglo XX, attempting to avoid the start of a new guerrilla source in support of Che. So, the 24th of June, the soldiers, seconded by the agents of the D.I.C., opened fire at the break of dawn. They broad-sprayed the area killing anyone who was still milling about the streets, while the heavy artillery placed in the hills, launched mortars and fired bazookas at the living quarters in the camps, especially those up at La Salvadora and Rio Seco. The inhabitants, shaken by the noise of the granades and the rat tat tat of machine guns thought it was firecrackers from the festivities. Then they realized it was a real massacre leaving a pool of dead and wounded.

Thirty-six years after the event of the Massacre of San Juan, and shortly after finding the painting of Miguel Alandia Pantoja pressed between the pages of an old bulletin, I couldn't resist the temptation to write this chronicle, with the starting point the memories I kept for so much time in the well of remembrance.

The clearest memory that I have of Isaac Camacho is from the 24th of June of 1967, when our neighbor, seeking to hide from being caught, jumped over the patio wall to our house and was greeted by a growling dog. It was a cold morning and shortly after the end of the massacre.

I was still in bed and shaking from fear like a wet dog, until Isaac Camacho opened the door and let in a cold blast of wind. He was wearing a black coat and a cap pulled down to his brows, had a cigarette smoking in his mouth, a hand in his pocket and his eyes tired from watching for trouble. I thought of him as a man who inspired a sense of security and optimism, that optimism that radiates from men of good faith. He rested his shoulder on the door jam and stood there quiet, surely because the idea of escaping through the iron fence that the army was stretching around the mining population, was in his mind. Afterwards he spoke with a quiet, almost soft voice, as if he intended to hide a secret, while the smoke of the cigarette spiraled into the cold air and dissipated like a gauze veil.

"Those damned bums have killed men, women, and children," he said in reference to the soldiers.

My father sat up in bed, leaned his head against the wall and asked, "And the Radio? What happened to the Radio La Voz del Minero? "

"The station was taken by the military," he answered.

In fact, when my father moved the dial to get Radio La Voz del Minero, there was nothing but martial music, as a way of showing government hostility toward the miners.

"Be careful," my father said. Then he added, "Today we'll assemble inside the mine."

He closed the door and disappeared.

Two days later we knew the assembly took place on level 411 in the interior of the mine, considered one of the safest places for the leaders hunted by spies of the military dictatorship. Camacho was elected a member of the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB).
At that assembly the demands approved by the meeting were ratified: withdrawal of the troops from the mines, return of the union meeting place as well as the station Radio la Voz del Minero, respect for the union charter, freedom for the detained and confined leaders, recompense to the widows of those murdered and safeguards so they wouldn't lose their living space in the encampment, a return to the wage levels of May 1965, and, as if that weren't enough, a biweekly quota of 10 pesos per worker for expenses of the union and to acquire weapons.

After that day, the 27th of June, I heard nothing more, not even his name, until a month later, the 30th of July of 1967, my father, minutes after I finished my breakfast, gave me a blanket with precise instructions: "Take this blanket to Isaac; he's living near Plaza Nueva, at the Paredes's house, and don't say anything to anybody..."

Right then my child's intuition told me that Isaac was hiding. I got to the street and facing a bitter wind went to the Paredes home. I knocked on the door, watching all around and with the blanket like a ball rolled up in my arms. Soon the door opened and in the pale sunlight a woman stood. Drying her tears and loudly cursing she said, "Those wretches took him prisoner! Run tell your papa that masked police took him away last night in a jeep...!"

I was stunned; I didn't know what to say or do. I'll never forget the look in the eyes of the woman. She pulled her mantilla over her face and bolted the door, while I stood there, my breath choking in my chest and staring into space.

From that morning on I never heard anything about Isaac Camacho, except for the testimonies of ex-prisoners who speculated about having seen him chained in the Purapura jail, clearing the windowpane to let the light in the cell. Others said they saw him in Chonchocoro, the most famous concentration camp in the country, where government mercenaries, who learned ways to torture on dogs and cats, took his life. However, more probably they had him locked up in the cells of the Department of the Interior, where, by orders of the CIA and the then-Secretary Antonio Arguedas, they tortured him to death, and later sank him to the bottom of Lake Titicaca from a helicopter, bloodied body and feet embalmed in a block of cement.

When the miners and Camacho's wife demanded information for his absence, the Secretary of the Interior said that on the 9th of August he was shipped to Argentina. Nothing could be further from the truth. Heaven and Earth were moved and he was never found dead or alive. He disappeared forever. What happened to his remains? That is the persistent question in the minds of those who considered him one of the most outstanding leaders of the Bolivian labor movement.

© Víctor Montoya / Elizabeth Gamble Miller (2003-2009)

🖼 Ilustración artículo remitida por el autor

📨 Contactar con el autor: montoya [at]


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▫ Artículo publicado en Revista Almiar (2003). Reeditado por PmmC en septiembre de 2019.


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  • Créditos

    Revista Almiar (2003-2019)
    ISSN 1696-4807
    Miembro fundador de A.R.D.E.

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