Two weeks after the verdict in a landmark human-rights case in Fort Lauderdale, Thomas Becker was still excited. “This is a historic victory,” the attorney said. “This case shows that you can be a poor person and stand up for human rights, justice and social change. And you can win.”
Becker was talking about the early April jury decision in a civil trial that has significantly boosted the reach of US human-rights law against foreign government officials. The events in the case took place 15 years ago and thousands of miles away from the US district federal courtroom in downtown Fort Lauderdale where the trial played out. For three weeks in March, the families of people killed by the Bolivian military during a 2003 country-wide uprising testified against former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his minister of defense Carlos Sánchez Berzaín. The verdict finally came back on April 3: The case marks the first time that an ex-head of state was forced to face his accusers in a US court for human-rights abuses.
The tragedy began with a government proposal to construct a pipeline: The plan was to increase exports of the landlocked country’s immense natural gas reserves—at the time the second largest in South America—by piping the gas through Bolivia on to Chile, the country’s long-time adversary. Across the country, large swathes of the population saw the proposal as one more instance of a long and painful history of foreigners stealing the country’s natural resources and territory. Protests were most intense in the highlands, where the largely indigenous city of El Alto blocked food and fuel destined for the city of La Paz, which sits in a basin below. The coalition government of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, popularly known as Goni, who had won his second term with the help of US Democratic Party election consultants, declared a state of siege and militarized El Alto and surrounding areas.
Once the dust settled, around 60 people had been killed and over 400 wounded, almost every one of them working class people of Aymara indigenous heritage. All of the case’s plaintiffs lost family in the uprising; many of them lost elderly parents or young children. “Even though it took 15 years, we never gave up hope that we would get our day in court,” said Teófilo Baltazar, one of the nine plaintiffs. His wife who was five months pregnant was shot to death through the wall of their home.
Felicidad Rosa Huanca Quispe, from a small community south of La Paz where protestors were blocking roads, was preparing lunch for her five children on October 13, 2003, when her 69-year-old father Raúl Ramon headed to a nearby corner shop to buy a soft drink. On the stand in the Fort Lauderdale courtroom, dressed in the wide skirts that characterize Aymara women, she began to sob uncontrollably as she told the court, “the military shot him in two places and killed him.”