the day we lynched the mayor

Ilave, Peru

 

A Killing Fades Into Thin Air

 

* A year ago, the mayor of a Peruvian town in the Andes was lynched. The rule of law is fragile, and suspects still go about their business.

 

ILAVE, Peru -- Mayor Cirilo Fernando Robles was fated to die the cold April morning he returned to this town that rises on a small plateau above Lake Titicaca, 12,621 feet up in the thin air of the Andes.

 

He arrived before dawn to preside over a City Council meeting. Before the sun set, he was kicked and pummeled by fellow Aymara Indians, beaten with his own belt and paraded through town in a pedal-powered tricycle taxi, bleeding and slowly dying.

 

In life, Robles passed out candies from his office to the town's children and took pride in seeing his name on city plaques, complete with his Peruvian university title. In his final minutes, the lynch mob forced him to climb the four steps of City Hall, where he uttered his last words and then fell, his head striking the concrete with a sickening crack.

 

Depending on your point of view, the mayor's killing last year was the work of a rancher who had been a rival since the two men were in college. Or of the 42 men and women formally charged with his slaying. Or of all 20,000 Aymara Indians who had marched on Ilave from surrounding villages to demand that Robles resign in the face of corruption charges.

 

"These things have always happened when the Aymara people are cheated, when they are betrayed," said Edgar Larijo, a community leader and one of those charged in the killing.

 

If he were alive today, Robles might ask the question that his widow, family and friends ask: Why are nearly all the people who had a hand in his death walking around the plazas, the streets and even City Hall as if nothing had happened?

 

Only one person charged remains in custody. Several others have returned to their city jobs.

 

Despite an outstanding warrant for his arrest, Larijo spoke about the killing from inside City Hall, within sight of a small group of the mayor's supporters and a bored employee of the National Police.

 

Larijo's eyes were all defiance, as if his dead foe were still alive and standing before him.

 

"The mayor was warned by a colonel of the National Police not to come back here," he said.

 

Explaining why he hadn't turned himself in, the militant Aymara nationalist said, "We all know that in Peru there is no true justice, that there is justice only for the big people."

 

The story of the mayor's death is, in many ways, an allegory of modern Peru. Both the country and this town of 55,000 people near its southern border are unsettled places where weak government makes the rule of law a tenuous thing. A year later, it remains unclear whether the corruption allegations were true. A preliminary report by Peru's Office of the Controller General last month found that at least two of the eight charges against him had no merit, but the final report is still pending.

 

But here, as elsewhere in the country, the malevolent spirits of disorder and violence seem poised to spring forth from a Pandora's box of social inequality and dysfunction -- like the young masked men who climbed a roof to break into the home where Robles presided over his last City Council meeting.

 

Those men hunted the mayor down, breaking windows and ransacking rooms, until they finally found him hiding in a closet.

 

Collective Retribution

 

In Aymara villages, Western individualism is turned on its head: The individual serves the community. Citizenship is defined as a series of obligations, and those who don't comply lose their right to grazing lands and irrigation water. A leader who betrays the trust of his community risks collective retribution. Even in urban Aymara neighborhoods, it isn't uncommon to find the scarecrow-like figure of a local thief strung up in effigy.

 

"This would be homicide if there were just one or two or five people involved," said Albino Zapana Cueva, another community leader charged in the lynching. "Here, there were some 25,000 souls involved. You would have to prosecute all of Ilave."

 

The mayor's small band of allies believes that none of those indicted will be convicted.

 

An autopsy listed the cause of death as shock brought on by internal bleeding and multiple blunt-force trauma. But the countless people seen on video inflicting those injuries with their feet and fists apparently fear no retribution, legal or otherwise.

 

The radio DJs and community leaders who rallied the angry crowd, and the five City Council members listed as defendants in the case, all go about their business. In fact, in many ways, the late mayor's enemies are running the city.

 

Valentin Ramirez, a community leader and a defendant, campaigned openly for a candidate in the election to replace Robles, despite an outstanding warrant. His man, Miguel Angel Flores Chumbi, won.

 

"We nominated Miguel Angel, and he is the mayor now," Ramirez said from his home, referring to other Aymara leaders. "We gave the authority for the elections to go forward. Our democratic force prevailed."

 

Ramirez remains conflicted about the mayor's death. He believes Robles was responsible for his own lynching. But he began to weep as he remembered those events in Ilave's main plaza, before the statue of a 19th century hero of the War of the Pacific.

 

"It was terrible, terrible," Ramirez said. He cast his sunburned face downward, overcome by the memory of so much cruelty. "I asked the people, 'Why are you doing this?' "

 

Sister Maria Julia Ardito, an Argentine nun assigned to Ilave's Catholic parish, was at the plaza too. She corroborates what Ramirez and other leaders say: At the end, the mob was beyond anyone's control.

 

"There is still a deep sense of trauma here," she said. "People don't know whom to trust. No one talks about what happened, but that fear touches everything."

 

It is very unsettling, she said, to go to the plaza and walk among people who helped murder another human being.

