Ecuador has a population of 15 million (according to the 2001 census), of which more than 8 per cent self-identify as indigenous. If language use is factored in, the indigenous population reaches 14 per cent.
As elsewhere in the Americas, local authorities in Ecuador's indigenous areas are trying to deal with issues such as urbanization, rising youth violence and erosion of cultural traditions. In combating violent crime in the community, indigenous groups in 2010 increasingly turned to the use of communal justice, sparking debates regarding the role of and relationship between state legal norms and the practice of traditional indigenous customary law.
Neither corporal punishment nor the death penalty is included in Ecuador's legislation. However, in the country's 2008 Constitution, which sought to promote greater indigenous inclusion, allowances were made for indigenous communities to impart their own justice under their customary laws. This was in accordance with indigenous rights consecrated in International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169. At a time when growing numbers of young people are rejecting traditional communal structures and indigenous values in favour of a more globalized, urban-centred world view, community leaders are increasingly trying to address these challenges using decidedly traditional measures.
In May 2010, a 22-year-old man was publicly castigated and subjected to corporal punishment by community members after he had confessed on video to the murder of a young indigenous resident of La Cocha village, in the rural highland Pujilí district. Following the public castigation, the young man was taken back to his home area by his mother and community leaders. There a local assembly ordered him to perform community service for five years, and restricted him from leaving the area during all that time. He was also required to pay US $1,750 to the victim's mother.
The corporal punishment was widely covered by the local and regional media, and caused a national outcry. Editorial writers in Ecuador called upon the government to limit the practice of indigenous communal justice, which they argued has the potential to produce social chaos. Similarly, members of the Constituent Assembly, who had prepared the new Constitution, indicated that some cases of indigenous justice demonstrated the need for written standards and clear procedures, to ensure that indigenous justice was applied in accordance with international human rights standards.
In contrast, some researchers, such as sociologist Luciano Martínez, Professor at the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO), argued that indigenous forms of communal justice, such as a one-time public flogging or cold water dousing, are more effective than sending a young man away for a four-year prison sentence that is devoid of social context and lacks rehabilitation measures. Supporters also point out that Western-influenced mainstream law does not take into account indigenous community processes that aim at victim compensation and the reinsertion of offenders back into responsible community life. Indigenous rights advocates especially point to the fact that notions of communal solidarity and traditional reciprocity in indigenous communities are increasingly facing serious new challenges. This includes an increase in suicide rates among indigenous youth, who are unable to find their place either in their indigenous communities or in the individualistic culture of the mainstream urban world.
Meanwhile, in May 2010, President Rafael Correa threatened the use of armed intervention in cases where the state feels indigenous justice is going 'too far'.
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