Black October

Victims of a Bolivian massacre seek justice in Miami.

It's just after 4 p.m. on a cold September Saturday in the highlands of Bolivia. Inside a two-story mud-brick home that smells of damp hay, a young mother lies in bed, wrapped in heavy alpaca blankets, still weak from giving birth a few days earlier. Her eight-year-old daughter Marlene is not far away, standing on her toes to peek out a simple three-pane window at the remarkable plateau outside: muddy brown shacks, windblown plains stretching to the horizon, and in the far distance, snow-capped peaks towering over Lake Titicaca.

This is Warisata, a small village of Aymara Indians nestled 10,000 feet above sea level. It sits next to a pitted, bumpy road that leads 45 miles to the capital of La Paz. The villagers rarely make the journey. For thousands of years, they have led an austere, fiercely independent life. But times are changing.

Natural gas deposits have been discovered in Bolivia, and tensions between the mostly white ruling class and indigenous leaders over this national treasure have simmered for weeks. Confrontations between protesters and the nation's military are erupting in violence, and word has just reached the village that the army is now marching toward Warisata to kill its men.

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
Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, the former defense minister of Bolivia
Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, the former defense minister of Bolivia
Bolivian police launch tear gas at protesters during a march through downtown La Paz.
AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
Bolivian police launch tear gas at protesters during a march through downtown La Paz.
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.

Marlene's mother tells the girl to stay calm. Her father, who has fled to the dun-colored hills to hide, will be back soon, she promises. But Marlene's curiosity cannot be contained. It keeps her up late at night studying by candlelight, dreaming of a life this impoverished village cannot offer. And it keeps her standing at the window, looking toward the mountains where her father has gone, into the dusky darkness.

Suddenly the sound of gunshots peppers the evening air. Marlene's mother tells her to step back from the window, but before the girl can move, a sharp crack rattles the small room. Glass sprinkles the ground. Marlene sucks in her breath and stumbles backward into her mother's arms.

"Tayca," Marlene says, gasping the Aymara word for mother.

"Jani!" her mother yells — no! — holding Marlene tightly as the girl collapses onto the bed, her blood soaking the thick strands of alpaca wool. A single bullet has lanced straight through her chest, crossed the tiny room, and lodged in the dusty brick wall.

Marlene Rojas Mamani dies without another word.


Five years later, on a muggy Friday afternoon in downtown Miami, U.S. Judge Adalberto Jordan strides into his airy chambers on the 10th floor of the new Wilkie D. Ferguson Courthouse.

He sits on a dais raised a dozen feet above the courtroom and lets his eyes wander over the tables of dark-suited lawyers shuffling through papers. His gaze stops at three Bolivians seated near the front. They leap out of the dreary backdrop like tulips in a snowy field.

It has been five years since Bolivian soldiers killed Marlene Rojas Mamani in the village of Warisata. Today her parents have come to Miami seeking justice.

Etelvina, Marlene's mother, is now 33. She pulls an alpaca shawl tightly over her shoulders, smooths the folds of her layered green and yellow pollera skirt, and adjusts a brown bowler with silver bows at a jaunty angle on her head. She keeps her eyes mostly on her lap. Her husband, Eloy, sits next to her, hunched over in a baggy sweater. His eyes, dark and unblinking, rarely leave the table in front of him.

They are joined by a woman named Sonia Espejo Villalobos. Like Marlene's parents, she is Aymara. A 29-year-old raven-haired beauty with a round, freckled face, she believes the Bolivian military killed her husband just a couple of weeks after Marlene's death, during a period now known in Bolivia as Black October.

The three Aymara Indians are here as part of a civil lawsuit filed against the former president and defense minister of Bolivia. The suit alleges the pair authorized and personally directed a military force to quell protests in 2003, resulting in the massacre of 67 people.

The two defendants, who are wanted in their home country for their alleged roles in the massacre, are here today. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the former president of Bolivia, sits a few feet away from the Aymaras. A tanned 78-year-old with a thick shock of white hair, he is known in his homeland as "Goni." Not long after the 2003 uprisings and the subsequent military crackdown, he resigned and fled to Miami.

On the opposite side of the L-shaped table sits Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, a thin 49-year-old with wide glasses, a neat graying mustache, and a tailored pinstripe suit. In La Paz, they call him "El Zorro" — "The Fox" — for his political cunning. When Sánchez de Lozada resigned, Berzaín also fled, following him to Florida. He now lives in a gated community in Pinecrest.

Sánchez de Lozada stares straight ahead. He never once looks in the direction of the three Aymaras seated in the front row. His onetime defense minister also ignores them, occasionally jotting down notes on a legal pad.

The judge leans forward and again scans those assembled in the courtroom.

"This," he says, "is an interesting case."

It is, in fact, one of the most notable civil suits ever filed against a former head of state residing in the United States. If successful, it could re-energize the concept of "universal jurisdiction" — the idea that foreign leaders, no matter where they live, should be held accountable for crimes committed in their homelands.

Although the case has generated scant interest in Miami, it is being closely watched in La Paz and Washington. Sánchez de Lozada was among the staunchest of U.S. allies in Latin America, helping to turn Bolivia into a test lab for America's ideas on how to fix the region's economies. That he and his former defense minister are here today is an embarrassment, to say the least, to both the Bush and Clinton administrations, which is perhaps the reason the pair is represented by none other than Greg Craig, whom President-Elect Barack Obama has already named his White House chief counsel.

