Thousands of demonstrators marched on the U.S. Embassy Monday to demand that Washington extradite a former Bolivian defense minister who directed a military crackdown on riots that killed at least 60 people in 2003.
Former Defense Minister Carlos Sanchez Berzain, now a resident of Key Biscayne, Fla., told La Paz-based Radio Fides last week that the U.S. granted him political asylum more than a year ago.
The revelation sparked outrage in El Alto, a sprawling satellite city outside La Paz where dozens of anti-government rioters were gunned down by soldiers in 2003. On Monday, thousands of residents streamed down the hills into La Paz to demand justice for the killings.
"We've come to the doors of the embassy to say 'Enough with the impunity,'" said Edgar Patana, head of an El Alto labor union leading the protest. "The United States has to prove that they have the justice they're always showing off in their media and movies. Bolivia wants that justice."
Protesters shot fireworks at a U.S. flag flying just beyond the compound's concrete wall, as helmeted Marines looked on from the embassy's roof. When crowds tried to push through a police line, officers cleared the street with tear gas.
Bolivia's government called the use of tear gas excessive. "Security is one thing, repression is another," Government Minister Alfredo Rada told reporters.
La Paz state's police commander was fired Monday night along with top policemen in Bolivia's eight other states. But government officials said the change had been planned since a new national police chief was named last month.
The 2003 "Black October" protests were initially sparked by a government plan to sell Bolivian natural gas to the U.S. by building a pipeline through neighboring rival Chile. The idea angered El Alto's poor, who often struggle to obtain their own gas for cooking and heating.
The protests quickly snowballed as the city's largely Aymara Indian population vented centuries of anger over bitter poverty and political marginalization.
The uprising eventually drove then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada from office, fortifying a growing indigenous political movement that brought President Evo Morales to power two years later.
Sanchez Berzain's lawyer, Howard Gutman, declined Monday to confirm whether his client has been granted political asylum. But he and other lawyers acknowledge and cite Sanchez Berzain's asylum status in a motion filed last month in a Miami federal court to dismiss a U.S. civil case against him.
Plaintiffs, including families of the 2003 victims, accuse the former defense minister and the ex-president of authorizing the use of deadly force against protesters and say they are liable for the deaths.
Lawyers for the two exiled politicians say protesters instigated the violence and that their blockade of La Paz, which cut the capital off from food and fuel, justified a military response.
Their legal team includes Washington attorney Greg Craig, an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Asked for comment, Phillip Goldberg, the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, said the legal proceeding is "not a political matter, it's a judicial matter, and we have to respect the independent judicial branch in the United States."
President Evo Morales repeated his demands that Washington send the two men home to face trial.
"We want the United States to help us to bring to justice those who have done so much harm to Bolivia," Morales said Sunday.
© 2008 Associated Press