Black October

Victims of a Bolivian massacre seek justice in Miami.

Their protests grew in size and ferocity throughout the year, leading into autumn. On September 15, dozens of villagers in the mountains of western Bolivia cut off all the roads to picturesque Sorata, a popular tourist destination for locals and international hikers headed to the nearby peaks and glaciers. Armed with sticks and a few ancient Mauser rifles — many left over from a 1932 war against Paraguay — the campesinos blocked access out of Sorata, stranding several hundred tourists for days.

On September 20, Bolivian Defense Minister Berzaín flew to the town in a military helicopter to negotiate for the tourists' safe passage.

When villagers heard the minister of defense had arrived — the highest-ranking official ever to personally visit — many flocked to the scene to ask for help finding jobs, while others pleaded with him to help fix roads and solve other village problems. According to a Los Angeles Times story about the incident, Berzaín was dismissive and rude.

Etelvina (far left) and Eloy (center) pose  with their surviving children and Thomas Becker (far right)
Courtesy of Thomas Becker
Etelvina (far left) and Eloy (center) pose with their surviving children and Thomas Becker (far right)
During Black October, an indigenous Bolivian leader asks police to allow protesters through on a highway near La Paz.
AP Photo/Nacho Calonge
During Black October, an indigenous Bolivian leader asks police to allow protesters through on a highway near La Paz.

"I didn't come here to talk to anyone," he told the crowd. "I'm here for the tourists."

"And what are we? Are we just animals?" one elderly woman reportedly shouted at him.

Accounts vary on exactly what happened next, but everyone agrees the negotiations quickly fell apart. The confrontation soon became physical, some said. Others reported Berzaín throwing out an ethnic slur — "indios!" — at the natives.

"One of the campesinos threw a punch and hit Berzaín in the face," says Jim Shultz, an American who lives in Bolivia and has run the nonprofit Democracy Center in Cochabamba for more than a decade. Shultz interviewed dozens of witnesses and village leaders after the incident. "After [Berzaín was punched], he walked away and told his military commanders: 'Just kill them,'" Shultz says.

Berzaín has adamantly refuted those accusations and denies anyone threw a punch at him. This much is certain: Soon after talks fell apart, a full military and police task force moved into Sorata and loaded the tourists onto buses. Villagers tried to block the winding road leading out of the narrow valley sheltering Sorata. At least one elderly local, a man named Demetrio Coraca Castro, was shot and killed when the military forced its way through the protesters.

As the troops drove back to La Paz, they passed through the town of Warisata in the early afternoon. Angry crowds of campesinos again tried to block the military from proceeding. Armed mostly with sticks and rocks, the protesters set up a barricade and pelted soldiers, Jeeps, and buses with stones. Others fled to the hills for safety. By the time the military had left Warisata, one soldier and three villagers were dead, including eight-year-old Marlene Rojas Mamani, who was killed by a stray bullet as she looked out the window of her family's small two-story home.

For the next three weeks, thousands of furious Aymaras and Quechuas blocked roads and marched toward the mountain capital of La Paz. Throughout late September and early October, protesters clashed time and again with the police and the military. Dozens of Indians were seriously injured, and at least eight more were killed.

The conflict came to a head October 12, 2003. Protesters had completely choked off the capital city, blocking the only highways stretching into the canyon harboring La Paz. The day before, Goni — holed up in the executive palace downtown — had signed Decreto Supremo 27209, ordering a state of emergency and declaring the transportation of gas into La Paz a national priority.

That afternoon, a 33-year-old car mechanic named Lucio left his modest home in El Alto, a huge suburb of 650,000 people outside La Paz. Both Lucio and his wife Sonia had spent their lives in the mass of people around Bolivia's capital, and never before had they witnessed the kind of violence that was now gripping the country.

It was a quiet, cool Sunday afternoon, and it seemed as safe a time as any to make the journey. Lucio knew there was danger in leaving his home, but he wanted to pay a quick visit to his brother who lived across town in nearby Senkata. He promised his young wife, who was three weeks pregnant, he would soon be home to play with their four-year-old boy.

Less than an hour later, Sonia's cell phone rang. It was her sister-in-law.

"Sonia, something has happened to Lucio. You must come to the hospital," she said, not sounding too concerned. "I don't believe it's serious."

Still, Sonia couldn't help but feel a pang of panic. She grabbed their son and hurried on foot toward the hospital through El Alto's rough-paved, puddle-strewn streets. When she walked into the clinic, her worst fears were confirmed. The hospital was overrun with bloody, screaming patients. Dozens of Bolivians, nearly all indigenous Aymaras or Quechuas, lay on stretchers — bleeding, unconscious, or worse — yelling desperately for help. Sonia ran through the corridors to find her husband, who was writhing in pain on a cot.

"Sonia, get me out of here!" he cried. "I will die here!"

She lifted his shirt and gasped with shock. A bullet had entered his side and exploded through his back, leaving a grapefruit-size wound in its place. Crimson pooled under his body and caked to his clothes. How, she wondered desperately, would she get him to another hospital with doctors and enough blood to save his life?

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