Bolivia:The El Alto Lynchings

When the state surrenders part of its judicial power to vague and locally defined ‘community assemblies’ who are permitted to mete out justice to thieves and other minor criminals, does it encourage mob justice and lynchings as well? The modern Bolivian constitution was revised to permit a limited form of indigenous justice, both as a nod to traditional communities and as a way to relieve an overloaded judicial system.

But this disturbing investigation from Anfibia magazine and UT-Austin suggests that devolving justice to ‘community assemblies’ provides mobs with a way to rationalize murderous behavior.

When someone presses the white button, Edson turns his head, waiting to see a face on the other side of the glass.

Journalist through intercom: How are you feeling, Edson?

Edson: Still bad, because I can’t completely heal. I still hurt. I have to walk but I can’t. No one helps me. That’s my problem.

Journalist: Do you remember the people who set you on fire?

Edson: The people in the neighborhood themselves. The mayor [‘presidente‘] of the area. People who help out around there. The young people, them more than anyone. Can’t you see they are troublemakers?

Journalist: Did everyone want to hit you?

Edson: Yeah. They wouldn’t let me leave. I don’t know what guarantees they wanted. You couldn’t understand them.

For two months, he has been shuffling from bed to bed at the modern burn victims section of the Bolivian-Dutch hospital in the city of El Alto. He went from intensive care to room four, to room one, back to intensive care again and, for the past three weeks, again to room one. Unexpected sounds frighten him: a knife when it falls off a plate, a door that shuts all the sudden. He is still not aware that he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Twice a week they take him to a state-of-the-art operating room where they give him skin grafts on the charred parts of his body. And then they send him back to his room, drugged.

On May 27 when he went into the hospital, Jorge Romero, the doctor who operated on him, a plastic surgeon who is an expert in breast reconstruction and used to dealing with fragile epidermis and disfigured faces, interrupted a private dinner at a restaurant in La Paz. They told him the patient’s state was very serious. The first prognosis included the possibility that he would die from the wounds. Edson, the first lynching victim to be treated at the Bolivian-Dutch hospital, looked like old sheep leather.

bolivia-lynching221Photo: Alex Ayala Ugarte. Anfibia.

When you are burned, your bones change color– they go from being a creamy yellowish white to a dark yellow, and later to a charcoal black –, the flesh crackles while it melts slowly. When they strip you and throw freezing water on you, the nose, ears and fingers are the first to freeze. The joints go to sleep little by little.

The skin turns into a pale surface, and later: the collapse, the die-off of cells, the gangrenous areas. When they beat you, your body shatters: your head explodes, your eyelids swell, they break an arm or a leg. And the Holocaust on the inside: the hemorrhages, the ones that kill, are the internal ones.

In cases of lynchings, the same pattern usually repeats itself. First, they catch someone in the act of committing a crime. Then, furious men and women decide to apply capital punishment to the stranger who invaded their space; an initial blow to the face, then kicks and more kicks. Someone throws gasoline on the suspect. Someone else, another shadow, sets him on fire, and then silence, a mute wall like an epilogue to the tumult. And in the end, everyone — the mob of dozens, sometimes hundreds of rabid people — go home as if nothing happened. Always, at first, the neighborhood. Always, in the end, a battered heap that was once a body.

Some media outlets claim to their audience that beatings in the urban areas are an accepted practice under the rubric of ‘community justice’. Many El Alto residents think they are using community justice when they burn a suspected criminal or hang him from a power pole. But if but both these things were chemical elements, they would be far away from each other on the periodic table.

The Public Defender’s Office maintains that at no point can these attacks be perceived as a sort of parallel justice system. “They violate the elemental principles of right to life, fair trial and integrity,” says one of the their documents. Between 2001 and the first half of 2008, there were at least 88 lynching attempts in El Alto’s central neighborhoods and suburbs. Nine of them ended in the deaths of those being lynched. The facts come from an investigation carried out by Bolivian sociologist Juan Yhonny Mollericona. There are no reliable reports about what happened from 2008 to 2013. The police registered the incidents as homicides or attempted homicides. But a simple glance at the press and television news shows that there are between one and four lynching attempts a month. The victims, executioners, and scenes change, but the stories repeat themselves.

A report from the Citizens’ Security Observatory warns that four out of ten residents in El Alto identify crime as their biggest problem. Faced with the crime wave, some think the only thing they can do is attack as a defense mechanism. That’s why they sometimes resort to lynching, which holds a place in the collective imagination in some sectors of the population as “community justice”.

