VINTO, Bolivia – At first they tried to tear off Patricia Arce's clothes.
When she resisted, the masked men pushed her down and beat her until she passed out. When she came to, they pulled her up, took off her shoes, and forced her to walk down a long street of broken glass.
The frenzied crowd led Arce, the mayor of Vinto, a small town in central Bolivia, away from their office. They said they would lead them to death. On the way someone poured red paint and petrol on them. Then a woman hurried to her and cut off strands of hair.
Videos of the attack that took place last month were quickly posted on social media and went around the world within hours, showing Arce how shocked he looked. When the crowd finally came to a standstill three miles down the road, a man forced Arce to the floor, stood behind her, and grabbed one of her breasts. "We live, we live!" Someone shouted before removing his hand.
By then, a handful of local reporters had caught up with them and planted microphones on Arce's face. They asked her to tell her what she had just been through. Arce, 48, was still being held against the crowd by the crowd when she tried to speak.
"Resignation!" Cried a chorus of people in the background. Suddenly defiant, Arce said she was not afraid, and if something happened to her or her children, the country's encouraged right-wing opposition should be held responsible.
As Arce, a lawyer and mother of three, when she first came into politics five years ago, she never thought that this would lead to being beaten, humiliated and becoming an international symbol of political violence made.
Jorge Abrego / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock
Patricia Arce speaks to the media after being attacked on the street.
The attack occurred in the middle of the political upheaval in Bolivia after a contested election in which President Evo Morales won just under a fourth term in an extremely controversial process. With the rule of law practically overruled across the country at the time of the attack, Arce had to be temporarily submerged.
Outside of Bolivia, the conflict quickly became a Rorschach test that simplified to a duel between authoritarianism and democracy, left against right, rich against poor. At home, opposition to Morales, the country's first indigenous president, included people from all over the world of ideology, politics and the class who were fed up with being officially corrupt. Aside from political loyalties, Arce's story is a warning of the human cost of political violence.
Arce escaped from life and remains in office. BuzzFeed News traveled to Vinto and spent two days with her. A month after the attack, Arce's soles were covered with bruises and cuts. She remained under medical supervision for injuries to her kidney that she suffered during the attack. She spoke of how the attack reminded how brutal women's lives can be in the deeply sexist country.
"This was a message for all women here," she said, and sat down on a bench near her that "we cannot occupy public spaces yet" was attacked.
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Protest and anti-moral signs in the streets of Cochabamba, December 8, 2019.
Riots began almost two weeks earlier, on October 25, when the electoral authorities announced that Morales had just won the president's fourth term. There were massive street protests that shook the country and fought Morales's political allies, including Arce, against the opposition.
At least 36 people died in the by-election crisis, and dozens of homes and government buildings were set on fire, killed.
In the midst of this tense climate, Arce entered a makeshift stage with Morales on Friday, November 1st. The sun was shining on Vinto when the two opened a new irrigation canal. The latest infrastructure project of the Movement for Socialism or the MAS, Morales and Arce Party.
Vinto, a sleepy town with around 60,000 inhabitants, was one of the strongholds of Morales for years. Arce was also particularly popular with women. She had spent much of her tenure since 2015 running women's empowerment programs and persuading husbands to let their wives work.
Nevertheless, Arce was at times at the center of local conflicts. Last year, councilors sentenced Arce for transferring control of a Vinto hospital to the police under an agreement they believed was illegal.
However, the day Morales and Arce initiated the irrigation project should not be controversial. Instead, it should be a collective call for supporters of Morales to defend themselves against growing problems with the by-election.
"I'm not afraid. If I have to give my life to protect this political process, I will! Arce said. She warned the crowd not to let "a handful of rascals", including opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho, panic when the political crisis hit a dead end.
The prime contractor and President of the Santa Cruz Citizens' Committee, a politically influential group of citizens, set Morales a 48 hour withdrawal period.
Morales – who had lifted thousands out of poverty; built schools, markets and hospitals in historically forgotten corners of the country; and maintained a relatively robust economy during his 13-year tenure – had lost a referendum in 2016 asking the Bolivians whether he should run for a fourth term. He decided to run anyway and narrowly won. After reviewing the results, the Organization of American States identified "clear manipulation" of the voting process, including the burning of some election records and an unexplained interruption in the delivery of the results.
After the Camacho ultimatum, tensions increased after Morales. On November 6, clashes between pro-morales and anti-morales groups occurred in nearby Quillacollo, killing a young man. Many of them accused Arce of recruiting pro-government workers from Vinto and surrounding towns to march to Quillacollo and provoke the confrontation. Arce denied the charges.
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The Mayor's Office after the attack.
That afternoon Arce had just had lunch in her office when the building was suddenly attacked. Men threw stones at the windows from the main street and lit a fire on the ground floor. With Vinto's 22 police officers assisting in Quillacollo, Arce was practically defenseless. Her security advisor told her to run through the back entrance.
Arce expected her driver to be waiting for her outside. Instead, the street was empty except for a group of men; They marched up to Arce and took her hostage. Eye for an eye, they said that she had caused the fatal collision in Quillacollo and now she had to die. But not before a walk of shame.
"Damn murderer!" Shouted the men around them. Arc's walk was determined, but her eyes seemed frightened. Her shirt and jeans were dripping bright red. A mile. Then two. Then three.
When they arrived in Quillacollo, Arce was unrecognizable, her hair was shaved and smelled of gasoline and urine. Her attackers forced her to the ground; They ordered her to step back and speak critically about Morales when she looked at the collection of cell phones that they had put on her face.
