Colony trial

I’ve been in the Santa Cruz area of Bolivia for the past week. Bolivia has around 70,000 Mennonites, mostly Old Order, and most of them live within a few hours of Santa Cruz. I’ve met a great bunch of people at RTM Radio (a Christian radio network) who have taken me in, given me places to sleep, food to eat, people to meet, etc. They also put me on air, which has turned me into a minor (like D-list) celebrity in the area. I’m that Canadian guy on the motorbike. A big thanks to the Janzen, Friesen and Toews families.

Bolivia contains some of the most conservative Mennonites in the world. The majority of them do not have electricity, they drive tractors with steel wheels, have no cars/trucks, adhere to strict dress rules, have very limited education and struggle with Spanish (They speak German and Plautt Deutsche). Their remoteness and lack of education and civility has manifested itself in chronic problems with domestic abuse, incest, alcohol and drug abuse and conflicts with the Bolivian locals.

In 2009 a case came to light that has put the colonies, and particularly Manitoba Colony, into the international press and shed some light on how ignorant and vulnerable these people are. A group of men were accused of possessing a magic spray which could put whole households (and their dogs) to sleep, allowing the men to enter the house and rape the women unnoticed. A posse of vigilantes arrested these men, tortured them (one man died of his injuries) and eventually, by paying large sums of money to local authorities, had the men put in jail. This has become a modern Salem Witch Trial for the Mennonite community. No one knows the truth, who is guilty, if anyone is guilty, what happened, etc. But the men are in jail, and the story has only grown more lurid, complicated, unbelievable and sad over the years.

I have no illusion of finding the “truth” since it doesn’t really exist anymore. People don’t know the difference between what they have heard, dreamt, done, seen, imagined or wished. But I am meeting with many of the parties involved, as I think this story illustrates what can happen when you willfully keep a population ignorant, isolated and repressed.

This couple, Mr and Mrs Peters, told me the story of how their son was arrested, choked until he passed out and then hooked up to a 220v electric fencer until he confessed to raping women and having a can of the magic spray. The spray has never been found or proven to exist. They say he’s innocent.

I went to the Palmasola prison to interview the men, who have never formally been convicted or sentenced. Palmasola is a “prison town” where children and families live with the convicted in a village like setting. It’s insane, overcrowded (more than 4,000 inmates), filthy but also colorful and quite “normal” in some ways. I kept thinking of Papillon when I was in the prison. I was not allowed to take my camera in, but I do have a picture of my arm to show you. I got stamped, numbered, checked and crossed by marker for every gate I passed through and bribe I paid.

4 thoughts on “Colony trial

  1. Have been following you’r travels with great interest.Could hardly wait till you reached Boliva,have you met my cousin Ben & Neta Friesen? If you do say Hi to them from Ed & Mary

  2. I think you did a fantastic job of describing the Mennonite people and the situations that they are in here in Bolivia.We pray for God’s leading, discernment, and protection on you as you continue on this journey.We look forward to reading more about it.It was a pleasure to meet you!

  3. Cameron,

    You write, “I have no illusion of finding the “truth” since it doesn’t really exist anymore. People don’t know the difference between what they have heard, dreamt, done, seen, imagined or wished.” I agree. Than why not start by resisting the “truth” North American evangelicals want you to dish. Start by not writing things that are not true. You write 1) the men in prison have not been charged nor sentenced. This is mostly untrue. One man has not sentenced (he has heard his charges), please read about the charges and sentences at this or any other links by simply googling the case.
    2) You wrote, “The spray has never been found or proven to exist.” Yet journalists have reports differently,
    3) Bribing the prison guards is great journalistic garnish … as though the others in front and behind you in line didn’t have to pay the same set fee.

    Your job as a journalist is to get the whole story, not to add to the mass of sentimental dreck (enough of that already, simply google it). Your job as a journalist is to get all sides of the story, and provide due diligence to all the players. All people involved are owed this, especial those without voice.

    Klaas Epp

    • True, I did spend a lot of time with “North American evangelicals” while in Bolivia. They were extremely kind and hospitable to me. And yes, we did talk a lot about what is happening on the colonies. However, what I wrote was based on interviews with those in prison, two of the families of those in prison, and two men involved in the prosecution. It was those interviews that shaped my opinion on this matter.

      1) I think you’re right on the charged part, I shouldn’t have written that. However, I was told that the sentence was only signed by two of the three judges that heard the case, which means the sentences are not yet passed. I also understand that the sentences, as they stand, were also handed down in prison, not in court with defense present. I’m not that familiar with Bolivian law, but that sounds a bit odd and “unofficial” to me.

      2) The only evidence of the spray I saw or heard was a transcript of the “expert witness” in court. Given that the Mennonites who pushed for the prosecution told me themselves they spent “at least” $300,000 in payments to everyone from police to prosecutors and judges, I think we have fair reason to doubt the impartiality of the expert witness. There were also some glaring inconsistencies in the expert’s witness as recorded in court. However, I do intend to do a bit more research on that. I did not meet anyone who had actually seen the spray. Still, common sense makes it very hard to believe that an uneducated colony veterinarian could cook up a batch of spray that is so powerful it can put an entire household to sleep when sprayed through a single window. I think that if such a spray were possible it would have found a variety of other uses by now. I’m open to hear other opinions, more educated than mine, on this. Also, given that the men were arrested and forced to confess by colony vigilantes and all evidence was collected and initially held by those bribing officials for the conviction, I believe the evidence would be rejected as tainted by most courts in more developed countries.

      3) You’re right, it is “great journalistic garnish”, and all the greater because it’s entirely true. Everyone had to pay the bribe. I had to pay a 20B “gift” to the guard at the gate, and then again when I handed in my passport. There were no signs stating that the prison had an entry fee (although there were plenty of signs stating the other rules, one painted on the front gate), and I was given no ticket or receipt. It was a bribe, and I paid it with the rest of the people entering.

      Thanks again for your interest in my journey and the stories I’m telling along the way. I welcome your further response.

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