“I don’t care if you bring the president of Peru and a thousand police—we’ll be carried out dead before you dig here!” Thus was the position of the twenty or so irate villagers gathered around us. The intense Andean sun was sinking lower in the sky, as an afternoon of confrontation that had left me sunburnt and hoarse was drawing to a close. Tempers had flared several times during our heated discussions. “Blood is going to run!” one elderly man had shouted while gesticulating emphatically. And among the five women who were sitting crammed together, occupying the shallow hole where we had started to dig, one particularly off-balance one kept screaming at me in Quechua every few minutes, in a torrent of abuse through her few remaining teeth. The level of vitriol was such that I could do little but look at her in amazement, and half wonder if her head was about to spin around.
It was hardly the sort of village scene in which anyone sympathetic to the values of the Porch wishes to find himself.
In the middle of the summer, I posted “Mafia Among the Mountain Folk” on FPR. Now that I am back in Nanjing, it seems very distant, not only because highland Peru is a globe away, but also because so much unfolded in the ensuing two months. As I explained in my first article, what was supposed to be yet another peaceful summer in the area I know so well had run into some unexpected problems. My archæologist girlfriend was starting some excavations in a village in the area, about an hour away from Pomatambo, the village I have described many times with such fondness on FPR. We had come to this other village, which I shall not name here, a few times over the last two years, without incident. This year, however, a few unsavoury local leaders had stirred up the populace against us, on all manner of pretexts about us sacking ruins, enclosing land, and the like. It became clear that we had walked into a hornet’s nest of incitement, corruption, and dysfunctionality, judging from the tales we were hearing from people in neighbouring villages who appreciated our situation. I predicted at the time that tempers would calm sooner or later. And in nearly any other village in the area, that indeed would have happened. But not here.
Little did I realise in July that two months would pass before the dig could resume. And over those two months, we got ever more embroiled in some bitter local politics, with far more at stake than we had imagined. In one of the ironies that life brings, two unlikely figures—she an enthusiast of community archæology, and I a defender of feisty Andean villagers and their virtues—unleashed a battle against the ringleaders. And the most revealing thing of all was that in doing so, we had the support of much of the populace in the area.
In my July article, I mentioned that we had heard of unusual levels of corruption in this village, among the handful of ringleaders who were mobilising people against us. That turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. The full horror gradually came out over the next few weeks. Eleven years ago, the interim president of the community had been tied to a stone cross in the square, crucifixion style, when people caught him cattle rustling. After a few years away, he came back and launched a political career on the basis of further thuggery. But he was nothing compared to the much more astute mastermind who proved to be our chief opponent. This fellow had a distinguished history of far more than merely embezzling tens of thousands of dollars. In less than five years, circles of sociopathic destruction had rippled out from his person. He acquired one job as custodian of the village school by framing its previous occupant for raping his niece. He stirred up his cronies to demolish the house of a political opponent. In an outlying area of the village, he sold off, while serving as village president, some of the locals’ land in exchange for a bribe. After losing an election at the district level, he raised a mob to besiege the town hall and prevent the victor from being sworn in. And, not least, he concocted a claim to some land two villages away—not even bordering his own—and almost got a private army on the march to displace the current inhabitants.
In short, the fellow had made more than a few enemies. And the locals who had witnessed this trajectory of megalomania also appreciated that he usually got his way, except when opposed with force. His plan to conquer another village only fizzled out when the residents of a community in between got on the radio and made known that, once his thugs set out, they would be stopped forcibly while in transit. And when he started menacing some penniless old woman to sign over her land to him, her son got hold of him on a visit to town, and made known the colourful fate that he and his brothers would inflict if the torments did not end at once.
Despite such rare cases of people standing up to him, this shrewd local godfather had become confident in his successful campaign of intimidation. It had proved rather lucrative over the years. Despite a paltry official salary from cleaning the school, he had surprisingly large coffers to fund perennial campaigns for district-level office, complete with expensive printed jackets for his supporters. When our modest dig came to the village, we naturally became a target. Stirring up some opposition with lies about people being dispossessed of their land would accomplish all manner of things. It might get him a bribe to make the opposition go away. Or at least it would paint him in an heroic light. I have no doubt that the first few days of turbulent village assemblies and threats over the loudspeakers were thought to be quite sufficient. Either we would cough up, or we would turn tail and scuttle off in academic meekness.
We did neither, on principle. And here I know that observers who rightly want to tread lightly in peasant communities might take issue with our choices. Indeed, this is part of my reason for writing about these events on FPR—aside from having promised a second instalment, and wanting to clear up that the delay in posting did not mean that I was slain in some corner of a foreign field in the interim. Reflecting on the choices we made, and continue to make, and why some might question them, I see three themes at stake. What moral right, and responsibility, did we as outsiders have to do battle with leaders who claimed to speak for the village? What was the landscape of reactions to this showdown, and what did the range of opinion in the area show about moral judgements in general? And finally, what tactics were at our disposal and did we choose correctly among them?
