First a mayor, then a man accused of stealing, were humiliated and punished publicly in two different towns in the northeast of Bolivia. Both of them had one leg put into stocks, a punishment that some deemed humiliating and others found justified. In a country where indigenous justice is recognised by law, was this punishment legal?
On the February 25, inhabitants of San José de Uchupiamonas, a locality in the Abel Iturralde province in the La Paz region of Bolivia, punished the mayor of San Buenaventura by putting his leg in some makeshift stocks. On the February 28, a man accused of stealing was punished in a similar fashion in San Buenaventura.
San José de Uchupiamonas, where about a hundred families live, is part of the municipality of San Buenaventura, which is about 50 kilometres away and has a population of roughly 8,000.
"In San José de Uchupiamonas, there aren’t any police, so it’s the only way to mete out justice"
Daniel Salvador lives in San Buenaventura. He was at San José de Uchupiamonas when the mayor was being punished.
Before the mayor turned up, the inhabitants had gathered together to talk about him. They were complaining about the fact that he had promised a sum of money to go towards different construction sites, but had never followed through on his promises. Locals also said that he didn’t meet with the local authorities of San José de Uchupiamonas as he was meant to: apparently, it wasn’t a priority for him to meet them. The locals decided that they would punish him by putting him in the stocks for an hour.
When the mayor arrived, the group of people told him that he had to spend an hour in the stocks, and that the planned meetings would take place afterwards. The mayor tried to protest, but didn’t have a choice. He was stuck for about 45 minutes with his leg in the stocks. Two people watched over him, but apart from that not many people stayed to look at him. People said that he deserved this punishment and that it was only fair. Then he was freed and was able to carry on with the meetings as normal.
The mayor of San Buenaventuras stayed for about 45 minutes in this position. Credit: Daniel Salvador - Radio Fides. Photo blurred by FRANCE 24.
In my opinion, it was a fairly light punishment. I think that it could be efficient, because if the mayor thinks that his image has been damaged, maybe he’ll behave differently in the future.
In San José de Uchupiamonas, there aren’t any police, so it’s the only way to mete out justice.
The stocks are used in villages that still have a lot of traditions. The punishment varies according to the seriousness of what the person has done: either one leg or both legs are put in the stocks, one arm or two, or even their neck.”
Salvador also was witness to the punishment inflicted on a man accused of stealing in San Buenaventura, three days later.
People grabbed him and took him directly to the stocks. There was no meeting beforehand, like in San José de Uchupiamonas. They put one hand in, then one of his legs. He stayed trapped like that for a long time, maybe two hours. Some people stayed to keep an eye on him – some people even wanted his neck to go in the stocks too. Then they took him to the police station.
I think that this man was taken to the stocks straight away, and not the police station, because the station is further away.
The man accused of stealing, with one hand stuck inside the stocks. Photo credit: RIO TV - Red Amazónica.
Then the man’s leg was placed in the stocks. Photo credit: RIO TV - Red Amazónica.
On social media, the majority of commenters thought that the punishments were justified.
Referring to the punishment of the mayor: “Very good news, we should do the same thing to all lying politicos…”
Referring to the man accused of stealing: “This is a good punishment for people who commit small crimes, because it always starts like that and then they become more dangerous…”
But some Internet users criticised this type of punishment.
"This is why Bolivia will never make progress!”
"This is barbaric; it’s the law that should judge people.”
So were these punishments legal or not?
A legal framework that recognises indigenous justice
First of all, it’s important to understand that indigenous justice is recognised in Bolivian law.
Since 2009, the Bolivian constitution has specified that indigenous law is equivalent to ordinary law, and that the “indigenous nations and peoples” can apply “their principles, cultural values, norms, and own procedures”.
What charges can be tried according to ‘indigenous justice’?
The jurisdictional delimitation law of 2010 sets out clearly which crimes and offences should not be tried under indigenous justice: corruption, fiscal offences, human trafficking, terrorism, attempts to undermine state security, rape, and homicide.
However, it’s vague when it comes to clarifying which offences should be tried under indigenous law, simply suggesting those “subjects or conflicts” that have “traditionally” been judged in this way.
What punishments are allowed?
The constitution stipulates that the “physical and psychological integrity” of individuals has to be respected and that “no one should be tortured or suffer inhumane, cruel, degrading or humiliating treatment”. The jurisdictional delimitation law says that “lynching is a human rights violation”. But it doesn’t specify which punishments are in fact allowed.
According to Gutierrez Martinez Alfredo, a Bolivian lawyer contacted by FRANCE 24, the punishments meted out to the mayor and the man accused of stealing were actually illegal, as they didn’t respect their physical or psychological integrity – and on top of that, their “right to legal defence wasn’t respected”.
Ariel Ramirez Martinez, another lawyer contacted by our journalists, doesn’t entirely agree with this interpretation. “Many indigenous communities exist in Bolivia, and there are any number of different punishments that can be decided upon, depending on the habits and customs of the society in question: they can go from physical punishment to simply taking away certain rights (like their right to farm or get water for irrigation), or even go so far as total expulsion from the community."
Our journalists also got in touch with a third lawyer, Marcelo Huber Garcia Monrroy, who said: “The use of stocks has nothing to do with indigenous customs – rather, it’s a method of torture that arrived at the time of the conquest [of the American continent] and was used in Europe at the time of the Inquisition. It’s a cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment, and so is against the law. I consider it illegal.”
The legitimacy of indigenous justice in question
But regardless of whether the punishments inflicted on these two men at the end of February were legal or not, the lawyers are divided on the topic of indigenous justice. “The objective is that the people who have committed crimes understand what they’ve done and are reformed. In the mayor’s case, from now on, he can clean up his act,” says Garcia Monrroy.
Garcia Monrroy and Ramirez Martinez both agree that there are places in Bolivia where normal law simply can’t be applied, because there aren’t any police or state organisations, and it’s also often “very slow and inefficient”. For them, indigenous justice is a way for communities to deal with situations of right or wrong, while also respecting the fundamental rights of the individuals concerned. “Ordinary justice is very formal, so it’s more suitable for people in the towns,” adds Garcia Monrroy.
But Martinez Alfredo judges indigenous justice more harshly. “These types of punishment, like using the stocks, represent a real step back for justice. It’s a return to the past, to when we applied the axiom of ‘an eye for an eye’. If we rely on these customs, we leave conflict resolution to the free will of indigenous authorities – so we’re essentially rolling back the rule of law. And in the past there was a lot of abuse and punishments that violated human rights.”
The use of stocks is not very common in Bolivia. But the country’s national media regularly report lynchings and even punishments involving lashings. For those who defend indigenous punishments and traditions, these more extreme practices are a far cry from real indigenous justice.
This article was written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).