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A U.S. Court, a Former Bolivian President and a Decade-Long Fight for Justice

A Miami court decision on April 3 marked a step toward changing perceptions of the U.S. as a refuge for Latin America's rights abusers.
Protesters in La Paz in 2012 hold a poster of former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada
AFP PHOTO/JORGE BERNAL

In a landmark human rights case, a U.S. federal jury found a former president of Bolivia responsible for ordering a violent crackdown that left 60 people dead in his country.

The civil suit was brought by eight Bolivian families whose relatives were killed when security forces violently repressed protests in 2003. They accused then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and his defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzain, with using force to intentionally kill and injure critics in an episode that became known as the Gas War.

Both men fled Bolivia, and have been living in the U.S since then. Plaintiffs filed the suit in 2007 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. After a long slog through the courts, and many attempts by the defendants to have the case dismissed, a federal jury ruled on April 3 that the two men had ordered and overseen the response by security forces, and awarded the plaintiffs $10 million in compensatory damages.

The survivors and relatives of the slain said they were vindicated by the verdict.

“Being a campesino that came all the way here to fight for justice against a millionaire, I feel very proud,” said Téofilio Baltazar Cerro. “If I could I would crush him like a cockroach.”

Baltazar’s wife Teodosia Morales Mamani was five months pregnant when she was struck by a bullet in her home and killed. She left behind her husband and seven children.

The decision was also hailed as a victory for human rights and against impunity, since it marked the first time that a former head of state was tried in a U.S. civil court.

“These eight families came to us and inspired us to bring a case that is setting precedent for all human rights litigation in the United States,” said Judith Chomsky, a cooperating attorney for the plaintiffs from the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The case was brought under the Torture Victim Protection Act, a law that expanded U.S. jurisdiction to cases of torture or crimes against humanity committed outside of its territory, stating that having human rights violators at large represents a threat to the U.S.’ interest and national security.

The verdict represents a positive break with the past, said Marco Simons, General Counsel at EarthRights International, an international legal advocacy organization that submitted a 2011 amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Mamani v. Berzain case.

“The U.S. has a long history of providing some sort of a refuge to people implicated in human rights abuses, especially from Latin America,” he said. “I hope it demonstrates that U.S. courts have a positive role to play in international justice.”

Sánchez de Lozada had extensive connections to the U.S. The son of an exiled diplomat, he was raised and educated in the Washington, D.C. area, and made his fortune through various oil and mining ventures.

After a first term as Bolivian president from 1993 to 1997, he was re-elected in 2002 with only 22.5 percent of the vote. Despite the slim margin of support, he forged ahead with a deeply unpopular free-market, pro-privatization economic agenda that stoked anger among Bolivians.

Just 14 months into his second term, protests exploded over his plan to sell natural gas to private companies for export to the U.S. through Chile. As marches escalated, security forces cracked down violently on demonstrators and by-standers. Public reaction forced him to resign.

U.S. courts have seen war criminals brought to account before for atrocities committed abroad and, on some occasions, have cooperated with extradition requests by other countries. Bolivia’s Supreme Court had indicted the former president and requested his extradition to Bolivia, but the requests were never accepted or fulfilled.

The April 3 ruling sends an important message about where the U.S. stands on human rights, said Naomi Roht-Arriaza, the Albert Abramson Distinguished Professor of Law at University of California, Hastings. 

“Historically, people in the region have seen the U.S. as where these guys run to when domestic justice seems to be in a position to come after them,” she said.

Despite the challenges and delays, the families who brought the suit never wavered in their decision to find some justice for the deaths of their loved ones, said Roht-Arriaza.

“Your daughter was killed and you talk about it for 10 years. That's hard,” she said.

“These people have never given up.”

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Sclafani is an editorial intern at AQ

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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