On facing such stiff opposition, many understandably would have given up on the project. The amount of effort that my girlfriend had put into laying the groundwork, applying for permits, cobbling together funding, and so on, would have made that a hard but not impossible decision. Anyone respectful of local ways of life has to take it seriously when a village assembly screams its opposition at you. Legally, the permit from Lima was enough to go ahead, but as the Chinese saying goes, the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.
Cutting against a surrender were a couple of considerations. Most obviously, we had to weigh what local democracy means and in what context it applies. Only a minority of villagers had come to the assembly that (illegally) disapproved the project, and they were largely the friends and relatives of the unelected ringleaders. Any supposed consensus was also the product of wilful misinformation about the nature and aims of the dig, as well as its alleged effects on the village. The first reaction of informed outsiders with experience working in highland communities was that the solution was more patient explanation. Normally, that would make perfect sense. Yet it was obvious to us, and to such outsiders whenever they came to see with their own eyes, that no amount of information could compete with fundamental distortions. Even a visit and written guarantees from the regional director of the Ministry of Culture did not assuage the fears of those who were riled up, because the counter-propaganda went on apace behind the scenes. “It’s all lies!” irate people kept bellowing at us.
Even if there had been a sound local consensus, there would also have been a question of what local authority should properly prevent. I do not mean merely in a legal and constitutional sense. On that terrain, we were clearly in the right, as the Ministry affirmed time and again in rejecting appeals that tried to annul the dig permit. But beyond the laws of any state, one has to wonder what the proper scope of a community’s power over its local patrimony is. All the dig sites were on public land, it bears noting, so no private ownership issue came up. Of course, the local inhabitants should always be the first line of defence in preserving and caring for what remains of the past, for they are best situated to do so and most likely to take a personal interest in it. Sometimes, however, they fail to do so. In this instance, some of the malcontents who were refusing to let us dig had already half-destroyed one site by digging mud out of it to make bricks, and had knocked down some very old stone huts with tractors. Cultural patrimony is local, to be sure, but it also belongs to the region and, ultimately, to humanity at large. Allowing local stakeholders carte blanche, in failing to preserve it and in blocking further understanding of it, would be overkill, particularly when a dig like this would have no appreciable effect on them.
Mere invocations of local democracy—“The community commands!” they shouted at us more than once—cannot settle the matter, when in this case such a standard was defective as to both process and substance. There were, after all, real goods to be advanced here that cut across any legitimate concerns of place. But even if one accepts that premiss, one still has to pick one’s battles. Quite simply, we were outsiders. The ringleaders were known to have a sordid past, but they still seemed the chosen spokesmen of that subset of villagers who felt strongly about the dispute. What right did we have to fight, when fighting meant, in one way or another, imposing our will on people who had lived their whole lives in the area, when we were but sojourners? Since their battle against us was tied up with other political machinations, countering them would also mean wading directly into problems much broader than the dig itself.
This is no doubt the issue that will make many Porchers uncomfortable. Why did this have to be our fight? Would it not have been more more discreet to withdraw and let them have it out among themselves, whenever circumstances allowed?
Sometimes others’ battles become one’s own, whatever one might have preferred at the outset. The obvious plight of people who had helped us was crucial in deciding this. The president of the community at the start of the dig was thrown out of office, mob-fashion, for having allowed us to start working. The ringleaders had had his overthrow on their agenda for months beforehand, and seized the opportunity. His younger brother, an archæology student, had to take refuge in the city for some time for associating with us. A schoolteacher who supported us was told he would be thrown out of the village where he had lived all his life. The evangelical pastor suffered foul insults merely for storing some dig equipment. And, most heartbreaking of all, an elderly amateur historian who had helped us, because he was bubbling with enthusiasm for the project, was threatened with being burnt alive in his house.
In the context of all the horrors that a handful of evildoers had committed over the years, we could not dismiss such threats. The climate of intimidation was such that withdrawing, rather than bringing this showdown to a just end, would only leave the village worse off than before. It would have meant yet another victory for those eager to govern by thuggery. And, as tales of cowed locals came to our attention, it became obvious that, whatever disadvantages we might have had as outsiders, we also had some capacity to act on a broader scale than the local victims themselves.
Our resolve was strengthened by public opinion in the wider area. As I mentioned in my first posting, this village has a reputation for violence and dysfunctionality. It did not surprise anyone in the outlying sectors of the village or in other communities to hear what we were going through. We got many an earful about all the misdeeds of years past. If a jury of peasants from across the province had been convened to judge the dispute, I have no doubt they would have supported us. At one point, we were even hearing strong endorsements of the idea of bringing in the most feared riot police from the city, to teach well deserved lessons.
