When, on Oct. 15, 2003, Filomena León was shot in the back by military soldiers in the Bolivian town of Patacamaya, near El Alto, she had no reason to believe hers would be anything other than an anonymous death in the Andes.
“I was in front of the soldiers and the bullet entered me from behind, into my spine,” León, an indigenous miner and mother of six, told Verónica Auza and Claudia Espinoza, editors of Gas War Memorial Testimony. The shot left her paralyzed, and she told Auza and Espinoza on April 20, 2004, “[After being shot] I wanted to die. … I still feel the same.” She died 10 days later from a lethal infection.
But three years later, as the country struggles to rebuild its economy and empower its large indigenous population, Bolivians are rallying to remember—and vindicate—the death of León as well as 66 others who were slain.
In October 2003, protests erupted in the impoverished and largely Aymara Indian city of El Alto over a government plan to export natural gas to the United States via Chile under economic terms protesters said would not benefit most Bolivians. The demonstrators filled El Alto and organized strategic blockades to stop gas from reaching the nearby capital of La Paz and later being exported. They also demanded nationalization of the country’s gas reserves.
President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, widely recognized as the architect of Bolivia’s neoliberal “shock therapy,” had orchestrated the gas deal, and on Oct. 11 he ordered the military into El Alto to quell the protests and break the blockades. By the end of October, more than 60 demonstrators were dead and 400 wounded—the result of soldiers firing “large-caliber weapons, including heavy machine guns,” into the crowd, as the Catholic Church testified in a public statement. León, stopped by troops along with four others, was unarmed when she was shot. Among the others killed were small children and a pregnant woman. In the wake of the massacres, Sánchez de Lozada fled the country for the United States, where he remains today.
On Feb. 1, the Bolivian Supreme Court issued an indictment for Sánchez de Lozada that paves the way for an extradition request to be sent to the United States (along with the extradition of two of his ministers, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín and Jorge Berindoague, who also fled to the United States in 2003). The request will likely arrive in the United States in May. For his role in the massacre, known in Bolivia as “Black October,” Sánchez de Lozada is wanted to stand trial for homicide, among other crimes, and faces a 30-year sentence if convicted.
Despite the uproar in Bolivia, U.S. officials appear ambivalent in the face of extradition efforts, which initially began in 2004. Bolivia’s ambassador to the United States, Gustavo Guzman, characterizes the response his government has received from the Bush administration as a “truly deafening silence.”
Both the State and Justice Departments declined to comment for this article. In what appears to be one of only two public statements on the case, a March 6 report by the State Department expressed concern that the Bolivian government’s attempts to bring criminal charges against the ex-president “appear to be politically motivated.” Beatrice Rangel, a Miami-based consultant and longtime friend of Sánchez de Lozada, told Time that the indictment is a “political trial … without legal grounds,” likely orchestrated by President Evo Morales and his MAS (Movement to Socialism) party.
Gregory Craig, one of the lawyers representing Sánchez de Lozada, says, “considering what is happening in Bolivia today, it seems difficult to conclude [Sánchez de Lozada] could get a fair trial,” referring to the presidency of Evo Morales. Craig also believes there is no evidence of homicide or related crimes.
Despite these claims, Michael Krinsky, a New York-based lawyer who specializes in international law, points out that according to the extradition treaty between the two countries, signed by Sánchez de Lozada himself in 1995, only probable cause is needed for extradition. The legal case for extradition appears particularly solid in light of Ordinola v. Hackman, a Feb. 22 ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that authorized the pending extradition of Wilmer Yarleque Ordinola, a former Peruvian general charged with leading two massacres in rural Peru in the early ’90s. This ruling, says Krinsky, “could raise problems for the argument that Sánchez de Lozada should not be extradited.”
Rogelio Mayta, the lawyer representing the families of the victims of the October massacre, says the claims of Sánchez de Lozada and his supporters have little substance. He points to a 2004 decision by the Bolivian Congress commonly known as the “Trial of Responsibility.”
“On October 14, , the National Congress authorized that Goni should stand trial, with an absolute [two-thirds] majority vote,” says Mayta. “The majority of senators were from Goni’s own party, as well as from his ruling coalition; MAS were a minority party in Congress.” He adds, “Neither I nor the victims that I represent are MAS party members.”
The case against Sánchez de Lozada is criminal in nature, and the families of those killed in El Alto—where the average yearly wage is $650 (U.S.)—are not requesting financial compensation. Nonetheless, the families could potentially receive damages at a later date, were Sánchez de Lozada to be convicted.
To date, the Morales administration has given a total of approximately $6,000 to cover victims’ funeral and hospital costs. This sum, critics say, falls short of providing real assistance to the families and survivors of Black October.
Sánchez de Lozada has a fortune estimated at $50 million, largely garnered through the privatization of the country’s state-owned mines. Even if a trial and conviction were to occur, it remains uncertain that victims would see any money. Various sources, who wish to remain anonymous, believe Sánchez de Lozada has “hidden his assets so that victims cannot collect damages under any circumstances.”
A trial could also have larger repercussions. “With this case, people have both a fear and a hope,” says Mayta. “The fear is that if the guilty parties are not sanctioned today, tomorrow another authority will order another massacre. The hope is that if we can bring [Sánchez de Lozada] to justice, it will serve as an inhibitor of future abuse and arbitrary violence.”
For a country where Indians were banned from walking on the sidewalk until 1952 and where neoliberal policies were typically carried out at gunpoint, Sánchez de Lozada’s trial would give the nation’s indigenous majority something they’ve always been denied. Says Guzman, “The extradition of Mr. Sánchez de Lozada, as part of a process that is in strict accordance with Bolivian laws, has only one meaning for the Bolivian people, and that meaning can be summarized with a single word: justice.”
First published at In These Times