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Bolivia sees rise in mob justice

19 April 08 01:34 GMT

By Andres Schipani
BBC News, Cochabamba

At the beginning of the year, Tony and his friend arrived at a birthday party in the Bolivian city of El Alto and realised they had come empty handed.

After greeting the host, they went to find a shop.

But as they came out of the house a girl who had just been the victim of an attempted robbery saw them, and alerted the neighbours.

"People started to point at us, they started to bang the doors yelling we were robbers," Tony told the BBC as he walked down the streets where he was attacked, his face still swollen from the beatings.

"All the other people around there woke up and were coming out of their homes with whatever they had at hand, like sticks,"

"They started to beat me insanely, with their hands, with rocks."

"They were out of control, not listening at all… we were yelling: 'you are confused, we are innocent, we are innocent, please', we begged a lot, even crying", Tony added.

Alternative justice

In El Alto, La Paz's destitute and neglected satellite city, people have had enough with the state's failure to provide security and an effective judicial system.

For them, vigilante justice seems to be the alternative.

Dummies with nooses around their necks hang from lamp posts, a grim warning to potential offenders.

After about 30 minutes, the police came to the rescue of Tony and his friend. Seriously injured, Tony was taken straight to hospital.

Doctors had to implant platinum to reconstruct his facial bones.

"I was very lucky because there are people - both guilty and innocent - who get caught up in this kind of confusion and who do not live to tell the tale," Tony said.

Lynch mob attacks appear to be on the rise throughout Bolivia . More than 40 cases have been reported since the beginning of the year, compared with some 57 for 2007.

The worrying rise in such violence has provoked a new debate over the lack of security and justice in the country - and even a widespread media campaign by Bolivia's ombudsman to try and stop the practice.

Bolivian President Evo Morales is planning to give the country's indigenous majority greater powers to decide how to punish criminals within their communities.

Officials say this will complement ordinary justice, which is slow and overloaded with cases, and alleviate the frustration they say causes mob violence like lynching.

'Not acceptable'

But Bolivia's first indigenous minister of justice, Celima Torrico, says confusion between mob justice and community justice seems to be driving people to acts of lynching.

"Lately, we have seen many, many lynchings and sometimes people associate this with community justice," Ms Torrico told the BBC at her office.

"But no, it cannot be acceptable for anyone to take justice into their own hands."

Community justice is a traditional form of justice deeply rooted among Andean indigenous groups.

For its supporters, it is a move toward using dialogue and community service work as a way for dealing with conflicts.

But practices vary and some communities may decide corporal punishment in the form of whipping should be used.

To its critics it gives a green light for violence and brutality against those suspected of offending community sensibilities.

"Taking justice into one's own hands is not recognised by our country's internal norms, nor in our constitution," said Ms Torrico.

"The misunderstanding is very worrying because lynching somebody is a crime, it is not justice, it is not a solution."

Lynchings do not just happen in El Alto but throughout Bolivia.

Recently in the central Cochabamba area, a violent mob descended on three policemen - who for reasons that remain unclear were dressed in civilian clothes - brutally beating them to death after somebody accused them of corruption.

"What justice and legality can you expect when we are increasingly surrounded by lynching cases here?" asks Margarita, the mother of one of the policemen, Walter Avila.

Sitting next to her, Walter's widow Mirna, dressed in mourning black, said tearfully that people would have had more pity for an animal.

"People don't get that community justice is not killing, murdering, torturing and killing people; what happened to my husband was not community justice, it was simply a brutal murder."

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