- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

AYO AYO, Bolivia — Fed up with corrupt and unresponsive government institutions, the Aymara people of Bolivia’s 13,000-foot-high Altiplano plain are increasingly taking justice into their own hands with actions like the lynching of this town’s unpopular mayor.

At various times in recent years, Aymara peasants have expelled police, judges and prosecutors from Altiplano towns, where there are rumors that locals have formed armed militias. Some peasant leaders are demanding self-rule for the Aymara, who make up about 25 percent of Bolivia’s population.

But there has been no more striking rejection of government authority than the lynching of Benjamin Altamirano, the mayor of Ayo Ayo, a poor rural municipality located an hour’s drive southwest of La Paz.

Before dawn on June 15, Mr. Altamirano was hanged from a lamppost in the town’s main plaza and set ablaze. An autopsy indicated he had already been beaten to death.

Authorities have arrested at least 10 suspects, but it is hard to find anyone who will express much remorse for the deceased mayor. Many locals say they approve of the killing.

“Mr. Altamirano was corrupt, just like the rest of the politicians,” said Emilio Mamani, a 59-year-old tailor. “We told him if he didn’t keep his promises, we would take more drastic measures. We told him very clearly. But he wouldn’t listen.”

The lynching was not the first in the Altiplano — it came less than two months after Aymara residents of a small town in Peru lynched a mayor also accused of corruption. And it won’t be the last, warn local peasant leaders.

Residents of Ayo Ayo defend the killing of Mr. Altamirano as the rightful exercise of what they call communal justice, a homegrown legal system that has been practiced semiclandestinely in the region since the time of the Incas. Critics, on the other hand, say the killing amounts to little more than a flare-up of primitive savagery.

What is certain is that less than a year after thousands of poor Aymara peasants and urban slum dwellers staged massive road-blocking protests that drove Bolivia’s president from power, the harsh Altiplano remains a redoubt of fierce anti-government defiance.

“We Aymara carry rebellion in our blood,” said Ramon Copa, who heads Ayo Ayo’s peasant organization. “This country, Bolivia, is totally corrupt, not just the mayor. All of them should be finished in the same way — if not burned, then drowned, or strangled, or pulled apart by four tractors. … It’s the only way they’re going to learn.”

Ayo Ayo is the birthplace of Tupaj Katari, a legendary warrior who led an uprising of thousands of Aymara peasants against Spanish colonial authorities in 1781. The lamppost from which Mr. Altamirano was hanged stands in the shadow of a towering bronze statue of Katari.

People in Ayo Ayo began demanding Mr. Altamirano’s resignation after he was accused of embezzlement in 2002.

A group of locals held him captive until he promised to resign, and the following year, they burned down his house. But Mr. Altamirano, himself an Aymara, refused to step down. As a two-year legal battle dragged on with no resolution in sight, residents opposed to Mr. Altamirano lost their patience.

“We would have been satisfied if Benjamin had admitted he had made mistakes, or if he had proposed a punishment for himself, or if the authorities had fined him,” said Mr. Copa. “But none of this happened. … What else could we do?”

Communal justice is still practiced in rural communities, where it is usually employed to resolve mundane issues such as compensating a peasant whose crops have been destroyed by a neighbor’s cow.

Physical punishment is rare, and is usually limited to a public lashing. The death penalty is handed down only in extreme cases when the entire community decides there is no alternative.

“Now compare this with the state justice system,” said Marcelo Fernandez, an Aymara sociologist.

“You have to hire lawyers, you have to leave your home to fight in the courts, and maybe spend years and years to obtain a favorable ruling, and probably only after you’ve bribed judges. If you don’t have money, you don’t have access to justice.”

According to Roberto Barbery, the Cabinet minister who oversees the nation’s municipal governments, Mr. Altamirano’s death was “not communal justice at all,” but the result of a power struggle between rival politicians seeking control over the municipal coffers.

“No amount of neglect or errors on the part of the government can justify tribal attitudes such as these,” Mr. Barbery said.

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