<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
 English | Español November 21, 2017 | Issue #39


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Two Years Gone

Bolivia’s Struggle for “Black October” Justice Continues


By Jean Friedsky
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

December 16, 2005

She clings to her father’s pant-leg. Her classic Aymara face—round with red cheeks—tilts upwards. He strokes her thick black hair as he speaks to the crowd of fifty in Warisata’s town-center. For the rest of the day she is independent, bouncing among strangers and family friends alike. But these few moments, she is still, attentive, listening to her father recall the events of her sister’s death in this Bolivian altiplano (highland) town two years ago. It probably does not register in her mind that she is not even the age her sister was when a Bolivian soldier’s bullet took her life: 8 years old.


Poster of Marelene Nancy Rojas, killed in Warisata in September 2003.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Jean Friedsky
Marlene Nancy Rojas was murdered on September 20, 2003, but her death was one of the first in what has come to be known as “Black October.” The four-week period beginning with Marlene’s death and ending with then President Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada’s resignation on October 17, 2003 burns in the memories of all Bolivians, but particularly those of the families of the 67 killed and over 300 wounded during Bolivia’s first “Gas War.”

The successes of the mass protests (covered by Narco News), including Goni’s resignation, were bitter-sweet: Bolivia paid a high price in human life and Goni fled to the United States with $1.5 million of Bolivian state money where he has resided with impunity ever since.

Two years have now passed but here in Bolivia, rather than healing all wounds, time only deepens the pain and strengthens the resolve.

From early September through the end of October 2005, the Relatives and their supporters commemorated the second anniversary of the massacres with dozens of events—part memorial ceremonies, part political protest—calling attention to the fact that justice remains illusive.

Just after these events have drawn to a close, all eyes are on Bolivia. Will Evo Morales and the MAS win state power? Though some peg the future of Bolivia’s poor and indigenous to this question’s answer, many Bolivians believe this is a false premise.

“Regardless of who controls the next government,” states Nestor Salinas, President of the Association of Relatives of the Fallen in Defense of the Gas, a group commonly referred to as The Relatives, “our actions and demands stay the same. We want justice for what happened to our brothers, wives and children two years ago and we are going to continue the struggle ourselves until that is achieved.”

A glimpse of this grassroots struggle follows.

“We Will Not Forget Our Dead”*

It was the kind of wind that chills the bones, making you want to shiver from head to toe. But the five Aymara women wrapped in black shawls standing feet from their husbands’ graves were motionless. The only movement on their bodies was the tears rolling down their cheeks.

“We are here to remember our loved ones—our fathers, our husbands, our daughters and our wives who fell on this land two years ago,” Father Modesto Chima said to the widows and the 20 others gathered on the morning of September 17, 2005 in the cemetery of Villa Ingenio on the outskirts of El Alto.


Mayor of El Alto Favor Nava inside the newly constructed Mausoleum at Villa Ingenio Cemetary
Photo: D.R. 2005 Jean Friedsky
On October 12, 2003, neighborhood of Villa Ingenio lost 27 of its own, the most of any one neighborhood during the 2003 battles. Two years later, relatives of the fallen gathered to mourn, but also to recognize a small victory.

“Despite the great pain we feel today, we feel some satisfaction because our dead now lie in a place of honor as they should,” Father Chima explained, pointing to the concrete walls around him.

Over the last year, the El Alto city government constructed a mausoleum for the Villa Ingenio victims. A brightly colored but ominous mural covers the main outer wall; flowers, candles, photos and handwritten notes adorn the glass windows of each person’s place inside.

Though it may seem minimally significant, this mausoleum and its sister site in El Alto’s Tarapaca cemetery that houses nine Black October victims are of great importance to the families of the fallen. They are permanent memorials that, for the Relatives, ensure that neither El Alto nor Bolivia forget their passing.

Similarly important aspects of the campaign were the memorial events throughout September and October.

Some, like the one in Warisata with Marlene’s family, were open community gatherings attended by a range of political leaders, social movement groups and local residents. With live music, they were at times upbeat and social.

Others, like that of Villa Ingenio, felt vastly different. Only the families of the fallen and close friends made the long trek to the cemetery that morning; the shared grief was overpowering.

Regardless of the venue, the acts reflected the deep Aymara traditions that ground life in El Alto and the surrounding high planes. Most of the events included bonfire prayer sessions lead by Aymara elders, coca leaf ceremonial offerings, and aptapis (communal meals).


