On the night of October 17, 2003 Bolivians were witness to an extraordinary spectacle on their televisions. On one side of the screen was the image of the nation’s President, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, fleeing by commercial airliner for the United States. On the other side of the screen was the image of Sanchez 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 three weeks.
This week marks the 10th anniversary of what in Bolivia is known as Octubre Negro, or Black October. When popular uprisings exploded across the Bolivian highlands in opposition to Sanchez de Lozada’s export plans for Bolivia’s gas and oil, the so-called modern President responded the old-fashioned way, with troops, violence and bloodshed aimed at making his people back down. In the end his only remaining ally was the U.S. Embassy, which permitted the disgraced President safe passage to suburban Maryland where he has lived a decade unaccountable for his massacres.
This week the U.S. Embassy, warning U.S. citizens to stay away from planned anniversary demonstrations in La Paz, sought to whitewash the events of that bloody month by describing events in this way: “When government forces tried to break a blockade of La Paz which resulted in the death of more than 60 people.” Absent is any mention of the U.S. role in promoting the policies that sparked those protests, or the ten years of U.S. protection for the man who ordered the massacres. On this 10th anniversary, to be sure that those killed are not forgotten, the Democracy Center’s Aldo Orellana traveled to El Alto and La Paz to speak with their families, producing this report.
The Democracy Center
The Gas War, ten years on
by Aldo Orellana López
This report was also published in edited form on Alternet.org.
The Gas War is the name that has been given to a Bolivian social conflict that took place in September and October 2003 that had its origins in the plans of the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (2002 – 2003) to sell unprocessed gas to the United States through a Chilean port. The project had been rejected from the beginning by social organizations that were demanding the nationalization and the industrialization of the country’s hydrocarbons.
Sanchez de Lozada had won the 2002 elections with barely 22% of the vote, and then had to negotiate with other political parties to assume the presidency. From the start of his mandate many of the measures he was responsible for were highly unpopular. One of these was the implementation of a tax on salaries in order to reduce the fiscal deficit -a measure prescribed by the International Monetary Fund- which led to a police mutiny and a confrontation between the police and the military. The conflict left almost 30 people dead and 200 injured. This conflict, known as Black February, was to be a precursor to the Gas War.
Already in September 2003, in the face of the government’s insistence to go ahead with its gas exportation project to the US, social and indigenous organizations began to protest and to blockade roads in the Bolivian highlands, actions which were violently repressed by the army and the police. The first military intervention to clear the roads took place on the 20th September 2003 in the community of Warisata located approximately 100km from Bolivia’s capital city La Paz. This intervention which was carried out in order to clear the way for a group of tourists that had been trapped in the town of Sorata, at 150km from La Paz, left several people dead including Marlene Nancy Rojas Ramos, an eight year old girl.
From then on the protests by the social organizations and the military repression intensified in the adjoining city of El Alto, the 12th of October being one of the worst days. That day the ´Caravans of Death´ passed through El Alto- these were trucks carrying fuel to La Paz where supplies were beginning to run low. The trucks had armed military escorts and they left twenty five people dead in their wake. That was to be the point of no return for a conflict that eventually resulted in the total collapse of the government, the resignation of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada from the presidency and his subsequent escape, together with his defense minister Carlos Sánchez Berzain, to the United States on the night of the 17th October 2003.
The Gas War is considered a turning point in Bolivian history which cleared the way for a new political era and the election of Evo Morales as president of the republic in 2005. The principal mission of the new government, entrusted with the legacy of the Gas War, was to fulfill the October Agenda: to nationalize and industrialize the country´s hydrocarbons and to convene a Constituent Assembly.
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 more than 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.
Looking for justice in the courts
There are two battlegrounds for the families of the victims of the Gas War in their struggle for justice. The first is in Bolivia and involves the criminal case against those involved in the events of 2003; the second is in the USA where a civil case is being brought by the families.