U.S. professor Daniel Goldstein explains that the category of “community justice” was born towards the end of ’90s after a study financed by the World Bank attempted to interpret the various forms rural communities in Bolivia resolve conflicts. Today, it is recognized by the Constitution, which gives it the same place in the hierarchy as the ordinary justice system and admits that, in the indigenous, First Nations and peasant farmer jurisdictions, infractions are punished by community assemblies that levy different sentences: economic sanctions, community work, up to exile.

In 2010, Felix Patzi, President Evo Morales’ candidate for governor of La Paz that year, was sentenced by his community to make 1000 bricks for driving drunk. In El Alto, it is normal to kick entire families out of neighborhoods if they are caught stealing. But the law establishes certain limits. It says lynchings are not acceptable and must be prevented and punished by the government.

“As guardians of public order, we must protect the lives of all people, whether they are criminals or not, whether they have prior convictions or not,” says Ramiro Magne, the former director of the El Alto’s Special Crime Forces, seated in his office.

In informal conversation, when they are asked about community justice, many of the seasoned leaders show there is not a united position on the issue. They may say it is clearly acceptable to hit a criminal with a belt, but that it is never permitted to make an attempt on someone’s life. How decides when to stop? They do not specify that.

Goldstein wonders if, in accordance with the implicit emphasis in the Constitution about the rural nature of community justice, it is legitimate to attribute its presence in urban areas to indigenous migration, or if these migrants simply appropriated the term in a ‘political act of creative imagination’ that permits them to interpret the confusion around them. Mollericona, the sociologist, considers these vigilante actions to be a reaction to the lack of an effective state presence that provides security and punishes criminals. He defines these settling of scores as ‘extrajudicial phenomena’ used to punish offenders of the law and those who don’t respect the minimal rules of coexistence.

bolivia-lynching321Photo: Alex Ayala Ugarte. Anfibia.

“We are going to pave all this,” says Esteban Ticona, pointing toward a dirt avenue in the settlement of 30 de Septiembre, where in 2010 they lynched a woman who stole from a house. Ticona is a police officer in the homicide division and one of main community leaders in the area. In El Alto, the residents organize each sector with a kind of diminutive government: They choose a president, vice president, a finance secretary, a sports secretary. For a few months, Ticona has been in the highest position in this hierarchy.

“And this other road,” he says,”is Flowers Street.”

The earth seems to deny it. There is not a single flower here. There is not even a petal on the ground. The landscape is repetitive, similar to the one found in other corners of the periphery of El Alto: one or two story building made of adobe and exposed brick, trash on the street corners, small mounds of sand and rock.

Ticona is 42 years old and short. He wears glasses and has a gold crown on one of his teeth. He wears sweatpants and a wide-brimmed hat. He moves slowly, with big steps, like a dandy. When he arrived, this place looked more like a parcel of farmland than a habitable area. He had to build his home in the middle of herds of sheep and cows.

“Now it’s different,” he says,”Now we have drinking water and even natural gas in the homes.”

But before they didn’t. They didn’t have anything. Before there was nothing but the plain.

Here on Flowers Street, Ticona says, is where they trapped the woman, Rosa Huanca Mamani, who tried to steal a television. They tied her with her own braided hair to a fence, surrounded her with tires, and set her on fire. According to Ticona, she died from smoke inhalation. Others say she died from burns. No one took pity on her.

“I knew her,” Ticona saya,”She had seven kids and stole to feed them. I had saved her before from another lynching. They had stripped her naked. When I was escaping with her, they crippled me with a rock.” (Ticona rolls up his pant leg and shows his leg as if it still hurt him.) “The second time it was too late. I couldn’t do anything. They told me about by mobile phone. When I arrived she was almost dead. I called my colleagues on the force, turned around and walked away. I didn’t want to get into problems.”

That day, Ticona, the officer used to homicides, to picking up cadavers and investigating sinister scenes, chose to escape.

“There wasn’t even a chance to get involved.”

In Bolivia, lynching as an organized way to violently punish injustice is not new. To the cases that occurred during the indigenous rebellions at the beginning of the 20th century — in which mayors and landowners were killed in some rural parts of the country — can be added to the most famous lynching in the country’s history, that of Gualberto Villarroel.

In July, 1946, President Villarroel was overthrown by a mob that stabbed and beat him at the Government Palace in La Paz. They threw his body in the (central square) of Plaza Murillo from one of the balconies. They hung him from a light post. They exhibited him to the public. According to the leaders of the lynching, it was with his death that a civil war was avoided.

Today, in the neighborhoods of El Alto, some of the inhabitants say that with similar actions they are looking to avoid the spread of crime.

