For Bolivians, the 24th of June is the anniversary of the San Juan massacre, one of the most brutal acts of the 20th century military period. In 1967, the US-backed Barrientos dictatorship led a military assault in the middle of the night on the town of Llallagua, North Potosi, killing at least 27 miners and injuring many more. It was a punishment for their union sending material support to Che Guevara’s guerilla army that was in the south-east of Bolivia at the time.
The attack took place on the night of San Juan, which is a traditional festival celebrated the night of the 23rd of June, into the early hours of the 24th. Considered the coldest night of the year, families across Bolivia light small bonfires outside their homes and spend the night in the streets with their neighbors, drinking hot cinnamon tea and Singani, a local liquor. Llallagua was home to workers of the Siglo XX and Catavi mines.
The region’s local radio stations, ‘La Voz del Minero’ and ‘Radio PIO XII’ extended their transmission until 2am so as to play music for the community who were all out celebrating. At 4am, as most were heading to sleep, hundreds of soldiers burst into the town, ambushing the population.
Their orders were to kill anyone they saw and to seize the union hall and radio stations. The soldiers rampaged through the town shooting indiscriminately, some soldiers threw grenades through the windows of those that managed to run home.
The famous Communist Party militant and the union leader of the local Siglo XX mine, Rosendo Garcia, was shot and killed while trying to defend the miner’s radio station, La Voz del Minero. To this day, the death toll is still unconfirmed, but at least 27 miners were killed. Around 70 sustained serious injuries, many of them women and children, a similar number were disappeared.
The regime justified the massacre claiming that they were defending themselves from non-existent guerilla units in the town. They received backing from the United States and from the CIA in particular, with whom they coordinated the war against Che Guevara’s liberation army.
The killings were carried out in cold blood against a defenseless population, by a dictatorship that was a product of a US-backed coup. It’s remembered in Bolivia today as an example of what such regimes are capable of.
President Luis Arce commemorated the tragic events, stating via his official channels, “We remember the San Juan Massacre (1967) when the Army sent by former President René Barrientos gunned down miners from Siglo XX and Catavi. The massacre left dozens of dead and wounded. A tragic episode against those who supported Che Guevara. Glory to our martyrs!”
The massacre is immortalized in a song by Nilo Soruco, a legendary folk singer from Tarija, also a member of the Communist Party of Bolivia. A few years after wrote the song, Soruco himself was jailed and tortured by the US-backed coup regime of Hugo Banzer.