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ECUADOR: Harsh Indigenous Justice Sparks Debate

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, May 26 2010 (IPS) - Naked and carrying a heavy bag of rocks, a young man stumbled several laps around a plaza filled by some 2,000 indigenous Ecuadoreans, who shouted insults and called him “murderer” and “traitor.”

Orlando Quishpe, 22, was then tied to a post where he was repeatedly doused with cold water while women whipped him with thorny branches.

That was immediately followed by the 20 presidents of the indigenous communities gathered there each taking a leather strap and flogging the young man’s back.

Bleeding and faint, Quishpe was taken from the site by his mother, María Josefina Ante, and by leaders of his home community of Guantopolo. There, as decided by the local assembly, he is to perform five years of community service and may not leave the area during that time.

The punishment took place Sunday, May 23, in La Cocha, an indigenous village situated on a highland plateau 3,500 metres above sea level in the Pujilí district, 90 kilometres south of Quito.

It was broadcast in all its gory detail on all of Ecuador’s television networks that night, and made the front page of all newspapers on Monday.

“The debate goes far beyond what the communications media, in their eagerness to turn it into a spectacle, have presented to the public,” attorney Norman Wray, who served as a member of the constituent assembly of Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, told IPS.

Neither physical punishment nor the death penalty are included in Ecuador’s legislation, but the constitution does allow indigenous communities to impart their own justice under their customary laws, as long as they do not violate national human rights laws.

Quishpe’s sentence is penance for the May 9 murder of Marco Antonio Olivo, also in his twenties, and a resident of La Cocha. Quishpe confessed to the crime, with details recorded in a video, after being accused by three young men who were allegedly his accomplices.

However, as he was subjected to the gruelling public punishment, he shouted, “I haven’t killed anyone!”

Quishpe will have to pay 1,750 dollars to the victim’s mother, María Luisa Pallo, 64, who was present for the public punishment and shouted insults at the man she believes killed her son.

A week earlier, the same La Cocha crowd had doused, lashed and whipped five other young men from Guantopolo thought to be accomplices in the murder. They were released, but are required to pay 1,000 dollars each to the La Cocha community.

In this country of 15 million people, according to the 2001 census, more than eight percent self-identified as indigenous. If the mother tongue spoken by the respondents is used as the determining trait, the indigenous population reaches 14 percent.

In a column published in Hoy (Today) newspaper, titled “Double Justice,” psychologist Rodrigo Tenorio accused the constituent assembly of “facile snobbery in assuming it would have the indigenous groups under its control if it granted them everything, including their own justice system.”

In his conversation with IPS, however, constituent member Wray said that what the constitution does is respect the indigenous rights consecrated since 1989 in Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation.

But Wray noted that the “very clear limits” on indigenous justice are the human rights established by the nation’s constitution and its adherence to international conventions.

In his column, Tenorio, in a tone shared by other editorial writers, stated, “It is time for Congress and other government bodies to undo these knots if we want to prevent chaos from descending upon the country.”

“Juridical pluralism, through which two ways of applying justice coexist, is a huge challenge for Ecuador,” said Wray, acknowledging that the Quishpe case demonstrates the need for written standards and clear procedures.

“If there is conflict between the regulations, we should be capable of establishing — through an intercultural dialogue — the minimums and maximums of the application of indigenous justice,” the attorney said.

Ecuador’s criminal law “does not comprehend the efforts of the indigenous communities to reinsert the convicts back in community life. A cold-water dousing or lashing is better than sending them to prison for four years, where there is no rehabilitation effort and the delinquent is isolated from his social context,” Wray said.

Sociologist Luciano Martínez, professor at the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO) and expert in rural issues, believes the incident reflects a matter that goes deeper in the native communities.

“There is a clear deterioration of communal organisation, because the young people do not feel represented by traditional practices. They are acting more from a position of urban citizen and, it might be said, Western citizen,” Martínez told IPS.

Not judging the Quishpe case, he said, Martínez pointed out that the accused are six young men with tattoos, who dress in black, work in Quito, and only visit their communities on occasional weekends.

Many young people from rural areas “do not believe in or practice the communal values,” said the sociologist. “There is a crisis among the rural youth and the indigenous community leaders, and the latter want to resolve things by imposing the traditions.”

There are no easy solutions, he said: “It’s a very acute crisis that runs through all aspects of communal life and violates its values. These young people already belong to urban subcultures.” There is an indigenous rock music scene and there are even indigenous gangs in Quito, he said.

In Martinez’s view, the indigenous authorities “are afraid of talking” about these matters.

“There is an idyllic vision of solidarity, of reciprocity in the indigenous community, but there are real phenomena that haven’t been studied, such as the increase in youth suicides, which is depressing because they are unable to find their place” in the city or in the indigenous community, he said.

The Quishpe case began attracting attention when Attorney General Washington Pesántez attempted a few days earlier to travel to La Cocha to “rescue” the accused, who had been held captive for two weeks.

Despite being accompanied by an armed escort, the government official was unable to get near the town because the residents greeted his convoy with a heavy hail of rocks.

Meanwhile, President Rafael Correa had threatened an armed intervention because, he said, indigenous justice had gone too far.

Tuesday, Pesántez accepted the resignation of Vicente Tibán, who was in charge of indigenous affairs for the region. Tibán had made grave errors in the proceedings related to the Olivo murder and Quishpe’s punishment, according to the attorney general.

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