Black October

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.

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.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink

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