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Vigilantes Control Law In Much Of Bolivia

by Franz Chavez

Argentina On Brink Of Anarchy As Vigilantes Grow (2003)

(IPS) -- Lynch mobs taking justice into their own hands have become common in Bolivia, leading to questions about why home-grown justice is taking such a violent turn.

The areas where lynch mobs form often lack permanent police services, or the locals complain that prosecutors or judges set suspected criminals free without punishment.

In a poor neighborhood 16 kilometers from the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, 18-year-old Jorge Bravo Galarza was beaten, tied up, doused with diesel fuel and burned to death by an enraged crowd in late November. He and his two companions, who survived with severe burns after they were rescued by the police, were accused of trying to rob a taxi driver.

This year, the police registered five cases of lynching of suspected criminals in and around Cochabamba, and several violent incidents of "mob justice" have also occurred in the cities of La Paz and Santa Cruz.

The Bolivian justice system has attempted to curb the phenomenon, with limited success, by prosecuting the perpetrators. The crime of lynching is punishable by prison in Bolivia, where the maximum sentence is 30 years and capital punishment does not exist.

"This practice is becoming just another routine news item and it cannot be tolerated any longer," said Bolivian President Eduardo Rodriguez in response to Bravo Galarza's murder.

Rodriguez, a former Supreme Court chief justice, said the judicial system is not living up to the expectations of the public.

Acknowledging the shortcomings of the justice system, he noted that about 200 of the country's 328 municipalities have no prosecutors or judges. "That is why it is not surprising that when there is a problem, the citizens use sticks or flames to take justice into their own hands," he said.

Sacha Llorente, former president of the Permanent Human Rights Assembly of Bolivia (APDHB), told IPS that lynching is a symptom of "a structural lack of confidence" in the country's institutions on the part of the public, given the judicial system's failure to bring criminals to justice.

Llorenty said the severe problems with the work of the police and prosecutors, the administration of justice, and the prison system have contributed to the increased number of lynchings seen in the past seven years.

The APDHB, which has received reports of murders by lynch mobs, has pushed for clarification of the cases in court, in keeping with its condemnation of violence and the death penalty, said the activist.

According to Rebeca Delgado, former ombudswoman for the city of Cochabamba, "vigilante justice has become a serious form of injustice that undermines the most basic principles of respect for human dignity."

The aggressors inflict extreme cruelty on their victims by hanging them, beating them, hammering their fingers, whipping them with belts, setting them on fire or chopping off parts of their body, said Delgado, a lawyer.

She recalled an "aberrant incident" in February 2002 in which residents of a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the central Bolivian city of Santa Cruz beat and hung pickpockets. Journalists filmed the lynching, and the images were repeatedly aired on television.

Delgado said the only way to overcome Bolivia's "history of impunity" is by prosecuting and sentencing specific individuals involved in these "collective murders," in order to restore the public's confidence in the administration of justice.

Willian Villca almost lost his life to a lynch mob that mistook him for a thief.

Villca was seized one day in July in a neighborhood outside of Cochabamba, where he was on a visit to sell handmade costumes he had designed. For a full hour he begged for his life and tried to explain to his captors, who were preparing to burn him, that they had the wrong man and that he was a teacher from La Paz.

Today he is recovering from severe burn wounds on 70 percent of his body, unable to return to his teaching job or to designing costumes. He lies in bed in his mother's home in the city of La Paz, his arms bandaged and immobile and his disfigured face covered with a ski mask.

Last week, the police and prosecutor's office reconstructed the incident in order to prosecute the perpetrators. So far, only two suspects have been arrested and are in prison awaiting trial.

Julio Mallea, the director of the community justice office in the University Mayor de San Andres, said he does not believe the violent incidents arise from traditional indigenous forms of justice, as some have asserted.

Mallea explained to IPS that community justice forms part of a legal tradition that is passed orally from generation to generation, and is based on the moral and religious values of Andean indigenous communities.

According to these customs, the trial is public, guarantees the accused person's right to a defense, and is preceded by a religious ceremony in which the gods are called on to ensure that justice is properly administered, said the lawyer.

The aim is to achieve the reinsertion of the accused person in society, and the most severe punishment meted out is a beating with a stick, with the number of blows depending on the gravity of the crime. Repeat offenders are exiled from the community.

The death penalty does not form part of the traditional indigenous system of punishment, he stressed.

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Albion Monitor December 7, 2005 (

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