Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Vigilantes of the Andes

In the Andean region of Peru, villages are protected by rondas campesinas: neighbourhood watches that use corporal punishment to scare potential criminals

A young man and woman are interrogated by a group of people. After some questions about their affair, they have to promise that none of this will ever happen again. The wife of the young man steps forward from the group and he has to publicly apologise to her. After that, he and his mistress bend over and are whipped on their backs by an old woman. This public shaming is videotaped and shown via YouTube.

The video shows a tribunal in Cajamarca, in the northern Andean region of Peru, and was made by the local vigilantes, who call themselves the rondas campesinas (farmer patrols). The rondas protect the cities and villages from criminals and use corporal punishment, whose roots are in the traditional indigenous society.

“We teach the people discipline,” says 58-year-old Luisa Llanos Vazquez. In daily life, this spry lady is a vegetable seller, but in her spare time she voluntarily joins the rondas, just like her 102-year-old father. “The problem here is that we can’t count on the police to help us. They are lazy and corrupt, so nobody cares about them. Many people do fear us, though.”

Glorification of violence

In the daytime, the rondas patrol the market of Cajamarca, which consists of a jumble of little stalls by the side of a narrow winding road, where street vendors shout which wares they have for sale. The man on the photograph above, who didn’t want his name published, tells how they make a daily round and ask the street vendors if everything is alright.

“This way everybody knows that we are here.”

The rondas also protect the morals of the town, as they did when they stormed the infamous nightclub Alondra. A video, also to be found on YouTube, shows the vigilantes entering the club and hitting scantily clad woman with their whips.

“This is glorification of violence,” says 27-year-old Cajamarcan law student Damarsis Carrasco Palacios on watching the video. “I understand that these groups used to have a function in the little villages, where there simply is no police. But in the cities, they should leave the law to those who are trained for it. You can see on videos like this that they enjoy hurting people.”

Palacios’ mother Samantha used to support the rondas, but one day she was in a restaurant with her daughter when they entered. “I saw how they were looking at her. Probably she was dressed indecently in their eyes. Just then, I realised they could also abuse her.”

A brief history of the rondas

The rondas date back to the 1970s in the province of Cajamarca. The farmers owned their land and cattle because of land reforms, but owning property meant they also had to deal with problems like theft. And as the centralised authority in Lima was far away and showed little understanding, the farmers had to protect themselves in their own way.

The farmers had always been used to solving problems with violence;: corporal punishment was common at school and at home. Inevitably, the rondas would also punish culprits in the exact same way. The system seemed to work; fewer cattle were stolen. Within a few years, the concept of the rondas spread out from Cajamarca across the Peruvian Andes.

In the 1980s, when the Marxist guerilla group Sendero Luminoso (Enlightened Path) tried to take over rural Peru using heavy violence, the government gladly made use of the rondas. In the beginning, the farmers were interested in the Marxist ideals of the organisation, but turned their backs quickly to the extreme violence and killings. They wanted a better pay cheque: no war. So the government didn’t need to use police forces in the villages that were protected by the rondas, but, more than once the rondas abused their position, killing criminals at their tribunals.

The power of Sendero Luminoso was broken many years ago and only a few remnants are still to be found, mainly supporting coca farmers in the jungle. The vigilantes stayed, though, and organised themselves better. They have created also an urban version: rondas urbanas.

Judicial system

Ronda Luisa Llanos Vazquez considers herself someone who cures society from its problems and keeps the people together. It’s not only the criminal law she busies herself with. An important part of the rondas’ jurisdiction relates to issues regarding testament or property; following the land reforms, the dimensions of the plots have never been recorded properly.

Vazquez says the rondas’ legal system is firmly established, with precedents for most cases. When there is doubt, she always reads the Peruvian law book she has. During a hearing, all the different parties involved must speak, and there is a jury of 20-30 rondas. Vazquez says: “We create a framework for our society, so everyone understands what is expected from them.”

Finally, the jury takes a vote on the physical part of the punishment. Besides the number of whippings, this might involve push-ups and other physical exercise. The last part of the punishment is the apologies the culprit has make to everyone involved.

Human rights

Cultural anthropologist José Rodriguez is a member of the Instituto de Justicia Intercultural. This institute tries to involve the rondas in the formal jurisprudence, to make them part of the official government body. In that way, the government can make use of a structure that already exists.

Rodriguez says: “The problem is that degrading forms of torture are forbidden in Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the other hand, we have a Peruvian law that states that the indigenous population have the right to form their society according to their own cultural beliefs. The rondas campesinas claim their corporal punishments stem from pre-colonial times.”

At the institute they are trying to find out how much of that is actually true. According to Rodriguez, a lot of the corporal punishments, and forced physical exercise, seem to have been copied from the farmer’s military service. Rodriguez says: “Many researchers have written about the similarities between the rondas and the army.”

According to Rodriguez, the whip, called a binza, is a traditional symbol of masculinity in rural areas. It is made from the leather of a bull’s penis. He says: “People will automatically respect someone who carries a binza. Together with the straw hat and poncho, it forms part of the uniform of an authority people listen to. That role is not easy to take over for an outsider like the centralised administration of Lima. When you want to change this you have to work very carefully and respectfully.”

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