On April 3, 2018 a federal jury in Fort Lauderdale (Florida, USA) made history: in a landmark decision it found former Bolivian president Sánchez de Lozada and his minister of defense José Carlos Sánchez Berzain responsible for dozens of extrajudicial killings carried out by the Bolivian military during a period of social unrest known as the Gas War in 2003. This trial marked the first time in history a former head of state had to face his accusers in a U.S. court.
The Gas War
On October 18, 2003 the President of Bolivia Sánchez De Lozada boarded a plane heading to the United States of America, after resigning earlier that day. He was only 14 months into his second term, after having already served as President of the South American country from 1993 to 1997.
In the months leading up to that day, Bolivia had witnessed a major social eruption, as militant demonstrations and strikes essentially shut down the country as a response to the government’s planned use of the country’s vast natural gas reserves. The opposition movement feared that the government’s planned exploration and extraction policies would strongly favor transnational companies and the United States and constitute another episode in the painful history of (neo-)colonial exploitation of the country’s natural resources.
But the emerging social movements, encompassing indigenous peoples, radical mine workers as well as coca farmers, also expressed a general discontent with the broader neoliberal course of the Bolivian government and its harsh and often racist oppression of grassroots social justice movements.
In the fall of 2003 De Lozada’s government once again opted for the violent repression of the protest movement. They employed military and police forces in order to suppress street demonstrations and the shutting down of highways. The ensuing violent clashes left at least 64 protesters dead and several hundred injured, most of them members of the indigenous Aymara people.
Bolivia was profoundly transformed by that period of social unrest, resulting in the election of the country’s first indigenous president Evo Morales, who was a central figure in the 2003 protest movement, and the ensuing nationalization of the gas reserves in 2006.
But for a while it looked like that once again in the history of Latin America high-ranking government officials would get away with horrendous human rights violations.
The long road to justice
After fleeing the country, De Lozada and Sánchez Berzain settled in the United States, where they expected to be able to enjoy impunity, since the U.S. State Department had supported the De Lozada administration throughout the popular upheaval.
But four years after the tumultuous period, on September 19, 2007 two lawsuits were filed against De Lozada and his defense minister Sánchez Berzain by family members of eight people killed during the Gas War, who had formed a victim’s association. They claimed civil action for compensatory and punitive damages under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), which authorizes civil lawsuits in the U.S. for extrajudicial killings. The relatives of the slain Bolivians were represented by lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic as well as several private law firms.
In June of 2008, the Bolivian government waived any immunity that the defendants might claim, which was accepted by the U.S. government in October. In the following years the defendants tried unsuccessfully to stop the trial by several motions to dismiss the case, arguing that they were entitled to immunity, that the case presented a non-justiciable political question, and that the claims for extrajudicial killing were not actionable under the TVPA. After these motions were rejected by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, they also presented a motion asking for a review by the Supreme Court, which was rejected in 2016.
Finally, on February 14, 2018 District Court Judge James Cohn ruled that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to proceed to trial, which took place from 5 March until 3 April before the Federal Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
In the nearly three-week trial 29 witnesses recounted their experiences of the events during the Gas War. Their accounts demonstrated that the security forces were deployed in order to intimidate the protesters by employing indiscriminate violence against civilians. Eight plaintiffs testified about the violent deaths of their family members. Another witness, a former soldier in the Bolivian military, told the Court that in October of 2003 he was ordered to shoot at “anything that moves” in a civilian community. The legal team of the plaintiffs presented evidence that showed that the defendants designed their violent response to the protests calculating it would take thousands of civilian deaths to break the movement.
On April 3 the federal jury found both defendants responsible for the extrajudicial killings during the Gas War, because they explicitly ordered the security forces to use deadly force in the confrontations with protesters. Therefore, the plaintiffs were awarded $10 million in compensatory damages.
„We disagree with the jury’s verdict and believe that the proof was so lacking that the case never should have gotten to a jury,“ said attorney Steve Raber. The defendants invoked Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, asking the court to overturn the verdict of the jury due to lack of evidence. A decision is expected May 4, but the chances of success of that motion are
The strategy of the defendants over the last ten years has consisted in claiming that the deaths occurred rather from crossfire than from intentional killings and that their government was merely responding to violent street uprisings, incited by powerful protest leaders such as Felipe Quispe and Evo Morales, who as current president of Bolivia welcomed the verdict and demanded the extradition of the two defendants.
This case marks the first time that a former head of state had to answer for crimes committed while in office in a U.S.-court. However, it is important to note that the trial was of a civil and not of a criminal character, meaning that the TVPA does not allow for a criminal persecution of torturers.
Nevertheless, the case signals that the U.S. will no longer serve as a “safe haven” for human rights violators. “The plaintiffs’ victory sends an unmistakable signal to perpetrators around the world that they can be held to account for human rights abuses in the United States,” said Susan Farbstein, Co-Director of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.
Furthermore, this case illustrates how self-organization by victims of human rights violations supported by progressive legal teams can lead to (judicial) justice. In that sense, Judith Chomsky, a Center for Constitutional Rights attorney, said that families “have set an example for anyone fighting for accountability for human rights abuses worldwide.“
And finally, this case shows how fighting for judicial accountability of those violating human rights can empower affected communities and individuals. This is reflected by Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, one of plaintiffs, who in reaction to the verdict said: “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.”