But the landscape of opinion in the wider province was uneven. And it was uneven for reasons that will probably not surprise many readers of FPR. Plain folk overwhelmingly supported taking a strong stand against the antics of what amounted to a local mafia. They had seen with their own eyes a pattern of behaviour over several years. They also had the common sense to understand that there were basic principles of decency at stake. Anyone with roots in an Andean village will frown on crookedness, deceit, and thuggery. Our long contact with people in the area reassured them that, while we would tread lightly where possible, we had sound reasons for not backing down in this case. That we were outsiders did not matter to them as much as it might matter in some other parts of the world. Intentions and reputation do count.
I just said that the landscape of opinion was uneven. But if such plain folk were generally behind us, what sort of people had doubts? To put it charitably, they were the sort of people who think too hard. The higher up the scale of education and authority we went, the more likely we were to find people paralysed by lethargy and relativism.
When the first threats boomed from the loudspeakers in July, our natural response was to approach the police station and the office of the prosecutor. Some pressure against those who were, in effect, inciting to riot might ensure the safety of the team. Papers were duly filed, and the police chief and prosecutor paid a visit to explain the law and discourage anyone from crossing the line. They can be credited with talking the talk. Their remarks were professional but tough enough that in any normal community they would have had the desired effect. On other occasions, as the threats escalated and the dig was physically blocked, they likewise talked the talk.
But they never really walked the walk. Put in the best light, some of this was due to scarce resources. They had only seven police for a province of thirty thousand, and one truck that kept breaking down. On a few occasions, they sent three or four officers as security during our attempts to dig that turned into confrontations. We were kept alive despite some pushing and shoving. Still, three officers could hardly control a space under siege by twenty or thirty locals with stones and slingshots at the ready. And it became clear, as time went on, that they were under very limited instructions to prevent carnage but not to arrest anyone. The paperwork was too complicated, the brigadier eventually admitted. The prosecutor even suggested that a quicker solution would be to “hire some bouncers from the city who like hitting people,” because no one would be able to hold us responsible.
Much of this could be put down to official lethargy, and, as we later heard, some threats had supposedly been made against the prosecutor himself. When women from the other villages were all for volunteering to come down and defend the dig themselves, though, one naturally wonders why people with law degrees were so weak-kneed. And here I began to detect an unhealthy relativism seeping through the ranks and paralysing what should have been an obvious course of action. Crimes were being committed rather brazenly, by a handful of people with a long history. A few arrests would solve the problem once and for all, and even save police time in the long run.
But no, we kept hearing, from those who were thinking too hard. A psychiatrist working for the local office of the Ministry of Education languidly told my girlfriend, in front of the police chief, that people in this problem village simply had a mentality of violence. One could not apply the law as if one were in Europe. When one of the nearby community leaders objected to such laxity and demanded action, the psychiatrist shot back disdainfully that he obviously had a European mentality too. One radical intellectual laughed at our fervour and said that he did not know why we were taking such a hard line on the lies and threats, because that was simply how people in the area were used to behaving. He smiled nervously when I pointed out that the average elderly peasant in the area would hardly agree that the Andean ethic was one of lies and threats. The brigadier remarked on more than one occasion that if the police acted too decisively, they might get lynched. That was how people in the problem village were, he gravely mused, as if it were merely a feature of the landscape, like the vegetation. And a few professionals in Lima echoed the sentiment. We know how highlanders are, after all. One cannot expect too much.
As the English social critic Theodore Dalrymple observed, a paralysing moral relativism starts with the modern educated classes, well versed in social science and condescension. But he added that over time, such excuses percolate down and are eagerly adopted by the supposedly excused. Many a prisoner today pleads for leniency because of his upbringing. I detected some of that poison here, too. “I’m illiterate!” shouted a couple of the more irate peasant women as they said and did things that, in a more law abiding setting, would have got them arrested. The declaration rolled off their lips with the smirk of a get-out-of-jail-free card. No wonder the ringleaders were putting them in the front lines. When I calmly asked the attending officer to remove them from the dig site, or at least to demand identification, he demurred on the grounds that, well, they were peasant women and one could not do anything. I once asked one officer in the police station how many times per year, in a province of thirty thousand people, peasant women get arrested for anything. He admitted that he had not seen such an instance during his posting.
Given this landscape, what did we do? And how well did it work? The first strategy, despite the lethargy of the prosecutor and police, was to set the wheels of the law in motion against the select few who had crossed the line repeatedly: the ringleaders and the more violent hangers-on who had tried to assault members of the team. Charges started piling up, including incitement to riot and the like. For all the bluff dismissals at the outset, some were chastened as soon as they started getting summonses to appear and make statements at the sheriff’s office. These measures were taken on behalf of the team as a whole.
