Victims of Bolivia’s 2003 Massacre Find Justice

On April 3rd, a U.S. court ruled against former Bolivian President, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (known as ‘Goni’), and his Defense Minister, Sánchez Berzaín, rejecting their attempt to vacate a $10 million in damages award against them, for their role in the killings of unarmed protesters in Black October of 2003. 

Though Goni and Sánchez Berzaín have escaped justice in Bolivia, by fleeing to Miami after the overthrow of their regime, this ruling represents an important step towards justice for the victims of Bolivia’s neoliberal period. 

2003 saw mass protests against the privatization of gas that completely paralyzed Bolivia’s seat of government in La Paz. The neoliberal reforms being rammed through by the government of Goni, and his VP Carlos Mesa, had run up against a fierce resistance that had been years in the making. 

‘Black October’ refers to the massacres that took place around El Alto and La Paz against Indigenous anti-neoliberal protesters. The first death of this period was the 20th of September when the regime sent the military to break up protests and barricades in the Omasuyos Province of La Paz. As security forces arrived, an 8-year-old girl, Marlene Nancy Rojas Ramos, was shot and killed by a bullet from a military helicopter that burst through the window of her home. Later that day, 5 other campesinos were killed by the state during the repression. 

The mobilizations escalated into a full blow uprising, The Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto initiated an indefinite strike, alongside the country’s leading social movements, demanding the nationalization of gas and the resignation of Sánchez de Lozada. Two protesters were killed by the state on October 8th, then three more killed the day after. 

In response, the Goni/Carlos Mesa government formally militarized El Alto on October 11th, on the basis that the barricades erected across the entire city were causing fuel shortages in the rest of the country, very similar to the justification behind the 2019 coup regime massacre in Senkata. The following day was the bloodiest yet, approximately 19 people were executed by the state in El Alto, including a 5-year-old child. Tanks rolled through the city, firing at protesters and at the surrounding houses. 

Carlos Mesa, now the country’s main opposition leader, was flying over the city by helicopter at the time. In his own memoirs he writes

“October 12, 2003. We landed at El Alto airport at ten past nine. They gave us the report, it was impossible to go down to La Paz by land, everything was blocked by protesters. At half past nine in the morning, I got on the helicopter that would allow me to reach the city. I flew over El Alto and the slopes. [Upon arrival] I got out in silence, and in silence I boarded the old BMW of the Vice Presidency.”

A day after the brutal massacre, George Bush, Condoleeza Rice, and the OAS announced their backing for the Goni/Mesa regime and state that they will not recognize any other government. That day, protests intensified and reached the center of La Paz, where there’s yet another massacre, 25 protesters were executed. October 15th, more deaths, 3 miners killed by the military in Patacamaya. Protests have become overwhelmingly and constant across the whole country, and finally on the 17th, Goni and Sánchez Berzaín escape La Paz by helicopter and flee to Miami. Goni’s VP, Carlos Mesa becomes President, but then also resigns, two years later, in the face of popular anti-neoliberal protests. Elections were held that year and Evo Morales was elected President, the first in Bolivian history to be elected by more than 50%. A few months later, the central demand of October was delivered. The nationalization of natural gas. 

Goni and Sánchez Berzaín were found guilty in absentia and sentenced. Morales’ government requested their extradition but the request was, and continues to be, denied by the U.S. government. 

The families of the victims have never abandoned their fight for justice. They weren’t able to confront their abusers in Bolivia, so they took their case to the U.S. Throughout this time, they’ve been joined by human rights lawyer Thomas Becker. Kausachun News spoke to him about this long fight for justice.  

U.S. courts are finally forcing Goni and Sánchez Berzaín to pay damages? 

Yes, in theory. Of course they can still appeal, they can try to go to the Supreme Court, it’s very unlikely that it’d work out, but you can always appeal to the Supreme Court. So far, all the complex legal mechanisms that Goni’s lawyers were trying to use have now been closed down. Even the judge who overturned it now, he was the one who said that they (Goni, Berzaín) are responsible and he ratified the verdict. So he announced that the families have formally won the case, but Goni can still try to appeal it at the Supreme Court. 

This process has been going for a long time. Formally, we filed the process in 2007, so it’s been in the U.S. courts for almost 15 years, but the families have been working really hard. 

Now that there’s legal precedent, saying that these officials are responsible for the massacre, is it any more likely that they’ll be extradited by the U.S.?

It’s really difficult to say. There’s so many signs of them being responsible. They have been declared fugitives by the Bolivian justice system, all of their military high command  in a trial of responsibilities in Bolivia. Now we;’ve won this trial in the United States. There’s lots of reasons for the [US] government to send them back to Bolivia, but it’s a political decision, so in theory I just don’t know.

For context, a unanimous jury in the United States is supposed to represent those from all walks of life, left, right, it doesn’t matter. All those people have found them guilty, even the 11th circuit court, like an appellate court, have also said that and now you have the judge in the original trial saying that ,so everybody has said that these people are responsible. That it is, well, a strong sign that they are responsible, I hope the U.S. government can understand that. 

Goni and Berzaín have support networks in the United States, what do these networks consist of? Berzaín, in particular, is still very involved in public life. 

Sánchez Berzaín is very involved with the right-wing Latino community in Southern Florida, he speaks at conferences etc. Obviously, it’s not a good thing when you’ve been found responsible for extra-judicial killings, so I think this could have an impact on the work he does here because lot of these organisations and Universities won’t want to be associated with someone who has now been held accountable, at multiple levels, for murdering innocent people. They have contacts in DC pushing with both Republicans and Democrats to ensure they aren’t extradited. Many of the same players in Anez’s government are those from Goni’s government and they’re pushing back and are obstacles to justice, but hopefully this verdict can help break down those obstacles.

If they don’t appeal, is there a deadline for them to pay the families? It’s taken so long to get justice, how are those families holding up? 

This could end in a year, maybe more, or it could end in the coming months. We just don’t know, it’s not that they simply present an appeal, they have to petition for it, request it, if a court accepts it they’ll then send the supporting information. 

The families haven’t wavered for a second, every second of everyday they say they will fight till the last moment till there’s justice, and they really have. This took place in 2003, the trial has been going on since 2007, but it’s not just a question of time. There is no closure for the families with this ongoing, they have to leave their wounds open to be able to keep fighting this they always said that they’ll fight this to the end. They have faced lawyers who try to tear them down. I can’t imagine having to relive the death of my 8 year old child who was killed in front of me, day after day. To be able to continue with this process, they haven’t been able to close those wounds, people are tired because this has certainly been hard, but also the spirit and the resolve to keep fighting is as strong as ever and I don’t doubt that they’ll keep fighting this till the last minute, till there’s finally accountability about what took place