Bolivia Lynchings Reopen Debate on Indian Justice in Latin America
June 10, 2010 - Latin American Herald Tribune

By Antonio Martinez

LA PAZ -- The recent lynchings of four Bolivian police officers by Indians claiming to be shielded by the principle of "indigenous justice" has reopened the debate about whether ancestral practices among the pre-Colombian peoples, enshrined in several constitutions in the Americas, justify murders and torture.

Thousands of lynchings have been registered in the region -- just in Guatemala there have been more than 2,500 since 1996, according to the Academy of Mayan Languages -- but those who promote the "native" methods of seeing justice done insist that this does not include murder or cruel and humiliating punishment.

The clashes of "indigenous justice" with the so-called "ordinary" justice from the European heritage are due in part to the fact that some constitutions, including the Bolivian one, do not define precisely where or when one ends and the other begins, politicians, analysts and diplomats throughout the region explained.

In Guatemala, where 42 percent of the population is of Indian descent, there is just one law for the country's 14 million residents, but some tribes are asking for their "customary rights" to hold sway in certain matters, rights based on their broader vision of the cosmos and on unwritten laws.

Regarding the numerous lynchings in that country, the majority of them carried out by Indians, the defenders of "community justice" say that these actions have nothing to do with ancestral rights, but there are also those who justify them for social reasons.

The Foundation of Rigoberta Menchu, the winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, said in a report that the lynchings "are the product of the desperation of the communities that have been abandoned by the state" and lack of judges, prosecutors and police officers.

In Bolivia, where lynchings are frequent but nobody keeps count of how many occur, there are also voices that justify the torture and murder of the four police officers on May 23 in Uncia, a village in Potosi province.

The local political boss, or "mallku," of the clans ("ayllus") of the Altiplano, Rafael Quispe, said that the killings were a warning to President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, who is more concerned about partisan matters than about the presence of the state in communities that are the victims of corrupt policemen.

"They extort the (indigenous) brothers who are here, they abuse the (residents). Their patience is at an end and what they did is settle accounts with their own hands. It's not part of the community justice, but rather that they are tired of these types of arbitrary actions and the absence of the state among the ‘ayllus,'" Quispe said.

Opposition lawmaker Norma Pierola, however, told Efe that in Bolivia -- where 45 percent of the 11 million citizens are Indians -- she is pushing for a law of "jurisdictional demarcation," and she added that the Indians cannot lynch policemen since their "justice" must be applied only in internal controversies within their communities.

In Ecuador, where almost half of the 14 million citizens are Indians, the 2008 Constitution includes "indigenous justice," and there is also a debate about the need to regulate it because there have been recent cases of severe punishment being meted out within certain Indian communities.

One Ecuadorian community intended to "execute" a man accused of murder, but the authorities intervened in time and managed to at least get them to agree to cancel the death sentence in exchange for a public lashing with whips and nettles.

On the other hand, after the lynchings in Bolivia, the police abandoned the region and the Morales administration limited itself to fruitlessly asking the killers to turn over the victims' bodies. The relatives had to go to the area without a security escort and sign documents in which they promised not to bring anyone to court for the murders, thus exchanging the impunity of their killers for the bodies of their loved ones.

Some indigenous peoples in the Americas defend their ancestral rights on the basis that the various kinds of community punishment, such as public whippings, forced labor or exile, set more of an example and are more relevant than locking people away in overcrowded and unhealthy jails, which are true schools of crime.