Lessons from Bolivia’s “Black October” 2003

Source: The Andean Information Network

Three years have passed since the resignation of Boliva President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada after security forces killed at least 59 civilians during protests. The violence and his resignation highlighted a long-term mounting discontent by the majority of Bolivia’s population, excluded from decision-making processes and subsequently denied benefits from the exploitation of natural resources. Although the new administration has prioritized the extradition of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and two of his ex-ministers from the United States, no government official or member of the security forces implicated in the September and October 2003 massacres has faced concrete legal consequences, and the victims and their families have received no economic compensation. This reflects an ongoing and persistent impunity in human rights cases in Bolivia.

The events leading to Sánchez de Lozada’s (known as "Goni") resignation demonstrated a general disgust for traditional party politics and lack of accountability, and have helped to radically restructure the Bolivian political landscape. In spite of these transformations, fundamental changes still need to be made to ensure that government ordered violence and resulting human rights violations are not repeated.

"Black October" trial continues to face obstacles

Investigations of the killings have faced multiple impediments. The first prosecutorial team abruptly closed the investigation in June 2004. One member of the team told AIN, "We are under pressure and had no choice; it was the only way to keep the peace. We didn’t want to be responsible for further conflict." In November 2004, the Bolivian Congress authorized a "trial of responsibilities" against Sánchez de Lozada and his ex-ministers, but investigations lagged once again. In February 2005, newly appointed Attorney General Pedro Gareca mistakenly charged the ex-president with rape, by citing the wrong article of the criminal procedures code, further complicating the process. The designation of a third team of prosecutors provided greater continuity.

Gareca’s surprise resignation, formalized on October 17, 2006, further complicates the process. It is unclear whether his temporary replacement will have the political will to resist pressure from traditional party elites and push the trial forward. The ten-year appointment of a new Attorney General could be a topic of protracted debate in the Bolivian Congress, which has continued to be largely ineffectual, even after the change in government. Powerful elites seek to block progress on the October case, as well as the other trials of responsibilities against traditional party politicians and other ex-leaders.

Commemoration of "Black October" centered on the need for Goni and his ex ministers to face prosecution in Bolivia for the deaths, and for the embezzlement of extraordinary sums of government funds withdrawn from the central bank during the violence. Undoubtedly, these elements are crucial to the case and for closure for the victims and their families as well as the nation as a whole. The Bush administration has effectively blocked process serving initiatives by its refusal to respond to or deliver the summons, filed as letters rogatory, to formally notify Goni and the other accused residing in the U.S. The U.S. government argues that the trial is politically-motivated, and that the Bolivian judicial system is not sufficiently objective to guarantee a fair trial.[i] Bolivia’s failure to ratify a bilateral agreement on process-serving until September 2006 further complicated the process.

The continued presence of a Goni-appointed ambassador in Washington during the early phase of the trial impeded diplomatic efforts to legally notify the ex-officials of the charges against them. After Morales’s inauguration, eight months passed before the arrival of Gustavo Guzman, appointed by Morales. Improved coordination between the prosecutorial team and the Bolivian embassy in the U.S. has led to varied proposal to obviate the need for U.S. participation in the notification process. An international arrest warrant has been issued for the three ex-officials, and sufficient legal arguments exist to prove that they are aware of the charges against them.

Justice Beyond Goni: Accountability for the Armed Forces

In spite of the Morales administration’s strong support for prosecution of the ex-president and ex-ministers, this commitment has not included public governmental support for trying members of the armed forces implicated in the violence. The use of the armed forces in an unconstitutional law enforcement role has been a persistent problem, exacerbated by the insertion of the armed forces in the Drug War in 1998. This dynamic resulted in pattern human rights violations. To date, no member of the Bolivian Armed Forces has faces serious legal consequences for human rights violations. The Morales administration continues to use soldiers for law enforcement, and three people have been killed during military interventions since his inauguration. One military officer complained, "They told us it would be different, but they are sending us out on the streets again. The death toll is rising. It’s not looking good."

Morales and many of the social sectors that support him have a contentious past with the armed forces, as a result of protracted cycles of conflict in the Chapare coca-growing region and other areas. Yet, the new government has attempted to strengthen its relationship with the institution through a series of benefits and concessions. Undoubtedly improved civil-relationships are crucial to the success of the government. Yet, this shift in discourse has left a series of persistent problems unaddressed, and concessions to the armed forces, such as a 16 percent pay raise for officers. The wage increase is over twice as much obtained by any other sector, such as the teachers unions, who obtained a government-sanctioned raise of seven percent in 2006.

Armed Forces continue to resist testimony and prosecution in civilian courts

The armed forces as an institution have consistently resisted participation in civil court investigations and trials, in violation of the stipulations of international and Bolivian law, as well as rulings by the Bolivian Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal. Through the dogged efforts of a series of prosecutors, these rulings and multiple citations have consistently affirmed the legal and moral obligation of military testimony and cooperation with civilian legal investigations and trials.

According Milton Mendoza, one prosecutor assigned to the case, "It’s has been difficult and we have slowly made progress, but there we still have a long way to go. After rulings obligating testimony from the armed forces and prosecutorial access, some high level and current ex- force commanders have provided testimony. Five commanders have been charged for the deaths. Yet, prosecutors have been unable question other officers or obtain significant documentation. The armed forces have provided the investigative commission with just one 3 page report.

Impunity continues during Morales Administration

Although the military has felt obliged to make these nominal concessions in the "Black October" case, they have not cooperated and impeded investigations in other pending cases, such as February 2003, the death of Miner Carlos Coro during the Mesa administration, the shooting death of squatter Santiago Orocondo in June 2006 and two coca growers shot and killed by the Joint Eradication Task Force in the Vandiola Yungas traditional coca-growing zone.

One of the most valuable lessons learned from Oct. 2003– that it morally egregious and disastrous to send out the military against civilians, is getting lost in the shuffle. Unfortunately, the Morales administration is increasingly resorting to the military for law enforcement and to put down protests. Government officials have sent out the soldiers to clear squatting settlements, control protests in La Paz, and maintained their active role in coca eradication, in spite of Morales’s strong criticisms and human rights violations by this unit against his coca grower constituents in the Chapare region.


The failure of Morales officials to recognize human rights violations stemming from these actions and meaningfully address them has eroded the government’s credibility. National human rights monitors have not effectively pressured government official to assume responsibility for violations. They have failed to consistently pressure for effective investigations or carried out independent investigations to document abuses. They appear to have difficulty objectively evaluating actions of representatives of social movements they defended in the past.Addressing concrete constructive criticism from state, nongovernmental and international human rights monitors and meaningfully attacking endemic impunity would greatly help to legitimize and solidify the Morales administration. Denial of human rights violations and accusing social movement leaders and coca growers of drug trafficking, instigation and conspiracy has generated an insecurity that has helped catalyze further protests.

Meaningfully honoring the legacy of Black October must go beyond demands for the extradition of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. There must be economic compensation for poor families that lost their loved ones in the repression. To date the Bolivian government has not met that need. Clearly, it is safer politically for the administration to go after politicians outside of Bolivia, than to tackle the tougher issue of dealing with those implicated in human rights violations, which would provoke institutional fallout with the armed forces. It is a battle worth fighting. Responsibly addressing longstanding impunity and eliminating a law enforcement role for the military could help heal the scars of "Black October," and ensure that history does not repeat itself.

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For information write the Andean Information Network at kledebur@ain-bolivia.org or consult our webpage: www.ain-bolivia.org.