From Bolivia: Massacre victims get no justice

Etelvina's tears fall to the cracked wooden floorboards. They land on the same spot where her 8-year-old daughter, Marlene, bled to death in her arms. The pane of glass shattered by the bullet that killed the girl is unchanged. And there's still a pit in the mud brick wall that stopped the slug after it ripped into her tiny chest and ricocheted off her spine.

Six years after Marlene Rojas died during a clash between villagers and Bolivian soldiers in the wilds of Bolivia near Lake Titicaca, Etelvina Ramos Mamani feels further than ever from finding justice.

The two men she blames for Marlene's death — former Bolivian President Gonzalo "Goni" Sánchez de Lozada and defense minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín — are living safely in American exile. Berzaín resides in a Pinecrest gated community and last month even wrote a guest editorial for El Nuevo Herald.

Etelvina and Eloy with their children.
Courtesy of Thomas Becker
Etelvina and Eloy with their children.

The two men fled to Miami in 2003 after leading a military crackdown against indigenous protesters that led to more than 60 deaths — including Marlene's. They say the military action was justified and the killings were the result of a chaotic battle.

Though Bolivia has asked the United States to extradite the leaders to face criminal charges, it will likely never happen. President Obama, like George W. Bush before him, has shown no interest in taking on the politically connected exiles.

That's incredibly frustrating to Etelvina and members of other victims' families. Only a trial in Miami federal court, where the pair has been sued civilly, offers hope of penalizing the former leaders. "I want them all in jail," Etelvina says. "But that doesn't seem possible."

The conflict that led to Marlene's death began in early 2003, when Goni's government tried to sell the rights to Bolivia's natural gas reserves to a foreign company. Indigenous leaders — led by current President Evo Morales — believed the deal was corrupt and organized mass protests. For weeks, they blocked the few roads leading to the Andean capital, La Paz, bringing life to a standstill in the altiplano.

In September that year, Goni and Berzaín unleashed the military on the protesters, who were armed mostly with rocks and a few ancient Mausers. Marlene was killed September 20 as she peeked out the window to glance at government planes roaring overhead. Her family contends the shot came from a government sharpshooter aiming at the window from hundreds of yards away. Goni and Berzaín say it was a stray shot.

Either way, by the end of October, more than 60 other bystanders and protesters were dead. Goni and Berzaín abandoned Bolivia for South Florida.

The two leaders say the conflict was tantamount to a coup by Morales, who in 2006 became Bolivia's first indigenous president. "All deaths that resulted from the 2003 civil unrest are regrettable and indeed tragic. The responsibility... rests on the armed protesters," says Mauricio Balcazar, Goni's senior advisor. "Why [is] Morales not facing charges and a trial?"

Instead, a team led by the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program filed a civil case against Goni and Berzaín in Miami in September 2007. Last May, arguments began in a criminal trial in Bolivia after the congress voted to void the immunity normally held by former leaders.

Goni and Berzaín's lawyers say the civil case is without merit and the criminal case is tainted by a corrupt Bolivian judicial system that couldn't ensure a fair trail. "The charges are politically motivated," Balcazar says. "Most experts would agree there is no democracy or judicial independence in Bolivia."

Eloy Rojas Mamani sees things differently. In 2003, the thin farmer with high cheekbones and mocha skin had fled into the hills around Warisata with his village's other men minutes before a bullet killed his daughter, Marlene.

Eloy lost more than a daughter that day. Within months, he and Etelvina packed up their few belongings and moved with their other five children out of the two-story home Eloy had built by hand. The family left its small plot of quinoa and other crops to rot.

They moved to El Alto, the sprawling warren of more than 600,000 residents on the high plain above La Paz. The family couldn't bear to live where Marlene died on the floor, Eloy says. "It's been very difficult for us," he says. "We had to leave our home and our family and start over in the city."

Today, the family lives in a small compound of three one-room buildings around a dusty courtyard on an unpaved side street in the Villa Adela neighborhood. A scarecrow hangs by its neck from an electrical pole outside as a warning to criminals.

Eloy has found work as a messanger for a government office, but both he and Etelvina spend most of their time working with lawyers. The couple testified last year in Sucre, Bolivia's constitutional capital, where the supreme court is hearing a case against 12 government leaders and five military officers in the 2003 slayings. Bolivian law doesn't provide for a trial in absentia, so the case against Goni and Berzaín can't be heard unless they return.

"We have to travel from place to place to tell the courts about what happened," Eloy says. "This task has been given to us to find justice for our daughter."

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