There is an Aymara proverb which artfully invokes the idea that returning to the past can trace a path into the future: ‘Qhiparu nayraru uñtas sartañani’ – ‘Looking back, we will move forward’.

Over 15 years may now have passed, but former President of Bolivia, Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, has now been found guilty in a landmark US trial for massacres committed in Bolivia in 2003. He was joined in the dock by Jose Carlos Sánchez Berzain, his one-time defence minister. The pair have been ordered to pay $10 million in damages.

The lawsuit Mamani vs Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín was filed by nine relatives of those killed in 2003. They had argued that the politicians ordered the extrajudicial killings as part of a concerted strategy to quell dissent against the state’s neoliberal resource extraction policies.

Justice served

After a three-week trial, a US jury ruled that under Goni’s orders, the Bolivian military massacred more than 80 citizens in October 2003 during a period of mass popular uprisings known as the ‘Gas War’.

The Florida courtroom may have been 3,000 miles away from the piercingly-sharp sunshine of La Paz but the sense of victory, jubilation and relief resonated none the less for the nine plaintiffs and the 29 witnesses who came from Bolivia to testify in court about their experiences in 2003.

In La Paz, Juan Patricio Quispe, president of the Association of the Fallen October Relatives, broke down down in tears at the news, according to reports by Bolivian newspaper La Razón. ”We found Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada where he thought he was not going to be found. The sentence is clear and there is no turning back” he declared in a press conference in Plaza Murillo in La Paz.

protester in Bolivia stands in front of banner
Protests have perennially marred Bolivian politics. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

In a legal sense, the trial was groundbreaking as it was the first time that a former head of state had stood accused in a human rights trial in a US court. It was filed under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which grants US federal courts jurisdiction in lawsuits filed by non-US citizens for crimes that violate international law.

But justice was long in the making. Bolivia had been seeking De Lozada’s extradition for more than 10 years. In 2007, he was formally charged by Bolivian prosecutors with genocide, but in 2012 the Obama administration refused to extradite him to stand trial, arguing that he would not receive a fair hearing in Bolivia owing to the political climate there.

Violent unrest

The event in question, the so-called ‘Red October’, was a month of powerful unrest which would change the course of recent Bolivian history. The dispute known as the Gas War began when Sánchez de Lozada concluded an agreement with US oil companies for the sale and export of Bolivian natural gas via Chile, in terms widely considered to be unfavourable to Bolivia. After Bolivia’s poor had suffered in the 1980s and 1990s under IMF-backed austerity policies, the popular tide had against neoliberal privatisation policies.

Goni’s decision to pursue aggressive privatisations sparked mass demonstrations which escalated in September and October, when tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets to protest in cities across Bolivia. At the same time, a general strike called in September by the workers’ confederation Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) caused nationwide paralysis.


In the face of popular insurrection, the Bolivian military responded with brutal violence. On October 19, soldiers in El Alto, a city on the high plains above capital La Paz, fired indiscriminately on protestors. According to lawyers, one solider opened fired with a machine gun down an alley, shooting at civilians, including children who were fleeing and trying to hide.

Disturbing findings

The trial also shed light on the circumstances of those killed – revealing how many of those who lost their lives were not even participants in the protests. Eloy Rojas Mamani and Etelvina Ramos Mamani’s eight-year-old daughter was killed in her mother’s bedroom when a single shot was fired through the window. “Blood was coming out of her chest like a fountain,” Ramos told the court in March.

Meanwhile, the pregnant wife of Teófilo Baltazar Cerro was killed when a bullet was fired through the wall of a house, killing her and her unborn child. Elsewhere, Felicidad Rosa Huanca Quispe’s 69-year-old father was shot and killed while he was walking along a roadside.

Accountability proven

As President of Bolivia, De Lozada was Captain General of the Armed Forces. At the time, he responded to pleas for peace by saying that force was necessary to restore order: “If they want a dialogue about the gas, then we’ll have a dialogue; but if they want a war over the gas then they’ll have a war and we’ll shoot all the violent people in El Alto”, he said.

