Black October

Victims of a Bolivian massacre seek justice in Miami.

In 1986, lawyers successfully used the statute to sue Ferdinand Marcos, the former president of the Philippines, for the torture and killing of thousands of his citizens. Becker's work in Bolivia over two years — when he interviewed hundreds of victims, witnesses, and officials — helped persuade a coalition of human rights lawyers to try another, even higher-profile use of the law: against Sánchez de Lozada and Berzaín. The civil case was filed in Miami in October 2007.

"Beyond all the sad stories, it became clear to all of us that this wasn't some government response that got out of hand. It was a calculated campaign of terrorizing people," Becker says. "They were sending a message deliberately that if you go out and protest like these other people, you're going to get killed."

Sánchez de Lozada and Berzaín's lawyers maintain that the deaths — including that of eight-year-old Marlene Rojas Mamani — were the tragic result of a military faced with an unruly mob of protesters.

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

"[The soldiers] were ambushed on their way into town," says Eduardo Gamarra, a native Bolivian and expert on the country at Florida International University. "Bolivia has a very untrained, unprofessional military full of conscripts, and they started shooting back. One of those stray bullets went into a window and, unfortunately, killed a little girl."

The real criminals are the native organizers, which include current Bolivian President Evo Morales, says Howard Gutman, one of the lead attorneys defending Sánchez de Lozada and Berzaín.

"When innocent civilians are wrongly threatened by an illegal armed uprising against a democratically elected government, it is the duty of that government to restore law and order and protect civilians," Gutman says. "All evidence shows the response of the Sánchez de Lozada government was constitutional, lawful, and appropriate. Those who led the violent uprising, which threatened the safety of innocent people in Sorata and La Paz, have never been held accountable in Bolivia."

Gutman says the civil case against his clients represents a gross overreach of U.S. law. After all, neither man is an American citizen, none of the alleged crimes took place in the States, and both were democratically elected officials when the deaths occurred. Their lawyers — led by Greg Craig — say U.S. federal court is the wrong place to charge foreign officials.

"Everyone feels compassion for those injured or killed," Gutman says. "We believe the case is not properly in the American courts and should now be dismissed. Courts have not second-guessed the actions of a foreign leader in responding to an illegal armed uprising, nor second-guessed the reaction of the U.S. executive to such events."

Despite reports he personally flew from site to site in September and October 2003, directing his troops, Berzaín says he never gave "operational orders" to his soldiers, instead only playing a role "administrative in nature." Berzaín declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. In an earlier interview with the Miami Herald, Berzaín said he sees the case as a great opportunity to expose Morales and denounce Cuba and Venezuela for their strategy to "control all of Latin America."

In short, Sánchez de Lozada and Berzaín say they did what any national leader would do faced with widespread protests and a capital choked off from gas — they ordered necessary force to bring their country back to order. And when those efforts failed, they fled to the United States for safety.

Becker doesn't buy it.

"People told me that these days were particularly frightening because the government was killing people in their homes and in neighborhoods where no protests took place," he says. "The government was not just using excessive force. It was leading a calculated campaign of terror, targeting innocent people in order to frighten others from leaving their homes to participate in the protests."

Soon after fleeing his homeland, Sánchez de Lozada moved out of Miami and back to the suburban Washington, D.C. neighborhood where he grew up. But Berzaín still lives in South Florida, in a gated community lined with million-dollar homes near the waterfront in Pinecrest.

"He's lived next door for maybe two years now. I can't say a bad word about the guy," says Guillermo Alvarez, a 48-year-old retired corporate executive with tightly cropped hair and a hint of a Latin American accent. "He's an excellent person and a really good neighbor. That's all I really care about, honestly."

Alvarez's son was killed two years ago when a drunk-driving friend crashed into a bank of trees. Afterward, Berzaín offered his heartfelt condolences.

"He's sharp, very well educated, and very well spoken," Alvarez notes.

Most mornings, Alvarez says, Berzaín leaves his yellow ranch home with heavy wooden doors and strolls for exercise past the leafy palms, back-yard pools, and mansions in their subdivision just off Old Cutler Road.

"He's a very quiet guy who really keeps to himself," says Shirley Sotloff, who lives across the street. "He seems intent on keeping a low profile."

Among his well-heeled neighbors, only Alvarez seems to have heard about the other side of Berzaín: the former Bolivian defense minister wanted for extradition to his homeland, the bloody crackdown against protesters, the notorious political reputation.

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