By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
NEW YORK, Sept. 25 -- A lawsuit to be unsealed Wednesday in a U.S. District Court in Maryland seeks civil damages against Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada -- the former president of Bolivia now living in exile in Chevy Chase -- for allegedly presiding over a 2003 government crackdown that left 67 civilians dead and 400 injured.
Legal experts say the case, filed by a group of 10 victims' family members, marks the most notable civil suit against a foreign former head of state residing in the United States since legal action was brought against former Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s. The suit seeks damages against Sanchez de Lozada for allegedly authorizing his military to use deadly force during a series of protests that resulted in an alleged civilian "massacre." A similar suit is also scheduled to be unsealed Wednesday in Florida against Jose Carlos Sanchez Berzain, a former Sanchez de Lozada government minister who now lives in Miami.
Sanchez de Lozada, 77, was a two-time president of Bolivia heralded by foreign investors as a champion of free-market reforms in his nation. Democratically elected twice, the last time in 2002, he and his government were effectively overthrown by a series of popular revolts, in part led by Evo Morales, the leftist firebrand who was elected president of Bolivia in December 2005.
The former president and his advisers have repeatedly denied charges of a massacre, calling them politically motivated spin by the left-wing groups whose violent revolts led to his early resignation in October 2003. The plaintiffs said he was served with the papers Tuesday.
Yet the cases -- particularly if they go to trial -- could prove embarrassing for the Bush administration. Sanchez de Lozada is one of several Latin American former leaders who were staunchly backed by the United States but have now fallen into disgrace in their home countries, often amid charges of excessive force or massive corruption. Sanchez de Lozada fled into exile in the United States on Oct. 17, 2003. He has since resettled in the Washington suburbs.
Although sources familiar with his legal status said he has not officially been granted asylum, he has been allowed to live on U.S. soil as a companion to his wife, who is studying in the Washington area on a student visa.
The suit, filed with the aid of leading human rights lawyers, including those from Harvard University and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, is also aiming to re-energize "universal jurisdiction" -- the idea that foreign leaders, no matter where they reside, should be held accountable for abuses committed in their homelands. Such arguments were used when former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested for domestic abuses on a Spanish warrant while receiving medical treatment in London in 1998.
"This case goes to the heart of preventing impunity," said James Cavallaro, executive director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, who, along with other human rights lawyers, assisted the Bolivian victims' family members in filing their case.
The Bolivian Supreme Court last month approved a formal extradition request for Sanchez de Lozada and two of his ministers to face trial in their home country on similar charges. Bolivia's ambassador to the United States, Gustavo Guzman, said those documents are now being translated and will be delivered to the State Department within four weeks.
Sanchez de Lozada did not return phone calls Tuesday. But he has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, telling the Miami Herald in 2004 that he authorized only "appropriate" force to quell unrest. Mauricio Balcazar, one of his top advisers, said Tuesday that he thinks Sanchez de Lozada's political enemies in Bolivia were behind the civil suit, a charge that both plaintiffs and human rights lawyers deny.
"There was no massacre, there was a sedition that generated confrontation," Balcazar said. "There is no legal support [for] an accusation. . . . This is not a crime in Bolivia or in the United States."
The charges largely center on a highly volatile period in Bolivia in September and October 2003, during what many have come to call the Gas Wars. Sanchez de Lozada had backed a controversial plan to build a gas pipeline through Chile to facilitate energy sales to the United States, Mexico and other nations. It became a lighting rod for growing civil unrest, particularly among anti-government activists.
Tensions dramatically escalated when government troops entered the La Paz suburb of El Alto on Oct. 12, 2003, sparking a bloody clash that left at least 30 dead. Sanchez de Lozada resigned in the ensuing days and fled Bolivia on a commercial flight to Miami.
The suit insists that Sanchez de Lozada should be held responsible, additionally alleging that some of the fatalities resulted from government snipers. Sanchez de Lozada's supporters, however, said some of the protesters also were armed, and that in the chaos of those days, it is impossible to tell who shot whom.
Although the alleged crimes took place in Bolivia, the plaintiffs are in part relying on the 1789 Alien Tort Statute, once applied to foreign pirates to collect civil damages in the United States. Legal observers say Sanchez de Lozada may argue that U.S courts have no jurisdiction or that he enjoys immunity given his status as head of state at the time. But U.S. courts overruled those arguments during the Marcos case, in which victims' families were awarded a judgment of $2 billion.
"Sanchez de Lozada should pay for what happened in our country," said Juan Patricio Quispe Mamani, 33, who says his brother, a construction worker, was shot in the back as he went to secure the family's house in El Alto when government security forces moved in on Oct. 12, 2003. "We want justice."