By: Thomas Becker
On October 12th, students from the International Human Rights Clinic arrived at the Villa Ingenio Cemetery on the outskirts of El Alto, Bolivia to celebrate the lives of those killed in Bolivia’s “Black October.” Despite the somberness of the drizzly afternoon, the cemetery was adorned with the bright colors of the family members’ aguayos (blankets) and polleras (traditional billowy skirts worn by Bolivia’s Aymara women). Today was a special occasion.
Téofilo Baltazar was one of the family members present at the cemetery. Fifteen years ago to the day, Bolivian soldiers shot and killed his pregnant wife Teodosia while she was praying inside her sister’s home. As Téofilo placed flowers on his wife’s tomb, he stated, “Hasta el último momento lucharé por la justicia.” (“Until the last moment, I will fight for justice.”)
Téofilo, like so many relatives of the roughly 500 casualties during Black October, is Aymara. Historically, the country’s indigenous people have been excluded from justice, but Téofilo and his friends were determined to change this.
In 2007, nine Aymara Bolivians launched a landmark lawsuit in U.S. federal court against Bolivia’s ex-President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada and ex-Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, who fled to the United States after Black October and have lived here ever since. The case sought to hold both men responsible for the role they played planning and organizing the mass killings that took their family members.
After years of legal obstacles, the lawsuit went to trial in March of this year, marking the first time ever a former of head state was forced to directly face his accusers in a U.S. courtroom. The victims’ family members made history when, after a three-week trial and a week of deliberations, the ten-person jury unanimously held Goni and Sánchez Berzaín liable for the killings and awarded the plaintiffs $10 million. This was the first human rights verdict in the United States against a living head of state.
Unfortunately, in May, a judge overturned the historic jury decision. The judge upheld the defendants’ Rule 50 Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, which argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict. This decision forced the families back to court.
Last month, as Bolivians celebrated the lives of those killed in Black October, the plaintiffs submitted an appellate brief to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit arguing that the district court applied the wrong legal standard for extrajudicial killings and the jury verdict should be reinstated. Additionally, current and former U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, retired U.S. military commanders, and law of war scholars submitted amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs. Early next year, the Defendants will file their opposition brief and Plaintiffs will file their reply; oral argument is expected in spring 2019.
Though the struggle has been long, the families remain steadfast in their fight for justice. It is the memories of their loves ones that keep them going. At the cemetery, Téofilo shared with the Clinic’s students the importance of their victory and its significance for survivors throughout the world. “The jury is the voice of the American people, and the people have spoken. No court can change that. No court can change the message it sends to the world,” he told the students, adding: “But the struggle continues.”
The Clinic and co-counsel from Center for Constitutional Rights, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP, and Schonbrun, De Simone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP have represented the plaintiffs from the outset in the case. Clinical students Luna Borges Pereira Santos LLM ’19 and Kevin Patumwat JD ’19 traveled with clinical instructor Thomas Becker JD ’08 to Bolivia in October to commemorate 15 years since Black October.