SANTA CRUZ DE LA SIERRA, Bolivia — In the view of Samuel Ruiz Arias, this country of 9.1 million people is already at war, and he's ready to take up arms if necessary to defend this city from what he's sure will be an eventual invasion of indigenous activists from the highlands.
"I'm sorry to say that this confrontation will have to happen," Ruiz Arias, 25, said. "They want to be the owners of everything, and we're not going to let them."
Ruiz Arias isn't the only one feeling combative. Bolivians of all stripes are filling plazas and streets to debate and at times fight over Bolivia's precarious future, made more fragile by a Dec. 14 deadline for a constitutional assembly to finish work on a new constitution.
Over the past two weeks, the conflict, which pits Bolivia's indigenous president, Evo Morales, and his supporters against mestizo Bolivians who see themselves as descendants of Europeans, has exploded in running street battles that have claimed three lives and resulted in hundreds of injuries.
But street battles aren't the only form the dispute has taken. There've been hunger strikes, warring television advertisements and politically motivated animal sacrifices.
Last month, an indigenous activist group called the Red Ponchos shocked many Bolivians by slitting the throats of two small dogs before television cameras as a message to the opposition.
Pet lovers in the capital of La Paz protested the dog slayings, and Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera denounced the act this week, while acknowledging the place of animal sacrifice in indigenous cultures.
"We're headed on a collision course, and it's going to be very difficult before Dec. 14 to bring this to a compromise," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian who's the director of Florida International University's Latin American and Caribbean Center in Miami. "You have a very polarized setting in which concession is impossible."
Morales has called the assembly a historic chance to redistribute power and resources. His opponents say the government wants to install an authoritarian regime that punishes dissenters.
The battle intensified Nov. 24 when Morales' allies moved the assembly from its regular meeting place in downtown Sucre to a military installation on the outskirts of the city. Then, with no opposition members present, they approved a new constitution that, among other measures, allowed for unlimited presidential re-elections and more indigenous rights.
Opposition representatives called the document illegal because the meeting was moved without asking the entire assembly, and the country has been in turmoil since, even though the assembly still must approve the document article by article. Those provisions not approved by more than a two-thirds vote will go to a popular referendum.
"This constitution is being done according to the whims of the president and is being imposed upon us," said Clori Paz, one of more than 60 anti-Morales hunger strikers who filled this city's main plaza this week. "We don't want anybody to speak for us."
Morales hasn't pulled any punches in responding. In one government television spot, a woman complains to a taxi driver about rising inflation, which is estimated to top 11 percent this year, the highest in a decade. The driver responds that eastern Bolivian businessmen are at fault for manipulating prices and names Branko Marinkovic, president of Santa Cruz province's civic committee, as one of the culprits.
Nowhere is anti-Morales outrage been hotter than in Santa Cruz, a business-minded city in the country's east that's a contrast to the country's more mountainous, indigenous west.
Many here want more autonomy from the national government and accuse Morales of following the example of his close ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in stamping out dissent.
All over this city, anti-Morales graffiti calls for residents to resist the central government. "To your arms, brave Crucenos, wake up before time runs out!" one message read.
"They want to impose a constitution, but not for all Bolivians," said Gabriel Dabdoub, the president of a powerful Santa Cruz business association. "It's a document representing just one political party."
Anti-Morales fervor also is high in Sucre, where residents have been demanding since August that the assembly move the country's executive and legislative powers back to the city, which was the country's capital until 1899 but now hosts only Bolivia's Supreme Court.
But Morales supporters say they won't back down. Ivan Canelas of Morales' Movement to Socialism party said the government would barrel ahead and finish the constitution even if the opposition didn't participate.
"They've been doing nothing but boycotting and blackmailing us," Canelas said. "Change is happening in Bolivia, like it or not."