FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida --- A 30-something man, with a long face and tousled blond hair, pushed the wheelchair of an indigenous young woman from Bolivia leaving a federal courtroom. The man, dressed in a tight black suit and narrow tie, was once the lead guitarist for Beautiful Bodies, an alternative rock band that tours the United States and Europe.
He stopped performing to put a former Latin American president and his defense minister on trial.
Thomas Becker is one of the lawyers at the Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic who helped nine indigenous Aymara Bolivians score an unprecedented victory in a civil trial in Fort Lauderdale. A jury ruled that former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín were responsible for the extrajudicial execution of eight people during a wave of street protests in 2003 that left more than 50 dead.
“It's the first trial in the history of the United States of a former president who has to respond directly to his accusers,” Becker said shortly after he learned the jury's decision last week.
The jury's decision, already appealed by Sánchez de Lozada's attorneys, was announced last week. But for Becker, the case started back during a 2005 vacation in Bolivia, when the native of Kansas City Mo. was studying law at Harvard and barely spoke Spanish.
He ran into noisy street protests demanding justice for the killings, known as 'Black October.' “I had never seen protests so big, and they told me that was part of the culture in Bolivia. A protest is a sort of equilibrium between the people on the street and the government,” he said.
But after getting to know some of the victims of the massacre, he realized that full justice would not be possible. Although some military officers were put on trial, the political leaders of the country during the bloody conflict had moved to the United States and were thought to be beyond the reach of the law.
“For me, (Sánchez de Lozada) escaped. He was using the United States as a safe heaven. So we decided, why not try to go to court?” said Becker, adding that he also felt guilty because the former president and defense minister were living calmly in his country.
“That was not right, and we decided to look for an opportunity for justice for the families,” he said.
He contacted the Human Rights Clinic when he returned to Harvard, which together with other organizations first filed the lawsuit in 2007. Becker then started a string of lengthy trips to Bolivia to interview victims and collect testimonies and other evidence.
Meeting with victims
Among the people he met were Eloy Rojas Mamani and Etelvina Ramos Mamani, the parents of Marlene Nancy Rojas Ramos, an eight-year-old girl killed by a stray bullet when she was in her home in Warisata, in Bolivia's poor high plateau region.
He also met Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, the widower of Teodosia Morales Mamani, shot and killed by soldiers ordered to quell the protests in the city of El Alto adjoining La Paz. “My wife was sitting in her sister's home. They shot at the houses. The bullet hit her here,” Baltazar Cerro said, pointing to a spot between his back and his stomach.
“She was not involved in those protests, and she was five months pregnant,” he added. “That government killed a lot of innocent people.”
Baltazar Cerro recalled his attempts to rush his wife to a hospital, winding through streets blocked by the protests. She died several days later. He had to bury her and the fetus she carried, and then start a new life taking care of their seven children.
But after he was done grieving, he promised himself to do everything possible to get justice and became leader of an association of victims of the Black October. After he met Becker, Baltazar Cerro became one of the complainants in the Harvard team's civil lawsuit against Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín.
Rock or human rights
“Thomas is the one who drove this process. He pushed it forward,” said Baltazar Cerro. “He is a Bolivian.”
During those years, the law student was leading something of double life, playing in the rock band (he wrote songs while in Bolivia and returned to the United States for tours) while defending human rights. His legal interests were also reflected in some of the band's songs,
“The informal education I received from working with people in the streets fighting for change has influenced our music. We draw inspiration from people willing to stand up and battle to make the world a better place,” he said in a 2015 interview with Static Magazine.
But there came a time when Becker had to chose. That was two years ago, when the lawsuit filed in 2007 finally picked up speed after overcoming several obstacles. He decided to focus on the Black October case.
Then early last month the lawsuit finally went to a civil trial in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, where Sánchez de Lozada, Sánchez Berzaín and the victims faced each other. After three weeks of testimony and deliberations, the 10-person jury ruled unanimously that the defendants should pay $10 million in compensation to the relatives of the victims.
Attorneys for the former president already appealed the verdict, but the complainants and their lawyers said the jury's decision was already a victory in a case without precedent in the United States.
“It's important for Bolivia, for the victims of human rights abuses and human rights violations anywhere in the world,” said Becker. “The people wanted justice. And it's not just a matter of money. What we wanted was to make it clear that these people are responsible for the deaths in 2003.”
For Baltazar Cerro, the verdict fulfills a promise he made to his wife.
“I swore on my wife's grave that I would get justice, that I would go anywhere, and as far as needed. And I am doing it,” he said. “And it's not just me. We are 10 in the lawsuit, but we're also here for the others. There are 60 dead and four amputees. We're also fighting for them.”
But real justice, he added, would be extraditing Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín to Bolivia so they can be put on trial there. The Bolivian government has been trying to do that for years, without success.
Becker plans to go to Bolivia to celebrate the ruling with the rest of the Black October victims, and then will take some time off. “I need to rest,” he said. “It's been a long month. A long decade.”