Suit blames ex-Bolivian leader for civilian massacre

CHEVY CHASE, Md. — In this quiet Washington suburb, former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada stays in touch with supporters, attends academic seminars and enjoys his family time. He likes to read and go on long hikes.

But events from four years ago continue to haunt the 77-year-old businessman-politician, who's become a flash point in the troubled relations between La Paz and Washington.

Six law firms and human rights groups have sued Sanchez de Lozada in federal court in Maryland, demanding compensation for relatives of the 67 people who were killed during the 2003 protests that forced him into U.S. exile. And Bolivia has asked for his extradition.

Going after former Latin American heads of state in tribunals, once extremely rare, has become common in recent years, with more than a dozen former presidents facing charges, from Luis Echeverria of Mexico to Alberto Fujimori of Peru.

Few have moved with the gusto of Bolivian President Evo Morales, however. He's ordered legal actions against all five of his living predecessors, including Sanchez de Lozada. All have been indicted by what Sanchez de Lozada's camp calls Bolivia's "politicized justice system."

Sanchez de Lozada and his lawyers say they'll turn the tables on his accusers and cast the lawsuit and extradition request as a ploy to divert attention from Morales' own responsibility for the 2003 deaths.

As the head of the coca growers movement, Morales was one of the key leaders of the protests, Sanchez de Lozada's camp says, and therefore bears responsibility for the lamentable but predictable showdown with security forces.

"I am confident the truth will prevail," Sanchez de Lozada, widely known as Goni, said in an e-mail. "My actions were in full compliance with the Bolivian constitution and laws."

No trial date has been set, but the case already represents in stark terms the broader ideological clash that's taking place in Latin America.

A wealthy industrialist, Sanchez de Lozada speaks flawless English and was close to the Clinton and Bush administrations. With the help of U.S. advisers, he implemented far-reaching pro-market reforms in his first term as president, 1993-1997, that Morales derided as a "neo-liberal" agenda that mostly favored rich multinational corporations.

Born poor, the feisty Morales is on a mission to reverse what he says are 500 years of exploitation of Bolivia's indigenous people. Allied with U.S. foes Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, he's aggressively pushed for more state intervention in the economy and is in a tense standoff with his conservative rivals over constitutional changes.

As Gustavo Guzman, Bolivia's ambassador to the United States, put it: "This is more than a trial over the killings. It is a trial of the ruling class."

Guzman said the Bolivian government had played no role in the civil lawsuit but expected to file within weeks a formal extradition request against Sanchez de Lozada and his defense minister, Jose Carlos Sanchez Berzain, who lives in Miami.

Few expect the Bush administration to do Morales any favors. Bilateral relations are strained over Bolivia's allegations that the U.S. ambassador in La Paz is conspiring to overthrow Morales, and threats by La Paz to stop working with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Establishing what happened in the waning months of Sanchez de Lozada's presidency is likely to prove difficult, given the mayhem at the time.

Protestors took to the streets soon after Sanchez de Lozada began his second term in August 2002, angry over a plan to sell natural gas to Chile and economic austerity measures. But his presidency started unraveling in February 2003, when he narrowly survived a police revolt and an assassination attempt.

"Bolivia was a collapsed state," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian-born professor at Florida International University. "There was no state he could govern."

Gamarra said the revolt forced Sanchez de Lozada to use a poorly trained and equipped military to restore order. Gamarra, who's finishing a study of the 2003 events, thinks there were numerous "conspiracies united by the goal to topple Sanchez de Lozada."

"While they might have been parallel and even disorganized," he said, "they came together in late September-early October and achieved their objective."

In an incident that's likely to become a key point in the case, indigenous leader Felipe Quispe organized roadblocks near scenic Lake Titicaca that September, trapping hundreds of tourists, including 35 foreigners.

When the military went in to rescue the tourists, a firefight broke out in the village of Warisata. According to the lawsuit, the military opened fire first, killing several civilians.

Not so, said Howard Gutman, a lawyer with the Washington offices of Williams & Connolly LLP, the firm that represents Sanchez de Lozada.

"The first casualty was a military soldier attacked by the armed demonstrators," he said. Sanchez de Lozada's lawyers have State Department documents backing their position.

Guzman admits that some peasants were armed, but he argues that they fired only sporadically, if at all.

In October 2003, Sanchez de Lozada ordered the military to clear the roads near La Paz in an effort to ease shortages of food and other goods. More than 60 people died in the clashes, and he resigned and fled on Oct. 17.

The lawsuit alleges that he "aided and abetted" the armed forces to "commit acts of extrajudicial killing, crimes against humanity."

Gutman said that trying to free trapped tourists and clearing roads "isn't a crime in this or any country." He charged that Morales, who became president early last year, was going after Sanchez de Lozada "to deflect the responsibility for the September and October deaths from himself and his movement."