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September-October 2011

Vol. 35, No. 5

Bolivia: "Black October" trial

On August 30, Bolivia's Supreme Court sentenced five former generals to 10-15 years in prison for their involvement in the "Black October" massacre of 2003. Two former cabinet members were also sentenced to three years each, though these sentences may be suspended. The conclusion of the two year long trial brings a measure of relief to the over 200 injured victims and the families of those who were killed by military and police forces under the command of then president Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada. The following article was written by MOGC intern Sarah Brady.

Former president of Bolivia
Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada

Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de LozadaIn September and October 2003, Goni's administration ordered the military to put down popular protests in El Alto over the exportation of gas. The troops killed 67 people, including children, by firing into the crowds and using sharpshooters. Of the hundreds injured, many lost limbs or their eyesight.Forensic reports showed that almost all the victims were shot with bullets from military issue weapons. Days after the massacre, Sanchez de Lozada and two of his ministers fled to the U.S. where they have remained ever since. In total 16 ex-authorities are accused of participating in the massacres of 2003, but the fugitive status of over half of the collaborators (including Goni himself) left the Bolivian courts with only seven of the accused to bring to court.

The seven accomplices received sentences of up to 15 years without right to pardon on charges including genocide in bloody massacre, homicide, aggravated injury, deprivation of freedom, abuse and torture, crimes against the freedom of the press, and issuing resolutions contrary to the Constitution. Those sentenced include two ex-Ministers of State and five high military authorities: Erick Reyes Villa (ex-minister of Sustainable Development), Adalberto Kuajara (ex-minister of Labor), and former members of military high command Gens. Roberto Claros, Gonzalo Rocabado, Juan Veliz, Luis Alberto Aranda and Jose Quiroga Mendoza.

The case featured more than 2,000 documents of evidence and 328 witnesses, including testimony from current President Evo Morales and Sanchez de Lozada's Vice President Carlos Mesa, as well as the victims. Given the abundance of evidence, prosecuting attorneys have proved the accused guilty by means of "autoria mediata," or having ordered the repression.

Prosecuting attorneys began pushing for the trial to go through since 2004 when Congress voted to start a "Trial of Responsibilities," a special process used to judge high elected officials. Though Goni's defenders try to portray the trial as a politically motivated campaign by Evo Morales, it was actually started by Carlos Mesa and sanctioned by a two-thirds vote in a Congress dominated by Goni's allies, using a law advocated for by Goni himself, all taking place more than a year before Morales came to power.

In 2008, the Bolivian Supreme Court sent a request for the extradition of Goni and two of his former ministers. Despite pledging to "expedite the judicial proceedings related to the extradition," the U.S. government has not yet acted on the extradition. It is unlikely that Sanchez de Lozada will ever be extradited as he is very well connected in the U.S. He spent most of his life in the U.S. (he is called "Gringo" due to his heavy English accent when speaking Spanish) and studied at the University of Chicago. During his presidency, he formed strong bonds with political leaders in the U.S. When it became clear that an extradition was not forthcoming, the Supreme Court pushed forward against those defendants who remained in Bolivia.

Bolivia's judicial reforms also interfered with the process of this case. Both lawyers for the victims are current candidates for the Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal in the October judicial reform elections, and were required by the 2009 constitution to resign from public office three months before the election. This deadline forced the lawyers to resign by July 26 in order to be eligible for the popular vote that will bring long-awaited reform to Bolivia's judicial system. The turnover has left the trial in the hands of the Attorney General Mario Uribe, a figure whose presence throughout the trial has facilitated continuity in the momentum of the case and a carry-over of the political support the previous lawyers wielded.

While seven have now been sentenced, nine others who are charged in the case, in addition to Goni, continue to avoid prosecution. Former minister of government Yerko Kukoc died in June while a fugitive in the U.S. If any of the accused return or are extradited to Bolivia, their case will move forward.
While many Bolivians would like to see all the defendants duly tried in court, family members of 10 victims from the 2003 massacre are also suing Sanchez de Lozada and his former defense minister Sanchez Berzain in U.S. civil court. The prosecution is using the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act as well as state law in Florida to process the cases in civil courts in the United States. The trial is currently pending the decision of the judge as to whether the victims have enough grounding to hold the trial in the U.S.

The recent sentencing serves as a momentous occasion for Bolivians, as demonstrated by the celebration of the protestors who have been waiting in vigil outside the Bolivian courthouse for several weeks praying for a just culmination to the case. It is one of very few instances in the history of Bolivia that the military has been prosecuted for human rights abuses. Yet the enormity of this moment does not come without potential problems, as some fear that the sentences could provoke some sort of retaliation from the country's military powers.

Even with the sentencing of these seven, the struggle against impunity continues, both in Bolivia and throughout Latin America. This historic moment joins the efforts of countries such as Ecuador, where the 2007 truth commission was chaired by Maryknoll Sister Elsie Monge; Peru with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission examining abuses under the Fujimori dictatorship; Paraguay and its investigations into the Stroessner dictatorship; Brazil and its inquiries into corrupt politicians and police; and other countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala. The conclusion of this phase of the "Black October" case is a step toward a future free of impunity, where the militarily and politically powerful face the consequences of their actions, and the victims and their families receive justice.

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