On 26 April 2021, Roger Choque Mendoza was sentenced to 15 years in prison for complicity in the femicide of Young Hee Cho, a Korean tourist who visited the island in 2018. The sentence for complicity, without the circumstances and true culprits being known or investigated, opens strong questions about ordinary justice in Bolivia; rather, it seems to be aimed at criminalising the defence of territorial autonomy – established in the Political Constitution of the State – in relation to strong economic, national and global interests around Isla del Sol.
Tourism and territorial invasion on Isla del Sol (Lupaka nation)
Tourism, beyond a certain limit, taken to an industrial scale, is extractivism, another form of plundering. Like a cancer, it only responds to the logic of its own growth. The first to suffer are always the local people. It is enough to see the plundering that is taking place with the touristification of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, after it was declared a “World Heritage Site “(1) . Excessive growth can reach such aberrant extremes as the new mega-airport (2) that is to be built between Cuzco and Machu Picchu.
The Island of the Sun and the Moon and the entire Lake Titicaca basin are among the most emblematic places for Andean civilisation. The Sacred Rock was a place of pilgrimage since ancient times; it was visited by dignitaries of all times, because according to the cosmovision, the sun, the moon and the stars came into the firmament from this place. Considered as one of the foundational sites and cradle of the American human, the symbolic power of the Island of the Sun is enormous. The emergence of mystical tourism in connection with the imaginary of the Andean settlers, the declaration of Tiahuanacu as a “World Heritage Site” unleashed the flow of tourists with a strong impact on the local way of life.
According to colonial documents, the Isla del Sol, like other territories of the Qullasuyu, was divided into two partitions: Aransaya and Urinsaya, chacha and warmi (man – woman) in cultural symbolism. In the case of the island, Ch’alla corresponded to the Aransaya partiality and Yumani to the Urinsaya partiality. The territory of the Ch’alla ayllu (territorial community) and the Ptallajta Yumani ayllu form a single unit and by nature build autonomy. This is the ancestral order. A third ayllu cannot exist there. If this ancestral order is fractured, good consequences follow.
The origin of the conflict
Especially the people of Challapampa, the northern town closest to the Chinkana and the Sacred Rock, join forces to transport tourists and share in the benefits of the growing activity. Previously, an agrarian union had been formed there, separate from Ch’alla, a separation that was also accentuated by the intervention of state agents, archaeological explorations and the construction of a museum. The population of Challapampa reaffirms itself as a community, but it cannot separate itself from Ch’alla because it is part of an aynuqa system that involves the centre and north of the island with all its zones. There is no territorial division between Ch’alla and Challapampa, as the individual cultivation plots (sayañas) are distributed discontinuously between Ch’alla and Challapampa community members, who are ultimately part of the same families.
Ch’alla has always maintained the tourist road from Yumani to the Sacred Rock (Fig. 1). Conflict broke out when villagers from the Challapampa area destroyed some huts that Ch’alla was building with the authorisation of the National Directorate of Archaeology. There were heavy clashes and on 23 March 2017, Ch’alla began blocking tourist boats.
At the same time, its authorities promoted – a historic event – the reconstitution of the Ayllu Ch’allaiii, the reaffirmation of the Lupaka nation and the consolidation of an autonomous indigenous government, recognised by the Tribunal of the Original Indigenous-Campesino Jurisdiction of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. These achievements rekindled the racist hatred towards its main promoter, Roger Choque Mendoza, his media vilification and triggered his persecution by the Copacabana prosecutor, Wladimir Monje Arteaga, and the tourist companies, Magri Tours, Crillón Tours and Transturin, which had monopolised tourism to the island. David Inca Apaza, although he presented himself as a mediator in the conflict, in fact promoted the separation of the Challapampa zone; for similar interventions he was removed from the APDH (4).
In the midst of this conflict, in January 2019, Young Hee Cho, a Korean tourist, arrived at Isla del Sol and stayed in a hotel in Yumani. On 9 January, she left the hotel and never returned.
Two days later his body was found between Ch’alla and Yumani by Ch’alla community members, who informed their native authorities. It was Roger Choque himself, who at the time held the position of Mallku, who made the complaint to the Copacabana police authorities. He was vilified in the media and on social networks and it was spread that he was the murderer.
Pre-trial detention and sentencing of RCM.
