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Home Category Table PAL Director Lisa Sullivan reports back from Bolivia
PAL Director Lisa Sullivan reports back from Bolivia PDF Print E-mail
Written by Liz Albanese   
Thursday, 09 September 2010 14:14
A Warning From Bolivia to Modern Day Pirates and SOA grads:

Think Twice: Your actions may land you in jail

Visit by SOAW activists to Bolivia

to participate in events surrounding trial of SOA general involved in Black October Massacre

By Lisa Sullivan, September 2010

Click here for photos

The trail of blood blazed by graduates of the School of the Americas throughout Latin America continues, due, in part, to culture of impunity that reigns in the continent. A recent example is Honduran General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the latest (June 2009) in a long line of SOA graduates to carry out a coup in the continent. Far from being held accountable for his illegal and violent actions, the general has been rewarded for his efforts: he was recently granted the lucrative presidency of the state telephone company, Hondutel. The same story with some nuances could be told up and down the continent.

In stark contrast to General Vásquez are Teófilo, Alex, Rogelio and Thomas. You probably have never heard of them. They are a welder, student, and a Bolivian and a US lawyer, and real life heroes in the long and grueling battle against impunity. It is a battle whose outcome can have enormous consequences far beyond the battleground, which in their case is Bolivia.

Last week Fr. Roy Bourgeois and I had the privilege of accompanying these dedicated men in La Paz. We were invited to participate in events that connected the dots between the SOA and the tragedy that has brought them together.

That tragedy, known as "Black October" took place 2003, in El Alto, the 13,000 foot-high sprawling city predominantly populated by Aymaran people recentlyl arrived from remote regions of Bolivia's altiplano. The spark was the decision of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada ("Goni") to bring in private companies to pipe gas - Bolivia's greatest natural resource - to the U.S., via Chile. A scion of Bolivia's privileged white elite, Goni rose to the presidency with a meager 22% of the vote, helped along by a slick campaign marketing run by top Clinton advisors.

Bolivia's natural wealth had long been exploited via indigenous muscle to benefit the small white elite class (silver and tin in past centuries). Goni's formula and promises of "trickle down" were nothing new. However, the base of political power among Bolivia's native population was new, thanks to the massive influx of people into the new booming city of El Alto

Thus, when a protest against the gas sale in an outlying small town met with government repression, massive protests and blockades ensued in El Alto. In response, Goni issued Supreme Decree #27209 which sent the military to escort gas trucks to La Paz. Within hours, 30 were dead from the military free-for-all, and within days the number rose to 67, with over 400 wounded. Outrage against the government ensued, and on Oct 17th, Goni and his Defense Minister Sánchez Berzaín fled the country for the United States, where they currently reside in Chevy Chase, Maryland and Miami respectively.

Among the dead were the pregnant wife of Teófilo, the Aymaran welder who accompanied us during our Bolivia visit. Like many of those killed, she was actually far from the frenzy, visiting her sister and inside a home. Military shots fired through the fragile walls and the mother and unborn child died, leaving a permanent crease of sorrow on Teofilo's brow, and seven children without a mother. Teófilo told me how his oldest son, aged 17, had previously been a model student. He was his mother's "shadow" according to Teófilo, helping her sell small items from the local market. Since his mother's death the son has dropped out of school, he has lost the spark of hope in his eyes.

Alex is one of those who were wounded. When I met him at a rally in front of the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, his wounds were not as obvious as the gentleman without an arm next to me, or the other without a leg. In October 2003 Alex was a 19 year-old student, shot in the ankle in the midst of the demonstrations. He re-learned to walk, but will never run again. Until recently, he had been reluctant to join in the organization of the other "victims", since he doesn't define himself as a victim, but rather as a "social actor". What happened those days in El Alto forever reshaped Bolivia, leading to the exit of a president who ruled for the elite, opening the door to Bolivia's first indigenous president, and a transformative constitutional assembly.

The "victims" organization (The Steering Committee for the Trial of Responsibility of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his Accomplices), however, has done remarkable things that have made them unique social actors in the continent. They have moved through mountains of red tape to bring to trial in Bolivia the 5 high level generals responsible for Black October, two of them SOA graduates, along with 2 of Goni's ministers. In November 2008 the Bolivian government served the U.S. State Department with an official extradition order for Goni and Sánchez Berzaín. For the past year, a trial by Bolivia's Supreme Court has been unfolding in the capital of Sucre, and a verdict is expected soon.

This has been possible due to the tenacity of "victims" such as Teófilo for the 7 long years since the massacre. But, it has also been possible because of the extraordinary dedication of two young lawyers, one from Bolivia, and one from the U.S. who have steadfastly continued to carry this trial forward, inspite of threats to their personal security. Rogelio Mayta has been at the side of the massacre victims from the very beginning, and only his iron will and attention to details has allowed this case to get this far.

The U.S. lawyer, Thomas Becker, neither looks the role of a lawyer, nor was one when the tragedy unfolded. He actually BECAME a lawyer, just to find a way to help, after visiting Bolivia in 2005 and meeting with families such as Teófilo, and learning their stories. Before that, he was........... a rock star. Not your usual path, as acknowledged Harvard Law School when they accepted him. But then, they too became convinced of the unique quality and the urgency of the issue and supported Thomas in his pursuit of the issue.

Since the main culprits of the massacre - Goni and his minister Sanchez Berzaín, refused to go to Bolivia for the trial, Thomas found a way to bring the trial to them! This was possible by calling upon a little known law called the "Alien Tort Statute". It was created 1789 to be able to try pirates for crimes committed on the high seas. Today, thanks to Thomas, a second trial is also unfolding in Miami where these modern day pirates have had to face the faces of those whose loved ones were forever erased due to their actions.

The people of Bolivia, however, also want their former president to stand trial IN Bolivia to face a possible jail sentence. They believe that this is the only way to bring a small measure of justice to the families who lost their loved ones, and to send a warning to those in power throughout Latin America that impunity is no longer a given. This may be one giant step in stopping that trail of blood.

We probably can't all stop being rock stars, like Thomas, to pursue a law career and thus help. But, we can write an email or send a fax, or make a phone call to our member of congress, to insist that the U.S. respond to the request for extradition. If one hundred or one thousand or 5 thousand of us do this, it might just make a difference, for the people of Bolivia, for the people of Latin America.

Send a letter to President Obama asking him to encourage the U.S.State Department and the Department of Justice to respect Bolivia's extradition request and send Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada back to Bolivia to face the charges against him in court.








Last Updated on Friday, 10 September 2010 14:39

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