Nightmare in Peru: When Indians Attack!

Posted on 05. Apr, 2013 by in peru

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.

This argument from Streets of Lima:

[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:

  1. “Tourists, especially American tourists, often behave abroad in ways that they would not in their home countries.”
  2. Language proficiency – “we cannot really know what messages were being transmitted across language boundaries.”
  3. 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.”
  4. “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.

In recent studies of Peruvian history, I came across some indepth looks at rondas campesinas and their impact on the Peruvian countryside. This from The Peru Reader by Duke University Press:

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:

Village Justice

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.”

Rondas campesinas

Rondas campesinas

Don't fuck with.

Don’t fuck with.

Sound familiar?

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!

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17 Responses to “Nightmare in Peru: When Indians Attack!”

  1. Chuck

    05. Apr, 2013

    “I was actually surprised they made it to Peru with all that shit. They passed through Mexico’s rural border areas, 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?”

    Exactly what I was thinking.

  2. Twenty

    06. Apr, 2013

    “Jed Wolfrom and his wife Meghan Doherty …”

    They lost me right there. Never trust a man who married a woman who refused his name.

    I bet there’s a drunk, entitled gringa at the bottom of this. “Let’s you and him fight, &c.”

  3. Bar

    06. Apr, 2013

    Hey Colin good analysis of the whole affair I’m glad you took a neutral stand point but I’m with the locals on this one

    I think refusing to show the documents to the village authorities and then spraying them with pepper spray intended to take down a half tonne grizzly might have something to do with it. all these villagers are related to each other in some way and if not related they are like family anyway so its no wonder they lynched there asses I would have done the same thing or worse. Colin have you ever got a bit of juice in your eye when preparing rocoto? it burns for hours just imagine what bear repellent does, it would drive me crazy with rage and I would be looking for blood. I’m not sure what the legislation on pepper spray is in Peru but in most countries its classed as a firearm in my country you can get locked up for just having it on your person let alone spraying a public official with it so they are lucky not to have been jailed. I would take a beating over prison in Peru any day.

    Anyway they should have just shown the documents because these villagers are suspicious of outsiders and not just because of cattle rustling but because of the foreign exploitation of the mineral wealth and the poisoning of the lands and water supply which quickly follows. so let this be a lesson to any other upper class yuppies when the authorities ask for your documents you show it to them and be polite and don’t spray them with bear spray for fuck sake, the same goes for anywhere you might be in the world not just Peru

  4. pal

    06. Apr, 2013

    It is said that the U.S. was violating a minor community, and foreign women were protecting the act (drugs, alcohol). But they were discovered by the community and that is why they have been beaten. That’s the strong rumor that is online.

  5. GGW Colombia

    06. Apr, 2013

    I think they got scared of the villagers asking for documents, language barrier problems, then got the mace out which triggered it.

    Fuckit, they got their ass beat and stuff taken and we will never find out the exact sequence of events

  6. Jimmy

    07. Apr, 2013

    Rural people can be pretty hardnosed.

    Think about pulling into a a hilltop holler on the Tennessee-Kentucky border back in 1933 and you were a OTH – other than Hillbilly.

    You might get a pretty chilly reception.

    Some Italians who went to Appalachia to work in the mines were waylayed and killed for flirting with the local girls.

  7. Colin

    08. Apr, 2013

    I’m surprised everybody thinks the gringos got what they deserved. Before my chat with my father in law, I was inclined to believe them.

    The other part of this story that fascinated me is I don’t really know how they could have avoided their fate, being beaten that is. $10,000 worth of toys, well that’s another thing. But I wouldn’t show my documents to anyone I can tell isn’t police. And if someone tries to detain me I’d fight my way out. If being honest, I really don’t think I would’ve done anything different than what they did. Although I wouldn’t have had bear spray, just my hands.

    Who knows?

  8. Daniel

    08. Apr, 2013

    Hi Colin.

    I agree with you in that it is very difficult to have an opinion on the subject. The term freak-incident is about right to describe what happened. Yet, don’t you think the americans could have done something (most likely unintentionally) to offend the indigenas?. Here in Colombia the wayuus (Guajira) have a very complex culture and I’ve been told that in some of their villages you really need to know how to behave. My best mate intended to do his rural year (mandatory for all med students) in a wayuu village, he was advised not to, if some patient died he could have probably been killed by the indians in revenge.

  9. Colin

    08. Apr, 2013

    Daniel, I definitely think the gringos could have done something to provoke the Indians. I just don’t think it’s likely.

    But given what you know about indigenous tribes in Colombia, the possibility of a serious miscommunication becomes all the more likely.

  10. Juan Buhler

    09. Apr, 2013

    It seems to me that what they did to provoke them was to refusing to show ID to the authorities, and then spraying them with bear spray.

    The “we didn’t think they were police” is not a defense. When you travel like this you carry photocopies of your documents, and that’s the first thing you show when asked.

    In another forum, someone postulated a mirror situation: Imagine a small group of foreigners, who don’t speak English, trying to camp in a park in your small town. When the local cop comes to see who they are and what’s going on, they refuse to identify themselves, and when pushed about this, they try to escape, going through two roadblocks and using bear spray on the locals.

    Something tells me that in many parts of the US this story would have ended with one of the “tourists” with a bullet in his head, and nobody would be blaming the town locals.

    The other detail is that these guys ended up with about $20K in donations from people who took pity on them. Plus their truck fixed by the Peruvian government, for free. Of course I don’t believe they planned this as a scam, but their complete silence and lack of grace about the whole thing, including the money part, makes them really hard “victims” to sympathize with.

