A 52-year old woman in Bolivia has died in a horribly gruesome way this past week. She was tied to a tree by an angry mob and left to be bitten to death by fire ants. She was tied up along with her adult son (who was the one the mob originally wanted) and her adult daughter as well. Both her son and daughter survived.
You might have seen other articles on this subject already, but Break wanted to see if there was more to it. So as Break’s resident South American expert, I took on the challenge. And making recourse to Spanish-language information, I discovered that, in fact, this sort of thing has happened before. It was unusual only in that the woman died, but apparently the fire-ant punishment is kind of common in these areas of Bolivia. And the reasons why are very interesting.
How Do Fire Ants Kill You?
Fire ants are a very aggressive kind of ant, with a fierce bite. But a single ant won’t really do you any meaningful harm at all, scary as they might look under a magnifying glass.
But when they attack in a swarm of thousands, the sheer accumulation of their bite can be dangerous. Their bite has a tiny amount of venom, which causes a slight bump. In most people without a rare allergy this is not serious except in large numbers. This is what a minor fire-ant attack looks like after three days:
In the case of the victim in this latest story, the mother of the trio died very quickly, because being tied to a tree she was helpless to do anything at all to stop the ants. A number of ants apparently crawled into her mouth and nose, down to her windpipe, bit her a large number of times, and the swelling caused from a significant amount of bites shut her windpipe until she choked to death.
While deaths in the case of people being punished with this tree-tying custom are rare (the woman’s two children survived, for example), severe injuries and very serious health complications are not rare. In some reported cases, the ‘victims’ have been kept tied to trees for about two days, and the sheer number of ant bites in that time can cause renal failure. Survivors of previous ant-attacks of this sort ended up requiring dialysis and intensive care.
But Why Were They Tied in the First Place?
Here’s the story, which some news reports seem to have mangled. This event took place in Caranavi, a province about 100 miles away from Bolivia’s most significant city, La Paz. Though it may as well have been in another world. Caranavi is a jungle region. It’s a very pretty area:
Unfortunately, it’s also an area with a LOT of problems. The population is extremely poor. Almost 20% are illiterate. Nearly 90% have no electricity. About 65% have no access to proper sanitation.
Beyond all that, it’s an area that’s rife with corruption and abuses by authorities, even in a country that is famous for its corruption and abuses. The jungle doesn’t look quite so pretty when it looks like this:
The woman’s surviving children had claimed that they had come to the village where the attack took place to collect on a debt, and that the attack was a case of mistaken identity. However, the villagers insist that they caught the son in the midst of attempting to steal a car. His mom and sister were grabbed when they tried to intervene to help their son get away.
What really happened? It’s very hard to tell for sure. But being tied to a Palo Santo tree is something of a traditional mob punishment in this region for people who are caught stealing. Maybe even a very VERY old tradition.
Why the Type of Tree is Important
They were tied to a Palo Santo tree; and apparently in the Bolivian jungle regions, if you catch a thief that’s the tree you tie them to. That’s no coincidence.
The Palo Santo tree is frankly a fairly practical tree for tying someone up to if you want them to get a lot of ant bites, because it’s an important part of the ant’s ecosystem. They hang out there. But there’s probably another, deeper reason for it too. You see, Palo Santo means “Holy Tree”.
The Palo Santo tree has been sacred to the indigenous people of the area going back all the way to Inca times or further. It’s wood has a unique and amazing scent, and shavings of the wood are burnt as incense (you can probably get some at your local new-age shop). It was considered very sacred to South American Indian spiritual practices. The wood also has a number of medicinal uses and was used in ancient healing techniques.
In a magic sense it was used to purify an area, to remove evils. Thus, tying an evildoer to a Palo Santo tree could be understood as a punishment with a spiritual significance, a communal ‘cleansing’ of the one who has done evil.
Still, though, why would such a frankly barbaric practice be used? Is there that little trust in regular justice?
In short, yes. Thanks to a certain someone.
And Then There’s This Asshole:
Cases of mob justice, especially in rural areas, has increased significantly in Bolivia over the years. The government of Evo Morales, who has ruled Bolivia for the last decade, has been anything but helpful in this regard.
He has ironically presented himself as a champion of the indigenous people, but he hasn’t actually done a whole lot for them. When he first came to power, Evo promised that the indigenous people would have a much stronger representation in his government, and his initial cabinet was full of indigenous activists. But within a few years he purged almost all of them.
Evo Morales has done a great job of keeping Evo Morales in power. He’s had the good fortune of some world economic events going his way, and this has allowed him to claim he’s achieved great strides on the “path to socialism”, when really he’s just mostly created an augmented welfare system to try to get a permanent base of voters dependent on him. None of this should surprise you if you realize he’s a member of the “Bolivarean Revolutionary Socialist school” and consider the likes of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro to be his heroes.
His style of governing has done nothing to stop government and police abuses and corruption. Bribery, embezzlement and nepotism are extremely common. Crime is severe and often unchecked. What’s more, in creating an extreme us-vs-them mentality, Morales has deepened the rift between Hispanics and Indians, and between the lower class and the middle class. The police are seen as potentially serving the Hispanics or serving the Middle Class, but of being at best useless and at worse hostile to the impoverished Indian part of the population.
So the reason for this turn back to old-time-religious-punishments of tying thieves to the Palo Santo tree is in part due to Evo, because of these untreated conditions and worsened relationships. If you’re afraid that the police will let a thief go in exchange for a bribe, if the authorities will never come to arrest a criminal, if you know there’s no recourse to legal justice, then mob justice becomes the next best thing.
And sometimes, the mob become the criminals. It’s entirely possible that this woman who died and her two children were not really thieves. It wouldn’t be the first case of “community justice” that was highly doubtful. It’s happened on more than one occasion that the locals have taken outsiders (who may or may not have been committing any crimes), tied them to a Palo Santo tree, and then threatened to leave them there until they died if the “criminal’s” family didn’t pay a ransom! They was even at least one case where they blockaded the area to prevent the police from coming in to rescue the hostages.
Ironically, Morales is ALSO to blame because of his “Indian Chief” act in trying to win votes from the indigenous populations (I’m not saying that in a racist way, I mean it literally: he literally got an Indian tribe to crown him as their ‘supreme king’). His pandering led him to amend the Bolivian constitution in 2009 to protect “Community Justice”. This amendment is theoretically intended for rural and mainly indigenous communities to have a right to ‘traditional justice’. Officially it’s claimed that this does not include anything that would violate human rights, and certainly not executions. But there’s been a very bad track record of people doing all kinds of things and claiming it was a tribal statement of Community Justice, which now constitutionally cannot be appealed to a higher court. It has allowed a great deal of vigilantism, mob justice, and abuses of power.
In spite of having already served three terms, and lost a referendum to try to over-turn his ineligibility, Evo Morales has already made it clear that in spite of it being unconstitutional, he plans to run for a fourth term. Expect the Tree/Ant lynchings to continue until morale improves.