Black October

Victims of a Bolivian massacre seek justice in Miami.

Sonia's husband, she learned, had been walking along a street near a large gas plant in his brother's Senkata neighborhood when the military staged a surprise attack on protesters blocking the plant. Officers fired automatic weapons into the air, scattering the hundreds of Indians at the entrance. Then bullets began felling people in the street. One shot killed 35-year-old Eduardo Baltazar Hinto when he peeked out from behind a kiosk. Another hit 19-year-old Roxana Apaza Cutipa in the forehead when she looked over the fourth-floor terrace of her home, killing her instantly. Sonia's husband, Lucio, was shot in the abdomen and lay bleeding in a nearby storefront, waiting for the military to leave so he could find help.

After languishing for hours in the overwhelmed hospital, Sonia eventually found a Catholic priest named Father Overmeyer to drive them to another clinic. Lucio screamed the entire drive. "I'm going to die!" he yelled over and over as Sonia wept by his side. At the second hospital, as they wheeled her husband to the back for surgery, Sonia could see the blood still pouring from his back. A few hours later, at 10 p.m., a doctor found her crying in a front room and told her Lucio was dead.

"It's better that he died," the doctor told the young window. "He would have been in horrible agony if he'd lived."

An Aymara woman weeps at her husband's tomb in November 2003, a month after Black October.
AP Photo/Dado Galdieri
An Aymara woman weeps at her husband's tomb in November 2003, a month after Black October.
Former Bolivian President Gonzalo "Goni" Sánchez de Lozada
AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa
Former Bolivian President Gonzalo "Goni" Sánchez de Lozada

Lucio was one of 30 bystanders and protesters killed by police and soldiers that day in El Alto, an explosion of violence that shocked the nation and abruptly ended Sánchez de Lozada and Berzaín's second term in the presidential palace. With La Paz still cut off from gas supplies, and Bolivians seething over the deaths, Goni and his defense minister resigned October 17, 2003, hopped an airplane, and fled to Miami.

The case made its first tentative steps toward an American courtroom in the spring of 2005, when an aspiring young lawyer named Thomas Becker arrived in Bolivia.

Just a few months earlier, his life had seemed set on a radically different course. Becker had been drumming full-time in a band he had formed as an undergrad at the University of San Francisco. The group, called Gratitude, had landed a nearly $2 million record deal with Atlantic and an opening slot in a national tour for alternative rock band Jimmy Eat World.

But even as he recorded the group's debut album in an L.A. studio, something didn't feel right. "I'd spent most of my free time in San Francisco volunteering at shelters and working on social justice projects, and I just really felt like I was missing that part of my calling," Becker says.

So in the middle of the session, the whip-thin Kansas City, Missouri native with a patchy beard hung up his drumsticks and walked out. After quitting music, he applied to law schools and later that year got word from Harvard he had been accepted. With a few months to burn before classes began, he decided to set off across South America.

When he landed in La Paz, Becker was immediately taken with the nonviolent mass protests clogging the capital's streets. Thousands of Aymara and Quechua Indians, dressed in traditional polleras, bowler hats, and thick knit shawls, blocked intersections and chanted for the resignation of their president, Carlos Mesa, the former vice president, who had taken office after Goni fled for Miami.

Becker, who had never personally witnessed a political movement of this magnitude, walked the streets for hours talking to the protesters.

"The government sometimes doesn't like the protests, but this is how we do politics in Bolivia," one man told him. "This is how our voices are heard."

"Except during Octubre Negro," another protester told him. "That must never happen again."

Becker, who knew next to nothing about Bolivian history and politics, was struck. What was "Black October"?

With that question, the case now sitting in Miami's courthouse was born. Becker spent weeks traveling through Bolivia's impoverished villages, talking to campesinos about the violence that claimed the lives of eight-year-old Marlene and 33-year-old Lucio. Though he was not yet a law student, Becker promised himself he would find some way to go after Sánchez de Lozada and Berzaín, especially after he learned the two leaders had both safely fled to Miami.

"These human rights violators were living in the U.S., in my own back yard, and I felt obligated to do something," Becker says.

After his first year at Harvard, he used grant money to return to La Paz in the summer of 2006 to interview more victims of the violence. Among the first ones he met was Juan Patricio Quispe Mamani, an El Alto native whose 42-year-old brother was killed during the same day of violence that claimed Sonia's husband Lucio. As he began talking about his brother's death and the young son he left behind, Juan Patricio began weeping. Becker soon found himself crying into his own notebook.

"I tried to hold back my tears to help him get through the story, but I couldn't. I ended up crying ... a lot," Becker says.

All summer Becker traveled the country, hearing similar stories and wondering how he could turn this human suffering into justice in the United States. He found an answer back in Cambridge during his second semester, after taking a class that mentioned the Alien Tort Statute. An obscure one-sentence law passed in 1789, the statute sat forgotten in the legal codes for almost two centuries.

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