With regard to the criminal case in Bolivia, after eight years of persistence, in August 2011 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. While this sentence was considered an historic victory for the families and their lawyers, they await the trials of another dozen collaborators of Sanchez de Lozada who have fled the country, and of course of those they consider most responsible: ex-president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada himself and his closest collaborator and defense minister Carlos Sanchez Berzain, both of whom have been given political asylum in the United States, and whose government has already refused a first extradition request. Now the bolivian government is working in a second request to achieve the extradition, a challenge that itself could be considered as an other true battleground.
The second battleground in their pursuit of justice is the civil case against Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain being brought by the families and a group of legal representatives demanding compensation for human rights violations (To know more about these legal actions in the US, check this Press Release of the Center for Constitutional Rights).
In Memory of the Fallen
Commemorating ten years since the Gas War, the family members of the victims organized a series of events in the city of El Alto in which the legal teams involved in both the criminal case in Bolivia and the civil case in the United States also participated. The day chosen for these activities was the 12th of October, the day on which ten years earlier the Caravans of Death passed through their streets leaving over twenty five people dead.
The families then visited the places where their loved ones were buried, the mausoleum of the Tarapaca cemetery in the Santiago Primero district, and later to the mausoleum at the Villa Ingenio cemetery. (See photos here)
In both locations family members and their legal teams recounted their experiences over the last ten years, telling the emotional stories of their setbacks and achievements in their search for justice.
In activities organized by other institutions, on Monday the 14th October an ecumenical ceremony was held by the El Alto Permanent Human Rights Assembly and the Federation of neighborhood committees.
Among the activities organized by other institutions was a range of artistic events, including the painting of murals to mark the 10th anniversary of the Gas War.
Their final message
Even if they have not achieved their main objective of extraditing Sanchez de Lozada and Carlos Sanchez Barzain to face criminal charges in Bolivia, in the speeches made by the family members of the victims and the legal teams three main achievements stood out.
The first is the criminal cases in Bolivia and the final sentences which led to the imprisonment of seven of the accused in relation to the events of October 2003; not only has history been made once again in Bolivia by imprisoning a group of politicians and members of the military responsible for grave human rights violations, but this has also strengthened the resolve of the families and their legal teams to continue to pursue the remaining legal cases in Bolivia and the United States.
The second is the demonstration of such strength and bravery in their search for justice on the part of the families, their legal teams and solidarity groups in the United States. They have made it crystal clear to Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and Carlos Sanchez Berzain that they will never again have a peaceful public life, that they will never return to Bolivia and that their situation is one of voluntary self-imposed exile in the United States.
The final, most important achievement is the internal strength gained by the families of those who died and were injured, many of whom, despite the immense pain of losing a child or a spouse, or having been left without a mother or a father, have not fallen into depression but rather have been able to remake their lives and carry on.
Testimonies from people involved over the last ten years
Dionisio Cáceres Copatiti, injured in 2003, is 36 and is a porter. He lives in the Cristal 1 area of El Alto.
“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. 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.”
Rogelio Mayta, lawyer for the families in the Bolivian criminal case.
“10 years have gone by, and 10 years we have been here. We are still here at the frontline, we haven’t taken one step back. We are going to continue demanding that Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada comes here to take responsibility for what he did.”
“10 years later, the case on the massacre of September and October 2003 continues. This in itself is a great achievement because in our history we have seen cases of human rights violations, massacres, and they’ve never come to anything. For that reason we call attention to the fact that the process continues, and that this process has enabled us to achieve some results. At times this process has come under attack and faced extreme adversity, but it has allowed those who wanted to avoid justice to finally face a sentence by exiling themselves, breaking away from their roots in order to escape Bolivian justice. For us, the only thing that remains is the firm and absolute conviction to continue with this legal process, the request for extradition under the principle of justice. Our absolute, firm conviction is that even if we can’t send them to trial, we will never stop pursuing them.”
“If anyone asks us about our family members, perhaps we will cry because we have memories, but we will lift our heads high like we have done all these years. I don’t see some poor little victims, I see victims that have stood up, that have walked forwards, that have made demands, that have learnt to organize themselves and talk in the trial, that have overcome their fears and weaknesses, and that have defended their dignity. The trial has ended as it had to end, with us fighting.”
