From a distance of 15 years and more than 3,000 miles, relatives of people killed by Bolivian security forces in 2003 have had their first taste of justice.
A federal court civil jury in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Tuesday found former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his defense minister responsible for extrajudicial killings during a period of civil unrest, and awarded the plaintiffs $10 million in compensatory damages.
Brought by the families of eight of those slain, the lawsuit charged that Sánchez de Lozada and José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín orchestrated the use of military force to quash protests against the government. Bolivian soldiers killed 58 people, including children, and injured more than 400, nearly all from indigenous Aymara communities. The turmoil forced both defendants to resign and flee to the U.S., where they have lived ever since.
The lawsuit was brought to trial with the help of the International Human Rights Clinic, the practice arm of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School (HLS), under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows civil lawsuits in U.S. courts for extrajudicial killings.
Lawyers for Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín immediately asked the judge to overturn the jury’s verdict.
For Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, who lost his pregnant wife and unborn child when they were shot inside their home, the jury’s decision is welcome news. Baltazar Cerro was among several relatives who traveled from La Paz to Fort Lauderdale to take part in the three-week trial.
“I swore on my wife’s grave I would seek justice no matter how long it would take and far I would have to travel,” said Baltazar Cerro by phone from Fort Lauderdale. “This is an example for the whole world to see, so that no other government officials can get away with killing innocent people in their countries and think they can find safe haven in the United States.”
At the opening of the trail on March 6, Etelvina Ramos Mamani described the death of her 8-year old daughter, Marlene, who was shot through the window of the family’s home. A bullet fired by Bolivian soldiers pierced her chest. According to newspaper reports, Ramos Mamani offered painful testimony when she said, “Blood was coming out of her chest like a fountain.”