Policing Sorcery

In the Upper Amazon, people believe that there are sorcerers, and that much of human suffering — sickness, death, misfortune, bad luck and trouble — is caused by sorcerers, either from the sorcerer's own malevolence, or on behalf of an embittered and resentful client.

There is little that the ordinary state apparatus can do about sorcery. Alejandro Tsakimp, a Shuar shaman, puts the thought this way: “They killed my father with witchcraft and not with a bullet…. With killings like this, through witchcraft, there aren’t any witnesses. I can talk about all this, I can go to lawyers, but nobody will believe me.” There is never any tangible proof of a crime. A person killed by sorcery may be given a medical diagnosis — acute dehydration through diarrhea, for example; but such a diagnosis does not, of course, explain why the sickness occurred.

The first recourse for aggrieved family or community members is most often to retain the services of another, and hopefully more powerful, shaman. The final recourse is often the killing of the offender — what political scientist Fernando García, in his work on indigenous law among Ecuadorian Quichua, calls muerte social. Other dispute resolution mechanisms have traditionally been unavailable.

Government intervention faces serious obstacles in controlling a sorcerer. Accusations are often vague and unsupported by physical evidence. Magistrates in such circumstances may issue a peace bond signed by the complainants and the alleged sorcerer; then, at least, when the accusations continue, as they often do, the sorcerer can be charged with having broken the peace bond and, thus, the law. The mere presence of a police garrison in a previously remote area may limit the amount of assault sorcery. However, local officials may be caught in a dilemma between, on the one hand, their reluctance to give credence to sorcery accusations, and, on the other, their own concern about offending a sorcerer.

There are, generally, three ways local authorities can bring a sorcerer under control. The first is to put the sorcerer in jail, even for a few days. Among the Napo Runa, for example, this is considered a terrible punishment for a shaman, for it cuts him off from his relationship with the forest spirits. One such incarcerated sorcerer managed to escape the jail by cutting through a window, sought refuge in a church, and petitioned for help from federal authorities.

A second sanction is to confiscate the sorcerer’s magic stones. Of course, it is difficult to know whether a stone surrendered by the sorcerer, or left in an easily discoverable place in his home, is in fact the magic stone he uses in his sorcery. Still, crushing a stone in the presence of the complainants may help to calm down an explosive community situation. A third — and surprising — sanction is to give the sorcerer an electric shock. It is believed that this will weaken and dispel at least part of the sorcerer’s power. It is understandable that local authorities are often reluctant to do this. But there can be further creativity: in one case, dating from 1942, a sorcerer was ordered, by special decree of the local political lieutenant, to believe in God. That put an end to his sorcery.

More recently, community and shaman organizations have attempted to mediate such controversies. Fernando García tells of one such mediation. The accused sorcerer had originally agreed to hand over his magic stones and other shamanic tools, but had failed to do so. Community members caught the alleged sorcerer, gave him electric shocks with a generator, and put him in the community jail, from which he — understandably — escaped.

Finally, local authorities invited all the parties to mediate, including the accused sorcerer’s elders, representatives of the Federación de Organizaciones Indígenas del Napo (FOIN), and a delegation from the shamans’ organization Asociación de Shamanes Indígenas del Napo (ASHIN). They all went to the community that had allegedly been affected by the sorcerer, where the visiting shamans drank ayahuasca to determine who was telling the truth. On the basis of this consultation, they required the accused sorcerer to heal all those he had made sick, and then to hand over his magic stones.


  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing this! I wonder what's going to happen in Peru, now that sorcery cases are more known...