Juana Valencia, is 69 and lost her husband Marcelino Carbajal in the Gas War.
“We the widows have had to be mothers and fathers for our children. 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. We have now achieved something, after 8 years of struggle we have achieved a sentence for some of the guilty, but there’s more to do and we won’t be satisfied until all the guilty are here.”
Rosa Carbajal Valencia, is the youngest daughter of Marcelino Carbajal, she is 29 and has 5 older brothers and sisters.
“We are proud because our family members managed to stop the gas from being taken out of Bolivia, but unfortunately life cannot be paid back. Despite the fact that 10 years have gone by, we still remember our family members with great sadness because we remember how our parents died. It is very painful. But still, we continue and we will continue to fight for the guilty to be extradited. When they are paying for their offenses, at least then we will be at peace, knowing that the murderers of our parents are paying for what they did.”
Eloy Rojas Mamani, father of Marlene Nacy Rojas Ramos. He lives in El Alto but returns to Warisata on the weekends. He works in construction and other areas. Eloy Rojas is 39 and his wife is 37. They have five daughters. In December 2008, Eloy and his wife Etelvina were sat opposite Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzaín in a court in Miami, when the ex-president and his ex-minister were sat in the defendants’ seat in a civil legal process for the first time.
“The most important thing for us is not to forget the massacre that happened or that there are people who must be held accountable. We remain strong, as we were when we faced the generals in the trial. They thought that we the family members wouldn’t have the strength to withstand the trial, but we did it. We’re not leaving things there, we are watchful to make sure that those sentenced fulfil their sentences and that the fugitives return to Bolivia.”
“They sought political asylum in the United States, arguing that this was all about political persecution, but as a father I can say that neither myself nor my daughter were involved in politics or had any political affiliation, and that was the message that we gave as the bereaved families when we were sat opposite them in the United States.”
“I saw their faces in the United States, but they were too cynical and cowardly. They didn’t even dare to look at us.”
“I am married to my wife Etelvina Ramos and we have five daughters. My oldest daughter is 20 now and she is at university studying Education Sciences. Marlene was my second oldest daughter, this year she would have been finishing high school, but unfortunately she is not here, although she remains in our hearts.”
James Cavallaro, former representative of the families in the legal actions underway in the United States.
“With your struggle, with the trial and the sentences, you have not only achieved a part of the justice that the victims deserve, but you have also changed the history of this country, and of Latin America. There are no other cases of generals in jail for violating peoples’ human rights during public protests. For me personally, it has been an honor to say that I have worked alongside the people of Bolivia who have fought to achieve justice as no one else has done, and that the sacrifice of these families has not been in vain.”
Beth Sthephens, current representative of the families in the legal actions underway in the United States. She is taking the place of James Cavallaro.
“It was a great achievement that some family members were able to sit in a court opposite Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain, and to see the way in which they were troubled knowing that they had to respond to the families.”
“The process itself is an achievement, each day is an achievement, because every day they live in the knowledge that we are after them and that we aren’t going to give up.”
Translated into English by Thomas McDonagh and Nicky Scordellis, from the Democracy Center.
16 October 2013
For immediate release
International civil society with Noam Chomsky call on US government to extradite Bolivian officials Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzain for their role in a massacre of 58 people ten years ago
On the ten year anniversary of what is known as ‘Black October’ in Bolivia, almost 40 organisations from 14 countries, including academics, lawyers, human rights, and community groups, have called on President Obama to agree to Bolivia’s requests for extradition of former President Sánchez de Lozada and former Defense Minister Sánchez Berzain so that they can be tried for their role in a massacre of 58 people ten years ago.
The statement was released on the eve of 17 October 2013, ten years to the day since Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzain fled to the US from Bolivia after overwhelming protests at the killings. The two Bolivian officials have been protected by the governments of Bush and Obama for facing trial for their role in the massacre for the last decade.
The statement was also signed by renowned academic Noam Chomsky, Q’orianka Kilcher, a Hollywood actress best known for her role as Pocahontas in The New World, and Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of Americas Watch that has led an international campaign to close a military training school implicated in countless human rights abuses in Latin America.