When protestors’ roadblocks stranded hundreds of tourists and visitors attending a religious festival in the mountain town of Sorata, Berzain was sent to broker a deal. As he was pressed by community leaders, Berzain reportedly threatened, “Fucking Indians, I’m going to shoot you. Leave me to do my work.”.

Echoes of the past

‘Red October’ emerged as one particularly tumultuous chapter in the long and contentious struggle for the dominion of natural resources in Bolivia. The ‘Water Wars’ in the late 1990s had seen mass demonstrations against the privatisation of Cochabamba’s water supply, eventually toppling the regime of military President Hugo Banzer.

Decades earlier, the struggle for control over natural resources — the lucrative tin mines in particular — was the focus of the 1952 Bolivian revolution which brought the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) party to power. Tellingly, when Evo Morales was elected president in 2005, buttressed by social movements and trade unions, one of his government’s first measures was the decree nationalising hydrocarbon resources in May 2006.

Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada trial
Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s trial in Florida saw him charged in relation to the suppression of the 2003 protests. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

‘El Gringo’

When Sánchez de Lozada resigned in the wake of the 2003 protests, the multimillionaire mining executive fled on a plane to the US. He was no stranger to the country; as a child, Goni attended boarding school in Iowa and was later educated at the University of Chicago, where he was deeply influenced by the theories of neoliberal poster boy, Milton Friedman. He speaks Spanish with a heavy American accent, which garnered him the nickname ‘El Gringo’ in Bolivia.

Ultimately being an exile in the US was no impediment to Goni furthering his business interests. A staunch free-market advocate, in the US he became closely aligned with the administration of then-President George W Bush. According to the Center for Public Integrity, he was listed in 2012 as the head of Petromina LLC, a mining advisory firm.

A victory for human rights

The trial represents a transformative victory, for the nine plaintiffs, as well as human rights defenders and indigenous activists across Bolivia. It is a victory for those who gave their lives in the fight to see Bolivia governed by public interest rather than elite profit.

Director of human rights NGO Fundación Solón and Bolivia’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solón, expressed his relief at the outcome: “Sitting in the stand, the accused who fled the country after a massacre is certainly a cause for great joy in Bolivia.”

Most of those who protested in 2003 were poor and from the nation’s majority indigenous Aymara communities. It was indeed conflicts such as the Gas War and the Water Wars which brought Evo Morales to power in 2005, famously Bolivia’s first indigenous and socialist President.

“After many years of fighting for justice for our family members and the people of Bolivia, we celebrate this historic victory,” said Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, a plaintiff and victim in a statement from the Center for Constitutional Rights.

“Fifteen years after they fled justice, we have finally held Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín to account for the massacre they unleashed against our people,” he added.

Aymara indigenous community
Bolivia’s majority Aymara indigenous population struggled for representation before Evo Morales came to power. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Aymara inclusion

The trial also offered “indigenous Aymara people, who have historically been excluded from justice, a chance to testify about events that led to dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries,” said Beth Stephens, an attorney for the plaintiffs, speaking to the Centre for Constitutional Rights.

Beyond Bolivia, the plaintiff’s lawyers hope this ruling will establish a precedent for holding perpetrators to account in the US for human rights abuses committed overseas. “The plaintiffs demonstrated immense courage in relentlessly pursuing justice for over a decade,” said Judith Chomsky, a Center for Constitutional Rights attorney for the plaintiffs. “They have set an example for anyone fighting for accountability for human rights abuses worldwide.”

While Goni and Berzain may yet appeal the court ruling, Rogelio Mayta, a lawyer from La Paz who has been involved with the case for years, remains sanguine: “We are used to long struggles,” he told Bolivian newspaper Pagina Siete.

After all, as the ruling shows, long struggles often reap rich rewards.


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