Mary Sanchez

How Kansas Citian Thomas Becker played a role in a historic human rights conviction

Thomas Becker played with his band Beautiful Bodies in 2015.
Thomas Becker played with his band Beautiful Bodies in 2015. The Star

At a time when the current U.S. president is doing everything he can to project the image of the Ugly American abroad, a U.S. court took an unprecedented step to bolster the cause of justice and human rights in other nations.

On Tuesday, a Fort Lauderdale jury found former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and his former defense minister, Jose Carlos Sanchez Berzain, responsible for the murders of indigenous people in 2003 during a horrifying month of violence when the Bolivian military was used to squelch protests over the government’s efforts to privatize natural gas reserves.

Estimates place the killings at more than 60, with 400 more Aymara (a precursor culture to the Incas) injured. Sanchez de Lozada resigned, fleeing to a suburb of Washington, D.C., and his defense minister found safe haven in an affluent community in Miami-Dade County, Fla.

In a legal smackdown that reverberated globally, the jury awarded survivors of the victims $10 million in damages. The trial was the first time that an ex-president of a foreign nation has had to sit before his accusers in a U.S. court for human rights abuses.

It’s about time. Hopefully this will set a new standard for U.S. involvement in international human rights. Those guilty of unleashing their armed forces on defenseless civilians will not find shelter in the U.S. Their connections to our own political elites will not protect them.

The case of Sanchez de Lozada is an old story in many ways: politically-connected and business interests clashing with indigenous peoples over land rights. Sanchez de Lozada had family connections to the Roosevelts and the Rockefellers, and he hired Democratic campaign guru James Carville’s firm to help secure the Bolivian presidency in 2002. That campaign became the subject of “Our Brand is Crisis,” a fictionalized 2015 movie starring Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton that was produced by George Clooney.

What’s perhaps even more unusual, and inspiring, about the case is that it evolved from the student project of a Kansas Citian, Thomas Becker, when he attended Harvard Law School.

A “skinny gringo,” by his own assessment, Becker is probably better known in Kansas City for his performances with bands. But by the time I first met him in 2001, Becker had already witnessed the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, worked amid the poverty of Cape Town and traveled with Subcommandante Marcos, a leader of Mexico’s Zapatista movement.

Clearly, a wanderlust spirit, backed by a strong social consciousness, has taken the now 39-year-old far.

During his law studies, Becker traveled in Bolivia, where he heard stories of the “Octubre negro,” or Black October, a time of violence and protests when the indigenous blocked roads, keeping access of gas reserves from reaching La Paz.

The resulting lawsuit against Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain was filed in 2007, representing surviving relatives of eight victims, including the parents of an 8-year-old girl believed to have been shot by a military sniper and a pregnant wife and mother.

The defense, which plans an appeal, maintains that force was necessary to restore order and that Bolivia’s current president, Evo Morales, is the real villain, having riled his fellow Aymara to protest.

The plaintiffs argued that the president and his minister made a conscious decision to use the Bolivian military and tactics of war to silence the protests, believing that it would be necessary and acceptable to kill thousands of indigenous.

This week, breaking between interviews with Univision and other international media, Becker was quick to acknowledge that the victory was the work of many people. The case was led by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic, in addition to several law firms.

The claims were brought under the Alien Tort Act, a little known law initially intended to hold pirates accountable for crimes in international waters, and the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, which was passed to pursue justice after such extrajudicial killings.

The families of the victims, Becker insists, are the heroes of the case.

“They left their wounds open for over a decade so that their families can have justice,” Becker said.

He’s right, of course. And at least at this juncture in the case, U.S. law is standing alongside them.