In December 2012 Peruvian tourism suffered a small catastrophe. Three American tourists posted Nightmare in Peru on their blog devoted to chronicling their road trip from the United States to the tip of South America. Here’s my summary:
Jed Wolfrom and his wife Meghan Doherty embarked on a road trip from the US to the tip of South America in a modified camper. In Peru they met up with Jed’s sister, Jennifer. Before seeing Machu Picchu, they decided to camp in the village of Pallcca in the region of Ocongate. They were approached by villagers who began blowing whistles and making cell phone calls. More villagers arrived. The gringos refused to show their documents and tried to leave. The villagers picked up rocks as the tourists took off down the dirt road. Unfortunately it led nowhere and they had to head back where they came from, where the villagers had constructed rock barricades. The locals pelted the truck with rocks and it wrecked. The villagers surrounded the truck. Jed maced them with bear spray and the gringos fled on foot. The village – “at least 30 people” – gave chase through the woods with flashlights while pelting their prey with rocks. The gringos were apprehended and brought to the “Presidente” of the village. They were all bleeding from the head and “Jed’s front teeth were knocked out, his eye blundered shut by a rock.” They were brought into the village and surrounded by “at least 33 people that I could see but there were many in the back ground – including young children.” They held a tribunal / interrogation in what’s assumed to be Quechua amongst villagers and broken Spanish with the defendants. Interrogations and beatings went on for hours before they were told to sign a statement saying they’d been driving drunk when they wrecked their truck, which caused their injuries. The village leaders kept the American passports. After signing the statement the gringos were brought to the truck, which had been looted as their pockets had been, and told to wait for the police. The first arrival was obviously a fraud, so the foreigners told him the fake story from the signed statement. At 7:30 in the morning, Peruvian National Police arrived and took them to Ocongate, where the gringos told the real story. From there they were taken to Cusco, which has a US Consular office and tourist police station. In Cusco they received medical attention.
NBC’s Today Show did this segment on the Nightmare in Peru:
So what happened?
My first instinct was to believe they got robbed. I wouldn’t have jumped to that conclusion from any pro-gringo or anti-Indian bias, however. Being an occasionally misbehaved foreigner myself, I know some gringos deserve what they get. But this trio included two girls. Female presence has a taming effect on men. If they were three guys, I could see some troublemaking and I’d have my doubts. Or one girl with a few guys. But one guy with his wife and sister? How much trouble could they get into? I was inclined to believe the gringos’ side of the story.
But I also have experience with the Peruvian indigenous and pueblos. I always believed they were a docile people, and I’ve been well off the beaten path. I thought the biggest risk in those areas would be getting overcharged for a taxi, for a difference of a dollar or two. And for such impoverished Indians, I’d rather just pay it.
Could I be wrong about the docile, indigenous Peruvians? They’re not docile at all if you ask Jennifer, Meghan, and Jed. Could the rural areas of Peru be more dangerous than I thought?
My father-in-law is a career police officer in Arequipa, and early in his career he was sent to various rural areas in the height of the Shining Path insurgency. He has experience with these indigenous communities. Suegro doesn’t believe the gringos’ story. Here’s the jist of our discussion, paraphrased:
Suegro: Why did the villagers attack? There has to be a motive. The tourists were drinking, they had a problem with one of the villagers. When you have a problem with one villager, the whole village comes down on you. That’s how they are.
Me: Is it possible the village targeted them for robbery?
Suegro: No, in all my career I’ve never seen an indigenous pueblo of thieves. I’ve seen them loot an overturned truck. I’ve seen an entire village keep quiet when we learned they executed a thief among their own. But I’ve never seen a village-wide robbery like that. The foreigners are not telling the truth. They did something. Indians are not going to hit people with rocks for fun. She’s hiding something. She’s lying.
One key point that convinces Suegro is the fact that no charges were filed. The police’s required protocol is to explicitly ask the tourists if they wish to press charges. There’s no way to complete the report without clarifying whether or not charges will be filed. The victims must have opted NOT to file charges, signing and fingerprinting that declaration with the PNP.
In the Today Show video above, the reporter explains that the victims couldn’t recognize anybody in a sketchy photo lineup. That’s why they didn’t press charges. That doesn’t convince Suegro.
But what could the gringos – two girls and a guy who seem sober and reasonable in their TV interview – be hiding? The most I can imagine is a more liberal use of bear spray than what’s told in the original story. But would Jed the mountain man, backed up by two non-street-looking gringas, be the first to use violence? It’s far-fetched, but Suegro is convinced they’re hiding something.
I looked up what people were saying around the web. In the 125 comments from the El Comercio story, some Peruvians badmouth indigenous Peruvians and others criticize gringos.
The gringos who blame the villagers all the way almost exclusively come from outside Peru, and never lived in Peru. I imagine most had never heard of the Quechua language before the story, and probably wouldn’t remember it now.
In the gringo-in-Peru blogosphere, on the other hand, it’s almost the opposite. I haven’t found one taking a strong stance against the villagers, which I attribute in part to their never having heard such a horror story from Peruvian Indians, and in part to political correctness / anti-West ideology.
