On April 26, 2004, the municipality of Ilave, Peru, a town with a majority of indigenous Aymara people in the Peruvian altiplano (highlands), was the scene of a tragedy that sent shock waves through the nation and abroad. Then-mayor Cirilo Robles Callomamani, elected less than two years earlier, was beaten to death by a mob of angry citizens. His bruised and tortured body was dragged through town and dumped near a bridge that his administration had failed to repair—and which was apparently one source of the crowd’s fury. The incident raised many questions about the underlying causes of the violence, and most particularly, about its relationship to the contemporary political and socioeconomic environment of Andean Peru.
Some intriguing, and troubling, answers are provided in “No hay ley para nosotros…” Gobierno local, sociedad y conflicto en el altiplano: el caso Ilave (“No Law for Us…” Local Government, Society and Conflict in the Highlands: the Ilave Case), by Ramón Pajuelo Teves, a researcher at the Colegio Andino del Centro Bartolomé de las Casas in Cuzco, Peru. The book, co-published by Peru’s Asociación Servicios Educativos Rurales (SER) and Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP), brings together two separate studies done in 2005 by researchers at the organizations, when the incident at Ilave was still fresh in the collective memory. Together, the lucid, well-researched studies place the murder against the larger context of the profound changes affecting the highlands in recent decades—changes that have dramatically affected the indigenous population and structure of power in the region.
Often, the analysis of traumatic events like a political assassination is dominated by the search for a clear and simple explanation. But the strength of this volume is that it demonstrates the deep-rooted and multiple factors in the complex rural society of the highlands that led to the outbreak of violence. The truth is, there are no easy answers. While that may leave some readers dissatisfied, most will come away with a better understanding of society, culture, and rural and municipal politics in the Peruvian highlands.
The authors suggest that the roots of the conflict go back as early as the 1960s, when a new and better-educated commercial class of nonindigenous and mestizo entrepreneurs emerged in the Puno region of the Peruvian highlands, where indigenous Aymara people have lived for centuries. They represented, in effect, a new social elite, generally younger than the traditional leadership, and they soon began to make their presence felt in local politics. Provinces such as El Collao, in which Ilave is located, became increasingly urban, while the rural population also continued to grow. Ilave itself became the third-largest population center in the region, and the capital of the province. Yet despite modernization, the region’s indigenous campesinos (farmworkers), who comprise the majority of the population, remained highly impoverished.
Ilave has an especially large number of centros poblados—or rural jurisdictions similar to municipalities typically headed by traditional indigenous leadership. Ranging in population from as small as 150 to more than 7,000 people, these centers emerged in recent years as influential players in local politics. Centros poblados were central to the Ilave incident, and the first research study in the volume focuses on them.
Centros poblados can deliver certain public services and expect public support to do so—critical considerations in such poor areas. But that support is not necessarily provided and depends on the province’s municipal government. Despite these resource constraints, for the rural poor—and principally the indigenous—the centros poblados attract residents and, as the authors put it, become a center of rural influence and “constitute one of the spaces of fundamental interaction among the state, society, and territory.”
Political and institutional developments arguably added the most combustible ingredients to the mix in Ilave—the focus of this volume’s second study. In Ilave, like the rest of Peru, the decline of traditional political parties by the late 1980s was accompanied by a proliferation of local candidates representing independent movements, which split the electorate. A “micro-party” could win the mayoralty by simply garnering the most votes, and in 2002, Ilave’s ill-fated mayor won with a mere 21 percent of the vote. Additionally, Peruvian law allows for the removal of mayors, a procedure that, as we have seen in Bolivia and Paraguay and elsewhere in Latin America, produces politically motivated attempts by the opposition to pressure or actually remove the locally elected leader. Finally, Peru’s attempt to decentralize as part of a major government reform in early 2000 raised unrealistic expectations in rural communities. Many residents of centros poblados, for instance, believed the reforms gave them immediate access to funds administered by the province’s municipalities.
Fierce local competition for power was the match that set this combustible situation ablaze. As the region headed into the 2002 elections, the Independent Front for Public Works (FIJO), which had controlled the Ilave mayoralty for three consecutive terms, was under sustained attack. FIJO had carefully cultivated its main power base in the centros poblados by ensuring that traditional indigenous leaders, working through community councils, retained authority over public works projects. But FIJO’s internal divisions and association with corruption left it vulnerable to the successful challenge from Cirilo Robles, a university professor from a rural zone and a fierce FIJO opponent. As the authors of the study point out, the new mayor, was not as participatory as his predecessors, in part because he wanted to distinguish himself from them.
In the process, he alienated the centros poblados who had come to expect the support of the provincial municipality. When promised repairs of the bridge, as well as a new road—both crucial to the region’s economy—failed to materialize, the anger of indigenous leaders finally came to a head. His attempt to convene a municipal council session at his home, because he was blocked from doing so at the municipality, set the deadly mob in motion.
The study goes on to review developments in Ilave after the assassination. After months of political turmoil, the situation appeared to stabilize. A new mayor was elected, and the first meeting of the new municipal council was marked by a “conciliatory disposition,” according to the study authors.
The book falls short in several key aspects. Neither of the studies answers the question about whether Cirilo Robles’ murder could have been prevented. And while the lessons from Ilave could be applicable in other municipalities, the authors fail to look at the larger implications.
Residents of Ilave seem to want very much to move beyond the violent 2004 episode and live in peace. But as noted in the opening of the volume, a new Ilave mayor in 2008 had literally to beg the pardon of 300 traditional indigenous leaders who had angrily gathered to protest his use of external security personnel for a local festival. We are left wondering whether history could repeat itself. Severe poverty coupled with weak state presence, fractured political institutions, the understandable demands of a mobilized community, and the slow learning process involved in leaders valuing compromise over conflict, are all part of the challenges Ilave and many similar municipalities in Peru face today. The apparent weakness of the state to manage and incorporate the mosaic of local commissions and movements that have proliferated remains a crisis of democratic legitimacy in the Andean highlands that can only increase our worry for the future.