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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bolivia's Turf Wars Isolate Immigrants

OKINAWA, Bolivia -- Choei Yara sleeps in a boxy room in the back of his roadside dry goods store, and the lump under his thin pillow is a loaded .45-caliber pistol. It is intended for a specific emergency: an attack so sudden that he'd be unable to reach the pump-action shotgun that leans against a bare concrete wall, two meters away.

He's not afraid of the store being robbed, but he believes that the piece of paper stating that he owns about 560 hectares of fertile soil is the kind of thing that can drive men to violent extremes. Property in Latin America is more unevenly distributed than anywhere on the planet, and Bolivia is no exception. But this month the country began a project to shuffle ownership rights affecting 20 percent of its land area, giving most of it to the poor. And tensions are starting to boil.

Those with land are starting to dig in to protect their turf. Those without it, emboldened by the recent government announcements, are taking over more properties on their own, without government approval.

"I've worked this land for 30 years, and I have never had a problem until this past year," said Yara, 63, whose family was among the Japanese immigrants who founded this community in eastern Bolivia after World War II. "But now I get death threats from the landless peasants, and they are threatening to kidnap my family. No one respects private property anymore, not even the government."

On June 9, one man was shot dead and more than a dozen were wounded in clashes as local authorities tried to evict peasants from land they had taken over in western Bolivia. Two days before that incident, two men were shot in similar circumstances in the central region.

The conflict in Bolivia is firmly rooted in the stark inequities that President Evo Morales says his "agrarian revolution" is designed to correct. About 90 percent of Bolivian land is owned by the wealthiest 7 percent of the population.

Standing behind a rusty pan scale, Yara tilts his head slightly and eyes customers warily when they enter his store, where sacks of potatoes and rice sit on worn planks in the middle of the floor.

"'Bolivian land should be for Bolivians' -- that's what they're telling me now," said Yara, watching one of his daughters weigh rice he'd grown on his land. "It's not right. I've always been supportive of Bolivia. I pay all my taxes. My children are Bolivians, and they're married to Bolivians. I sacrificed a lot to get that land."