  11. Garrett

    13. Apr, 2013

    I can definitely read right through this and take a strong stance here: I have spent a lot of time in random places in Peru and Guatemala that have their fucked-up histories involving the locals and outsiders… Moreover I often will stay with the locals for a number of days for whatever reasons…

    This was definitely a case of cultural misunderstandings combined with unfortunate circumstances and definite mistakes on both parts…

    These gringos took a turn off a somewhat-travelled road and were suddenly on a road that receives no gringos of any kind. They did not realize this because there’s no way of knowing that and so were not sensitive to the context. This had surely happened to them before, but it was never a problem, and in the Peruvian Andes, it shouldn’t normally be a problem.

    So two people who trusted the gringos (rightfully so) said there shouldn’t be a problem, but then maybe they told people in town, one or two was either drunk or otherwise suspicious for whatever reason or maybe even just looking for stimulation and gossiping with the gringos (many have never spoken to one personally but they see them often). These are not foul intentions. Now they went (up) to see the gringos and the gringos were taken by surprise and already felt on the defensive for whatever reason. When asked to show their documents, they should have. Perhaps those people did not look like authority figures, but authority figures in those parts do not tend to look the part (they look like everyone else). Moreover, their lack of education as well as a double language barrier (not great Spanish on their behalf either) does not help them out in establishing their role in the community. The gringos made a big mistake with the documents. Showing them was required and not doing so made the suspicions from the Peruvians go through the roof. Now imagine: it’s dark and you’re in a confrontation; the adrenaline has just started flowing and both parties are feeling righteous and just. “Why won’t the gringos show their documents?” “Who are these people and why do they want our documents?” You know us gringos sometimes, we get righteous with our propriety if you know what I mean.

    And flipping the vehicle into a ditch? This thing just got way out of control…

    I imagine these 3 were also spending a lot of time together puzzling over the inconsistencies of life in the Andes and bitching about people giving them the wrong directions. They felt indignant as gringos. Wrong attitude: you’re a lot further from home (mindset-wise) here than in Latino towns, a fact that is easy to forget. You can fool yourself otherwise when supposedly you have a grip on the language, which neither you or they actually do…

    These gringos are good people and so are the locals. Shit got out of control…

    And of course Colin, the history in the region has everything to do with both party’s predispositions, so you are right-on there…

  12. Rawley

    16. Apr, 2013

    I have only read half (at work) but I can tell you from my travels amongst some rural Indians in Bolivia, that the potential for trouble is there. Esp. when there are tons of very ignorant and blindly trusting European and American hippies wandering around and assuming the Indians are docile or gentle. Drinking, dancing and snapping pics of drunk Indians for their FB friends. They sometimes have no clue they are flirting with disaster. Kind of like the German Au-Pairs I see in DC, who want to experience the hood and end up getting groped and robbed in black clubs in DC.

    I’m not saying all Indians are bad, but the chances of getting raped, beaten, attacked or stolen from by a drunk Indian adult with a 3rd grade education might be just a bit higher than they are with more domesticated and educated people in the cities. Remember the level of poverty some of these people have after all. Dirt floors, 2-3 kids by mid teen years, its a rough life out there.

    Even in the USA, would you park your camper in the middle of the Ozarks or back woods Appalachia? Would you not even think about someone getting red over property or trespassing? It’s several times worse down in the Andes than it is in the most rural and back woods of the USA.

    And well..sometimes the Indians can be cruel. One story comes to mind of a Chilean tour bus that wrecked high up in the mountains in Bolivia. A village of Indios came to see what had happened, but instead of helping the Chilenos, they just robbed them of their luggage, cash, clothes and jewelry and left them for dead. Several did die. The Chilean gov’t go involved in that one.

  13. Zac

    16. Apr, 2013

    Yeah, if they were in the backwoods of the USA it would’ve been far more terrorizing. “Chilla como un marrano gringo” *queue accordions in lieu of banjos*

  14. Rawley

    17. Apr, 2013

    @ Zac – Funny!

  15. Brian

    09. Jul, 2013

    Colin, et al

    I’m in the planning stages to attempt a similar road trip, British Columbia to the southernmost tip of Argentina. It’s good to see your article and thoughts along with the additional comments and thoughts from everyone else. I picked up on some things I need to keep in mind when I attempt this trek.

    As a minor contribution to what others have said, I too have traveled in Peru (Mar/Apr 2012). I didn’t use a camper and go totally off-road, but I did go up into the Andes and visit a few towns and stopped at a couple villages. I can understand Spanish, but can’t really speak it. And definitely don’t know a thing about the Quechean(sp?) language. But in my case I made sure to have a couple Peruvian colleagues with me and the 3 of us simply used common sense when it came to being in areas that were somewhat desolate or isolated.

    So bottom line is I agree with the “wrong place/wrong time” part of the affair and totally agree that there was a language miscommunication of some sort. I lived, breathed, worked and played in Italy for more than twenty years. I can write, read and speak Italian with the best of them. But even after 20+ years, there are still places in the “Old Country” where the dialect is so different that even the Italians have a hard time communicating. So I can relate when it comes to trying to use the official language of a country when traveling, then stumble across areas where the entire syntax, grammar, educational level and circumstances of a small community/tribe/village is totally different, and makes it nearly impossible to communicate effectively.

    Thanks all

  16. Kiev

    21. Jul, 2013

    “…like the German Au-Pairs I see in DC, who want to experience the hood and end up getting groped and robbed in black clubs in DC.”

    I like to hear those stories. Any links?
    Can you tell me about them Rawley?

  17. P.

    16. Jan, 2015

    I’m in Peru, and I asked my friends about this incident. The perception was that the gringos were using drugs. That could have been the spark that lit the fire. And what the hell were they doing travelling around on the backroads and thinking it was safe to just camp along the roadside? That’s an invitation to get robbed.

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