Nestor knew his brother didn’t have long to live. David’s eyes were dilating, raw flesh lay exposed in his gut region, the sheets of the bed were soaked in blood. Outside Nestor could hear gunshots and the sound of flares streaking past the hospital window.
As Nestor screamed for something to be done, he was told there was nothing they could do and that he should prepare to say goodbye. "I felt both furious and helpless," recounted Nestor. "I made a promise then to my brother that I would ensure justice was done." His brother fought on, clinging desperately to life, but two days later he lost consciousness. On 18 October 2003, David Salinas died.
David was a popular 29 year old man with seven brothers and sisters who lived in El Alto, the impoverished and largely indigenous city adjoining the capital La Paz. He worked in a pasta factory with his younger brother Nestor and spent much of his spare time playing football.
"He was really liked in the neighbourhood," said Nestor. "No-one could believe he had been killed." But during September and October 2003, David was one of 67 men, women and children to be killed in cold-blood by armed forces sent out to crush protests by then President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.
Two years later, no-one has yet been brought to justice for the deaths. No-one has yet taken responsibility for murders that have changed the lives of over 60 families for ever. In one family, both parents were shot leaving a fourteen-year-old looking after six of his brothers and sisters.
For Nestor, it led him to helping set up an association of families of those killed, and the start of a legal and political battle that has taken over his life and will need international solidarity to secure the promise he made to his brother.
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I went to visit Nestor as several weeks of activities started to commemorate the events of what is universally known as "October 2003." It’s a date that everyone in Bolivia understands like 9-11 in the US.
In a cramped office in a busy neighbourhood in El Alto which had been part of the war-zone in October 2003, we talked frequently interrupted by calls to his mobile from radio stations, the arrival of other family members of the association, and a student who had put together a video of testimonies.
"It’s madly busy at the moment. I am one of the youngest "dirigentes" in El Alto," laughed 29 year-old Nestor. "I wouldn’t have believed a few years ago that I would be regularly having meetings with Supreme Court officials, the Fiscal General, Senators and Congressmen, but that’s part of life now."
Nestor explained that he had become involved when his mother came back from a meeting with the authorities in late October. "She was crying, saying that their requests for justice just led to abuse. Look, they’re dead now, there’s nothing more you can do, she was told." It was an echo of the voices of the doctors in the hospital.
"I resigned from the pasta factory, and helped set up the Association of the Families of those who died defending our Gas (ASOPAG in Spanish)." The Government offered each family about $5000 in compensation. "That was the price they set for each head," said Nestor bitterly. "But that’s not what we were after. We wanted justice."
Nestor then recounted the events that led up to the dark months of October 2003. The Government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (Goni) had been elected narrowly in 2002 and been responsible for enacting a series of neo-liberal economic policies such as privatisation and IMF economic reforms that had led to increasing economic division and social tension.
In September 2003, a proposed new tax in El Alto, imprisonment of an indigenous leader for an act of communal justice, and the announcement of a new gas contract exporting gas through Bolivia’s long-held enemy Chile (for depriving Bolivia of access to the sea in the early 20th Century) led to an explosion of protests and blockades across Bolivia. Nationalisation of gas emerged as one of the main demands.
The first deaths took place on 23 September, when an attempt by the Government to "rescue" tourists trapped in Sorata led to shootings in Warisata which claimed the lives of 6 people including an 8 year-old girl, Marlene Nanci Rojas Ramos. As protests intensified, La Paz found itself cut off. To free up the roads and in particular get access to household gas blocked inside various refineries, Goni and his Ministers passed an executive order calling on the army to open the blockades and saying that any "damage to goods or people…[was] guaranteed by the State."
On the 11th October, the army arrived in El Alto and the shootings started. David Salinas was one of the first to be killed. Shot whilst trying to help someonewho had been injured.
The shootings, however, didn’t crush the protests. Instead even more people took to the streets demanding Goni’s resignation. He eventually resigned and fled the country on the 17th October.
That’s when the real struggle began. The families organised themselves into associations of those killed and the hundreds who were also injured and set up a Committee to bring Goni to Justice. It took them a year to get Congress to agree to authorise legal proceedings against Goni and his Ministers.
They were eventually shamed into acting, when the families dug up the bodies of their loved ones in October 2004 to carry out autopsies. Finally the Government announced the trial of 9 Ministers who could finally be sentenced in November this year.
Meanwhile, the Bolivian Government on 22 June this year filed a request with the US Government to notify Goni, and two Ministers (Carlos Sánchez Berzaín and Jorge Berindoague) of the need to return to Bolivia for a trial. Almost four months later, the Government is yet to even receive a response from the US Government.
It appears that the US Government has chosen to sit on the application and do as little as possible to help those seeking justice. Goni before becoming President lived much of his life in the US. It is well-known that he has many friends in the US administration, and has managed to successfully sell his story there that the deaths were results of responding to "terrorists" and "narco-traffickers".
"Goni was a President who did everything that the US and its associated international institutions like the World Bank asked him to do. Bolivia was the perfect pupil. When they said privatise, he privatised," said Rogelio Mayta, a lawyer for the families when I ask him why it has taken so long to extradite Goni.
"If 67 people had been shot dead by the military on the streets of New York, can you imagine that two years later no-one would have been brought to justice," Rogelio decries. "Could the Government could get away with delays in taking action?"
So the families of those killed have been forced onto the streets again, this time with weekly processions to the US embassy to demand the immediate notification of Goni and his ministers of a trial. On the first week, they were tear-gassed by police, but were back this Thursday with photos of their loved ones and banners: "We want justice", "We won’t forget our dead. We won’t forget why they died. We won’t forget who killed them."
"To be honest, at times, my energy to fight goes up and down," says Nestor. "I don’t always understand the whole legal process. But I have a deep pain inside and can not allow myself to do nothing."
He becomes angry when I cite Goni’s statements that he was saving democracy by preventing a coup. "Look who was killed. A child of five, a pregnant woman, mothers of families. Are you saying they wanted to overthrow the country? You don’t kill for democracy. You don’t violate human rights for democracy."
Victories like the Congress authorising the legal process against the Ministers have enabled him to keep fighting. He says if they fail to get justice to begin with, they will keep looking at alternatives.
For Nestor, his fight is also a wider struggle against impunity. "We are not just fighting for the families, but against a culture of impunity. If we allow Goni to remain free, we allow impunity. That means that people who take decisions to kill remain free and can kill again."
A personal fight has become entwined in a wider struggle against a culture of impunity that has led to massacres across the Latin American continent – under Pinochet in Chile, Fujimori in Peru and Guatemala under years of military rule to name just a few. It has led his association to contacts with many families across Latin America who lost loved ones, shot or "disappeared" by the military.
"When we finally see Goni in prison, we will have made a huge historical step in the fight against impunity and I will have kept my promise to my brother."
Your support could really help the families. When I asked what people could do, Nestor said the first thing is put pressure on the US administration to deliver the notification of trial to Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín and Jorge Berindoague. You can send a message to the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice by posting a message on their website. He also said some of the families are in dire need of financial assistance after losing their principal income-earners. If you would like to make a donation, contact me and I will liaise to pass on any money.
Tags: Bolivia | Impunity