A 'Drunkards' Strike' Shuts Down Bolivia

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Aizar Raldes / AFP / Getty

A bus drives down a street in downtown La Paz, Bolivia.

If there's anything worse than a drunk driver, it might be a drunk mass transit driver with passengers in his care. Sadly, this phenomenon has become common in Bolivia, and so after a few particularly deadly accident-filled months, President Evo Morales has issued a zero-tolerance policy for offenders, including lifetime license revocation on the first DUI offense, vehicle confiscation, fines and eventual closure of transport companies whose drivers are caught under the influence. Those drivers and their parent companies say the measures have gone too far and on Wednesday initiated a two-day work stoppage. What quickly became known as "the Drunkards' Strike" paralyzed the Andean nation.

"This is about defending life and we aren't going to change one comma of this decree," said Bolivia's Minister of Government Sacha Llorenti after the transport workers announced their strike. Ground transportation in Bolivia is covered by collectives and private companies who hire drivers to operate minibuses (each capable of carrying 14 passengers) and buses for transport within and between the country's villages and cities. These tens of thousands of drivers and vehicle owners were outraged by Morales' decision (previously, the penalties were imposed on a three-strikes-and-you're-out system). These transportistas, as they are known, not only refused to work, but also blocked major roadways.

The strikers argue, however, that their protest is misunderstood. "We are not defending drunk driving," Carlos Casillo, 28, of the 22 de Mayo transport workers union explained to TIME. He and about 30 other drivers were planted on a La Paz street corner under the hot noon soon "enforcing" the strike. When the occasional operating taxi or mini-bus passed by, the group would bang on its hood and try to block its passage. Casillo concedes that harsh penalties are appropriate for drivers who've been drinking. But, he says, the rest isn't fair: "I hire others to drive my vehicles everyday. Why should I be punished by losing my vehicles or my ability to run transport if one of them does something wrong?"

Also, the transportistas say, the decree's good intentions are going to be overshadowed by police corruption. One taxi driver, who preferred not to be named, explained: "It used to be that a 200 bolivianos ($30) bribe would get you out of a DUI write-up. Now it's going to jump to 1,000 ($140)."

Bolivian police, particularly traffic cops, indeed have a reputation for greasy palms. Two years ago, the city of La Paz resorted to hiring teenagers dressed up as zebras and mules to control traffic in the hectic city center because neither drivers nor pedestrians would respect the traffic cops stationed at intersections. Today's transport strikers propose a similar solution, that a third party be charged with monitoring drunk driving — though not the zebras, they said specifically.

Police Colonel Romulo Caceres, who was monitoring Castillo's crowd from across the street while sipping on a soda, rubber-bullet loaded gun slung across his shoulder, didn't like the idea of non-police enforcment of the DUI ordinance. "No one besides the police are prepared to do this work," he said. His only response to the corruption allegation was philosophical: "a corrupt person isn't only someone who takes the bribe, but one who offers it too."

Bolivia's drivers cannot carry the entire blame for the country's high rate of road deaths. The South American nation is infamous for its hazardous roadways: for more than a decade it boasted the world's most dangerous road, a curvy unpaved one-laner bordered by a 500 foot drop that saw more deaths per traveler per year than any other on the planet. Even Bolivia's "highways" are narrow, hole-ridden and landslide-prone. No wonder some drivers are driven to drink.

It's not clear why the past several months have been worse than ever, but President Morales says that, regardless of the reason, dangerous times call for drastic measures. Drivers claim the measure is authoritarian, but Morales has tried to show that no one will receive favoritism. Last month, soon after the government announced its zero tolerance rule, Morales' own party's candidate for Governor of La Paz in the upcoming elections was caught swerving down the city's streets at 3 a.m. The President showed no mercy. The candidate was not only forced to resign, but also was punished under the "community justice" regimen of his indigenous Aymara home village: the almost-Governor had to make 1,000 adobe bricks as penance.

The government's hard-line has not weakened even as the country struggled through the transport paralysis. Morales announced that he would send Parliament a corresponding zero tolerance law for individual and non-professional drivers as well. But Casillo and his colleagues weren't fazed. "We are prepared to strike until the government agrees to some changes," he stated. But the drivers found that their real adversary was not the government but an angry populace. La Paz's streets were quiet on the second day of the strike, except for the pedestrians' railing against the "striking drunkards." Radio and TV call-in shows were similarly overwhelmed by enraged citizens. "These drivers are crazy," kiosk vendor Isabel Camacho said as she twirled her finger in circles around her ear. "They need to just be mature and accept their punishments."