The statement notes that the killings of 58 people, including an eight-year old girl, and the injury of 400 others took place after Lozada and Berzain issued a decree calling on the Army to use ‘all means necessary’ to repress protests, deploying military sharpshooters armed with high powered rifles who shot into houses and chased and shot unarmed villagers as they fled through fields and into the mountains. Many of the individuals killed and injured as a result of the plan were not involved in protests, or even near protests when they were shot.
The current Bolivian government requested the extradition of Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain in 2008, after an arduous process of investigation and trials in Bolivia that were initially approved by two-thirds of Bolivia’s congress including many members of Sanchez de Lozada’s own political party. However the initial request for extradition was refused by the US State Department in 2012. A civil case is currently being pursued in a U.S. civil court using the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act.
It is believed that Lozada and Berzain’s strong political connections with members of Congress and US government officials have helped maintain their impunity from extradition and trial. The statement notes that the failure of the US government to extradite Lozada and Berzain looks “deeply hypocritical, when the US insists that other governments extradite individuals that have allegedly threatened US security interests such as Edward Snowden.”
Eloy Rojas Ramos, father of Marlene Nancy Rojas Ramos, the eight year old girl killed by the military in his village of Warisata said: “We lost everything when our daughter died. We could not even bear to live in our house or village where she died in our arms so we moved our whole family to El Alto. We have spent the last ten years in courts across Bolivia demanding justice, yet the US continues to protect Lozada and Berzain who ordered the killings. It is deeply painful that any country’s government would protect these criminals from facing trial.”
Jason Gehrig, from Fort Worth in Texas and one of the coordinators of the declaration explained that he felt compelled to speak out after directly witnessing the massacre: “I was living as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in El Alto, Bolivia in 2003 and witnessed first hand the bloody atrocities committed against the peaceful protestors under Sánchez de Lozada’s orders. Even our parish priest was shot as he stood up to defend the people. It’s a great source of shame for me to see my government go so far as to defy its treaty obligations to protect these brutal men.”
The call by a wide range of organisations worldwide shows that ten years after the massacre, the demand for justice by the families is one supported by thousands of people worldwide and will not be forgotten.
The statement with all the signatures can be seen here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1q-GPbKcdKTv2bgDMuYvskzVW8fLpfrayaZXz8sZdcvQ/
For more information or for interviews with the families, their lawyer or contact:
Nick Buxton – firstname.lastname@example.org; tel +1 -530-9023772
Margaret Fogarty – email@example.com; tel +1 603-988-7115
Past coverage of Black October
Over the years, The Democracy Center has published extensively on issues related to Black October, including articles, guest-posts, and entries in the widely read Blog from Bolivia, which ran from 2004-2010. Below is an overview of our past coverage of the political and legal aftermath of The Gas War.
Gas War Update – Blogpost (May 11, 2005)
Marking the two year anniversary of Black October
The President Who Killed And The Country That Keeps Him Safe – Blogpost (October 17, 2005)
On the documentary “Our Brand is Crisis”
Watching Goni Run – Up-close – Blogpost (February 26, 2006)
Taking action on legal case against Sanchez de Lozada
Sign the letter to George Bush demanding Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozadas return to Bolivia – Blogpost (July 31st, 2006)
Marking the three year anniversary of Black October
A Day of International Solidarity with Bolivia October 17 – Blogpost (September 30, 2006)
The Exile in Maryland – Bolivia’s Deposed President Three Years Later – Article/Newsletter (October 15, 2006)
A Last Word on the Goni Case – From a Young Bolivian – Blogpost, DC staff (October 18, 2006)
On the evolvement of the case against Sanchez de Lozada
Meanwhile, Back to Goni… – Blogpost (January 17, 2007)
US Calls Prosecution of Bolivia Ex-Presidents “Politically Motivated” – Blogpost (March 7, 2007)
Marking the four year anniversary of Black October
The Legal Case Against Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada Moves into High Gear – Blogpost, co-authored (October 7, 2007)
Octubre Negro – Four Years Later – Blogpost and article (October 17, 2007)
The Trial of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada – Blogpost (May 19, 2009)