Landmark Settlement Holds Bolivian Ex-President Accountable for Human Rights Abuses

After a 16-year legal battle, former head of state Gonzalo "Goni" Sánchez de Lozada must compensate the families of victims extrajudicially killed in the 2003 Gas War.

October 6, 2023

Eloy Rojas Mamani and Etelvina Ramos Mamani visit Harvard Law School in 2019 to talk with students about their lawsuit. Eloy and Etelvina’s daughter was killed by a stray bullet in Warisata, Bolivia during the 2003 Gas War (Thomas Becker)

“Governments in our country have always murdered Indigenous, peasant and working-class people,” says Eloy Rojas Mamani, whose eight-year-old daughter Marlene was killed 20 years ago when she was hit by a stray bullet in Warisata Bolivia. “No one ever pays for it.”

That changed last week almost twenty years to the day since Marlene died, when a settlement in a U.S. court on September 28 provided Rojas Mamani and his wife Etelvina, along with seven other families, compensation from former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (known as Goni) and his Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzain. “We have proven that no one, no matter how rich they are, is untouchable,” said Rojas Mamani.

Goni and Sánchez Berzain will pay an unspecified amount to the victims’ families who were killed during country-wide protests in 2003, known as the Gas War. After failing to reach a solution to the unrest, Goni and Sánchez Berzain fled to the United States, where they have lived ever since—Goni outside Washington D.C. and Berzain in southern Florida.

A jury had awarded $10 million in damages to the families in 2018. “The fact that a U.S. jury could see the injustice done to people who are, on the surface, so very different from them, is a tribute to our common humanity,” says Judith Chomsky, a cooperating attorney on the case from the Center for Constitutional Rights. But in an unusual move, the presiding judge, James Cohn, overturned the verdict. He maintained that the evidence presented was inadequate to establish liability and to prove that the two had a “preconceived plan to kill innocent civilians.” An appeal contesting Cohn’s ruling by the victims’ families led to the settlement announced last week.

“With this agreement, the 2018 jury verdict remains intact, and there can be no further appeals,” Thomas Becker, a lawyer from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, who has pursued the case nonstop for 20 years, told the Bolivian press.  His voice cracking from emotion, he continued, “I want to thank everyone for inviting me to work on this case. It has been the honor of my life to learn from you, share with you, and struggle with you. The world now knows there is less impunity thanks to the Bolivian people.”

In addition to the Center for Constitutional Rights, Becker was assisted by the University Network for Human Rights and, from 2022 on, the Center for Justice and Accountability. Further support came from the law firms of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes.

Etelvina Ramos Mamani (left), Eloy Rojas Mamani (right) and their children in 2007. Ramos and Rojas Mamani were two of the nine plaintiffs in the suit against Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzain (Thomas Becker)

The civil case hinged on the 1991 U.S. Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA), one of the broadest human-rights laws in the world. It charged Goni and Sánchez Berzain with “extrajudicial killings, crimes against humanity, and wrongful death.” The TVPA enables U.S. human rights lawyers to bring cases against foreign officials when potential remedies are unavailable in their own country. “Stepping back from the specifics of Bolivia” says Chomsky, “the fact that a former president can be called to account for the harm he caused to his own citizens, underlines that human rights can be applied across national borders.”

Even though it took 20 years, we never gave up hope. I feel proud that Aymara Bolivians showed the world that no politician, no matter how rich or powerful, can murder their own people,” said Teófilo Baltazar, whose pregnant wife was killed by bullets that burst through a wall in their home. The U.S. attorneys widely praised the families for their persistence and resolve in seeing the case through. “Sometimes I don’t like to say they are victims because, sincerely for me, they are heroes. They decided they won’t rest, they will fight so this doesn’t happen again in Bolivia or in other countries,” Becker said on a La Paz radio program. “It hasn’t been easy to pursue this case,” says Rojas Mamani. “It meant we had to go over the events of that terrible time in our lives again and again.”

U.S.-educated Sánchez de Lozada, one of Bolivia’s wealthiest people, governed the country from 1993 to 1997 and again from 2002 until his ouster in October 2003. A steadfast U.S. ally, when he proposed permitting multinational corporations to export the country’s significant natural gas reserves through Bolivia’s historic enemy Chile, en route to the western United States, tens of thousands of largely Indigenous and working-class Bolivians poured into the streets in a protest.

Demonstrators demanded that the country’s gas reserves—at that time the second largest in South America—be developed in-country for the benefit of local people rather than the northern governments and corporations who have plundered Bolivia’s silver, tin, and gold for over 500 years. The oil and gas companies operating at the time in the country—Britain’s BP, France's TotalEnergies and Spain’s Repsol, among others—had among their lowest operating and exploration costs worldwide in Bolivia. “Gas is ours, damn it,” shouted thousands of demonstrators as they blockaded roads into the administrative capital, La Paz, and throughout the rest of the country.

As the protests spread, Goni and Sánchez Berzain ordered the military to re-establish order, authorizing them to use firepower if necessary. In the highland Aymara city of El Alto, they shot at protestors blocking a convoy of gasoline trucks destined for neighboring La Paz, killing an estimated 25 people. Witnesses testified at the 2018 trial in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that soldiers were ordered to shoot at “anything that moves” and that these soldiers shot “in every direction,” bringing a “rain of bullets” down on unarmed civilians, some inside homes or buildings, and others while they were attempting to hide or flee.

Etelvina Ramos Mamani and Eloy Rojas Mamani outside their house on their farm in Warisata in 2007 (Thomas Becker)

Successive U.S. administrations, beginning in 2003 with George Bush, provided refuge in the United States to Goni and Sánchez Berzain. In 2012, the Obama administration rejected the Bolivian government’s request to extradite Goni to face charges related to the deaths and injuries. “I want to apologize [to the Bolivian people] for what my government has done in protecting Goni and Sánchez Berzain for twenty years,” Becker said in La Paz on September 29.

A case brought in Bolivia against Goni, his ministers, and his military high command reached a unanimous verdict in 2011 that led to sentences of 10 to 15 years for five military ex-commanders and three years for two of Goni’s ex-ministers. Goni, Sánchez Berzain, and the other ministers who fled the country before the trial were not sentenced, because defendants cannot be tried in absentia in Bolivia.

The plaintiffs’ U.S. attorneys agree that the case sends a clear message to human rights abusers around the world that they can no longer count on safe haven in the United States, as so many of them have done in the past and continue to do. It also signals to victims of repression that within the United States there is a mechanism for accountability that they can access.

This case is also unprecedented because it is the first ever of its kind to be brought against a living former president. It is also the only time in history that victims have been able to confront a former head of state who unleashed repression against them face-to-face in a U.S. court.

Linda Farthing is a journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Economist, Al Jazeera and Latino USA, as well as many articles for NACLA. She is the co-author of four books on Bolivia, including (with Thomas Becker) Coup: A Story of Violence and Resistance (Haymarket, 2021).

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