With almost a half of Bolivian territory completely out of police control, citizens resort to delivering their own controversial justice. As a warning from lynch mobs to criminals, rag dolls in faded clothes hang limply by the neck from telegraph poles.
The presence of the ragdolls is flagrantly unnecessary when they
are accompanied, for example, by the charred remains of a
burnt-out van; recent evidence of a scene at which four people
were almost burnt to death by neighbors who suspected them of
conducting a burglary.
“They put up such rag dolls in all La Paz districts. You may mistake them for scarecrows but in fact they are a warning to criminals saying that lynching is being practiced here,” an anonymous shop owner who had been burgled told RT Spanish – too scared to publically identify herself. She had been warned not to submit the names of those who attacked the burglary suspects.
However, when unaccompanied by clear evidence of the deadly vigilante mobs, the dolls serve as a warning to potential criminals in the area that they will meet a sticky end outside the hands of the law.
In the first half of 2013, Bolivia’s Office of the Ombudsman reported the deaths of ten people from such lynchings. The practice is most common in rural and deprived areas of Bolivia where police and local authorities do not wield much influence through their scarcity.
“Citizens of La Paz no longer believe in the police and have chosen to deliver their own justice. That is why they put up the rag dolls, they are a warning. They hope to keep the thieves and criminals in line this way,” said RT’s Bricio Segovia from Bolivia’s capital de facto, La Paz.
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bolivia, police don’t wield any control over more than 47% of Bolivia’s districts.
“People are subject to violent inhumane behavior and torture. We have publicly condemned these acts on numerous occasions and have strongly advised the authorities to increase the efficiency of crime-solving,” Denis Racicot, a representative of the office, told RT Spanish.
Community justice in this extreme form isn’t just confined to La Paz. This July, in Cochabamba, central Bolivia, a 17 year old boy died on his way to hospital after he was set on fire by an angry mob following an attempted theft of a bicycle.
The office of Bolivia’s national Office of the Ombudsman labeled the vigilante action as “the joint action of a multitude blinded by rage, mistrust and uncontrolled irrationality.”
In June, two members of the indigenous Quechua community were tried for murder after being at the forefront of a mob that buried a 17 year old teenager alive, after he was accused of raping and killing a 35 year old woman.
The two boys ‘incited’ the 200-strong mob involved, who threw him into the victim’s grave, a local radio station reported at the time of the episode. Colquechaca is a small town of 5,000 inhabitants located only 333 kilometers southeast of La Paz.
Bolivia’s 2009 constitution permits indigenous justice and allots community leaders the capacity to administer punishments for minor social infractions in the county, as per the ancestral custom. However, punishments do not constitutionally include killings.
“Those who do these things justify themselves referring to the communal law that Bolivia’s Indians practiced for decades to punish their undeserving members outside of the official jurisdiction or public knowledge,” stated Segovia.
The problem may be symptomatic of broader social conflicts in the country. “The practice of power – in unions, municipalities or governments – is leading to situations in which the bulk of the population feels excluded,” Ombudsman, Rolando Villena, told a La Paz daily, Page Seven, towards the end of July.
“Culture clashes arise between urban and rural… all this is creating alarming situations which definitely are not solutions,” he said.
The custom was condemned by the Human Rights Foundation in 2008.
“Lynching is on the rise,” the organization commented at the time, noting 46 cases between November 2005 and mid-January 2008. “Often, individuals in these mobs cite “communal justice” to justify barbaric actions such as hanging, crucifixion, stoning, live burial, and burning,” said a statement from the organization.
However, Bolivia still has the second highest number of lynchings in Latin America to one other country: Guatemala.