ALTHOUGH THE US Senate has apologized to the victims of lynchings that occurred in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, US-backed policies in Latin America are today contributing to a new rash of lynching violence that claims hundreds of lives each year.
Acknowledging its failure to enact legislation that might have put a stop to the extrajudicial killings of African-Americans at the hands of racist lynch mobs, last week's nonbinding Senate resolution expresses ''the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate" to lynching victims and their families. The Senate resolution is a well-intentioned effort to atone for that body's inaction to confront a terrible crime, now a shameful part of the nation's past.
Meanwhile, in countries across Latin America and elsewhere, lynchings are not a relic of the past but a painful daily reality. In countries from Bolivia to Mexico, Guatemala to Brazil, hundreds of people each year die or are gravely injured at the hands of lynch mobs. In Bolivia, for example, where I have done anthropological research since 1993, the nongovernmental organization Acción Andina has recorded some 50 to 100 lynching incidents per year since 2000.
What is behind these lynchings, and what is the US role in perpetuating them?
Lynchings in Bolivia are not racially motivated. Unlike southern US lynchings, which to a large extent were efforts to reinforce a dying antebellum racist social order, today's lynchings in Bolivia and elsewhere are, perversely, efforts at crime prevention. The state judicial system in Bolivia, from urban policing to the highest courts, is brutally corrupt, attending only to those with the resources to pay for service. For the nation's poor, many of whom are concentrated in marginal neighborhoods on the peripheries of Bolivia's cities, access to official police and judicial services is virtually nonexistent.
At the same time, crime rates in Bolivia have risen exponentially in recent years as the nation's economy spirals downward, and the poor, unprotected by the police and lacking access to the courts, are especially vulnerable to criminal predation. Poor Bolivians, many of them of indigenous Quechua and Aymara extraction, describe themselves as completely abandoned by the Bolivian state and its official justice system, and view lynching of criminal suspects as the only way to create ''justice." ''It is well known," says a resident of Villa Sebastián Pagador, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Cochabamba, Bolivia's third largest city, ''that for poor people there is never justice. Therefore, we have to protect ourselves, by ourselves."
It is all too easy to dismiss these lynchings as acts of violent savagery, committed by indigenous people with no respect for civilization or its institutions. Indeed, such are the explanations for lynching offered by government and media ''experts" in the countries where they occur. It is also tempting to view such violence as a problem endemic to ''underdeveloped" or Third World countries, whose civil institutions are not as ''evolved" as those whose protections US citizens enjoy.
But such explanations negate the role of US policy in creating the kinds of societies in which lynching can occur. Bolivia, like most other countries in Latin America, has for decades been a client of the United States, structuring its economy and its political system along neoliberal lines dictated by Washington. Nevertheless, poverty in Bolivia has risen steadily over the past two decades, as the failures of neoliberalism reveal themselves. Bolivia has also been saddled with the burden of foreign debt repayment, and in compliance with US drug-control policy has curtailed production of one of its few export commodities, the coca leaf. Scarce resources that might support civilian judicial reform have been directed to fighting the US drug war on Bolivian soil.
Bolivian society, like that of many countries hemisphere-wide, is rife with violence, of which lynching is only the most recent variety. Rather than an antiquated practice or an expression of innate savagery, lynching today is a fully modern response to problems of insecurity created by mounting poverty, rising crime, corruption, and the failure of official justice. The role of the United States in creating this situation deserves evaluation now before another Senate apology, this time to Bolivian and other Latin American victims of lynching violence, becomes necessary.
Daniel M. Goldstein, assistant professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, is the author of ''The Spectacular City: Violence and Performance in Urban Bolivia."