Wednesday. We hopped into a cab to the penitentiary . . . on the way up, we saw a group of protesters marching down from the prison. Penitentiary workers. Due to the protest, there were no trials so we had to go back down. But we couldn’t get down the same way we came up, because there were no taxis going down as a result of the protest. So in sandals and dress pants, we hiked down a rocky, dirty hill to get back.
At this point, spontaneous dangerous hiking adventures are no surprise to me.
The attorney I went with was concerned because since the trial didn’t go forward today, the process must start over from the beginning. A great number of cases are delayed this way. Worse yet, a prisoner here can be held captive for a maximum of 18 months without a sentence, then he or she is released. With the delays, it’s been the case where many of the prisoners must be released before the trial is complete. And sadly, most of the time, once released, the prisoner never returns and the victim never finds justice.
The new criminal procedure in effect here in Huanuco should lead to more efficient and thorough investigation of cases by the prosecutor, but sadly that appears not to be the case. On Tuesday, I headed out with part of the team of attorneys in the office to a small farm town up in the mountains called “La Libertad,” which actually translates to “freedom,” to investigate a rape case of a 14-year-old girl that the prosecutor and judge failed to properly investigate. An hour and a half of winding dirt roads later, we arrived to be greeted by a traditional Peruvian dish – picante de cuy (guinea pig). Since our firm is one that doesn’t charge for its services, the family of the victim was quite grateful for our help and fed us twice! We had to go to the scene of the crime from over a year ago while the victim re-told her story so we could take pictures of all she described. We followed her as she told her story from the moment she was kidnapped from her room, all the way up to where she was raped by two neighbors in the middle of the night. The hike up to the scene of the crime and back was a couple of hours long. The victim’s mom and sister, alongside us, both crying about the horrible tragedy that evening, had to be convinced to leave justice in the hands of the court system. These are the times I feel quite helpless. . . there really aren’t words. After we returned from our trek uphill, we were greeted by the rest of the family, who was just taking the “pachamanca” out of the ground. Pachamanca is a traditional dish from the Huanuco region. Usually made for birthdays and weddings, it consists of potatoes and pork cooked in a huge “oven” in the ground. Rocks are heated up, and the food is laid on top of the hot rocks, then buried in grass and dirt, and the hot rocks bake the pork and potatoes for a couple hours. Needless to say, we left full! Upon return to the office, my boss and I worked on putting together a narrative/ photo-map which included all the photos we took of the crime scene matched up with parts of the victim’s statement. Some details are coming to light that may work against our case, but I’m praying for justice for the girl and her family so she can begin to recover.
During this visit, the victim’s family kept referring to me as “Doctora.” In Peru, a doctorate degree earns one the title of Doctor. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was just a student. 😉
Thursday. A disappearance case from 1988 – a time of political violence here in Peru. An older gentleman, about 65 years old, came to our office with no money and no support, desperate for justice for his son, with nothing but a newspaper article and heartache. The prosecutor’s awful investigation job is the reason why organizations like ours, Paz y Esperanza, exist. Victims almost always need their own lawyers in addition to the state’s attorney if they expect to win their case. The state’s attorney puts in minimal effort and the case doesn’t get resolved in the victim’s favor. What we did was accompany the judge, prosecutor, secretary, the victim, the accused and their lawyers on a walk around the town to where the supposed events occurred so that we could make sure the judge and the secretary’s report was accurate and objective. The attorneys on both sides corroborated their clients’ stories with the description of each of the crime scenes and would tell the judge what to include in the report. Here, police officers don’t make an initial investigation – that’s the prosecutor’s job. I observed the fiscal (the prosecutor) doing essentially nothing, so it was a good thing a lawyer was able to go with for the initial report. We took photos and completed the report. A three-hour process, during which I was paranoid the entire time the judge would ask me for my DNI (document of nationality), to prove I needed to be there. I didn’t want to be kicked off the crime scene report! It was an interesting process. When they asked who I was, the attorney just said I was part of the defense team, and we continued along. I observed some sneaky passersby who were snapping pictures of the group, but didn’t say anything. Within a few minutes the judge told the police officer to make them stop taking pictures. The next day we appeared on the front page of the local paper. Accusing two cops of murder is serious business here. In the time of the political violence here in Peru, and also the time of the disappearance, the then-president didn’t allow cases to go forward accusing officials of crimes.
Things have changed since then. One of the attorneys from our organization assisted with the prosecution of the ex-president, Fujimori, and other lawyers from the organization helped to disbar three corrupt judges here in Peru. Corruption is still a problem, but strides are being made.
All in all, my stay in Peru has been magical. At an organization such as Paz y Esperanza, the lawyers are part of a multidisciplinary team, but because of the volume of cases and lack of funds to hire enough people, lawyers sometimes take on the role of psychologist, social worker, investigator, detective, or prosecutor. Many times things don’t go as planned. Cases are delayed, courthouse workers blow off appointments, lose paperwork, and it can be quite frustrating. Here, along with learning so much about Peru’s legal system, I’ve also been able to work on my Spanish, Quechua, and patience! I’m glad I packed an open mind to come here, because there were days when being of maximum service meant teaching English to the employees so that they could communicate with police officers from the U.S. or accompanying the attorneys to the courthouse to help them scan case records, or help with technology, or make sure the judge didn’t have the secretary write down information in the report which would harm our clients’ case. On a couple of days, being of maximum service meant translating at a training event, or hanging out with women and children who had been abused and just needed some smiles and positivity in their lives. Being a part of a small team, means we don’t’ just write briefs and memos or research all day. We all share each other’s work.
I could not have asked for a more loving, welcoming group of people. I have been so blessed to have made new friends here, not limited to work and home. I am a mixture of emotions right now as I prepare to leave this beautiful town on my next adventure. Before I head back to California, Machu Picchu awaits, as well as Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, Miami, and Chicago.
This town is so alive and I will ALWAYS remember my stay. Every day I walk down the streets taking in the (sometimes really dusty) warm air and sunshine, in a town with weather comparable to Malibu. Notice I said every day I walk? Or I hop in a 3-wheeled motorcycle-car for 75 cents if my destination is too far to walk in sandals. Hallmark holidays here are actually celebrated. Here, they are referred to as beer holidays. Friendship day, teachers’ day, and a slew of other days I can’t remember. Any occasion to celebrate is welcomed with music, dancing, soccer, and volleyball. No one is ever “too busy” to hang out or have a conversation. I’ll miss the constant buzz of noise that is cars honking at intersections because they are without stop signs or yield signs. I play real-life frogger every time I cross the street. Stray dogs barely bark, and are just as harmless as the homeless people on the street, minding their own business. Child labor is normal, and family is so important. When something is scheduled to start at 10, it may start promptly at 10:45. Coffee to go is not something locals see as necessary, because everyone sits down with family for breakfast and takes their time getting to work. Plus, the two-hour daily lunch breaks allow for a quick nap to recharge. I can’t even go to a store to get a thermos for my own coffee because they don’t exist! I’ll miss the people, the bartering, my friends, and I’ll even miss the garbage trucks that play music to alert the neighborhood they are outside. This trip was definitely one to remember. HUANUCO!!!!!!