Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Reassessing community justice

Above the rocky outcrops and mountains of La Paz is another bustling and sprawling city by the name of El Alto, which seeps into the orange-bricked buildings that cling to the walls of La Paz like ivy.

El Alto is a relatively new city, born out of the rapid industrialisation and agricultural decline of this land-locked South American country. These factors have caused so many people to migrate from el campo to the city that today, El Alto is the city with the highest proportion of indigenous inhabitants anywhere in Latin America. It is a vibrant place and a cultural, political hub. However, from information services outside of Bolivia, for most readers El Alto is (in)famous for only two things: firstly, that it is the fastest growing urban centre in Bolivia, and secondly, it is known for its brutal version of community justice.

‘Justico communitario’ is a violent form of justice that, it should be said, is unlikely unique to Bolivian culture. In essence it is the practice in which, on catching a suspected thief, murderer, or rapist, the community will brutally beat, stone and sometimes hang the suspected perpetrator to act as a warning for future criminals.

In Western publications, this just about encapsulates the description and consideration of this practice. It is portrayed as either a judicial/state failure, wherein the community steps into the role of law enforcer, as in the Economist [1], or more worryingly, as something rooted in indigenous cultures. For instance, the Daily Mail, in an article from 2010, ran with ‘Justice Bolivian style: Thieves will have hands cut off and rapists will be castrated under controversial new justice system’, adding in the main body that the ‘brutal’ sentence ‘had been approved by the area’s indigenous community “as it’s the only way to stop those crimes”’ [2]. The Guardian, whilst an ostensibly balanced article, labelled the practice simply ‘indigenous justice’ and stated that, whilst ‘such vigilantism is normally a spontaneous response to high levels of crime… an Aymara leader in El Alto is now calling for harsh punishments to be meted under the auspices of community justice laws enshrined in President Evo Morales's 2009 constitution’ [3].

Such articles have the effect of alighting a violence practice with a whole culture. Consequently, relying on current English sources, the Western tourist or volunteer is left with more than a bleak image of El Alto and indigenous peoples. In even the most balanced articles, such as one authored by the BBC in 2008, this violence is linked to indigenous culture [4]. Whether intended or not, this has the effect of skewing the image of the indigenous people who make up the vast majority of this city, before would-be visitors even arrive. This is greatly a result of these articles lacking any depth. What they lack is any cultural, historical and social understanding. Thus, with this, what I hope to offer in the rest of this article is a deeper analysis and – in a sense – provide a reinterpretation of this issue, to challenge that perception of barbarity and backwardness that I, and I’m sure many Western visitors in the past, may have when they hear the story and see the hanging effigies which have come to symbolise this phenomena.

A question one may feel compelled to ask is: why El Alto and why this community? As it is the case that these crimes are perpetrated by indigenous (largely Aymaran) communities, one may question whether this is a cultural phenomenon borne out of some corrupt moral code that pre-determines these people to violence.

The short answer to this question is no. Aymaran culture is built around the moral code of the ‘Ayllu’ – a verbal, non-written set of laws. The three most important of these are: ‘Ama Sua’ (don’t be a thief), ‘Ama Llulla’ (don’t be a liar), and ‘Ama Quella’ (don’t be idle). These lie at the moral centre of community justice. However, the violence that characterises modern community justice does not describe the totality of the Ayllu. On talking to Bolivians you will discover that in rural areas Justico communitario is a far cry from the violence that typifies justice in El Alto. In smaller indigenous areas, community justice means reciprocity, cooperation and even-handedness. If, for example, an individual steals from another, the community would come together to make sure that the perpetrator pays back the individual or does work for them in exchange. The justice here is truly communitarian. This is not to say there is no violence; horrific cases of community justice can be found across Bolivia. However, it is a last recourse.

Whilst the indigenous people of El Alto are certainly the perpetrators of community justice, they cannot be held solely responsible for the existence of this practice. Community justice is as much the result of the city itself as is its people – if not more so. In the midst of the crowded, competitive streets of El Alto the Aymarn moral code has been stretched and contorted to exist in a place it was never meant to be. The city has corrupted the Ayllu and its people. Neo-liberalism, globalisation and state failure have changed the way of life of these people and drawn them from the el campo to la ciudad. The city and the competition of modern life have corroded Andean and individual identities, and in doing so it has also altered the practice of community justice. It has forced an epistemic alteration in many an Aymaran’s mind for the worse - corrupting a culture. Community justice is yet another unwanted offspring of neo-liberalism, capitalism, globalisation and state failure. This is in addition to the failures of state justice in indigenous communities; the factor that Western articles almost singularly focus on.

However, just blaming social structures and the modern industrial age does not make this form of justice go away - and it definitely does not excuse the practice. Community justice has many supporters and continues to be a politically sensitive issue. There are still those in political circles within indigenous communities who argue in favour of the practice. One shouldn’t fall into the trap of the moral relativists and allow this practice to continue on the grounds that we will never be able to fully understand this culture. Equally, the Bolivian state should not pander to the wills and beliefs of its citizens – however strong and culturally important they may now be for some in indigenous communities. When faced with murder and grievous bodily harm, moral relativity does not stand up. However cultural, however strong the public belief in El Alto in favour of community retribution, stoning, beating or hanging a thief, murderer or rapist is not just – wherever it may occur in the world; be it in the calles of El Alto or the streets of London.

Nevertheless, the story of community justice is not all negative. The culture clash between the rural and urban has created something new, and almost unique to this city. El Alto and its community are strong, organised and politically powerful. In the tragic gas and water wars of 2001 and 2003, the community of El Alto (not La Paz) were the ones who led the rebellion and successfully took back the rights that had been seized from them. In this sense, El Alto and its indigenous inhabitants should not be judged on its infamous form of justice. There are many positives to the urban Andean identity. In fact, within community justice itself is a positive to behold: the power of community. Whilst globalisation, industrialisation and state failures of justice have helped to create this cruel custom, these factors have also aided the politicisation of a people and borne greater opportunities for social organisation and unity in opposition to the harmful social elements that these factors have simultaneously had a hand in creating.

Bolivia is a state that shouldn’t be a state. Over hundreds of years and many a brutal campaign, a plethora of very distinct identities and cultures have been pushed together and patterned into a country. Whilst the government today now recognises these separate nations (and it is a great leap forward for the recognition of indigenous identities and self-realisation) the government has been unable to fully reconcile these tensions. The community justice that exists in El Alto, and the subsequent debate around it, is a microcosm of the tension between these two identities: the state, on the one hand, and indigenous identities on the other. The future of El Alto and the new indigenous identities across Bolivia lies in weeding out the violence, reintegrating the state into these communities, whilst harnessing the social and community power of these people. In the West we may reel back and look down upon community justice, but in fact El Alto and indigenous culture has something that Britain and many European states lack: community and community power.

Within the horror of El Alto’s community justice is a seed of hope and the potential power for social change, which I for one would like to see more of in the communities of Britain. 

By George Richards


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