Pedro Herrera had been browsing Facebook all over the city when he suddenly came across a face he knew well: his mother. In the video, dozens of men forced Arce to walk down the street. She seemed to faint a few times and the men beat her while she was conscious. Immediately the 24-year-old Herrera told his two younger siblings what was going on, got into his car and raced towards the crowd. By then, Vinto had become a battlefield, and many of the streets were blocked by motorcyclists and piles of burning tires.
Herrera was unable to save his mother.
A few hours after the attack began, a few unidentified men took Arce out of the crowd and handed it over to a policeman who raced away with her on a motorcycle. That day, Arce arrived at a clinic 90 minutes from Vinto – somewhere where it would have been too risky she was told – where nurses wiped the red dye off with paint thinner. It tormented her skin, which had already been burned by the gasoline, Arce said.
A few days later, when she was recovering in the clinic, a nurse told Arce that she was no longer safe and that another hospital had to be found.
She is in hiding.
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Arce stands in front of her office window, which was damaged in the attacks.
Arce reappeared almost two weeks later with a dirty blonde wig, still under the effect of a pain reliever cocktail. She was sitting at a blue table in her office building, flanked by a few employees, to hold her first press conference since the attack. A dozen microphones and recorders were piled up in front of her.
During Arce's hiding time, the crisis in Bolivia had only worsened: the police had turned on Morales and the military chief had "suggested", he resigned. Morales fled to Mexico under the cover of the night. Political violence had become more deadly; At least 18 people were killed in two separate massacres.
For the first time since Morales came to power in 2006, the political balance had shifted to the right. Jeanine Áñez, a conservative legislator and the highest-ranking member of the country's legislature after a series of resignations from MAS legislators, had appointed herself interim president and flung a giant Bible into the air. One of their first steps was to enact a presidential decree granting security forces involved in operations immunity from law enforcement to "restore order," resulting in an immediate recoil of human rights organizations.
Arc's own crisis had also worsened. She was barely able to walk because she cut her feet and had spent countless hours thinking about what was happening to her country: what kind of children did Bolivians raise? How could people have so much hate? However, one thing was clear: she had to work again.
There was feverish, unusual speculation about Arce's attack. A reporter asked Arce if she had ordered the attack on herself and reported rumors from Morales critics.
"It is shameful to think that someone would do this to themselves," she told the journalist. "Maybe I was orphaned in pairs, but I grew up with values and principles."
The video of the press conference, which was uploaded to Facebook, was ridiculed by some of its critics in the comments, including suggestions that they gets a better wig and is nominated for an Oscar for her "drama". Messages of support and praise were among the mocking comments.
On a last Sunday afternoon, Arce was slowly nominated from her car and limped to a bank in Vinto's main square opposite her office. She was no longer wearing a wig – "It shows strength without walking around," Arce said, revealing a pair of small silver earrings. Her lips were carefully painted light pink to match her sweatshirt. She looked around as a police car repeatedly drove across the square.
"I'm scared," she said. "We raise monsters, not humans."
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Arce rests with her sons.
Arce held up her cell phone to show pictures of her attackers she had sent. Each of them had their name printed on them, but even though they knew who they were, they did not expect them to experience justice. In fact, she could be brought to justice herself after the prosecution in Cochabamba, a nearby city, filed a complaint against her for "separatism" and "abuse of public goods and services." The prosecutor did not respond to a request from BuzzFeed News.
The following day, Arce arrived at her office at 6 a.m., wearing a flowing shirt, jeans, and flats. In some places, her hair has become less than an inch long – due to stress, she said – and she touched it confidently from time to time. Her office had also changed unintentionally: a plastic sheet covered the gaping hole in which the mob had broken a window. Her desk was empty; That day, demonstrators had come to her office and broken her computer.
During the morning, groups of residents reported to their office asking them to settle neighborhood conflicts or sign contracts for upcoming public works. She listened carefully, replied to Quechua – an indigenous language she had taught herself when she became mayor five years ago – and made notes. People hugged her on the way out. Had they looked closely, they could have seen a red patch of color on their chain, a remnant of the attack.
"To have given up or kneeled down would have been a betrayal of all women," said Arce, looking exhausted. Still, she is considering taking time off to grow vegetables and flowers when her term is over for the next year. Maybe take basketball again, a lifelong passion of hers.
A group of interns and employees sat around a couple of desks and tried to keep half-burned tax records. Most tax returns had been set on fire when the building was attacked and the smell of charred paper was in the air.
Employees attempt to keep documents that were damaged in the attack on the mayor's office.
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Burnt documents stacked in the mayor's office.
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Before lunch, Arce, surrounded by some of her staff, visited the public registry office to fill out some documents. To get there, she had to go through the local market, where more than a dozen women – most of them in aprons when they worked in their fruit stalls – went to Arce and hugged her.
Back in the car, Arce took a deep breath. How did she feel "Unsure," she said.
In the first few days after the attack, she called her therapist five or six times a day, in addition to the two weekly face-to-face sessions she had, she said. Arce had installed cameras at home and placed the camera in her bedroom next to her bed.
Three different wigs in different shades of blonde hung on wall lamps. A dozen hair products stood on her sideboard next to a hair dryer, an iron and a hairbrush. Arce snuggled up to her bed and held hands with her youngest son, 16, who has spent the night with her since the attack.
If she forgets the attack for a moment, someone in Vinto will probably remember her, she said. A few days after she got back to work, Arce was just leaving her office when she was waiting in line for a familiar-looking man at one of the counters. Suddenly she remembered his face: he was one of her attackers.
Arce approached him like an autopilot. "Hello. I'm fine, despite what you've done to me," she said.
The man stammered something unintelligible, she said, and bowed her head in shame. ●