Bolivian Mennonite rape victims

One of the articles I’d hoped to pull together before leaving the MB Herald was that of the horrifying and bizarre situation in some of the Mennonite colonies of Bolivia. The news flashed around the world this summer (one example here, from The Guardian), about the eight men jailed arrested after being charged with drugging (via spray) entire households at night, then breaking in to rape the women while they slept.

We carried a short MCC release about it in the MB Herald, here. And that was all we did with it.

I’d been pushed into opening a file on it, at least, by some rounds of email correspondence with a man who worked with Low German/conservative Mennonite concerns in various ways for many years, who was greatly burdened following the news (which has continued to build, with some 12 or 13 men now in jail, reports of bribes and death threats, and many rumors as well), and who is finding the silence of the Mennonite press “deafening.”

“I expected an outpouring of concern from Mennonites everywhere,” he wrote, “but it didn’t happen.” He has been trying to rally interest, and hoping Mennonite Central Committee (which already has connections with Bolivian Mennonites) might be pressed to do more as our point agency there.

I won’t have time to do the piece and am turning the file of materials over to assistant editor K., who is willing to sort through what we’ve gathered and also make calls to some people who visited Bolivia recently. Today I finished going through 9 pages of excerpts from the Kurze Nachrichten, a German paper published in Mexico, which my “prod” above says is one of the better sources of information, and translating the salient points for K.

I feel I need more information, understanding, perspective. How far away these women seem, how foreign somehow, even though we share the name Mennonite. I agree that we need to be speaking up. But what do we say? And to whom do we say it?

[March 27, 2010: see update on this story, here.]

17 thoughts on “Bolivian Mennonite rape victims

  1. I agree that it is difficult to know how to cover this immense story, and that we Mennonite journalists should try as hard as we can anyway. One of the most difficult aspects of writing about a story such as this is the need to take care not to print incorrect information; spreading inaccuracies can make a situation worse.

    It’s true that Kurze Nachrichten is one of the better sources of some information on this issue. I spoke with the editor in September:

    • Thanks, Celeste, and also for the link to the story you wrote for MWR. — I think for me the question, beyond covering the story, extends to the “helping” or advocacy part of it. There are significant differences of opinion within the Mennonite community here regarding the wider social structure of separatist, conservative communities like these — structures that are also a component of this story.

  2. During my years in Santa Cruz, I had the opportunity to befriend a wonderful Mennonite family in the Parapati area of Santa Cruz, as well as work as an advisor to the police and fiscales there. I feel very safe in saying that there is about zero chance that any true professional investigation into the incident will ever occur, especially with the likes of the Evo Morales administration who would just love for the Mennonites to just leave the country. The incident is just a gossip blurb in the local press now. Welcome to Bolivia!

  3. Having grown up in a somewhat traditional Mennonite home, and the old colony style churches, I have to say this fiasco was created by the churches themselves. I know this is a loaded statement, but if you check the facts you will see what I mean.

    Just like the Pharisees of the Old Testament the church leaders impose laws and rules the likes of which cannot be found in the Bible anywhere. They discourage reading the Bible yourself, because God forbid you find out how badly they are misleading you and lying to you about what is written in the scripture. Young people have no avenues to release their pent up frustrations and energy and the result is that it manifests itself in such horrible crimes. The churches reaction to my understanding is to condemn these women for their actions; actions they were not even aware of until after the fact. They are expected to come apologize to the church elders and beg forgiveness for their sins.

    I gotta stop because this whole thing make me angry, very angry.

    • Hi Willy, and thanks. As I admit in my post, I’m still feeling quite tentative in my understanding and information about this situation. Have the women, in this particular case, to your knowledge, actually had to come before the church leaders to take responsibility for what happened?

  4. i just found out about this story today, and i can’t say i’m surprised. i’m horrified and heartbroken, but not overly surprised.

    especially about the silence among mennonites.

    i am actually not mennonite, an “englishe”… but i married a mennonite. and now i’m divorcing him. we separated after he became violent and abusive, and i asked for a divorce when he confessed to me that he is a sex addict.

    as a result, *I* was the one attacked and shunned by the church. in fact, he has been told BY A PASTOR OF HIS CHURCH – which (obviously, since i attended) is not old colony, but rather EMMC – that his actions are not a sin, that it’s ok, and that, in fact, this same pastor and many men in the church have this same issue.

    and no one is angry. no one is speaking up. no one is helping the wives of these men to seek healing and peace. we are told to keep quiet, not to talk about it, and when i stood up for myself and my family and said that this unequivically is NOT RIGHT, i was attacked and shunned.

    so i’m sorry to say that the attitude among mennonite agencies and journalists regarding this story (with some exceptions, obviously you, thank God), is not at all surprising. it just fits the pattern. and it disgusts me. thank-you so much for speaking out about this whole issue.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your situation, Heather; thanks for writing. I trust that you will meet people who care and can help. Some recent posts in this blog refer to a gathering of those who do care, and I’m hoping that will be of encouragement to you too. Thanks for writing.

