Panel Asked to Reinstate $10M Award for Bolivian Massacre Claims

MIAMI (CN) – For relatives of those slain in the Bolivian military’s clash with protesters during the country’s Gas War, seeking justice in the U.S. court system has been a painful and winding path.

Suing over the deaths of eight slain Bolivians, the plaintiffs have battled in U.S. federal courts for more than a decade in hopes of holding then-president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada liable for what they describe as a coordinated massacre of unarmed residents amid civil unrest in Bolivia in 2003.

Then-Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada speaks during a news conference in Mexico City on Sept. 13, 2003. (AP Photo Marco Ugarte, File)

After years of interlocutory appeals and countless motions, the plaintiffs secured a $10 million jury verdict in 2018 against the ex-president and his former defense minister Jose Sanchez Berzain, on counts for extra-judicial killing.

The verdict was promptly thrown out by the Miami judge who oversaw the trial. A few weeks after the trial wrapped up and the verdict was entered, the judge ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to substantiate their claims that there was a campaign of civilian atrocity, as opposed to a chaotic clash between soldiers and violent protesters.

Now the families are taking to the 11th Circuit in Miami to resurrect their case against Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain, both of whom resigned from their Bolivian government posts and moved to the U.S. after being blamed for the civilian deaths.

Among the appellants are Eloy Rojas Mamani and Etelvina Ramos Mamani. Their eight-year-old child Marlene was fatally shot while looking out a window in their home in Warisata.

“We are not taking revenge. We are looking for justice, no matter where [the defendants] run away in the world,” Eloy said on the courthouse steps.

In focus throughout the protracted court proceedings has been the powder-keg political climate of Sanchez de Lozada’s later term as president of the South American country.

His policy on rural coca plant farming, and his plans to process and unload Bolivia’s natural gas resources in foreign countries, spawned widespread protest in the early 2000s. Some protesters voiced anger that Sanchez de Lozada had set up a gas refinery arrangement with Chile, a country that many Bolivians viewed as an adversary ever since the War of the Pacific, which culminated in Bolivia’s claimed coastal land being turned over to Chile.

According to the lawsuit, Bolivian military in September 2003 responded with brute force to protesters’ road blockades, which were interrupting the supply of gas throughout the country.

One Bolivian soldier testified that he and his peers were ordered to shoot “anything that moved.” According to the soldier, military units were told to fire upon civilians even if they were in their homes. One commander purportedly said to the soldiers, “If you see a fly, shoot.”

Villagers were being beaten, and soldiers were spouting ethnic insults against the indigenous Aymara residents, according to pleadings submitted in the lower court.

The Mamanis maintain that they saw soldiers outside their home after their child was shot.

“Blood was coming out of her chest like a faucet. I tried to cover the hole, but it was too big,” Etelvina said Tuesday outside the courthouse.

Protests and local blockades by angry residents intensified as news broke of the young girl’s death. The military’s campaign to clear the streets became bloodier as the days went on.

On Oct. 11 alone, an estimated 30 civilians were killed in the conflict. One plaintiff’s wife, Teodosia Morales Mamani, was struck by a bullet inside a home. She was five months pregnant, and her unborn child perished along with her.  According to the lawsuit, she was not a protester, posed no threat to the military and was killed as part of a coordinated effort to fire at civilian targets and suppress governmental opposition.

In the 11th Circuit Tuesday, the appellate judges seemed largely concerned with tackling vast discrepancies between opposing counsel’s accounts for why the violence took place.

Sanchez de Lozada for his part argued that the military was under attack by armed insurgents. The military action around Warisata was precipitated by an armed “ambush” on a government convoy, he claimed. In the clashes that followed around El Alto, protesters armed with guns and dynamite were assaulting military personnel, some of whom died, the ex-president’s counsel told the appellate panel.

Sanchez de Lozada also argued that there is a lack of eyewitnesses to prove whether soldiers were responsible for the deaths of the plaintiffs’ relatives. Stray bullets, not intentional, coordinated killings, could have caused some of the deaths, his attorney claimed, saying the case is built “on inference.”

James Tysse, the family members’ lawyer at Akin Gump, countered that the jury had ample opportunity to review testimony from soldiers and witnesses, and that their decision should be preserved.

“All of this evidence was presented to the jury, and the jury found in our favor,” he said.

The judges did not indicate when they will make a decision in the case.

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