Response to Human Rights report on Bolivia

world | Feb 01, 2008 | By Daniel M. Goldstein

The Human Rights Foundation’s report on community justice (justicia comunitaria) in Bolivia (“Country Report: Bolivia 2007”) criticizes the Evo Morales administration and the proposed Bolivian Constitution for their willingness to accord legitimacy to what the HRF terms the “barbaric” practices of communal self-adjudication. The report accuses the Constituent Assembly and the Morales government of “enshrining mob rule” by including support for community justice in the new Constitution, approved by the Assembly in late 2007.

The report contains a basic error that invalidates its conclusions: The HRF report mistakes lynching and other forms of vigilante violence for community justice.

Though the report refers anecdotally to punishments of adulterers and others accused of violating local norms, the cases which it actually documents are all instances of lynching, in which an accused thief is apprehended and violently punished by an angry mob. Such events are not a product of the MAS’s rise to power, but have been frequent occurrences in Bolivia since at least 1995, when I began studying them in Cochabamba. Nor are lynchings examples of community justice. In its traditional form in indigenous Andean villages, community justice emphasizes reconciliation and rehabilitation. Rather than violent torture and execution, community justice promotes the “reeducation” of community members who violate collective norms and rules, and the reincorporation of these offenders back into the community. Typically, the last resort for this kind of community justice would be to exile offenders, prohibiting their return to the community where their family, lands, and all other signs of their social existence are located. Such punishment has a powerful deterrent effect on would-be criminals, such that extreme forms of violent punishment are rarely required. Punishments under this system are not decided upon in anger, but are the result of a deliberative process in which elected elders of the community participate and pronounce judgment.

Unlike community justice, lynching is indeed an example of “mob rule,” as the HRF report observes. Lynchings like those described in the report – from Ayo Ayo to El Alto to the Cochabamba valley – obey no form of adjudicative process, but proceed from the rage and vulnerability that poor, indigenous people feel in the face of almost continual and uncontrolled crime in their communities. Unable to rely on the state justice system or the national police – which are underfunded, understaffed, and inaccessible to the majority of poor and marginal people – community residents resort to violence as the only possible means that they can imagine to control crime and punish the accused. Lynch mobs frequently misidentify the perpetrators of crimes, and end up punishing the innocent. The human rights violations of such practices are evident to even the most casual observer.

Lynchings of the kind cited in the HRF report are a far cry from the justicia comunitaria that has long existed in the Andean countryside, and which the Constituent Assembly would enshrine in the new national Constitution. Indeed, to say that lynching is a form of community justice (as the HRF does) is to side with the lynch mobs themselves, who frequently try to justify their actions by claiming that lynching is a form of community justice, when clearly it is not. Lynching has much more in common with capital punishment and other “barbaric” practices of the Global North – Bolivia, like most Latin American nations, does not have a death penalty on its books – than it does with Andean community justice.

The HRF report recommends that the “ordinary justice” system of the state t

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