In Franz Tamayo, a neighborhood half an hour from La Ceja, the heart of El Alto, when there are what they call ‘strange movements’, they warn each other firecrackers and whistles as if it were Carnival. Sometimes they do it by cell phone, sending text messages. Everyone is constantly on the alert. The last thing they burned, says Ricardo Penasco — 35 years old, lightly tinted glasses, a lazy eye, owner of the most prosperous butcher shops in this sector — was a white vehicle with no one in it.

“It belonged to one of the thieves. They got away. We were pissed off by what happened to my cousins and we burned their car. What happens is that one gets angry and then reacts, not so much because of the thefts, but because of the deaths.”

Close to here, just a few blocks away, a few months ago and at around five in the morning, they strangled Victor Hugo and Veronica Penasco, 36 and 32 years old, both communications professionals and Ricardo’s cousins.

During the day, Franz Tamayo appears to be a town full of single women. The men — plumbers, artisans, masons, office workers — leave early for work, and the women that stay to take care of the homes are numerous: They go to market, cook, sew, clean and iron. Roly Tarifa is 27 years old and is one of the few men who stays around every once in a while in the neighborhood. He sells pork on the weekends and during the week does other jobs.

“Nothing has happened here in a while,” he says,”but before there were kidnappings and house robberies. That’s why we organized ourselves. In each block, there’s a chief of security, and when something happens we put out the alarm.”

Another resident, Jesus Zenteno, added that the problem is that no one knows anyone because the place has grown too much: “We see their faces but don’t know about their hearts.”

In other parts of the city of El Alto, most of all in the suburbs, vigilance has also turned into part of the routine. In Villa Eguez, they organize nocturnal patrols using strategies similar to those of the police officers. “When we see a suspicious taxi, one resident gets on one side and another on the other and we check the doors and trunk and we interrogate the driver,” explains policeman Gonzalo Chura, presidenteof the neighborhood. He say it as if it were the right thing to do.

bolivia-lynching421Photo: Alex Ayala Ugarte. Anfibia.

On the way to Ticona’s home, there is an enormous, faceless effigy with a stake in its chest and paint that looks like blood, hanging from a light post.

“This is a warning, so the criminals don’t come around here,” he explains. On neighboring wall, another graffiti warns: “Thieves will be hung.”

“I give my neighbors advice. I tell them to buy a chain for their door, that if a stranger knocks never open the door, that they never trust suspicious vehicles. It’s easy to tell when someone’s not from around here. Here we know everyone. And, just in case, I have a rifle at home to defend myself.”

Ticona also keeps the remains of a person hit on the road at his home.

“They say human craniums help to protect your property. Since I work with dead people, I got my hands on some bones from one of them at morgue in La Paz, from a guy no one claimed, and now I put candles on them so they protect me.”

Juanito and Juanita are the names of the two small skulls that rest in crystal urns at the Homicide Division in El Alto. They are surrounded by cigarettes, coca leaves and different colored papers on which people leave their wishes. They are known by Bolivians as natitas. Juanito has been at the police station for around 30 years. Juanita, less. They have put wool hats on both of them. Some, the most faithful, even speak with them, tell them their problems. They trust in the (natitas) because they are known for looking over the most vulnerable. They say they’ve helped solve 200 crimes.

A few months ago, they accused Ticona, who spends most of his time here in 30 de Septiembre, of locking two lynching suspects up with the natitas so they would confess.

“It’s a big lie, people wanting to stir things up around the accused so the investigations are prolonged,” Ticona will say another day.

Today Ticona, who will also say in a joking tone that all you need to do to get someone to talk is tie a cord around their testicles, doesn’t say anything. He sleeps in a room that is just a few square meters, covered to his neck in blankets, the light out, the only illumination the flash of an old television.

On his desk, there are various folders with open cases: Around 170 to resolve. Ticona chalks up the lynchings to a lack of criteria and the inexperience of neighborhood leaders. “It can’t be that 30 residents overwhelm 11 leaders. But it’s a different situation when the mob is made up of hundreds of people.”

But he also attributes them to the scarcity of resources for investigations. On the table, there is a computer he bought with his own money, and in the drawers, under lock and key, he keeps dozens of basic implements that also came out of his pocket: some $55 handcuffs, a .38 caliber Chinese revolver he paid around $62 for, a spray can of mace he invested about $15 in and a $25 taser that gives electrical charges that, according to him, “take the good out and put the bad into those detained.”

To this basket of purchases you have to add his uniform — they gave him the fabric and Ticona had it made to fit –, paper to print on, phone cards, new shoes. For Ticona, being a policeman is like being a mason: “When you are missing tools, you have to buy them yourself.”

In Homicide, they don’t even have a proper ambulance.

