by Linda Farthing
April 11, 2018

from WorldPoliticsReview Website



Linda Farthing is a writer based in Bolivia. She is the co-author of three books about Bolivia, most recently "Evo's Bolivia: Continuity and Change." She has also written for The Guardian, Ms. Magazine, Jacobin, Al Jazeera and The Nation.

An indigenous man

stands in front of a banner

depicting former Bolivian President

Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada,

Warista, Bolivia, Sept. 20, 2006

(AP photo by Juan Karita).

After six days of deliberation, a jury in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last week declared Bolivia's former president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, and defense minister, Carlos Sanchez Berzain, guilty under U.S. law of extrajudicial killings committed in Bolivia 15 years ago.


Damages of $10 million were awarded to the case's eight plaintiffs, who all lost family members during the 2003 security crackdown on protests in Bolivia over a proposed natural gas pipeline running to Chile.


Both Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain have been living in exile in the United States since they fled Bolivia after the violence in what became known as the Bolivian gas war.

The landmark case was brought under the 1991 Torture Victims Protection Act, or TVPA, among the world's most far-reaching human rights laws.


The act permits civil suits within the United States for extrajudicial killings and torture committed by officials of a foreign government once the possible remedies in their home country are exhausted.

"The most significant outcome of this case, I think, is that the jury accepted the idea that the president and minister of defense were liable for conduct of soldiers in the field," says Judith Chomsky of the Center for Constitutional Rights, part of the legal team for the plaintiffs.

"The case greatly strengthens the reach of the TVPA because the plaintiffs were able to hold high-level government officials liable for killings and shootings by military forces under a ‘command responsibility' theory of liability," adds attorney Paul Hoffman, who was also part of the legal team.


"It reaffirms the U.S. Congress' intent to open our federal courts to human rights victims when the perpetrators are found on U.S. soil.


This decision will make the U.S. less of a safe haven for human rights violators, as Congress intended."

In September and October 2003, the Bolivian highland city of El Alto and its surrounding countryside were in an uproar after Sanchez de Lozada, a former mining magnate, had awarded lucrative gas contracts to dozens of foreign companies as part of a privatization scheme.


Massive protests against a proposed gas pipeline to Chile paralyzed the largely indigenous city in the Andes and the neighboring capital, La Paz, in the basin below.


Widespread road blockades provoked severe shortages in food and gas supplies. Sanchez de Lozada, who is known as Goni in Bolivia, and his Cabinet responded by declaring a state of emergency and militarizing El Alto.

When Marcelino Carvajal, who had just retired in the fall of 2003, opened a window in his house in El Alto to try and quiet the noisy protests outside, he was shot to death by soldiers who were positioned in the streets.


He was one of 58 people killed by the security forces; more than 400 others were injured during the conflict. His 68-year-old widow, Juana Valencia de Carvajal, was one of the eight plaintiffs in the Florida case who testified in the U.S. federal court in Fort Lauderdale.

As the deaths and injuries mounted in El Alto, Bolivian politicians and public figures, including the vice president at the time, Carlos Mesa, resigned from the government in protest.


Goni and Berzain then fled the country, finding safe haven in the United States.

During the three-week trial, Goni and Sanchez Berzain's defense argued that the 2003 deaths were the result of crossfire between armed protesters - who were under the direction of Evo Morales, now Bolivia's president, and Felipe Quispe, a leader of the indigenous Aymara people - and the military.


But Luis Castellano Romero, who was shot in El Alto and lost his leg while he was bringing his father home for lunch, testified,

"I never saw protesters carrying guns."

"This decision will make the U.S. less of a safe haven for human rights violators, as Congress intended."

Goni told the court that he did not order the military to shoot demonstrators and that he repeatedly pushed for dialogue.


His minister of defense washed his hands of any responsibility when he addressed the court, insisting that his government role was purely administrative.


He said the fault lay with Morales, even though he was out of the country at the height of the protests in October 2003.

Two of Goni's other government ministers testified at the trial.


The former minister of government, Victor Hugo Canelas, told the court,

"I heard Sanchez Berzain swear he would send elite troops from another part of the country, and kill 50, 100, or even 1,000 people."

The success in bringing the case to trial in the U.S. was in large measure due to the dedication of Tom Becker, who arrived in Bolivia in 2005 as a young Harvard law student and was the chief investigator attorney on the case.

"People thought it was crazy for poor indigenous families to launch a case against two of the most powerful people in Bolivia," he said at a press conference after the verdict.


"But that did not deter them. Today they made history."

"These eight families approached us and inspired us to do this case, which sets precedent for all those struggling for human rights," adds Chomsky.

The plaintiffs' lawyers scored an earlier victory in May 2014, when a federal judge ruled that their case could proceed because they,

"plausibly suggest that these killings were deliberate."

Two years later, a U.S. appeals court dismissed the defense's argument that the court should shelve the case because the plaintiffs had already been provided some compensation by the government in Bolivia.


The ruling established a legal precedent, as a U.S. federal appellate court had never before considered an argument by a defense team that the exhaustion of remedies abroad should be the basis for dismissal of a case.

Bolivia's government has sought without success to extradite Goni and Sanchez Berzain from the U.S. to stand trial in Bolivia.


The State Department turned down its first petition in 2008, and a second application presented in early 2016 has received no response to date. After the Florida verdict, the human rights commission of Bolivia's Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of its legislature, announced that it believed the outcome provided an incentive to continue pushing on the extradition demand.


The normally deeply divided Chamber of Deputies also issued a unanimous statement praising the decision and demanding that Goni and Sanchez Berzain return to the country to face trial.

The mood in Bolivia has been exuberant.


When the families of the victims arrived back at El Alto airport two days after the verdict, they were covered by garlands of flowers, amid tears and shouts of "Justice!"

While Goni and Sanchez Berzain are expected to appeal the verdict, Judith Chomsky underscores the significance of the case in advancing human rights, whatever the final outcome.

"This is the first time an ex-chief of state was forced to face those accusing him of human rights abuses in a U.S. court," she says.


"This is monumental."