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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, October 21, 2003
 

Bolivia: did a lynching start the 'revolution'?


Being alive to the perils of breaking news - distance plus speed plus ignorance plus language barrier equals bear trap - as well as slow off the mark, I didn't really tune in the farrago out there until the street action was pretty much over. The chance of a gringo at 6,000 miles distance making much sense of facts on the ground was nil.

However, my interest was somehow aroused by a piece October 19 in the blog of La Paz resident Miguel which I mentioned on October 17. He was quoting an op-ed piece on the revolt (October 19) in La Razón of La Paz by Bolivian journo Agustín Echalar - who is not in party mood.

What hit me was this
...the strike organized by Felipe Quispe in Omasuyos and nearby originated in a demand that had no moral support. It asked the freeing of a local authority that had abused his power, causing the death of two people. Of course, the other side's version, that of the side that came out on top, was that an injustice had been done to communal justice, since a cattle thief deserves torture, abuse, and death.

Or, in the original,
...la huelga organizada por Felipe Quispe en Omasuyos y alrededores estaba originada en un reclamo que no tenía ningún soporte moral, se pedía la liberación de una autoridad local que había hecho abuso de su poder, causando la muerte de dos personas, claro, la versión del otro lado, de ese otro lado que ha salido triunfante, era que se había hecho justicia comunal, porque un ladrón de ganado sí merece tortura, vejación y muerte.

This does two things: it would be a striking, even iconic, demonstration - if true - that the Bolivian peasants are not secular saints or mere objects of the political manoeuvering or ideological posturing of white men (domestic and foreign), but, like the gringo, run from very good to very bad; and it picks two individuals out from the mass of humanity and gives them an identity.

Not names, unfortunately. And a man with no name - for net purposes - very often might just as well never have existed! But individuals, nevertheless, with a chunk of narrative to go with them: the one a cattle thief, the other some kind of local leader who - if the story is right - had the thief lynched.

Surely so pivotal an event in the scheme of things would be traceable, even without names?

I can trace one reference: to wit, a piece of September 22 from Los Andes of Mendoza, Argentina. After describing the events at Warisata [1] on September 20, it says
Por su parte, el gobierno llamó al restablecimiento de la paz y convocó a un "imprescindible" diálogo nacional, aunque advirtió que hará respetar la ley a los campesinos que mantienen una huelga de hambre en contra de la venta de gas por Chile y en demanda de la libertad de uno de sus dirigentes, acusado de asesinar a un ladrón de ganado.

And that's it.

Why don't the wretched papers name the peasant leader, at least? How close is he to top man Felipe Quispe? What hand did Quispe have in the lynching (assuming there was one)? Is vigilante justice commonplace in rural Bolivia? Is it like the Old South, with solid citizens standing by while the dead is done, or otherwise condoning it?

The Bolivian peasants have striven for the moral high ground - and, clearly, in a tranche of Western opinion - they have it in spades. If it turns out that their organisations act like the southern branch of the KKK, that would put a rather different complexion on things.

Plus, it's annoying the hell out of me just not knowing the truth! Linchamiento, ¿sí o no?

  1. A piece in La Prensa of La Paz September 21 (also this and this) has the fullest narrative I can find. Basically, several hundred tourists were held hostage by peasants; a rescue was mounted and around six deaths resulted. Tying down even the precise date the wretched incident happened was a job of work. The tourists were actually held at Sorata, which, evidently, is just up the road from Warisata (there is no Mapquest for Bolivia - the lack of maps is a serious bar to comprehension with this sort of story). This piece is much skimpier, but is in English, and strangely makes more sense!

    Whilst I'm still hazy on the detail, the surprising thing is that foreign tourists were held in such numbers for so long before the Bolivian government took action: and six deaths seems a pretty paltry loss in the circumstances. One of the peasants, interviewed on radio, is quoted as saying:

    Ahora estamos preparados para derramar sangre; somos paracaidistas, de infantería. (...) Vamos a mantener los bloqueos, los vamos a comer vivos.
    Which rather implies that the peasants had guns - I've not seen confirmation of the fact, though. Clearly, they were not boy scouts.

    Hard to go any further without effort disproportionate to my interest in the subject.


MORE

Is lynching part of the Bolivian tradition, you may ask? There are odd snippets online that suggest it may be so: Professor of Anthropology at Holy Cross College (Worcester, MA) Daniel M Goldstein won an award for a study Vigilante Justice and the Challenge to Global Security. A teaser for an article in American Ethnologist says
Vigilantes in the marginal communities of a Bolivian city take the law into their own hands both to police their communities against crime and as a way of expressing their dissatisfaction with the state and its official policing and justice systems. In this article, I examine an incident of vigilante violence (lynching) in one such Bolivian barrio to explore the ways in which vigilantism acts as amoral complaint against state inadequacy, challenging state legitimacy and redefining ideas about justice, citizenship, and law in the process. I also analyze the range of discourses that surrounds lynching in contemporary Bolivian society, exploring the interpretive conflict that results as barrio residents attempt to counter official representations of the meaning of vigilantism in their community.

A page on a USAID-funded project Ciudadanos Trabajando por la Justicia
...that is aimed to achieve measurable understanding, acceptance and support for the reformed justice system in Bolivia.
(good luck with that!) mentions
crime-that result from mistrust, misuse and misunderstanding of the justice system (such as lynching)

There's a piece from August 28 on a Sánchez de Losada plan to form kid's patrols to fight crime (!) which comments that the patrols
would have a difficult go of it in a country where "popular justice" includes lynching

And a story of a TV cameraman who supposedly incited the lynching of a suspected rapist in Santa Cruz.

And a final piece for good measure.

All amounting to prima facie evidence, I think, that lynching is not quite as foreign to Bolivia as Free Love to Vatican City!


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