[I]n my days traveling in Peru, I always–as a friend of mine put it–“Dressed in rags.” If I were to spend a week in Cusco, I would bring a small satchel with extra underwear and a shirt and shorts to wear while I washed my other clothes. I also traveled with a fanny pack (people have often ridiculed me because this fanny pack appears in many of my pictures). Although it’s not fashionable, my fanny pack allowed me to always have my passport firmly against my body. I never even carried a camera most of the time, and I never brought enough money along to be of interest.
In short, I kept a low profile and was always ready to move fast. My security measures were extreme (almost to the level of paranoia), which is probably why nothing ever happened to me. I wouldn’t have attempted to drive around Peru in a rented camper with ten thousand dollars of equipment, and I don’t recommend it.
I think Walter’s precautions are extreme. But I definitely woulnd’t bring $10,000 worth of toys to go camping in an area of extreme poverty. Not normal, going-hungry poverty. We’re talking $1.25 / day, growth-stunting, extreme poverty. I’m the last guy to ever lay blame on victims of crime, and I’m the first to ridicule rich Peruvians or Colombians afraid to visit middle class neighborhoods of their own country, but there are lines I don’t cross. And when it comes to camping in extreme poverty regions with stuff worth more than the entire village’s combined salaries, I’ll pass. I was actually surprised they made it to Peru with everything. They passed through Mexico’s border region, Central American gangland, and paraco- and FARC-dominated red zones in Colombia. I would’ve thought they were home free. After all that, getting robbed by Quechuas?
This blog post seems to take the side of the villagers with these points:
- “Tourists, especially American tourists, often behave abroad in ways that they would not in their home countries.”
- Language proficiency – “we cannot really know what messages were being transmitted across language boundaries.”
- Cattle rustling – “cattle – especially in these times of climate change – are vital to a family or community’s livelihood … the presence of an outsider could have been associated with such a threat.”
- “The history of white men rolling up in the Andes.”
All those points (except climate change, which I can’t figure out how to apply here), the Streets of Lima argument, and even the Peruvians’ vitriolic comments on El Comercio contain at least a bit of truth. But all of them together make this incident impossible to understand.
After Suegro’s opinion that the gringos are hiding something, combined with my own instincts that two gringas and a gringo with $10,000 worth of toys would not do too much to provoke the locals, I decided to wait and see what came out before publishing something.
Over three months later, nothing came out. We haven’t heard the villagers’ side of the story. So my conclusion is that I’m stumped. I don’t have an opinion. What happened is NOT typical in any sense. Entire villages of thieving, predatory Peruvian Indians just don’t exist. Three Americans (two females) who are open-minded enough to visit obscure regions of the world generally don’t pick fights. And why aren’t there formal charges? I’m going to chalk it up as a freak-incident, an anamoly. As the Peruvian authorities are claiming it, I believe it was a misunderstanding.
Rondas campesinas, or peasant patrols, began in 1976 to combat thieves in the northern mountains of Cajamarca. By the early 1980s, they had taken over much of the work of the official courts by resolving disputes over land or family arguments, and they supervised small public works projects, becoming a major rallying point for peasant pride. The original rondas campesinas in northern Peru are often confused with the quite different organizations of the same name in Ayacucho and the southern highlands, which formed a decade later to combat the Shining Path.
The rondas were started to combat rustling and livestock theft, which was needed given the loss of one animal could break an indigenous Peruvian family living in extreme poverty. But the vigilantes graduated from theft prevention to battling the Shining Path guerrillas. They completely replaced local government in many areas. At their height, former President Alberto Fujimori‘s government officially recognized the rondas, even arming them with Winchester rifles.
Understanding Peruvian history is important to this story. The police don’t really enter these pueblos. They’re self-administered. What seemed to these three tourists an illegal lynching was actually a longstanding form of local law enforcement. More from The Peru Reader:
As the patrols spread, their duties also multiplied. In some villages, they organized small public works projects, for example, cleaning irrigation canals or constructing health posts and meeting halls. Most extraordinary in the patrols’ development, however, is their role in administering justice. More important than patrolling, throughout the north their principal activity now consists of arreglos, or village-based trials. At assemblies attended by the entire village and presided over by the elected patrol steering committee, small yet often bitter disputes – property disagreements, inheritances, water rights, and intrigues – are settled. These are problems that abound in rural communities: “small town, big hell,” as they say in the mountains. Resolution comes after long hours of often contentious debate by the light of a Coleman lantern or a kerosene lamp made from a can of Gloria brand evaporated milk. At times, the final settlement includes a fine or whipstrokes. In addition, the litigants almost always sign a “trial record.”
This quirk of Peruvian society, combined with some wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time, a drop of miscommunication, and the possibility of an undisclosed slight, formed a perfect storm for this anamoly incident.
That’s my conclusion.
The Nightmare in Peru helped fuel the silly hype behind the supposed Garrett Hand / Jamie Neal disapperance in Peru just two months later, who were reported missing by an overprotective mother before reappearing from an Amazon rain forest / river tour. The US State Department warned of kidnapping plots targetting American tourists in another blow to Peruvian tourism in the international media. But with 699,680 foreign tourists visiting the Machu Picchu ruins in 2012, for an average of 1,910 per day, I don’t think Peruvian tourism has anything to worry about.
So where are Jed Wolfrom and his wife Meghan Doherty? I just checked in and was surprised to see they completed their road trip. A few months after the ordeal and the Today Show spot, the recovering couple continued to Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina in their camper! See them in Moving On and To the Final One, which show them smiling and having a great time. Spirit unbroken, amazing!