|English | Español||March 19, 2018 | Issue #35|
Memory’s Struggle Against the Labyrinth of Power
The Trial of Former Bolivian President Sánchez de Lozada and His Accomplices for the Massacres of 2003
Filomena León a few days before her death.
Photo: Verónica Auza
The soldiers had orders to stop the caravan, and held back the miners with gunshots. First, they burst the tires on the miners’ trucks and seized their few belongings, then they attacked the miners, who, armed with sticks of dynamite, resisted the offensive. The palliri (woman miner) was among those injured in the clash. “I felt the bullet, just the bullet. I haven’t risen since. I was ahead of the soldiers and the bullet entered me from behind. I don’t remember anything else.” The high caliber projectile embedded itself in Filomena’s spinal cord. For months, in at least two public hospitals, the brave woman slowly lost her health and will to live; she was paralyzed, and her younger children couldn’t even recognize her.
On April 30, nearly six months after being shot, Filomena León died of a lethal infection at the La Paz Clinic Hospital, according to the Gas War Memorial Testimony – a book put together by Auza and Espinoza to record the dozens of deaths, the hundreds of wounded and mutilated, that were the high price paid by the Bolivian insurrection last year. In the last weeks of her life, one could see a fist-sized hole in her back. Filomena’s sweet voice and black, abundant braids left this land forever. The same happened to Teodocia Morales Mamani (who was pregnant), Marcelo Chambi Mollinedo, Ramiro Vargas Astilla, and many other Alteños (from the city of El Alto), Aymara peasant-farmers, children and grandparents, men and women. And today, despite the Bolivian National Congress having authorized their prosecution, those responsible for so much pain go unpunished.
In a story of courage and strength, Bolivia’s poor, most importantly its Aymara indigenous population, defended their natural gas in September and October of last year, blockading highways and paralyzing El Alto and La Paz. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, serving his second term as president, hoped to export this valuable natural resource to the United States through Chilean ports, against the will of the people. During the conflict, soldiers and police constantly fired on people armed only with sticks, stones, and occasionally dynamite. As in the case of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, or of the insurrection in Argentina in 2001, the repressive forces of the Bolivian state had “orders from above”; a license to kill.
Dionisio Cáceres, one of those disfigured during the massacres, in a march demanding trial for Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.
Photo: Noah Friedsky D.R. 2004
At this point in the conflict, with La Paz surrounded by the Alteños and the poor communities to the south of the city, the first sign of scarcity was the lack of gasoline and natural gas for industrial and domestic uses. Because of that, the second article of the decree ordered the country’s armed forces to take charge of “transportation via tanker trucks and other means, protect storage facilities, pipelines, service stations, and any type of infrastructure used to guarantee the normal distribution and supply of liquid fuels.” At the head of this operation was Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, a politician who the ex-president trusted completely, and famous for his repression of social protests.
But it was the third and final article of the decree, under the heading “Guarantees,” where the key to the horror that was to come in the next few days was hidden: “Compensation for any damage to goods or people that may be produced as an effect of the fulfillment of the objectives of this supreme decree is guaranteed by the Bolivian state.” That is to say, everything that might happen while the military provided gasoline to the people would be financially or socially covered by the government.
It was in this way that Sánchez Berzaín could organize convoys of tanker trucks protected by hundreds of soldiers, which left that same afternoon to take gasoline from the Senkata plant, in El Alto, into La Paz. That Saturday, according to the many testimonies gathered among the neighborhoods of El Alto, the people in the streets and plazas of the youngest and poorest city in Bolivia were massacred. The next day, October 12, more than thirty people died in various points throughout the city. Most of them were in the northern Villa Ingenio neighborhood, where more than a hundred soldiers, backed by four tanks, entered and fired at will in all directions. During those days that changed the history of Bolivia forever, around 70 unarmed civilians were killed… and the government, in an attempt to “compensate” for the “effects” of its actions, offered between $5,500 and $6,000 to the victims of this genocide.
“The definition of genocide is killing many people in a single act. In this case that is an obvious fact,” explains attorney Rogelio Mayta, coordinator of the legal team Comité Impulsor del Juicio de Responsabilidades, which is pushing for a trial against Sánchez de Lozada and his ministers. The committee was formed in early 2004 by members of various non-governmental organizations, professional associations, human rights groups, and, most importantly, associations of the victims and their families. Mayta, known for his support of other social causes, explains that Supreme Decree 27209 alone constitutes a key factor in the arguments in the recently initiated legal proceedings against the former Bolivian authorities.
Mayta sums up the subject pointing out an important element: “According to the Constitution, the armed forces are directly controlled by their general captain, that is, the president of the republic. And although it is difficult to prove his intellectual authorship, we have some evidence of it, such as the documents published in El Diario.”
Among those documents is an order given to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces (in Bolivia, this post is not held by the president). It was published in El Diario, a La Paz newspaper, on May 9, but is not available on the paper’s website. In the memo, dated October 11, 2003, Sánchez de Lozada instructs his military commander to prepare “the necessary precautions to reestablish order in the city of El Alto,” as well as the military defense “of strategic facilities and public services.” Rogelio Mayta emphasizes the fact that, despite many public statements from both the layers hired to defend the ex-president and Sánchez de Lozada himself, these documents have never been invalidated or refuted by anyone.