The one they do have, which is generally deployed to pick up cadavers during the day and occasionally to help with patrols, is a converted Toyota Land Cruiser that has been doing rounds for 30 years and sputters every once in a while, running at half power, like a heart after a non-fatal cardiac event.

“When the dead are numerous, it’s a problem. We fit them, one on top of the other, however we can,” says Ticona, who has just gotten out of bed.

bolivia-lynching521Photo: Alex Ayala Ugarte. Anfibia.

Edwin Flores, the investigator for Edson’s lynching in Puerto Camacho, identified two of the suspects. Ramon Quino, a pharmacist whom the victim allegedly extorted, and Antonio Rivera, a retired professor who was recently elected as area presidente by the citizens. According to Flores, there is evidence to assume they were the ones who led the mob. Neither of the two has been arrested however.

Today is Saturday and Quino’s wife is at his pharmacy. She says she doesn’t really know what happened the day Edson almost lost his life. Close to there, the owner of a grocery store says the same thing. In situations like this one, the neighbors repeat themselves: “I don’t know”, “It happened over there”, “I didn’t see it”, “I didn’t do anything”.

Meters from the pharmacy, close to Puerto Camacho’s main square, the presidente, Antonio Rivera, walks by.

“I don’t who instigated it. I know nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. I know nothing.”

He then goes quiet for a few seconds, as if he were hiding something inside, perhaps guilt.

“I wasn’t there. I was taking a rest,” he explains, “They came to see me and they said: ‘Look, Mr.Presidente, this happened.’ I told them to call the police.”

He tries to stop the wind from blowing his hat off.

“But other residents around here are rebellious. A stranger shows up and they grab him. And there’s nothing you can do. You can’t control the mob no matter how much you tell them: ‘Let’s not do this’.”

According to Mollericona, one of the main characteristics of collective action is anonymity. Since people act en masse, he says, “the visible instigators disappear”. Besides, the residents make a “pact of silence” between themselves that no one breaks.

In this context, the mob is the killer’s perfect prototype. Their faces — gaunt, chubby, young, wrinkled — are everyone and, at the same time, no one.

bolivia-lynching621Photo: Alex Ayala Ugarte. Anfibia.

After the lynchings, the explanations that crop up are various. There are people who speak of ‘peasant farmer ignorance’, of the inexplicable actions of the ‘Indians’, and they speak of them like those landowners from the 1940s who had slaves on their land.

Some of the accused, however, are retirees, professionals, and university students. Besides, many of the lynchings happen in neighborhoods like Puerto Camacho, which has all the services: a school, a priest, a church, a health center, a police squad nearby.

El Alto is a very precarious city, where you can see poverty on every corner, but the violence isn’t always perpetrated, as many believe, by the least fortunate.

From outside the Homicide Division in El Alto, the Attorney’s Office looks more like a mall than an office building: high ceilings, railings all over the place, five-by-five meter rooms without curtains.

The waiting room of the one of these offices where the homicide cases stack up is so full it looks like a supermarket at noon on Saturday. There are more than 20 people standing up. They are waiting for the inspection of case 1830/2012, the Ventilla case.

Ventilla is an inhospitable area almost outside El Alto’s city limits, a place with strong winds and simple homes where it is strange to see a patrol car make the rounds. There, on May 25 of last year, they lynched police sergeant Rolando David Guarachi Javier, 33 years old. They tied him up and hit him until he was destroyed.

In the case file, various photographs show the marks of barbed wire on Guarachi’s neck. According to Sandra Paredes, one of the attorney’s assistants, the attackers ‘had no evidence’. As if it mattered, the residents accused the officer of being a thief, but the only thing they could prove was that he mistakenly entered a school. Looking bored, the attorney Edgar Alarcon calls the accused, their lawyers, the other attorneys, the witnesses.

“Huanca de Vera”

“Mamani Condori”

“Eduardo Guzman”

“Huanca Mamani”

“Gonzalo Valencia”

“Jorge Aruquipa Nina”

“Demetrio Mamani”

“The public defender isn’t here. We will proceed to suspend,” he says.

“Can you penalize the lawyers who aren’t here? They penalize me every time I don’t make it to work,” says one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, “We’ve been doing this for more than a year now.”

“I can’t penalize them,” says the attorney.

It is the ninth time the inspection has been postponed.

In 2012, of the 405 crimes registered at El Alto’s Homicide Division just 26 have been solved. Among the two attorneys in charge of bloody crimes, they manage some 1500 notebooks. Some hide mysteries that haven’t been solved in 10 years.

