Breakdown in the Andes

FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN

Twice in recent months, the historically troubled but chronically neglected nations of the "southern crescent" of the Andes-Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia-have made international headlines. First, in April, an angry mob set on the mayor of Ilave, a small city in Peru's impoverished highlands, and lynched him for corruption. Two months later, the same fate befell the mayor of a town in the Bolivian high plains: he was publicly lynched and his body set on fire, also for alleged misuse of public funds.

With a drug-fueled armed conflict raging in Colombia and a political crisis plaguing oil-rich Venezuela, developments in the southern Andes fall under the radar of most U.S. policymakers and outside observers. The recent autos-da-fé, however, should serve as reminders of the region's turbulent past and warnings of a possible return to violence and instability in the near future. Washington has responded to the prospect of renewed turbulence with a mix of indifference and fatalism: indifference because Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia are considered largely unimportant to U.S. interests; fatalism because all too many view them as hopeless anyway.

And indeed, there is much to worry about in all three cases-broken nations, with imminent political crises and other significant problems in need of urgent attention. They are all still struggling to become coherent, well-functioning states. The social, ethnic, and geographic divides that predate their founding continue to widen, and recent changes have created a profound and unsustainable gulf between the political sphere and the rest of society.

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