RCM did not appear at the hearing for precautionary measures set by the Judge for Children and Adolescents and Criminal Precautionary Instruction of Copacabana, because he was not duly notified. The fact was used by the Public Prosecutor’s Office to justify the ostentatious police-military operation mounted on 30 April 2019 to enter the original jurisdiction of Ch’alla, in which even the Navy was deployed. In addition to Roger, around twenty community members were arrested and resisted, as they tried to prevent this. Once arrested, they took his statement without the assistance of a lawyer, they treated him and made him look like a criminal, attributing to him phrases that he never said, violating his right to defence, his right to be assisted by a lawyer, his right to testify in his mother tongue.
The first hearing, on 1 May 2019 (a bank holiday), took place with a large number of community members in attendance. As a result, the community members were released. The hearing declared Roger Choque free and clear, however, despite the lack of evidence to support the accusation, after the hearing he was taken to the San Pedro prison. It was later claimed that his arrest was based on the testimony of an island community member who testified against him. Recently, on 24 January 2021, this community member appeared before the native authorities of Ch’alla to apologise to the community and deny his statement to the FELCC. He claimed to have been forced to do so.
No evidence linked the accused to the femicide of Young Hee Cho. The expert opinion of the Institute of Forensic Investigations (analysis of December 2019 and January 2020), concludes that the genetic profile of the samples is different from the genetic profile obtained from the sample of the accused Roger Choque Mendoza and other former authorities, previously charged.
It is very striking that the Prosecutor’s Office has not initiated the investigation in the community of Yumani, where Young Hee Cho had been staying. The Ministry of Government accuses RCM of obstructing the investigation; however, in two years of pre-trial detention, the justice system has not made any progress in clarifying the real perpetrator of the feminicide. The trial was reactivated this year under pressure from the Korean embassy, but alternative hypotheses, such as that of a commissioned crime, were never investigated. With no evidence against him, in April of this year, when he was expected to be released, the ordinary justice system changed the charge of murder to femicide as an accomplice, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison plus all the costs of the trial. A sentence with serious flaws, repeated uncritically or emphasised against Roger in almost all of the national media, but about which the Plurinational Legislative Assembly of Bolivia itself is asking for explanations from the State Attorney General.
It is also striking that, as soon as the sentence became known, David Inca Apaza immediately activated a new instance of “mediation”, this time with the presence of the vice-president of the nation, David Choquehuanca. The Ch’alla authorities, the new Mallku and the community demanded the release of Roger Choque as a condition for dialogue. As a result, no agreements were reached. However, the government immediately announced that the conflict had been resolved with a supposed “Peace Treaty “(7), in which the secession of the Challapampa zone was taken for granted. To speak of three peoples (8) on the island, as the vice-president does, is neither a solution nor does it respect the ancestral order and the free self-determination and self-government system of the Ch’alla ayllu, in harmony with the Political Constitution of the plurinational state of Bolivia. It is only opening the doors to the landing of the tourist business on a large scale in the north of the island.
The causes of the conflict have been analysed in depth and proposals for its resolution have been formulated in various works and documents (9) even before the events that took place; but they continue to be ignored. Contemporary state discourses tend to commodify culture; they staged “new age” style ceremonies that commercially appropriated the Island’s symbolic power and its original sacredness. In this sense, if the State were to respect and care for the primordial heritage of the native cultures, it would give rise to the emergence of valid alternatives, based on the local experiences of the communities themselves, just as the largest native sanctuary of the Plurinational State of Bolivia deserves.
Perhaps the conviction of Roger Choque Mendoza will appease the pressures of the Korean embassy, but what justice is it to condemn an innocent man? whose accomplice is he? who planned and took the life of Young Hee Cho? Those of us who have known Roger, amauta (inca teacher), from words from a very deep, unbribable source, say that his condemnation is political and that his criminalisation is a step backwards in the movement that has opened so much hope for the original peoples of Abya Yala. We demand the investigation and condemnation of the real intellectual and material authors of the feminicide of Young Hee Cho; we demand the immediate release of Roger Choque, already in his third year of unjust imprisonment; and we demand an investigation of David Inca Apaza, for having planted false evidence against Roger. We add our voices to the Defence and to those of the authorities of the Ayllu Ch’alla.
Justice for Roger Choque Mendoza and justice for Young Hee Cho!
International group: Freedom for Roger Choque Mendoza, political prisoner!
6 https://web.senado.gob.bo/sites/default/files/peticiones/PIE N%C2%B0 580-2020-2021.PDF