Four young people died and more than 60 are injured due to an avalanche caused by the explosion of a tear gas grenade in a student assembly. The tragedy occurred at the Tomás Frías state university in the Bolivian city of Potosí. “It was a criminal act, many were stepped on and beaten, what has happened is inconceivable, I cannot understand it,” Rector Pedro López told the press, moved.
The university authority requested that action be taken in the “most rigorous and harshest” way to identify and prosecute the author or authors of this attack. An “infiltrator” from outside the institution is suspected, since, in his opinion, it would be “inconceivable” that the author or authors were university students. The Minister of Government (Interior), Eduardo del Castillo, announced that the person suspected of throwing these chemical agents inside this assembly had already been arrested. “We do not want to anticipate giving names to prevent this person from escaping,” he added. The parents and relatives of the university students went desperate to the university this Monday because at first the identity of those who had lost their lives, all of them women, did not come out.
The assembly was held to organize the elections to the Local University Federation, the organization that represents all the students. The meeting had been convened inside the University Coliseum and attendance was mandatory, so there was a large number of people. According to one of the calls to the assembly that leaked to the press, all scholarship students at the university had to present themselves or, otherwise, they could lose their benefits. This way of ensuring the presence of the members of a union or, in this case, of a student federation, has a long tradition in Bolivia.
In the middle of the discussion of the assembly’s electoral agenda, someone threw a tear gas grenade. This produced panic and, consequently, an avalanche that ended up crushing dozens of students. Some of the injured presented symptoms of intoxication due to inhalation of the chemical. Three women arrived dead at the hospital. Later, another deceased person was reported. There are around 60 wounded receiving assistance in health centers and four of them are in serious condition, hospitalized in intensive care.
Potosí, a city of 800,000 inhabitants, is shaken by what Rector López considered “a disaster.” Fire trucks, police patrols and ambulances surrounded the building where the events occurred. The Tomás Frías University has been in existence for a century and a half, and has a long history of political participation. Both in this university and in others in the country, in recent decades, the elections to renew the leaders have become tense and competitive, as the amount of resources managed by the student directors has increased, due to the overcrowding of the houses of higher education. Electoral campaigns have also become professional and a great deal of money is invested in them.
There is a precedent for this tragedy. On March 3, 2021, eight university students from the University of El Alto, a city adjacent to the administrative capital, La Paz, died after falling from a balcony where an avalanche had occurred. On that occasion, the cause was a fight between two factions that disputed the administration of certain student benefits.
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