Bolivian Massacre Victims Can Sue Ex-President, Minister Who Fled to Miami, Judge Rules

It's been more than a decade since 8-year-old Marlene Rojas Ramos died inside her own home on the shores of Lake Titicaca. She was felled by a sharpshooter's single bullet fired through her family's front window. Ramos was one of the youngest of the 58 Bolivians killed in a bloody government crackdown in 2003 nicknamed Black October, and when the two leaders most responsible for the deaths -- the country's president and its defense minister -- resigned and fled to Miami, her family lost hope of seeing justice.

The ex-leaders will likely never face a criminal court for their alleged crimes. But a team of human rights lawyers has been fighting in Miami to hold them civilly liable for the deaths. They won a victory in federal court yesterday when a judge ruled the victims have standing to continue with their case.

See also: Black October: Victims of a Bolivian massacre seek justice in Miami

The ruling from U.S. District Judge James Cohn affirmed that Marlene's family and seven other relatives of victims in the crackdown can continue a suit against former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and defense minister José Sánchez Berzaín.

The ex-president and defense minister both resigned under international pressure after the mass killings, which were meant to halt popular protests over their plans to privatize gas reserves. The pair ran to safe haven in Miami and have argued in court that there's no grounds to sue them in the U.S. because their alleged wrongdoing took place in Bolivia.

But Cohn ruled that the victims had a sound argument under a piece of legislation called the Torture Victim Protection Act.

He said the victims' lawyers have presented enough evidence that the "killings were deliberate" and not the result of the chaos of war, and cites significant evidence that both men had openly discussed killing protesters to further their political agendas.

See also: From Bolivia: Massacre victims get no justice

In fact, Cohn specifically cites the story of 8-year-old Marlene, who was killed far from any clashes between protesters and government forces. Her family says sharpshooters were given leave to fire at any movement and that Marlene was simply looking out her window when she was fatally shot.

Eight-year-old Marlene Nancy Rojas Ramos was killed on September 20, 2003, during military operations in Warisata. According to Plaintiffs, Defendants ordered the military "to take Warisata" as part of their campaign to quell public opposition to their political agenda. Plaintiffs allege that soldiers were ordered to shoot "at anything that moved."21 Plaintiffs further allege that Marlene was on the second floor of her home that afternoon, far from any protests, when she moved to look out a window. At that time, a sharpshooter fatally shot her from a distance of about 75 yards. No other bullets hit the house either before or after the shooting. Construing these allegations in Plaintiffs' favor, the Court finds that they give rise to a reasonable inference that the sharpshooter saw Marlene "move" and deliberately killed her.

Cohn also dismissed the former leaders' claims that the victims could more reasonably look for justice back in Bolivia, noting that "unless Defendants are extradited or voluntarily return to their homeland, Bolivia will not have any meaningful opportunity to redress their alleged human rights violations. Rather, as things stand, the United States appears to be the only forum where Plaintiffs may seek to hold Defendants liable for their alleged wrongs."

Cohn did dismiss a separate set of claims by the Bolivians under another statute (the Alien Tort Statute), finding that because the alleged crimes didn't happen in the U.S., it wasn't a viable option to pursue.

Lawyers from the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, which has helped lead the case along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and a pro bono team from Akin Gump, praised the judge's ruling, calling it a "courtroom win" in a release this morning.

Riptide asked the defendants' attorney, Ana C. Reyes, for comment on the ruling. We'll update this post if we hear back.

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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