Ecuador: Indigenous Justice

Posted on November 27, 2012 • Filed under: Crime, Ecuador, Latin America Indigenous Issues

This articles discusses the challenges and tensions encountered between indigenous and national systems of justice in Ecuador. The article highlights some of the major issues surrounding indigenous systems, namely, how crime should be dealt with, as well as how indigenous justice has been negatively portrayed in the media. The article suggests that indigenous communities know how to structure their justice systems the best; thus, the national justice system should work with them in a collaborative effort.

By Luis Ángel Saavedra
What is indigenous justice? Does an indigenous justice system really exist? Should indigenous
justice be subordinate to a country’s ordinary (national) justice system? These and other
questions are perplexing legal experts trained in Western law as they analyze and try to put into
practice the mandate in the Ecuadoran Constitution’s Article 171. The article recognizes the
competence of indigenous authorities to apply their own norms and procedures that are
appropriate for resolving internal conflicts and not contrary to the Constitution or human
rights. This article also requires that mechanisms be designed for coordination and cooperation
between indigenous justice and ordinary justice.
Opinions differ widely on how to respond to the constitutional requirements, from grassroots
systems set up by indigenous communities to carrying out legal studies, proposed by
organizations such as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) or
carried out by networks of indigenous lawyers. However, none of these proposals seems to
answer all the conflicts created between indigenous justice and the ordinary justice system.
Distortions of indigenous justice
The first problem that indigenous‐justice analysts face is distortion by the media and various
mestizo authorities. The media confuse lynchings of criminals, which usually end in a horrible
death, with authentic indigenous justice systems, which do not include the death penalty and
do not have a concept of punishment for a committed crime.
Lynchings generally happen in poor urban settings where residents have given up on the
ordinary justice system, either because the processes are so slow or because those who carry
out justice are so susceptible to bribes, making the administration of justice a system in which
whoever runs the courts or has the economic power to buy the judge’s decision prevails.
Following President Rafael Correa’s thinking, government authorities challenge indigenous
justice on the grounds that it resorts to torture and kidnapping. “The whole world knows that
hanging naked young men by their arms and whipping them in public is torture; that is not
justice. This is not a problem of law; it is a problem of stopping torture, stopping barbaric
practices in the 21st century. Those who kidnapped these young people will go on trial because
kidnapping, torture, and humiliation cannot be carried out in the name of indigenous justice,” Read Report
said Correa.

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