  5. My cousin is in jail for these rapes in mannitoba colony. I don’t know him. I met him but don’t remember what he looks like.I think his name is Knels Thiesen. He has a wife & 5 kids. I lived in bolivia for 2 years 1995-1997. My parents still live there, but not in a colony. My parents visited my cousin twice in jail in Santa Cruz. He told my parents he raped 5 women some of them on more than one occassion. How he kept himself from passing out, all the details. Now he has been told to lie & no confess. I don’t know who advised him of this if it was his lawyer or other inmates. Now my parents refuse to go see him anymore. It breaks my heart to torture these women & young girls have to endure. God Bless

    • Thank you, Margaret, for writing and sharing what you know about this situation. It breaks my heart too. You may be interested to see a report from Jack Heppner, just posted. I added the link to this post as well.

  6. All has been quiet over the rapes now for a long time. But I believe the problem is not over yet. I live in Bolivia, but not among the old colonie people. And I think it is our duty to go out to these people, and bring them the Gospel, and a better education. For they will in no other way be helped then if they give their hearts to Jesus Christ and receive a change in their lives. And because of the little education many can´t read well enough so that they have an interest in the Bible. And do not either know the horrible affects that drugs have on them. For example a woman I know believes that it does not hurt her unborn baby when she drinks alcohol. And so the list could go on and on. We need to pray for these people and start acting.

  7. Thank you, Susy, for your comments, especially from your vantage point in Bolivia. I’m wondering if you have any sense of such changes beginning, even slowly, or who might be most able to help.

  8. Hello, I am an Old Colony Mennonite from Alberta, Canada. And I must say it is a crying shame what these men did/are doing to these women. The reason not many mennonites are responding to the situation is because most of the Bolvian Mennonites came from Mexico at one point. And those of us that did not follow them were the bad and Lost for all Eternity and were shunned. We originally come from The El Capulin Mennonite Colony, in Northern Mexico. The people here could not afford to pump their water with diesel pumps anymore so they went to the ministers and said “we cannot afford to live like this anymore, we need to hook up to the mexican power supply.” the ministers answered, and said ” fine, if you hook up to the mexican power supply we will sell everything and move away.” They all moved to Bolivia, where they consider themselves better then all other Old Colony Mennonites because they don’t drive cars, use electricity, have steel-wheeled trcators, and so on. Yet these men rape, use drugs, steal, lie, cheat…..Lord Have Mercy On These Lost Souls, help them find their way back to the truth. I notice so much discrimination towards Old Colony Mennonites especially, but one thing that everyone should know is not near a quarter of them are like this. It is the most Conservative that have the most problems. And the way our church is here in Canada, is not so much focused on the dress and vehicles, but rather the true meaning of Christ and His Word. And we actually follow the true Old Colony Faith which is all out of the Bible like the original forefathers taught us when they came from Russia. We have wonderful people here, great ministers who bring us the truth of God’s Word every sunday morning. We have great schools here,which are all Accelerated Christian Education Based. And we believe that we must pray for these victims of rape and that these people should be taught the true meaning of the word. There is nothing wrong with the Conservative Old Colony, but they have lost all of the true values of the faith. When our Forefathers came to Canada from Russia, the faith was genuine, they moved away because of persecution. And when they moved away from Canada they moved because of the Second World War. Afraid that the government was going to make them enlist. And when these old wise Ministers and forefathers started leaving this earth to be with their Father in Heaven the true values and meanings of the faith also passed away. They were now worried about the outside of the person instead of the inside. It is truly sad that these Mennonites in Bolivia have lost so much and that these men are turning to such violence. They must be stopped before they go towards even more violent measures..Sorry for making this so long, but i just thought i would give you a bit of an overview..

    • Thank you, Cornelio, for your concern about the Bolivian situation and also for taking the time to express the life of your community in Alberta. I’m sure you’re right that there’s often a lot of discrimination, and I’m sorry about that. There was a Mennonite studies conference here in Winnipeg this weekend on “horse and buggy Mennonites,” with a variety of papers on various parts of Old Colony life. I appreciated the great respect for OC faith and endeavors this conference conveyed, along with critique of some aspects. Christ and his Word, that’s truly the heart of it.

  9. Hi Dora,

    We visited an old colony Mennonite Home in a colony close to Chetemac in 1973/1974. My husband was looking for relatives on his father’s side. Their married children had come home to visit in a taxi because it was sinful to own a vehicle. We saw 10 to 12 year old boys smoking but they were not allowed to look at pictures or listen to the radio or watch TV. At that time Helen Enns and her brother and his family were serving as missionaries to former colony members who had been forced to leave the colony and had few options.
    Later, when I was teaching ESL classes in Winkler, a young Mexican Mennonite lady said that she would never marry a colony young man as all they did was drink to get drunk. I’m sure there are exceptions and I would hope progress had been made sine the 70s but now with the rape stories maybe not so much.
    I agree with you about Miriam Toew’s writing. I think she has an amazing way with words but I have to remind myself also that she writes novels because sometimes her scenarios just don’t ring true because of my knowledge of Mennonites. I have read all of her books and I do want to read this latest book.

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