Glimpsed for the first time from the window of a speeding taxi, the mind and body have a visceral reaction to seeing someone hoisted on a lamppost, swinging in the wind, a rope around their neck.
It immediately recalls all those childhood tales of highwaymen in eighteenth century Britain with their “your money or your life” demands, who once caught would be hung on the roadsides as a warning to others.
This is twenty-first century Bolivia and thankfully it was just an unnerving trick of the mind. What looked like a real person turned out to be an effigy, mock-lynched and hung as a warning to would-be criminals. They can be seen all over Bolivia, and are a symptom of a lack of faith in a police force generally considered to be unable to police communities because they are either under-resourced or, worse, corrupt and in league with the criminals.
Hanging mock effigies of thieves and other criminals is common throughout many neighbourhoods as a warning of the summary justice that will be dispensed by the community against malefactors. Media reports suggest this type of mob ‘justice’ is alive-and-well in Bolivia, driven by a perception that violent criminality is on the rise and that the legal system is too inefficient or corrupt to provide justice for victims of crime. (See this article from the Bolivia Diary blog Murders in El Alto spark Debate on Bolivian justice system).
This lack of faith in the State to provide justice is well founded. A friend here in Sucre has been attempting to get justice in the courts for four years, and despite favourable rulings in two lower courts is still engaged in a legal battle that seems never-ending and has cost an unbelievable amount of money and caused untold stress.
Quite often the effigies come with a placard hung around their neck with an explicit and very real warning written on it about the fate of would be criminals at the hands of community vigilantes. These are frequently gruesome, threatening criminals with being burned alive, and are not to be taken lightly.
As with crime everywhere, in Bolivia the majority of crime is perpetuated within poorer communities. The victims of crime frequently have the least to steal but the most to lose. A street vendor who survives by making just enough to feed their family each-and-every day but who falls victim to a thief essentially becomes incapable of feeding their family. In a hand-to-mouth world, the knock-on effect can be utterly disastrous.
It brings to mind the Ryszard Kapuściński story in his brilliant collection of African short-stories In the Shadow of the Sun; he comes across a woman who is inconsolable, the cooking pot she depended upon to cook food that she would sell on the street has been stolen. For the poorest in society, life is sometimes only one cooking pot away from disaster.
Junta Vecinal means neighborhood committee, a sort of violent neighbourhood watch, and shows just how organised communities are in defence of their property and possessions. For a more academic take on the phenomenon of Bolivian lynch-mob justice see this article on the Public Culture website Twenty Hanging Dolls and a Lynching: Defacing Dangerousness and Enacting Citizenship in El Alto, Bolivia