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The Bolivia Genocide Case: Ex-regime figures convicted, US shelters top fugitive

Bolivia’s Supreme Court of Justice on August 30 convicted seven former officials on charges of genocide—five military officers and two ex-cabinet ministers. The military officials received sentences of 10–15 years while the former cabinet ministers received three-year terms; none will be allowed to appeal. But Bolivia’s top fugitive in the genocide case—former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada—remains at large in the United States, which refuses to extradite.

The cases stem from the “Black October” of 2003, when the army fired on indigenous Aymara protesters at El Alto, the sprawling working-class city on the altiplano above La Paz. For weeks, protesters had blocked roads across the altiplano, demanding a halt to Sánchez de Lozada’s plans for a new pipeline to export natural gas to California on terms considered too easy for Shell Oil and other companies. On October 12, the army broke the blockades by force to deliver gasoline to La Paz—leaving 63 dead. In the aftermath, Sánchez de Lozada was forced to step down—and fled to Miami, along with two top cabinet ministers.

“The authors of the crimes are still free,” says Rafael Archondo, U.N.’s Permanent Representative of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. “They have all the freedom that they denied to the people when the people protested against them.”

Trials began in 2009, when the court began proceedings against Sánchez de Lozada in absentia. By then Bolivia had elected as president the Aymara social leader Evo Morales—the country’s first indigenous president—who had been a leader of the 2003 protests.

Sánchez de Lozada faces 30 years in prison if convicted. Seventeen other ex-officials from his administration also face genocide charges. Several of them have sought refuge in Peru, and Bolivia hopes the new government in Lima will agree to extradite.

But the trial of Sánchez de Lozada cannot be concluded without his presence under Bolivian law. The Morales government has requested the extradition of Sánchez de Lozada and two other defendants under a 1995 treaty with the U.S. A defense lawyer for victims’ families, Rogelio Mayta, issued another public plea for extradition after the recent convictions. Sánchez de Lozada’s attorneys assert he resides in the US legally and that the prosecutions are political.

The whereabouts of Sánchez de Lozada are not difficult to determine. In October 2005 a group of U.S. activists symbolically served him with a subpoena (in facsimile) at a public event in Washington where he was speaking, organized by Princeton University. He is now believed to be living in Virginia.

Extraditions must be vetted by the Justice Department before they are approved by the State Department. When asked for a comment on the Sánchez de Lozada case, Justice Department spokesperson Laura Sweeney said, “the department doesn’t confirm or comment on matters of extradition so we would decline to comment.”

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State Department spokesperson Noel Clay said only that the question “should be directed to the Justice Department.”

Archondo dismisses notions that the defendants would receive unfair treatment in Bolivia, pointing out that the two ex-cabinet members just convicted—former development minister Érick Reyes Villa and former labor minister Adalberto Kuajara —have been allowed to serve their three-year terms under house arrest rather than in prison.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay welcomed the convictions, calling them part of “a very healthy trend towards combatting long-standing impunity” in Latin America.

The two other officials Bolivia wants extradited are former defense minister Carlos Sánchez Berzain and former hydrocarbons minister Jorge Berindoague. Sánchez Berzain was granted asylum status in 2008—which sparked an angry march by thousands of El Alto residents on the U.S. embassy in La Paz. Archondo calls Sánchez Berzain the “specific intellectual author” of the Black October massacre. He decries that the ex-defense minister was treated “as if he was somebody who was being punished because of his thinking.”

Archondo says Sánchez Berzain speaks freely to media in U.S. and is widely quoted in the Bolivian press. “What kind of dictatorship would allow this?” he asks.

Archondo points out that Bolivia is the only country with an ex-dictator in prison—Luis García Meza, who seized power in a 1980 coup. “I think this is a good example of how a democracy should deal with history,” he says, calling it part of “the long process of recovering the legitimacy that we have now.”

Archondo says that if the U.S. remains intransigent, Bolivia may call for “international agencies to make an intervention” in the case. He acknowledges that if Bolivia does go to the international community with this case, the “genocide” charge might have to be reconsidered, given the rigorous world standards for this crime. “There was a debate in Bolivia as to whether to characterize this as a genocide,” he says. “Our supreme court decided that charge was applicable in this case. Of course, if it comes to an international trial, the justification for the charge of genocide must be really clear. “

Recalling the resource issues that underlay the 2003 unrest, Sánchez de Lozada also faces charges in Bolivia of skirting the law in awarding oil contracts to BP, the French giant TotalFinaElf, and other multinationals.

But this will remain a sideshow until after Sánchez de Lozada faces the far more serious genocide charges. “To impose order through a massacre, using the armed forces without respect for human rights—this was a terrible episode in our history, and we cannot forget this.,” concludes Archondo. “This is a wound in our democratic body.”