An aptapi in Villa Ingenio cemetary with the Relatives.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Jean Friedsky
“‘October’ is not just about remembering dates and events,” explained Wilson Soria, El Alto ex-Priest and current MAS councilman, in a September 30, 2005 interview with the Alteño Press Agency (APA) “It’s about making present the pain and suffering, the impotency, and above all, the indignation.”

Paradoxically, resurfacing the pain is the primary weapon of those who demand justice: through memory, they speaking truth to power.

“To forget would be to give in and let them win, to let them get away with killing our husbands and our children,” explains a Black October widow. “We keep alive their memories because as long as we remember, Goni’s impunity is only temporary.”

“We Will Not Forget Why They Died”

“They are our heroes,” Father Chima explained at the October 12, 2005 mass commemorating the massacre two years gone. “They gave their lives so that we could have a better future, our sovereignty and our dignity.”

Far from limiting their struggle to the static request that a historical wrong be righted, the Relatives and their allies connect themselves to the country’s broader social issues.

“We participate in the continuing protests so that their deaths are not in vain,” explains a member of the October Youth Movement, a group of radical young El Alto residents who have been among the vanguard in recent political uprisings. “And we won’t stop until our government nationalizes our gas and no longer acts as a slave to the imperialist powers.”

Moreover, the demand that Goni be put on trial is seen as a moral compass for the nation.


Father Modesto Chima leading a service at Villa Ingenio.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Jean Friedsky
“We’ve got to get our nation to realize is that it’s not just about these 67 deaths,” explained Sacha Llorenti, former President of the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights, in speech to the Relatives on October 29th. “It’s about us all. Through this movement, we have the possibility of creating a more just society.”

Despite the grander implications of this campaign, the movement has been fairly localized. Because Bolivia’s highland region suffered the brunt of the military’s forces, the campaign is strongest in this region, carrying the support of several social movement organizations such as FEJUVE, COR (Regional Workers Organization), various unions and the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights.

“We are trying to strengthen ourselves nationally by explaining that this is not about revenge,” explains Salinas. “If Goni continues to live in impunity, what does this say to our kids about the kind of nation we live in?”

“We Will Not Forget Who Killed Them”

“Only one moving demand could be heard amidst the explosions of dynamite that rocked the concrete and cobble stone beneath their feet” wrote APA journalist Julio Mamani Conde on October 17, 2005. “And that was the demand that justice be made by imprisoning former President of the Republic Gonzalo Sanchex de Lozada and his collaborators who are accused of genocide in light of the more than 60 deaths and 400 (sic) injured during their watch.”

On the two-year anniversary of Goni’s resignation, thousands filled the streets of La Paz demanding justice. One hundred of these protesters—a group of those wounded during Black October—had already been marching for the past three days. They began in the highland town of Patacamaya over 60 miles outside of the city and arrived exhausted but proud to be a part of the largest and most public of the October 2005 events.

But despite all the heart in this movement, real progress has been slow.

“It’s been exactly one year since Congress authorized the trial against Goni but we are only in the first stage of the case—the preliminary investigation,” explains Rogelio Mayta, lead attorney for Committee of the Trial of Responsibilities, a coalition of Bolivian organizations and social movements working on the case.

The first major judicial step was taken on May 18, 2005, when the Attorney General indicted nine members of Goni’s administration who still live in Bolivia for “the crimes of genocide in its form of bloody massacre,” according to the official indictment. Depositions are currently underway but that is all.

“The fact is that the state has been dragging its feet ever since 2003,” explains attorney Mayta. “They have never wanted to take any action because it’s not politically expedient and because it’s a hard road. It has only been through the pressure imposed by the Relatives and the Trial Committee that there has been any progress at all.”

The Bolivian side of the judicial process is actually only one piece of the equation. Since Goni is in the U.S., the other side of the battle is against Washington.

On June 22nd of this year, the Bolivian government delivered the extradition requests to the U.S. embassy for the three ex-government officials accused in the October lawsuit who reside in the U.S.: Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his two ministers Carlos Sanchez Berzain and Jorge Berindoague. The State Department in DC sent word that they had received the material. The State Department was then required to hand over the extradition requests to the Justice Department, which then delivers the documents to the accused.


Families of Black October Victims at a Mass in Tarapaca Cemetary, El Alto.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Jean Friedsky
The State Department’s own time limit for this transaction is six months. With only six days remaining before that limit is up, Bolivia has received no word on the state of the documents. It is clear that Goni has not officially received the extradition requests.