Of course, there is another side of the story. To hear Sánchez de Lozada tell it, the real culprit of Black October is none other than Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia. It was Morales, Sánchez de Lozada says, who whipped the indigenous protesters into a frenzy over government plans to privatize gas drilling and exportation, leading groups that blocked roads and sparked bloody confrontations with the military. A soldier was the first casualty in the conflict, Sánchez de Lozada's legal team maintains; the army merely tried to keep chaos at bay in their homeland, they say.

In the former president's telling, Morales twisted the truth of what happened during Black October for his political gain, using public unrest over the incident to seize the presidency and run his political opponents out of the country.

But for the three Aymara Indians seated in the front row, these political machinations mean little. They have flown thousands of miles to be here today. Once they leave Miami, they will travel to Washington, D.C., where they will plead with U.S. lawmakers to extradite Sánchez de Lozada and Berzaín back to Bolivia. They have come to the States seeking justice, and they intend to get it.


Bolivia, a land roughly seven times the size of Florida, is bracketed by snowbound Andes peaks to the south and the rain-soaked Amazon basin to the north. It is among the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America. From its earliest days, tensions between wealthy European colonizers and native Indians have divided the nation.

Bolivia broke from Spanish rule in 1825, but that would hardly bring stability to the region. Over the next 160 years, the country would weather more than 200 coups and countercoups. Democratic rule was restored in 1982, but since then, Bolivia's leaders have struggled mightily to govern a sharply divided land.

In the Eighties, foreign companies discovered huge natural gas deposits, and Bolivia seemed poised to transform from the redheaded stepchild of South America into a thriving and prosperous energy hub.

President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, or Goni, was the man Washington entrusted to push for privatization of gas lines, promising his people that foreign investment would mean more schools and economic development for poor villages outside the capital.

In the early days of his first term, Goni, a son of privilege who had grown up in the States, earned plaudits from the West for his comprehensive economic reforms, which privatized many businesses and invited in global corporations — including, prominently, Enron. For the young Clinton administration, Goni's policies represented the heart of what the United States hoped to accomplish across sluggish Latin American markets.

But those same initiatives only deepened divisions between the mostly white ruling class of Bolivia and the impoverished Aymaras and Quechuas in the western highlands. Indian leaders in desperately poor mountain villages had never forgotten the Spanish who raped the land for silver, and Goni's promises of trickle-down wealth from foreign investment had so far failed to materialize.

Goni left executive office in 1997 after one term, with the nation's economy still in turmoil. Five years later, he pulled off a stunning comeback in the 2002 elections, with the help of some expensive hired guns out of Washington: James Carville's political team — Greenberg Carville Shrum — which had helped Clinton win the presidency five years beforehand. In the final tally, Goni picked up 22.46 percent of the votes — just enough to win, but not enough to ensure popular support.

"With those electoral returns, Goni was illegitimate from the start," says Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami expert on Bolivian politics.

By 2003, a long-simmering feud over what to do with Bolivia's natural gas deposits had reached a boil. Goni wanted to bring in foreign companies to pipe the gas through neighboring Chile, to the sea, and eventually to California, but indigenous protesters — who despised foreign companies and Chile with equal aplomb — vowed to stop him. In early 2003, a young, charismatic Aymara coca farmer named Evo Morales (who had come in second to Goni in the election a year before) began gathering indigenous groups to block the plans, pushing instead for nationalization. With little political clout, Morales turned to civil disobedience: Protesters destroyed roads and barricaded towns in the highlands around La Paz, seeking to choke the economy until their demands were met.

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.

"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?

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."

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.

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.

"[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.

"I don't get into all of that," Alvarez says, shaking his head slightly. "There are probably plenty of people in Bolivia who love him too, depending whether they're on the right or the left or whatever. He's a good neighbor — that's what I know about."


Sonia, who lost her husband Lucio on that bloody Sunday in El Alto, sits outside the hulking glass and steel Wilkie D. Ferguson Courthouse in the piercing October sunlight. She leans uncomfortably forward in one of the artfully tilted decorative chairs along North Miami Avenue, holding herself tightly as jets bound for MIA roar periodically overhead.

"Since that day, there's no justice for us or anything, and it hurts. Here in Miami, Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín live happily. They probably feel fine, and we don't feel fine," Sonia says, wiping tears from her cheeks, which have blushed red in the sunlight.

Eight-year-old Marlene's mother, Etelvina, sits next to Sonia, staring silently at the gravel. Her husband, Eloy, paces nervously, glancing warily around an unfamiliar city.

"She was an innocent child ... that's what's really painful to me, because she had so much good life ahead of her and then she had to go to the cemetery instead," Eloy says of his daughter. "After all this happened, the authors of what happened want to just hide here in the United States. I can't allow that."

Judge Jordan has issued no ruling. Both sides are still waiting for word on whether the case has standing to proceed in Miami. In the meantime, Bolivia's new government has sent an extradition request to the United States for both Sánchez de Lozada and Berzaín to be tried in their homeland along with the rest of their cabinet. Experts say it's highly unlikely either man will be forced to return to Bolivia.

For the Aymaras, the only hope lies in Miami.

"My husband was a really good person, especially with my son. It's not the same without him. My son even today still asks about his father," Sonia says. "For this we keep fighting ­— for some sort of justice."

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