 

And yet, for Ardito, as for many Ilave residents, the mayor's death seemed entirely preventable. If provincial and national authorities had responded to the pleas for help coming from all sides, the mayor would be alive today.

 

No Intervention

 

As mayor of Ilave, Robles governed the surrounding province of El Collao, a collection of 180 mud-walled villages where sheep roam and cold winds blow through the ruins of 16th century colonial churches.

 

Thousands of peasants from the villages had been summoned to the city by their leaders weeks earlier. The peasants believed, as their leaders had told them, that the mayor had stolen the money to rebuild the old, collapsed bridge over the Ilave River and the funds to pave a highway connecting the town with some of their villages.

 

Two weeks before Robles' death, hostile crowds forced him to seek shelter in Puno, the regional capital an hour's drive away.

 

"It was the whim of the mayor to come here when so many people were against him," said Teofilo Contreras, another defendant.

 

To this day, it remains unclear to many people whether the peasants' anger was misplaced.

 

"I don't think that Robles was any more or less corrupt than most other mayors in the countryside," said Wilfredo Ardito, a human rights activist in Lima, the capital, who has followed events in Ilave.

 

What was really behind the lynching, Ardito and others argue, was the rivalry between Robles and another Aymara leader, Alberto Sandoval. The two had been opponents since their days as university activists.

 

Robles' supporters say Sandoval, a prosperous cattle rancher, orchestrated the events in Ilave, using his contacts with peasant leaders in the villages. Sandoval is the only person still in custody.

 

But the mayor was in many ways his own worst enemy. He engaged in the usual small-town nepotism but neglected to spread the wealth to the villages, where community leaders had been used to receiving government jobs they could distribute to the locals, said Carlos Degregori, a human rights activist who studied the slaying for the Lima-based group Citizen Proposal.

 

It also raised eyebrows that the mayor used the title magister, or university lecturer, on plaques and signs commemorating public works projects. In Peru's racially divided society, titles are most often the privilege of non-Indians. Why was the mayor taking on such airs, some Aymara peasants wondered.

 

On April 2, 2004, Robles held a town hall meeting in the city's central square to air the grievances against him. The meeting soon deteriorated into a melee, with supporters fighting the "anti-Roblistas" with rocks and sticks.

 

Days later, a group of anti-

 

Roblistas took over City Hall. Marina Robles, the mayor's widow, said local police refused her husband's requests to clear out the protesters until he offered to pay them "out of his own pocket."

 

The protesters came back, and in larger numbers. Entire villages emptied. Ilave radio stations broadcast stinging diatribes against the mayor, residents say, in the over-the-top style of tabloid radio here.

 

" 'We've had enough of this arrogance!' " one broadcast went, according to defendant Zapana Cuevas. " 'We Aymara must not allow ourselves to be humiliated!' "

 

With the protesting peasants becoming increasingly restless, Ardito and others in Ilave tried to get the attention of mediators and government officials.

 

Eventually, they traveled to Lima, the capital, where they were turned away from the doors of the National Congress and the office of President Alejandro Toledo.

 

"No one paid any attention," Ardito said. "It was pure racism. All of this was happening in an Indian area far away from Lima. People just didn't care."

 

Officials at several local and national agencies declined repeated requests to take action, said Ardito, Robles' widow and the protest leaders charged in his death. Peru's Interior Ministry declined to send more police. Local prosecutors and the controller general's office did little to investigate the corruption charges.

 

Back in Ilave, peasants were barricading the Pan-American Highway. At the bridge over the river, they welded road signs between the steel supports, sealing off the highway and access to the town.

 

"We had Ilave shut down, as if with a lock and key," recalled Rufino Vidal Flores, the leader of the local peasants' union and another defendant.

 

As the end of April approached, thousands of peasants were spending there third week camped in the streets. Some residents alleged that Sandoval, the rancher, plied the peasants with alcohol and coca leaves to keep them in town.

 

(Reached at his apartment in Puno, where he remains under house arrest, Sandoval declined to comment.)

 

Upon her return to town, Ardito noted the presence of "outsiders" among the protesters -- Bolivians espousing Aymara nationalism, old Peruvian "Senderistas" (fighters from the Shining Path guerrilla movement) and men affiliated with the Humala brothers, Peruvian military officers who have staged unsuccessful uprisings.

 

Ilave had become a gathering place for disaffected rebels of all stripes.

 

Marina Robles feared for her husband. But he was being counseled to stay in office by a high-ranking security official, she said, declining to name that person. "He was telling us that Sandoval was going to be put in jail," she said.

 

But the anti-Roblistas had finally come up with a strategy to remove him. By law, if the mayor failed to attend three consecutive council meetings, the position could be declared vacant. The five members of the 10-person council opposed to Robles met separately in two "official" meetings. Before they could hold the third, however, Robles announced that he would return to Ilave and hold his own session at his sister's house with the five members still allied with him.

