Landmark case in Florida pits Bolivia’s ex-leader against villagers attacked by his army
On a rocky and impoverished rural slice of Bolivia, the noise sounded like corn popping loudly.
Etelvina Ramos Mamani was lying on her bed, weak and feverish. She heard a scream from next to the window. Her 8-year-old daughter, Marlene, suddenly collapsed and tilted her head back, desperately trying to suck air into her lungs — pierced by a bullet fired by Bolivian soldiers.
“Blood was coming out of her chest like a fountain,” Ramos testified Tuesday.
Outside, the government soldiers were charging through the small village, firing away. Hours passed before the shooting stopped. By then, as her relatives held an impromptu wake in the dark, Marlene was dead — an innocent victim of the violent unrest that wracked Bolivia in the fall of 2003.
Ramos took the witness stand Tuesday not in South America, but 3,000 miles away in a Fort Lauderdale federal courtroom.
Her testimony marked the start of a landmark court battle that pits relatives of the poor, mostly indigenous people killed in the chaos against Bolivia’s ex-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and his former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzain.
Tuesday’s testimony marked the first time that a former head of state of a foreign country faced trial in a U.S. civil court for human rights abuses, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the Mamani family.
“My daughter was innocent. She had not even gone out. She was playing inside the house,” said Ramos, who sported two long braids, a pink sweater and a turquoise skirt typical to the indigenous people of her region.
Her husband, Eloy Ramos Mamani, recalled soldiers chasing and firing on unarmed villagers. “Like scared rabbits they escaped to the hills,” he told jurors.
The couple belongs to one of eight families suing the former Bolivian government leaders under the U.S. Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows suits for extrajudicial killings in foreign lands. The suit was filed in South Florida, where the two former politicians now live after fleeing Bolivia in 2003.
The legal wrangling over the case has lasted for nearly a decade, and the trial is expected to last several weeks before U.S. Judge James Cohn. The relatives of the slain Bolivians are represented by lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and several high-powered private law firms.