ACHACACHI, BOLIVIA — They picked the wrong town.
Arriving by van in this solidly indigenous city on the night of an annual festival, the gang may have thought that drunk, reveling townspeople would be easy marks.
Residents said that in a series of attacks, the gang of 11, including five women, grabbed 30 victims on darkened streets and forced them into their vehicle, where they stripped, sexually assaulted and robbed the victims before local youths spread the alarm.
A mob quickly formed, took all the suspects to the city's soccer field and tied them to the goal posts. Although several of the suspects professed their innocence, they were beaten and spit upon for 10 hours, then doused with gasoline and set afire. Two died.
The November incident, seen around the world on YouTube, provoked outrage here and abroad. It was not an isolated instance. At least 54 people were killed in mostly indigenous Bolivian towns and suburbs last year by mobs taking the law into their own hands.
Among other lynchings last year, three policemen accused of extortion were killed by a mob in the town of Epizana in February. The incident prompted a United Nations warning that Bolivia's "weak judicial apparatus and the slow reaction of authorities favors an impunity that only encourages a repetition of these acts."
Incidents of mob rule are rising as Bolivian society is empowering as never before indigenous communities, which make up a third or more of the population. Last week voters approved a new constitution that elevated local indigenous justice to a status equal to traditional law, leaving Indian and peasant groups to run their own legal systems.
The new charter capped a two-year effort by President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, to promote "indigenous campesino justice." It's part of his broader campaign to give indigenous Bolivians more rights and autonomy.
The question in the minds of many legal experts is whether incidents such as the lynchings here will decrease as the Indians sense that they have more legal recourse, or increase as they legally dispense the summary justice that characterizes their approach.
Petronilo Flores, the Justice Ministry's community justice director, said that indigenous justice had been in effect for centuries and that the new constitution was an attempt to address "persistent colonial attitudes in Bolivia that indigenous justice doesn't work, that anything associated with Indians is no good."
Flores said that lynchings did not reflect true indigenous justice and that the incidents would decline as communities established their judicial powers and procedures.
"Under most circumstances, this justice works much faster, more efficiently and much more economically than the traditional system," Flores said.
Other legal experts fear that the number of lynchings will only go higher. Constitutional law expert Juan Cristobal Oriuste said the new charter left aside the issues of human rights and due process. And there is no appeal to the summary justice meted out in some places, he noted.
"Due process assumes the right of defending yourself and a knowledge of what the law says," Oriuste said. "If the law is undefined or unwritten, how can I defend myself?"
The constitution does not sanction violence or the death penalty. In fact, it upholds the right to life. But it guarantees indigenous communities the right to exercise "their principles, cultural values, norms and their own procedures." The constitution says their legal processes cannot be overturned by traditional courts.
Indigenous justice is usually not codified and is passed down orally from generation to generation, said Ramiro Molina, director of the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, the capital. Judicial and investigative functions are carried out by designated members of the community who are trained from early ages to assume the responsibility
But experts agreed that the application of indigenous justice can run into difficulty in cases of serious crimes such as murder, rape and assault, including those alleged to have happened here in November. Such cases are usually turned over to the state to handle in traditional court settings. But those procedures are vague, and there is usually no protocol for such a turnover.
Molina said he was assisting the federal government in an effort to codify indigenous law to bridge the gaps between the two legal systems.
What is sure is that Bolivians in the cities as well as the countryside are disgusted with a traditional police and court system that seems hopelessly broken.
"Of course it was mob psychology and never should have happened," Achacachi Mayor Eugenio Rojas said in an interview last week in this city about 50 miles northwest of La Paz. "But people have had it with the traditional system and that we have only eight police officers in a city of 100,000. If there had been a prosecutor in town that night to whom the people could hand over the suspects, this would never have happened."
Public defender Waldo Albarracin condemned what the townspeople did but said he understood how it might have happened.
"They are wrong. They committed crimes you can call murder," he said. "But their reaction had a cause, and it was the lack of state protection and the failure to offer citizens the security they need."
Asked to explain the rise in mob justice, Molina and others said collision of indigenous with urban cultures and the changing political climate were factors. Lynchings occur when the presence and influence of the state and indigenous justice are weak, they said.
Legal expert Gonzalo Mendieta said indigenous law was efficient "as long as you believe in it. If you don't, then it's going to seem highly arbitrary."
"What we want is a society that defends human rights," Mendieta said. "Those of us who do are not always going to be in favor of the romantic notion that indigenous justice is good by definition."