 

"Our plan had been ruined," said Flores, the peasant leader. "The people were even madder than before.... They decided to block off the streets to prevent the meeting from taking place."

 

At 6 a.m., Radio San Miguel began broadcasting news of the impending meeting. According to the indictment, station owner Henry Galo Medina "egged on the population so that they would go to the mayor's sister's domicile armed with sticks, whips and other objects so as to prevent the [council] session from taking place."

 

Medina spent eight months in jail on the charges but was recently released. He denies calling on the crowd to storm the home and grab the mayor.

 

Only 60 police officers were in Ilave that morning, according to the report by Degregori, the rights activist. All were at the police station, guarding members of a government reconciliation commission that had belatedly arrived in town.

 

The National Police commander in Ilave said later that he had warned Robles not to return.

 

Why, then, did he?

 

Marina Robles said her husband felt he had done nothing wrong. Days before his death, she said, she suggested that he quit for safety's sake, but he answered: "If I leave, everyone will think I'm a thief."

 

"I know that up to the very last moment my husband never thought they would kill him," she said.

 

Robles arrived at his sister's home for the council meeting before dawn. When his wife first called that morning, she said, everything was calm. "There's no police, but there's no people, either," she recalled her husband saying. But when she called later, he said, "There's a lot of people. They're throwing rocks."

 

"What are you going to do?" she asked.

 

"I'm going to wait."

 

Seeing hundreds of people outside trying to break down the door, those inside resorted to dumping pots of boiling water out the windows, witnesses said.

 

On one video, masked men can be seen climbing the roof before breaking in. The mob eventually found the council members under beds in a neighboring home.

 

The council members were beaten by the mob and taken to other villages, where they were later released. The mayor was pulled out of a closet.

 

"So many people got inside," peasant leader Flores said, "that we can't say with certainty who had the luck to hit the mayor first."

 

"They took him around town to see his works projects," Flores said with sarcasm. One stop was the bridge Robles had promised to replace but didn't.

 

Back in Puno, Marina Robles frantically phoned authorities in Ilave and Lima. She said the police commander in Ilave told her he had not received authorization to intervene.

 

Ramirez, the indicted community elder, said the mayor already looked half-dead when the mob brought him to Ilave's main plaza. The crowd tossed him into a plastic barrel, then took him out again. They forced him to walk up the steps of City Hall and placed a microphone in his hands.

 

"He could barely stand up," Ramirez said. "The people were yelling, 'Let him speak! Let him speak!' He stood up, said a few words -- 'I'm sorry, forgive me' -- and then he fell." Ramirez heard the mayor's head strike the concrete at the bottom of the steps.

 

The crowd took the body to the river and dumped it by the broken bridge. Finally, the police arrived. Clouds of tear gas chased the last protesters away.

 

Lynchings Endemic

 

Within a few hours, police arrested an ex-con named Wilfredo Llanque Flores, who is seen often in the tapes of the lynching. Witnesses said he took the mayor's belt to whip him. At the police station, he confessed to beating Robles, according to the official indictment. But a large crowd surrounded the station, threatening to storm it. Llanque was freed. Not long ago, he offered to turn himself in if the Peruvian government provided a stipend to his family. No such offer was forthcoming.

 

Just last month, a new judge was appointed to the case. (In Peru, judges supervise the investigation of an allegation and the trial.) Asked why Llanque and so many others can walk freely around the scene of their alleged crime, Judge Juan Bravo said, "This tribunal has ordered the arrest of certain people. But it's the police who have to enforce the law."

 

His investigation is ongoing, Bravo said. The conventional wisdom in Ilave is that the government is trying to play down the prosecution because they fear the town will explode again.

 

Asked about the fugitives, Marco Enrique Miyashiro, head of the National Police, said, "We are waiting for the appropriate moment to apprehend them."

 

Marina Robles lives in Puno but has been forced to move twice after being assaulted by protesters from Ilave. They seem to think she is plotting to take her dead husband's job.

 

"It doesn't bother me that these people in Ilave think that he stole," she said. "They're common people and will believe anything. What bothers me is that there are educated people who think he did those things."

 

In the year since Robles was killed, once-rare lynchings have become endemic to rural Peru. According to the National Police, there were 71 lynchings in 2004 and 19 in the first 10 weeks of 2005. Only a few of the victims have been public officials; most were suspected of petty crimes.

 

In Ilave, the new mayor has settled into an office overlooking the plaza where his predecessor was killed.

 

"Anyone with a family to look after would worry about taking a job like this," Mayor Flores Chumbi said. "We are trying to move forward, knowing what the risks are."

 

If you ask Ilavenos who is responsible for the Robles killing, often they quote a play by 17th century writer Lope de Vega about a real Spanish town where a knight was put to death by a mob.

 

The king sends a delegation to punish those responsible. But all the people of Fuenteovejuna, even the children, answer the question "Who killed the knight?" the same way. "It was Fuenteovejuna!"

 

"The truth is impossible to know," a judge finally tells the king. "All you can do is forgive them all or execute the whole village."