Living on the Edge

21 Apr, 2016 | Anna Grace

Social issues

Photo: Anna Grace

Life in Bolivian Border Towns

Surrounded by land on all sides, it is not surprising that Bolivia can call itself a neighbour to no fewer than five countries in total. Brazil, Peru, Chile, Paraguay and Argentina, each one of these borders is home to numerous border towns. Hotbeds of crime, points of migration, melting-pots of culture – one thing is certain, each pueblo fronterizo has its own story to tell.

‘People who have a strong sense of identity don’t kill. Mercenaries, people like that, don't have much sense of identity, that’s why they can kill.’ The words of journalist Domingo Abrego Faldín surprise me as we talk about the violence in the town of San Matías, located in the far east of Bolivia, on the Brazilian border. Plagued by murders which are very often linked to drug trafficking and land negotiations, San Matías is a difficult place to live in. As Domingo tells me, ‘It’s the most dangerous part of all Bolivia.’

In January of this year, Domingo wrote an article for the cruceño newspaper El Deber, focusing on problems facing the inhabitants of San Matías. The article tells the story of an elderly inhabitant of the town who, having just lost a grandchild to violence, laments the loss of tranquility. The San Matías of nowadays seems a town which innocence has forgotten.

The porous, immense, jungle-ridden Brazilian border provides an excellent setting for drugs, arms and just about any other type of trafficking. Those who live close by become collateral damage. Domingo himself has lost family to the violence. Showing me a photo of men holding a long, club-like weapon, he tells me, ‘My grandmother was killed by one of these things, una macana. This is the type of thing that happens here.’ It seems that no one is safe.

In recent years, the number of consumers of cocaine and other drugs in Brazil has increased. Its vast coastline is widely used for the exportation of cocaine to countries across the Atlantic. Bordering the three principal cultivators of the drug, supply is not hard to come by. Yet, given  the levels of violence induced when trafficking and transporting narcotics, it comes at a price.

"The road from Kasani to Copacabana is to be admired in its own right – it offers a glimpse of quotidian life in the area, one which it would be a shame to miss."

In December of last year, the killings in San Matías reached such an extent that military presence was increased drastically in a bid to control the area. The catalyst being the brutal murder of a migration worker, shot eight times by her Brazilian killer. Despite such measures, the killings continue, with reports of another life being taken at the end of last month.

A border town constitutes a sort of no man’s land. Feeling neither completely Bolivian nor fully Brazilian, living in a place that many people and things – legally or not – merely pass through, must be a strange sensation. I think back to Domingo’s words regarding identity. Many base their identity on nationality, or at least on pride for the city or town they live in. Those coming and going across the border surely miss out on this fixed sense of being. Maybe the border-dwelling lifestyle leads to a lessening of morality.

Another photo is presented to me. A large family standing in a line, squinting into the sun. ‘Look’, Domingo instructs me, ‘every member of this family is a good person. Sometimes people think everyone who lives on the border is bad. It’s not true, there are good, normal people too.’

Just as the border provides a dividing line between one country and another, so too does the illicit activity divide those who live there. It divides them into the bad and the good, into those who instigate the violence and those who are tragically affected by it.

San Matías, along with much of what lies on the large, poorly policed Bolivian-Brazilian border, is infamous for such violence and trafficking. Move to the west, however, and you find the crossing from Bolivia to Peru. Not without its problems, here is much better known as a tourist hotspot. With Lake Titicaca and Copacabana hitting the top of most backpackers' must-see list, this border has an altogether different feel.

In the town of Kasani, on the Peruvian border, inhabitants suffer a more subtle sort of disruption than that experienced in San Matías. Every day many tourists pass through, seeing no more than the inside of the migration office, and leave with no desire of seeing anything else.

‘Look, over there!’ My new friend Jhon points and I follow his gaze. ‘There’s my village, my school and, right there, my house.’ He smiles his gap-toothed, 11-year-old child’s smile as I make out the buildings he is pointing to. ‘I’m getting off here’, he adds. Hopping off the minibus halfway into the 15-minute journey from Kasani to Copacabana, Jhon turns, waves and continues on his way.

Kasani and its neighbouring villages are not the bleak, limbo-condemned pueblos fronterizos I had imagined them to be. Set on the shores of the magnificent Lake Titicaca and graced with green slopes and craggy rock formations, the scenery is enough to soothe even the sorest of sore eyes.

Yet, Kasani cannot escape the fate of all towns that find themselves on the cusp of foreign territory. That is, the struggle of being the only constant in a sea – or rather, lake – of transitoriness.

Arriving into Kasani, I had seen a group of tourists swarming out of the migration office before being quickly ushered onto a Bolivia te espera–branded bus. ‘They only stay for a minute, no longer.’ The lady, whose shop stands in the shadow of the grim-looking migration office, doesn’t so much lament as state. ‘One moment the place is full, the next it's empty.’

I can't help but think the empty moments must occur more than the full. As I sit, waiting for the minibus to fill up, I see a handful of bag-laden locals amble across the line of cones which constitutes the border. I spot a couple of migration officials looming in the customs office doorway. I spy a woman and her daughter taking their two sheep for a walk. Not much is going on.

I am glad when my little friend Jhon clambers into the seat beside me, burgundy sunhat on head and shiny new rucksack on back. Our small talk, covering such topics as afternoon plans and Semana Santa celebrations, injects some energy into this slow-paced, no-haste town.

I suppose many see the road from Kasani to Copacabana as a necessary linking of destinations, as they hurry to their first true stop-off point in Bolivia: the touristy Copacabana. However, it is to be admired in its own right. The road from Kasani to Copacabana offers a glimpse of quotidian life in the area, one which it would be a shame to miss.  

Shortly after Jhon bounds off the bus, a campesino hauls three sacks of potatoes and a pick axe onto the seat next to me, brushing off his dusty worker’s hands in satisfaction.

A father speeds past on a bicycle as his small son struggles to keep up.

A mother strolls along, clutching a tiny, child-sized hand in each of her own.

It is easy to forget during the momentico most of us spend in places like Kasani that, for some, this is more than a transient crossing point. This is home.

So, next time you're passing through a typically dreary, dangerous or characterless border town, take an extra momentico to look around. You may be surprised by what you find.


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