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‘We have to kill them, they can’t come here’: The lynching tragedies in Bolivia

Four people have died in recent days from collective attacks. Many acts of vigilante justice go unpunished

Members of the Prosecutor's Office inspect the vehicle where three people accused of robbery and kidnapping were lynched in Ivirgarzama (Bolivia)
Members of the Prosecutor's Office inspect the vehicle where three people accused of robbery and kidnapping were lynched in Ivirgarzama (Bolivia), on May 8.FGE

Three half-naked men are tied to the thick palm trees in the main square of Ivirgarzama, a town of 30,000 inhabitants located in Chapare, one of the coca plantation areas of Bolivia. A crowd of men and women are beating and insulting them. They have been blamed for the kidnappings of children that have affected this region for a long time. Dozens of people watch from the balconies of the houses that surround the square.

The police do show up at the scene, having been reduced inside their own precinct hours earlier by the mob that took the suspects out of jail and beat them all the way to the square, forcing them to walk some of the distance on their knees. After hours of torture, one of the men is doused with gasoline and burned alive. The other two are taken to the outskirts of the town and beaten to death. The crowd disperses. A new lynching has taken place in Bolivia.

The victims had police records. On May 8, they tried to steal the truck that a couple was offering for sale on one of the town’s streets. They tied up the owners, apparently posing as police officers, and left them lying on the ground. Since they were unable to escape with the truck, they tried to seize another vehicle. They were discovered by neighbors, who managed to detain them and take them to the Ivirgarzama police quarters, where they were locked up. A police officer, surrounded by civilians, began to search the trunk of the car in which the alleged thieves had arrived in town. He found a white lab coat: apparently one of them was studying medicine. The officer also found school notebooks. At that moment, the people around him decided that the detainees were the perpetrators of the child abductions that have disrupted Chapare in recent months.

Thanks to the coca leaf, Chapare, where former president Evo Morales became a union leader, is one of the richest rural areas in the country, but also the one with the fewest police officers, only about 25, even though it has a population of 393,000 people. The reasons for this absence are, in part, political. The governments of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) have withdrawn the police from this region that produces the raw materials for drug trafficking, to allow its community to self-regulate. Although this does not include other crimes besides drug trafficking, this occurs anyway outside the law.

In a video seen on social media where individuals inspect the suspicious car, a woman exclaims: “We have to kill them, they can’t come here.” This is how the lynching began. Other videos, recorded by the participants themselves, show dozens of men inside the police module, kicking and punching the detainees out, before the passive gaze of the few police officers who work there.

The incident was condemned by the government, which sent prosecutors to investigate it. After their visit, the prosecutors said a “pact of silence” prevented them from finding anyone to accuse, even though numerous videos and photographs could allow them to identify many of those who claimed the right to execute the alleged criminals.

Almost 200 cases in seven years

Lynching is a frequent practice in Bolivia, both due to the weakness of security institutions and the collectivist culture of the population. A study counted 193 cases and 373 victims between 2005 and 2011. The custom is maintained even on the outskirts of large cities such as La Paz and Potosí, where immigrants from the countryside have settled. In these neighborhoods, rag dolls hanging from light poles warn outsiders that the death penalty applies. Most of the victims of vigilante attacks are outsiders.

These days the film Tribus, by director Gory Patiño, is about to be released. The film brings to the screen journalist Roberto Navia’s chronicle of a lynching that occurred on July 2, 2013, also in Ivirgarzama. A robbery suspect was burned alive and other members of his family were beaten and narrowly survived. So far, there have been no sanctions against the perpetrators. Navia remembers other cases in which there were detainees and this caused political problems, because the communities involved protested and demanded the freedom of their countrymen.

On May 13, just five days after the Ivirgarzama tragedy, another lynching took place not far from there, in Tolata, also in the Cochabamba region, in the center of the country. A crowd caught two thieves, killed one and left another seriously injured. Authorities also promised that they would investigate.

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