On my own account, even though I was not officially part of the dig, merely a companion moved to ire by the injustice of it all, I also took measures that a few months earlier I should never have imagined. At one assembly, the wife of one of the ringleaders—manager of the rather dysfunctional guesthouse where we had stayed briefly last year—decided to fire up public opinion against us some more. So, with apparent premeditation, she claimed in front of three hundred villagers that last year I chased after her with punches and kicks. Uproar ensued. I duly filed a defamation suit that is still pending. Normally I would have cared little, but for the fact that the slander further inflamed people and endangered the team, and contributed to the climate of impunity.
Once again, the landscape of opinion was uneven. Most ordinary people who heard about it were quite supportive of my choice, particularly when I had announced over the radio that I was not seeking a penny at the end of it, and that all she had to do to have the case dropped was to retract the statement publicly. They could see that basic issues of honesty were at stake. Unsurprisingly, the same radical intellectual who forgave lying as a local custom merely laughed his head off. But we come back to a truth rightly noted by Christopher Lasch in his book, The Revolt of the Élites and the Betrayal of Democracy. One hardly respects the poor by treating them with the soft compassion of contempt. A true populism, as he termed it, affirms the down to earth decency of common sense, in which even the humblest person is still a moral agent capable of exercising the virtues, and of being held responsible for one’s choices. When a peasant woman believes that she will not get arrested even when physically assaulting someone, or that she can get away with spewing carefully crafted falsehoods, the system is not doing her or her fellow villagers any favours.
The wheels of Peruvian justice turn slowly, and in the long run these cases may well end up being dropped anyway. In the meantime, however, they have had just enough deterrent effect to get people off the dig site and to prevent any further physical aggression. When individuals have to answer for their own excesses, mobs tend to scatter.
But what really turned the balance in the end was a strategy that, no doubt, again would incur some misgivings among many of a localist bent. The law simply would not have been enough, on its own, to shift the terrain. So we got directly involved in some local political manœuvres. As one of my Chinese friends in Nanjing remarked, in obvious disapproval, this might look like outsiders orchestrating a coup. But what did we really do? We facilitated and encouraged, one might say. Alongside using the legal system as in theory it should be used, we also took to the airwaves in a concerted media campaign, with radio announcements and interviews. Outsiders though we were, we could distil what was at stake in a much broader sense. Part of the reason I was so hoarse beneath the afternoon sun that day—as on some other occasions—was that I had spent hours doing my best to put the ringleaders on the defensive by bringing up their own past misdeeds in front of an audience. Repeated enough times, it tapped into the real impatience of many in the area who had seen a pattern of abuse over the years.
All this came to a head a few days before I left in September. As I mentioned earlier, one of the agendas of the mafioso circle had been to eject the previous village president. The erstwhile cattle rustler was then installed as interim president. Everything seemed to be falling into place, with the campaign against us as a useful impetus. That is, until by picking this battle, they overplayed their hand disastrously. To elect a replacement president required a general assembly of all four sectors of the community, which basically meant four villages that were grouped for historical reasons under one authority: the problem village itself at the centre, and three outlying settlements. For over forty years, the president had always been chosen from the central settlement, despite its dysfunctionality, and they had come to think of the position as their own property. Having people vote by a show of hands, rather than secretly, worked well to intimidate.
The accumulated abuses and the spectacle of this summer’s saga—combined with whatever modest effect came from our radio campaign and our liaising with the leaders of other sectors—led to a surprise in September. For the first time ever, the outlying sectors banded together and elected one of their own as president. The reaction was not pretty. The problem village let forth uproar such that the other sectors remarked that they were acting like petulant children as usual. But having overplayed their hand and lost the presidency, the ringleaders were very much weakened in their battle against the dig. And most importantly, the tide began to turn. The formerly cowed regained the courage to speak out against them, and to support us more openly.
To cut an already long story short, the dig resumed about a month ago, and is already a third over. Despite some grumbling from the die-hards, there have been no further threats and no active disruption. Token disapprovals have been repeated in village assemblies, but with very low turnout that shows a weakened ability to mobilise people and a general loss of interest in doing battle over nothing. Quite a few locals from at least two neighbourhoods of the village have also come out of the woodwork to take up the employment in rotation, working on the dig, that was offered from the start as one of the benefits of the project.
Some of this seems too good to be true, and daily I pray that things continue on an even keel for long enough to bring the season safely to a close. How the political battles continue to unfold remains to be seen. Sometimes those in the village and in the outlying sectors who have won one battle seem less eager about doing what is necessary to win the war once and for all; other times, they seem merely to be taking their time in deliberately tightening the screws and correcting longstanding wrongs. Given the actions we have already taken, we are duty bound to keep doing what we can, even from a distance, to facilitate and encourage. But whatever we have done, and might still be able to do, to open some room for them to act, those battles and their fruits are, in the end, their own.