LA PAZ – A court in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba sentenced eight defendants to 30 years in prison each for torturing and lynching three police officers in February 2008.
The ruling, which the defendants described as unjust, was handed down on Friday.
The incident occurred in the rural community of Epizana, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Cochabamba, capital of the like-named province.
At a routine checkpoint, three police officers – Willy Alvarez, Walter Avila and Eloy Vidal Yupanqui – tried to extort one of the local inhabitants and gave him a beating when he refused to pay up.
Some 300 enraged local residents tracked down the three officers and, after torturing them for several hours, hanged them and left their bodies on a road.
The wife of one of the slain police, Mirna Gareca, told reporters after learning of the sentence that, despite the delay, “justice has arrived.”
“One day I’ll be able to tell my son that justice was served in (his father’s death) and his killers are in prison. I won’t stop telling people that if something happens look for (a way) because it can be found,” she said.
The sentence was handed down just weeks after another lynching incident, in which indigenous clans in the southwestern province of Potosi tortured and killed four police officers after accusing them of committing crimes in that region.
One of the officers was killed several days after the other three when their relatives and President Evo Morales’ Cabinet ministers – thinking that all four had died a week earlier – were urging the Indians to hand over the bodies.
The lynching occurred last month in a region of Potosi populated by the Ayllus Guerreros, or Warrior Clans, who say the four police murdered a taxi driver and extorted other local residents and that the killings were in accord with traditional communal justice.
The Indian leaders had offered to discuss returning the bodies if authorities agreed not to investigate the lynchings, but the government rejected the idea.
“There will not be any type of pardon or amnesty. Any crime of this kind has to be investigated, and those responsible (must be) tried and punished,” Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti said early this month. “It is absolutely non-negotiable.”
Some Aymara and Quechua Indian communities of the Andean highlands say lynchings are part of the indigenous justice system that was recognized in the constitution enacted last year at the urging of Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state, but the government rejects that argument.
Officials say the recognition of traditional justice is not a license for vigilantism. The government also points to Bolivia’s constitutional ban on capital punishment.
The Warrior Clans are so-called because of their nearly 200-year-long history of involvement in sometimes bloody conflicts over land, clashes blamed for roughly 10,000 deaths since 1830, though the most recent round of fighting was nine years ago, when 57 people died.