Bolivians Urge US Court to Restore $10M Verdict on Killings

Nov 19, 2019
5:56 PM

Eloy Rojas Mamani, right, gestures towards his wife Etelvina Ramos Mamani, as they speak during a news conference after leaving the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

By CURT ANDERSON, AP Legal Affairs Writer

MIAMI (AP) — Bolivians asked a U.S. appeals court Tuesday to restore a $10 million jury verdict against a former president and defense minister of the South American nation over killings by security forces during 2003 unrest there.

Lawyers for a group of indigenous Bolivians told a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a Florida judge was wrong to set aside last year’s verdict.

The jury found against former Bolivian President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada and former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín. Both have been living in the U.S. after fleeing Bolivia in 2003.

“We have faith that the court of appeals will see what the Bolivian people and the American jury also saw: that Goni and Sánchez Berzaín are responsible for these killings, and that justice must be done,” said Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, a plaintiff whose pregnant wife Teodosia was shot and killed during the unrest.

The judges did not indicate when they would rule.

In the lawsuit, relatives of eight Bolivians who died claimed the two officials planned to kill thousands of civilians to crush political opposition during civil unrest known as the “Gas War.” The lawsuit was filed under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which authorizes suits in the U.S. for extrajudicial killings.

The unrest erupted in the fall of 2003 as street protests in Bolivia over use of the country’s vast natural gas reserves boiled over. Demonstrators threw up street blockades of flaming debris and rubble in several places including on the outskirts of the capital of La Paz, and violent clashes between police and security forces with the civilian protesters turned deadly.

At times, government forces intent on clearing street barricades fired on demonstrators, mainly in the El Alto municipality adjacent to La Paz, leading to deaths. Other fatalities were reported in confrontations between security forces and Bolivian miners marching to the capital in support of the protesters. Many of the civilian victims were indigenous Aymara Bolivians.

The unrest marked the decline of traditional political parties in that nation and the rise of new leaders including Evo Morales, a populist leader of coca growers who later became Bolivia’s first indigenous president.

The U.S. court case comes as Bolivia is once again wracked by civil unrest following the resignation of Morales, who fled to Mexico, over a disputed election.

In the Florida case, lawyers for the former Bolivian president and defense minister said the judge was correct to overturn the jury verdict because evidence was lacking.

The defense had contended that the civilian deaths were more a product of crossfire than intentional killings and that the government was simply responding to a crisis. Authorities say at least 64 people died and more than 400 others were injured in the violence that year.

Sánchez de Lozada was president of Bolivia twice, serving the first term from August 1993 until August 1997 and again from August 2002 until October 2003. Sanchez Berzaín was defense minister in the second term.