Bolivia's search for truth, justice and reparation

For over 150 years between its independence from Spain and the mid-1980s, Bolivia was characterised by a history of coups, counter-coups and the occasional revolution.  

Since 1985, however, despite various outbreaks of social unrest, there has been continuous democratic government, with power regularly changing hands. Major social and economic reforms after 2005 have lead to a marked reduction in poverty and inequality.

Now that the country has entered a period of relative calm, I can understand why some would prefer to avoid stirring up old antagonisms and to consign to history the abuses that took place under the military regimes of earlier decades. However, for the relatives of those who suffered under these regimes, history cannot be swept under the carpet. They remind us that truth, justice and reparation are long overdue.

During the coup that brought General Luis Garcia Meza  to power in 1981, an attack on the Bolivian Workers' Centre’s headquarters led to the detention and killing of Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz and Juan Carlos Flores Bedregal, both leaders in the Socialist Party. To date, their whereabouts remain unknown. In the same year, another nine leaders of the Revolutionary Left Movement were killed in the “Harrington Street massacre” in La Paz.

The Garcia Meza regime was one of a series of authoritarian and military governments that were in power in Bolivia between 1964 and 1982. In 18 years, more than 150 people ‘disappeared’ by the authorities, and at least 200 were executed without trial. Thousands more were arbitrarily detained, tortured, went into exile or were deported.  

García Meza was tried and convicted for the serious human rights violations committed by his regime and is still serving a 30 year prison sentence. His main collaborator, Colonel Arce, was extradited to the United States, where he served a jail sentence for drug trafficking. More recently, a commission has been established to deal with the search for the bodies of the disappeared.  A law passed in 2004 to provide reparation to victims generated more frustration than relief as the requirements were very difficult or impossible to meet, as were the short deadlines. 

But much remains to be done. Relatives of many of the disappeared are living in permanent mourning, still not knowing what happened to their loved ones or where they are buried.  Many victims who were tortured, unlawfully detained or forced to go into exile still await justice. Frustrated at the lack of progress, a group of victims and their supporters have been camped outside the Justice Ministry since 2012 demanding justice and an end to impunity.    

Amnesty is calling for concrete measures by the Bolivian authorities to put an end to impunity for human rights violations perpetrated during the military governments, to establish the truth and to review the reparation process so that victims have access to full reparation for the human rights violations they suffered.

Graham Minter is one of our country coordinators for South America.

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