Among them, various are related to lynchings. Sentences are scarce. Sometimes they don’t even go into effect, as happened recently in Ayo Ayo, a small town in the La Paz department where they lynched the mayor in 2004. The (legal) process surrounding the events in Ayo Ayo lasted eight years. Up until now, according to the Public Defender’s office, not one of the 14 people sentenced has been locked up.

According to the radio host Norma Barrancos, the problem with the residents is that they don’t trust the police. “They haul off criminals but later they let them go and people get mad. That’s why they lynch people.”

(She says it) like that, as if the simplicity didn’t kill her: ‘That’s why.’

bolivia-lynching721Photo: Alex Ayala Ugarte. Anfibia.

According to Anibal Rivas, the lieutenant colonel who runs Radio Patrol, the emergency services agency in El Alto, all efforts are not enough. He has just received an unusual donation of 16 new vehicles and says it is clear he must get them on the streets soon because the most important thing here, he says, is “to show the flag”.

He also says that, little by little, he’s making friends with the neighborhood presidentes.

“I explain to them how things are, but I always speak to them in simple terms so they understand me.”

Thanks to this, according to him, the number of lynchings has dropped. It may also have to do with the implementation of ‘Plan Chachapuma’, a coordinated mission of all the police groups along with Radio Patrol to stop crime and prevent minor infractions that, according to higher ups, has reduced crime rates by 60 percent.

Vladimir Morales, however, doesn’t speak about figures, but about the cold. “In El Alto, even the dogs wear scarves,” he jokes.

Vladimir is the supervisor Anibal designated to head up the patrols. He’s also an encyclopedia of crime. While his patrol car advances, he explains what one can’t intuit, showing the invisible lines of the metropolis.

“And this other zone is 12 de Octubre,” he says later.

In 12 de Octubre, red and purple lights predominate. It is no secret this place is a huge brothel, surely Bolivia’s largest.

“A lot of the girls who work here are only 13, 14 years old,” says Vladimir.

In 2007, thousands of residents participated in burning the houses where certain clandestine brothels were operating. They also burned much of the furniture. They complained of robberies, of murders, of the impunity with which the crooks had taken control of the avenues. The bonfires invaded the sidewalks for a couple of days and newspapers printed two-word headlines to sum up the chaos that threatened to sweep away the metropolis: “El Alto’s Rage”, went the headlines.

Vladimir’s last stop is in the middle of a solitary highway where one is surprised to see the burning skeleton of a minivan. Above the flames, an effigy, blurry from the smoke, hangs from a lamp post.

“Here there was an attempted lynching,” he says.

The residents have converted the vehicle into a garbage dump and come by every once in a while to burn trash inside it. They try to keep the fire burning all the time. They think possibly the best way to keep thieves away is to feed their fear.

bolivia-lynching921Photo: Alex Ayala Ugarte. Anfibia.

On Mother’s Day, when they lynched Edson, he had argued with his wife. He hadn’t paid his rent for two months and he had just lost a job opportunity to work as a private security guard at the ‘Gran Poder’, the most important local saint’s festival of the year.

After the fight, he left home without a destination. He felt obligated to return home with money and a gift for the mother of his daughters.

At 10:00, he entered Puerto Camacho, a neighborhood half an hour from El Alto’s downtown. He located what seemed to him the most thriving business in a 500 meter radius, a pharmacy selling all kinds of medicines. He asked for the owner, Ramon Quino, a biochemist who had been in the area for a few short months. He introduced himself as a tax officer and asked for his income records. He looked them over and gave his verdict:

“The irregularities warrant a fine. You owe 4500 Bolivian pesos ($640) in taxes, but if you pay now, I’ll only charge you 450 ($64),” he proposed.

Quino paid, but immediately went out to look for an accountant. The man told him his papers were in order. Later, he went to the government tax office, where he confirmed the worst of his suspicions: There was no Edson in their list of employees. He had been cheated.

Returning to the pharmacy, (Quino) recognized Edson at a nearby dentist’s office and ran after him.

“You’re not a tax agent. You’ve never worked there.”

“What? I worked there. They gave you false information,” Edson answered. “Show me your credentials then.”

Edson looked through his pockets and then tried to flee. Quino trapped him and some of the residents helped him take Edson to the square in Puerto Camacho.

Like many zones in El Alto, Puerto Camacho’s central square dark is an ochre field of dirt. That 27th of May, around 150 men and women, many of them young and some curious people from other neighborhoods, covered Edson’s face with own shirt and started to beat him. In the next four hours, Edson lost consciousness several times. He couldn’t see anything. He heard someone say: “We have to burn this guy.” Later, he smelled the gas.

Jorge Derpic and Alex Ayala