Here in La Paz, the Relatives keep up the pressure. Every Thursday throughout October, a group of anywhere between two dozen and one hundred of injured, families of victims and allies protested against the American Embassy.

Armed with six-foot-tall posters of Black October victims, the group would arrive at the awaiting police barricade one block above the embassy. They never got closer than that and were often dispersed with pepper spray, but they continued to return, publicly condoning the impunity represented by fortress-like structure below.

Marches and commemorative gatherings were the most direct actions the families were willing to plan this year.

“We wanted to exhume the bodies,” explained Nestor to me one morning. “But the women said no. It was too painful and they were not willing to do it again.”

Last year, as was chronicled by Luis Gomez and photographer Noah Friedsky, the group exhumed the bodies of the dead to pressure Congress to act. Exhumations run directly counter to an Ayamara culture that demands the dead rest peacefully, but the families had decided extreme measures were necessary. After months of pressure, this act was the catalyst for Congress to finally authorize the trial against Goni.

The Bolivian government has done virtually nothing to pressure the United States to serve the documents. According to a September 4th Erbol news agency report, Bolivia’s Public Minister admitted he is “impotent” against the US regarding this issue.

Recently, activists in the U.S. have taken matters into their own hands. On November 1st members of a Bolivian solidarity group surprised Goni, arriving at a Washington DC event held by Princeton’s Latin American Studies Institute where he was to speak.

“I turned to Goni, held out the envelope and touched it to his chest,” recounted Doug Hertzler, one of the activists at the event. “He took it in his hands, and I said a statement that I had memorized beforehand, ‘Mr. Sánchez de Lozada, I serve you with legal documents from the Government of Bolivia, which require you to appear in court in Bolivia to answer questions regarding the wrongful deaths of 2003.’”

Goni took the papers but later dropped the envelope on the floor. This symbolic act, while heartwarming for the families of the dead, did little to advance the case.

The Relatives believe that the Bolivian government ought to do what it can to advance the case—both by pressuring the US and by speeding up the national legal process against the ex-ministers still residing in country. But there is little hope that any political party will make this campaign a priority.

The first governmental plan released by the MAS in August 2005, titled “The Ten Commandments of the MAS” lists only a vague promise to “ensure the conclusion of the Trials of Responsibility against those politicians that hurt the state and the nation.”

However, in their most current platform, there is no mention of the judicial processes related to Black October and Evo often eludes questions pertaining to this issue.

Just days ago, MAS made one of the only official statements related to Black October. Evo requested the military comply with the investigation into the armed forces’ responsibility for 2003. Maintaining that the government authorization of their deployment exonerates them, army heads are resisting any involvement in the judicial proceedings.


Luis Castano Arce at a mass in Villa Ingenio.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Jean Friedsky
There have been other recent setbacks. On December 8th, the Bolivian Parliament refused to extend the October lawsuit to include February 2003, when the government killed 33 during antigovernment protests or to include the “economic crimes,” specifically misuse of government funds, perpetrated during this period.

Seven of the 28 MAS Congressmen did not vote at all, another six had their substitutes vote on their behalf, one voted against the measure and Antonio Paredo, the head of the MAS Congressional block, was not present.

Over the coming year, the Relatives will dedicate itself to continue on its current legal paths. Also, lawyers are contemplating bringing suit against Goni in the United States through the legal precedent known as Letters Rogatory which states that “the district court of the district in which a person resides… may order service upon him of any document issued in connection with a proceeding in a foreign or international tribunal.”

Attorney Mayta and Nestor Salinas will travel Washington in early 2006 to meet with politicians, activists and legal counsel who have interest in supporting their campaign.

Still Alive

On the night of October 29th, the Association of Relatives for the Fallen in Defense of the Gas recognized their organization’s two-year anniversary in a festively decorated El Alto salon hall. There were speeches from heads of social movement organizations, the swearing in of the association’s new executive committee, food and drinks.

The finale for their two long months of commemorations was, more than anything, a celebration. Into the night, the relatives of the victims laughed and danced morenada and cumbia. Even Luis Castano Arce, who lost his right leg as a result of Black October waved his crutches in the air to the rhythm of the music, sang along and smiled his sweet smile.

“We have a long and hard road ahead of us,” Salinas said that night. “But tonight we celebrate what we have accomplished and that we are here together, still alive”.

*The first three subheadings of this article are the three main campaign slogans used by the Committee of the Trial of Responsibilities and by the Association of Relatives.

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