Following Massacre, Bolivians Demand Extradition of Former President Residing in the U.S.

On the night of October 17, 2003, Bolivians were witness to an extraordinary split-screen spectacle on their televisions.  On one side was the image of the nation’s President, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, fleeing by commercial airliner for the United States.  On the other was the image of Sánchez de Lozada’s Vice-President, Carlos Mesa, taking the Presidential oath before the Bolivian Congress and asking the nation to observe a minute of silence for the more than 60 people killed during government repression over the previous month. Last week marks the 10th anniversary of Bolivia’s Octubre Negro, or Black October.

The Gas War

The events that would oust a sitting President and alter the course of Bolivian politics in deep and lasting ways began in September 2003 as news spread of Sánchez de Lozada’s plans to export Bolivia’s gas and oil at bargain prices through Chile to the U.S.  Soon popular uprisings against the plan exploded across the Bolivian highlands.  Sánchez de Lozada – a close ally of the U.S. whose 2002 election was managed by Bill Clinton’s campaign team – had already presided over a wave of repression in February of that year.  In his efforts to meet a command for economic belt-tightening from the International Monetary Fund, the President imposed new taxes on people earning as little as $100 per month.  The round of protests and repression sparked by that move left 34 people dead.  When the new protests over his gas plans erupted, his response with troops, violence and bloodshed was more severe still.

In the end, even his own Vice-President broke with him and Sánchez de Lozada’s only remaining ally was the U.S. Embassy.  That U.S. support prolonged the violence for another week until the U.S. finally facilitated the disgraced President safe passage to suburban Maryland where he has lived a decade unaccountable for his massacres.

“Glory to our martyrs fallen in the Gas War!! Long live the city of El Alto.” These were the words this week as mourners in Bolivia’s highlands visited the graves of their family members murdered in September and October 2003.

Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who had presided over a wave of national privatizations as President in the 1990s, won the divided 2002 elections with barely 22% of the vote and only lost public support further as he governed.  When the government announced its insistence to move forward with its gas plans, social and indigenous organizations began blockading roads and highways in protest.  On September 20, Sánchez de Lozada sent the first wave of troops out to clear the roads, in the community of Warisata, 60 miles from the Bolivian capital, La Paz.  The assault left several people dead including Marlene Nancy Rojas Ramos, an eight year old girl.

As word of the killings spread, the protests by social organizations and repression by the military intensified, with its epicenter in the city El Alto, just above the capital.  On October 12 a caravan of trucks (named by protesters, the ´Caravan of Death´) passed through El Alto escorted by troops carrying fuel supplies down to the more affluent capital. As the military sought to move past the protest blockades they opened fire, leaving twenty five people dead in their wake.

The killings sparked outrage across the nation.  Union leaders, human rights advocates, prominent academics and intellectuals, and many others joined the protests in large numbers, mounting hunger strikes to demand Sánchez de Lozada’s immediate resignation.  When he finally fled via a flight to Miami on the night of October 17th, joined by his despised Defense Minister, Carlos Sánchez Berzain, celebrations broke out across the country.

Remembering the Fallen and Demanding Justice

Last week the families of many of those killed a decade ago gathered again in El Alto, at familiar gravesites, and spoke of their loved ones and of the demand for justice.

“We the widows have had to be mothers and fathers for our children,” said Juana Valencia, whose husband Marcelino Carbajal was among those killed.  “I am older now, and it hasn’t been easy to get work to support my children, but we continue to fight for the guilty to return and take responsibility for what they have done.” 

For a decade the families of the fallen have demanded that Sánchez de Lozada and his top deputies be held accountable for the violence they rained down on communities here.  There are three battlegrounds for the families of the victims of the Gas War in their struggle for justice.

The first is the Bolivian criminal case against those responsible.  In August 2011, after eight years of persistence, the Supreme Court finally sentenced five members of the military and two politicians to between three and fifteen years in prison for their role in the events of September and October 2003.  A second battlefield is a civil case brought against Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzain by the families in U.S. courts, which is being shepherded by a team of public interest lawyers in the U.S.  One of them, Beth Stephens of the Center for Constitutional Rights, joined the families in El Alto this week. She noted that while the civil case has yet to render justice, it has accomplished something else of real importance.  “It was a great achievement that some family members were able to sit in a court opposite Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzain, and to see the way in which they were troubled knowing that they had to respond to the families.”

The third battle for justice is the demand that the two architects of the 2003 repression be returned to Bolivia.  Pressed by the families, the Bolivian government has made a series of formal requests to the U.S. for the return of the two ex-officials to stand trial.  However, Sánchez de Lozada’s network of friends in Washington runs deep.  His former U.S. defense lawyer, Gregory Craig, later served as White House Counsel to President Obama.  Those friends and the U.S.’s own culpability in the 2003 violence make it little surprise that the demands for extradition have been ignored.

“Ten years have gone by, and ten years we have been here.  We are still here at the frontline, we haven’t taken one step back,” said Rogelio Mayta, the Bolivian attorney who has worked tirelessly for a decade on behalf of the families.  “We are going to continue demanding that Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada comes here to take responsibility for what he did.”

The Legacy of October 2003

The Gas War and the events of that October a decade ago are considered a turning point in Bolivian history.  They cleared the way for a new political era which included the election of Evo Morales as President in 2005. The principal mission of the new government, entrusted with the legacy of the Gas War, was to fulfill what is still referred to here as the October Agenda.  That agenda included the nationalization and industrialization of the country´s gas and oil resources, which has partially taken place, and the convening of a Constituent Assembly to write a new Bolivian constitution.  That constitution was approved in January 2009 by more than 60% of the country’s voters.  Both of these events can be traced directly back to the protests of 2003.

But the Gas War was also a turning point in the lives of the victims of those tragic days and their families. The conflict left sixty people dead and four hundred injured, many of whom were left permanently disabled. These people have since formed the Association of Family Members of those fallen in Defense of Gas, not only to commemorate the events of September and October 2003, but also to remember the ten long years of their struggle for justice.

“The disgrace into which we have fallen is still very painful, it is very painful to remember.  It is painful to walk with only one foot, I can’t lift heavy objects, I can’t run nor jog,” said Dionisio Cáceres Copatiti this week, who lost his leg in the events a decade ago.  “Nevertheless, we will continue to fight for this murderer to return to Bolivia to be held accountable and to go to jail along with the generals that led the massacre in 2003.  We ask ourselves why the government of the United States protects them.  We want them to be extradited and we are going to carry on insisting until the last days of our lives.”


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