Bolivia's Burning Question: Who May Dispense Justice?

Bolivia - Map
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 2, 2008

EL ALTO, Bolivia -- Tattered dummies look down on this city from street poles in barren squares, like scarecrows for anyone with bad intentions.

The dummies are meant to warn would-be thieves that if they try to rob anyone here, they could be hanged. Or lashed to a pulp. Or set on fire. Or buried alive.

"If there are cases in which people are caught in the act, why can't we take justice into our own hands?" asked El¿as Gomes, a community leader in an El Alto neighborhood where two accused thieves were burned alive by an angry crowd of residents in November. "We want the people of the neighborhood to be the ones to judge the crimes. Beyond the question of whether lynchings are good or bad, we want to be the ones to judge."

Determining who gets to judge criminals is a matter of national debate in Bolivia, where a draft constitution that has already won preliminary approval would make punishments doled out by indigenous leaders and tribal communities as legitimate as sentences handed down by the country's courts.

The proposal has invigorated communities such as this, where many residents maintain strong links to Aymara and Quechua indigenous traditions and few trust what they call the "ordinary justice" system of police, judges and courtrooms. But the prospect of communal justice, as the practice is known, terrifies others, who consider the idea a step toward mob rule.

The definition of communal justice remains open to interpretation, even among populations that have imposed it for centuries without legal recognition. This much everyone agrees on: The decisions are made swiftly, and they mostly involve corporal punishment, such as whipping. Other typical penalties include lynching and shearing the hair of a woman who has been deemed unfaithful to her husband.

Groups of tribal elders usually hand down the rulings. Among Aymara Indians, for example, the decisions are customarily made by "ayllus," the same governing councils that play a role in community decision-making.

Officials here say that Bolivians who identify themselves as indigenous -- a majority of the country's population -- deserve alternatives to government institutions that they believe are discriminatory, corrupt and out of touch with their traditional cultures.

Valent¿n Ticona Colque, a vice minister in charge of communal justice in President Evo Morales's government, said such justice is less likely to be corrupt because it is administered by active members of the communities themselves, not by state-supported judges.

"When the community is involved and vigilant, it's difficult to corrupt the system -- almost impossible, in fact," he said.

According to one article of the draft constitution, decisions made under the communal justice system would be immune from challenge by any outside judicial system. The constitution does not spell out how justice should be dispensed but states that indigenous and campesino, or peasant, authorities "will apply their own principles, cultural values, norms and procedures."

Morales's allies approved the charter in a constitutional assembly late last year, but some opposition groups boycotted the gathering. The draft must now be ratified by a popular vote. It is still unclear when that vote might take place.

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