Last week, a long awaited trial against the former president of Bolivia and his minister of defense commenced on Monday with its jury selection. Defendants did not take to the stand in their home country, though; rather, the eight families who have charged Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to make their case to a U.S. court.
This marks the first time in history that a former head of state will stand trial for a civil human rights case in a U.S. court (Vargas 2018). Federal Judge James Cohn denied Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín a last minute motion to avoid trial, declaring on February 28 that Mamani v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín would move to court.
The lawsuit is based on the grounds that the former president and minister of defense arranged a series of extrajudicial killings in a plan to kill civilians, deliberately commanding a lethal assault during Bolivia’s “Gas War,” in which 71 were killed and 400 indigenous were wounded in an attempt to repress a protest against the exportation of cheap natural gas through Chile (Achtenberg 2013). Such charges allow the case to continue through the U.S. court system under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), which contains a clause permitting suits concerning extrajudicial killings (Vargas 2018).
The trial, which is expected to last four to five weeks, according to Judge Cohn, began with an intensive interview process to find impartial jury members, as the case will include the graphic accounts of the families who are representing not only their lost loved ones, but all of those lost in Bolivia’s 2003 “Black October,” (AFP 2018).
Last Tuesday, jurors heard from Etelvina Ramos Mamani and her husband, Eloy, who lost their daughter Marlene when a bullet shot through their home’s window punctured the eight-year-old’s lung. Eloy, who was present for the massacre, recounted to jurors how soldiers chased and shot at unarmed civilians, who “like scared rabbits...escaped to the hills” (Ovalle 2018).
Those who are yet to share their stories in court include Teofilo Baltazar Cerro, whose pregnant wife was shot and killed in their home, Felicidad Rosa Huanca Quispe, who lost her 69-year-old father while he was walking roadside, and Gonzalo Mamani Aguilar, the son of a farmer who was shot and killed while caring for his crops (Vargas 2018).
The Bolivian families’ attorney, Joseph Sorkin, is angling to convict the former government officials on the grounds that they authorized the military to halt protests by any means necessary, harming not only protesters but unarmed civilians (Anderson 2018).
Opposing attorney Ana Reyes, who is representing Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, holds that the civilian deaths were an unfortunate product of crossfire rather than an intentional action, and that the military’s response was a “proportionate and measured” means to unblock roads necessary for transporting food and medicine to other Bolivian communities. She held that the wrong people were on trial for the disaster, claiming that current president Evo Morales and his fellow protest organizer Felipe Quiste deserved the blame (Anderson 2018).
Contrary to this point of view, in 2011, five former military commanders were convicted in Bolivia’s highest court for their role in the 2003 genocide. Each received prison sentences of 10 to 15 years. Two former cabinet ministers were also convicted for their involvement in the bloodshed, each receiving a three year sentence. Both Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín were indicted in the case, however, already having fled to the U.S. neither were tried, as Bolivian law prohibits trials in absentia (Al Jazeera 2011).
Still, Reyes insists that the former president and his associates acted in a lawful and reasonable manner, stating that Sánchez de Lozada even asked for an investigation of the killings through the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission after fleeing to South Florida; while the investigation was never executed, Reyes is sure that a U.S. jury will find her clients not guilty. Sánchez de Lozada’s lawyers’ theory is that Morales, who was a former coca farmer and the labor leader, used the protests as a form of revenge on the administration, which had curbed cultivation of the plant (Ovalle 2018).
Morales, whose rise to fame after the Gas War led to his eventual election in 2005 as Bolivia’s first indigenous president, has repeatedly declared that his administration realized its self-proclaimed “October Agenda,” making the wishes of campesino and indigenous movements a focal point of his political career. Among these accomplishments are a new Constitution and the nationalization of gas and other resources (Achtenberg 2013).
Morales named October 17, the day of Sánchez de Lozada’s official resignation, a “Day of National Dignity,” to mourn those who were injured and killed during the gas war and commemorate the start of a “new revolutionary cycle” (Achtenberg 2013).
Vargas, Claret. 2018. “Former President of Bolivia Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada will go to trial in the US for his role in the massacre of more than 50 citizens.” 26 February. Dejusticia. Available to read here: https://www.dejusticia.org/en/u-s-judge-orders-case-former-bolivian-president-role-2003-massacre-proceed-trial/ [Accessed 4 March 2018]
Achtenberg, Emily. 2013. “Bolivia’s Black October, Ten Years Later.” 8 November. The North American Congress on Latin America. Available to read here: https://nacla.org/blog/2013/11/8/bolivia%25E2%2580%2599s-black-october-ten-years-later [Accessed 4 March 2018]
AFP 2018. “Jury selection begins in US trial of ex-Bolivian president.” 5 March. France 24. Available to read here: http://www.france24.com/en/20180305-jury-selection-begins-us-trial-ex-bolivian-president [Accessed 4 March 2018]
Ovalle, David. 2018. “Landmark case in Florida pits Bolivia’s ex-leader against villagers attacked by his army.” 6 March. Miami Herald. Available to read here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/article203804364.html [Accessed 12 March 2018]
Anderson, Curt 2018. “Trial Opens in US for Bolivian Ex-President in 2003 Killings.” 6 March. U.S. News. Available to read here: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/florida/articles/2018-03-06/trial-opens-in-us-for-bolivian-ex-president-in-2003-killings [Accessed 12 March 2018]
Al Jazeera. 2011. “Bolivia officers convicted over 2003 massacre.” 31 August. Al Jazeera. Available to read here: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2011/08/201183145418739282.html [Accessed 12 March 2018]