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Former Bolivian President Found Responsible for Protesters’ Deaths in 2003 Massacre

Former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his Defense Minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, were found responsible for the extrajudicial killings of 58 unarmed civilians (estimates vary) during protests in 2003.

The guilty verdict demands a USD $10 million compensation fee to the families of the victims killed by security forces.

 Photo: Bolivia's former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Source:  Noah Firedman Rudovsky/ Reuters

Photo: Bolivia's former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Source: Noah Firedman Rudovsky/ Reuters

The court case took place in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. where both the president and minister have lived since fleeing Bolivia in 2003.

Sánchez was president of Bolivia twice, from 1993 to 1997 and from 2002 until 2003, when he resigned amid growing political unrest.

The protests occurred during a time of civil unrest known as the “Gas War,” where thousands of civilians demonstrated against the government’s overuse of Bolivia’s vast natural gas reserves. Citizens gathered along streets forming blockades of flaming debris and rubble in the capital city of La Paz.

 Photo: The army sent out during the protest. Source:  BBC News

Photo: The army sent out during the protest. Source: BBC News

These demonstrations led to a violent confrontation between police forces and protesters  during which soldiers opened fire on protesters resulting in 58 deaths and approximately 400 individuals injured.

Four years after the protests, family members of eight Bolivian citizens who were killed in the protests filed a civil lawsuit claiming that President Sánchez de Lozada and Minister Sánchez Berzaín planned the killings because the protesters were seen as the opposition.

Tefilo Baltazar Cerro, one of the plaintiffs whose pregnant wife was killed by a bullet wound in the protests, commented on the verdict: “After many years of fighting for justice for our family members and the people of Bolivia, we celebrate this historic victory.”

Cerro added in a written statement that “fifteen years after they fled justice, we have finally held Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín to account for the massacre they unleashed against our people.”

Judith Chomsky, an attorney representing the plaintiffs stated, “[The plaintiffs] have set an example for anyone fighting for accountability for human rights abuses worldwide.”

Defense Attorneys Stephen D. Raber and Ana C. Reyes, shared their thoughts via a written statement: “We disagree with the jury’s verdict and believe that the proof was so lacking that the case never should have gotten to a jury. We trust the process and believe that the verdict will be overturned when the law is correctly applied.”

Although the verdict has been declared, there is still a possibility that the decision could be appealed or overturned.