“On this subject,” continues Mayta, “there were apparently never direct orders to kill, or at least it seems that way from the evidence we have. But neither is there any reproach of the armed forces from their general captain for their behavior between September 20, the day of the Warisata massacre (the first major violence of the gas war, where seven died and dozens were injured), and October 17. So, it has to be one of the two: Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada gave the order, or he committed a grave error of omission by not punishing them. Whichever it is, he is guilty.”
To support his argument about Sánchez de Lozada’s “military” attitude, Rogelio Mayta remembers that on April 9, 2003, during the celebrations for the 51st anniversary of the 1952 Bolivian Revolution, the then-president gave an incendiary speech in the city of Santa Cruz, saying: “I want to tell you that no one is going to take the government away from us, because we will defend it, with guns if necessary.” Half a year before leaving power, the famous Bolivian politician, who had done so much to impose the neoliberal economic model on Bolivia, was already threatening the use of force.
Aside from the crime of genocide, the committee hopes to try Sánchez de Lozada for several other crimes.
“In terms of attacks on freedom of the press, we know that in the last week of his administration there were many threats against television stations, against some radio stations, and that copies of print media, like the weekly Pulso and the biweekly El Juguete Rabioso that had openly called for the president’s resignation, were confiscated,” Mayta recalls. However, the investigation of this and other crimes has been unable to prove this and clarify who was responsible.
There also various economic offenses Mayta and other lawyers are interested in, and he and others are working to demonstrate their importance.
“The National General Budget last year was a little more than 40 billion bolivianos. According to the law, at some point during the year, the government must present a “reformulated” budget, in which increases are presented to the National Congress for approval. But this budget was never presented, rather, the budget was illegally raised to 42 billion bolivianos (around $5.2 billion dollars today). This 1.8 billion boliviano increase is concentrated in consultants’ fees and “spending reserves” – in other words, fresh money to be used without any explanation.
According to legal norms, the government can only increase the General Budget if it first demonstrates that it has to the capital to do so, or if it is in a state of internal crisis or war (something that was obviously not happening in August 2003). And this emergency increase can never exceed one percent of the total budget. Sánchez de Lozada “could have increased it by as much as 400 million bolivianos, but never the 1.8 billion that he actually did,” says Mayta. Mayta and his team of lawyers believe that this money was used in October to buy weaponry (primarily ammunition and tear gas grenades), to bribe military officials (several testimonies back this up), and to give “bonuses” to the officials who left the government.
On Friday, October 17, 2003, a few hours before leaving the government, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his ministers released a new decree, number 27213, written in a cryptic legal jargon. “With this decree,” explains Rogelio Mayta, “the government exempted itself from producing reports on the use of its reserves.” And so, supported by the law, the ex-president and his accomplices took 13 million bolivianos (more than $1.5 million dollars) in cash from the vaults of the Bolivian Central Bank with little trouble.
“There are rules about doing this,” says Mayta. “There is a Treasury subsystem and a law that clearly explains what to do. No one can go to the Central Bank and withdraw money without filling out an application.”
But that morning, Central Bank President Juan Antonio Morales handed over the money to one of the ex-president’s advisors, who arrived with a letter. Morales never took into account that he was giving money for an illegal budget that had not been approved. And the man in charge of supervising such matters, ex-Treasury Minister Javier Cuevas, was nowhere to be seen. Mayta’s committee hopes to include both men in their procedings, but Morales, who remains at his post in the Central Bank, has always denied the illegality of his actions. A few days ago, he received the complete support of President Carlos Mesa against these accusations.
Javier Cuevas’s case, for Rogelio Mayta, is even more delicate. Cuevas was Treasury Minister for approximately one year under the current administration. “He’s had all this time to clean up any evidence,” says Matya. Besides, one of Sánchez de Lozada’s ministers has already been arrested for financial crimes. Yerko Kukoc del Carpio was minister of government during the insurrection, and, as such, in charge of the National Police. Kukoc was arrested a year ago with more than 2 million bolivianos in his possession, part of the money withdrawn from the Central Bank.
Nonetheless, the ex-minister was able to partially free himself from his sentence and house arrest. Among other legal tricks, Kukoc got a constitutional injunction against his arrest, ordered by Dr. Martha Rojas, a magistrate of the Constitutional Tribunal. Rojas is known in this country for being the antidrug prosecutor who, under orders from Carlos Sánchez Berzaín durring Sánches de Lozada’s first term, falsely accused several Supreme Court ministers of being involved with narco-trafficking.
“Many of the current judicial officials answer to the politicians who appoint them, especially politicians from the MNR (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, Sánchez de Lozada’s political party),” says Mayta. “We suspect that it is because of this that these processes and proceedings have suffered so many setbacks and are in constant danger of being completely derailed.”
And so the Bolivian labyrinth of power, of politicians and bureaucrats, stands in the way of the families of the fallen, and of their realizing the slogan “ni olvido ni perdón, justicia” (“neither forgetting nor forgiveness; justice”), under which they have rallied for a trial against those who massacred them. From his golden exile in the United States, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada still has great control over his party and over government and military officials. The National Congress has authorized proceedings against some of those involved, although only for the crime of genocide. Many of those accused remain at their posts in Congress. The reference point for the case, Law 2445 (for the prosecution of state dignitaries), is very vague on how to go forward with such a case.
However, the social movements, and some organizations like the Popular Human Rights Assembly, have made sure that the trial against the former president remains a basic demand of Bolivian society. “If it weren’t for that,” says Mayta, “our hands would be empty, or worse, tied up.”
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism