The younger sister does most of the talking.
We have traveled to the “barrios” (suburbs) of El Alto, just outside La Paz, to a poor neighbourhood of dirt streets and low brick buildings, to hear the story of these women.
The one who speaks first is clearly the leader, the stronger sibling, but though she is more outspoken and forward, still she breaks into tears as she tells the story of her and her sister’s detention.
The sisters, we will call them Maria and Lydia, were arrested along with their brother.
They were in a town where they return from La Paz to do the only work they have ever known, which is harvesting the leaves of the coca plant.
They were seasonal farm workers, and went to the fields to work for two or three weeks at a time to make a marginal living.
Maria, the younger, but stronger sister, says a friend had given her two bags of coca leaves to dry, which is perfectly legal in Bolivia, where the leaves of the coca plant are distinguished from the refined hard drug cocaine. In Bolivia, there are many traditional uses for the coca leaves, and the indigenous peoples chew the leaves to relieve everything from stomach aches to altitude sickness. The mild effects of chewing the leaves or drinking them as tea, is not at all the same as taking the refined and illegal drug cocaine.
But while it was legal for the siblings to have coca leaves, the coca leaves they had were found to be stolen, and so the three siblings were arrested and charged with having taken the bags of leaves.
Maria said when she saw her friend on the street when they were with the police, but her friend pretended not to know them, and they were taken away.
The brother, after appearing before a judge, was released, serving only eight hours in custody because he suffers from developmental disabilities, but he still has to sign in every two weeks, a form of conditional release.
The two sisters, however, were held for 10 months, and had been incarcerated for four months without trial when Maria attended one of Marisol’s JusticeMakers workshops in prison.
The workshops were to educate the women in the prison on their basic rights, and also about the rights of their children, some of which had changed with the new constitution in 2009. The changes were an attempt to alleviate a problem created by a predominantly machismo culture, where it was not uncommon for men to have children with women and then refuse to acknowledge as their own, and therefore avoid paying to support the children they had fathered.
The new constitution attempted to address the situation by allowing mothers of these children to declare the father and file for support, and put the onus now on the fathers to prove the child was not theirs by requesting paternity tests.
Both of the sisters were single mothers and Maria came to Marisol to learn how she might be able to obtain child support for her daughter. The father of Maria’s child did not acknowledge the child as his, and Lydia is also separated from the father of her son.
But after Marisol helped teach them their children’s rights, she also asked them about their situation, and the women told Marisol the story of their detention.
They did not even realize before speaking to Marisol their right to a fair trial, their right to representation and their right to timely execution of the law.
Maria breaks down, wiping tears from her eyes and hugs Marisol when she reaches this part of the story, repeating how ignorant they were of even these simple things.
She describes how they grew up in the countryside, in poverty, and their indigenous mother, who was given to a man more than 20 years her senior when she was only 11 years old, did not even know how to read and write. Their mother had her first child at 13 years old and had 12 children in total, eight of which still survive.
They had no knowledge of the law or their rights within the law.
Only through Marisol, did these women learn their producing certain documents proving they had a family, a home and a job, could then help them obtain conditional release until their trial.
This was an incredible relief for both, but especially for the younger sister, Lydia, whose son had been sent to live with his allegedly abusive father while she was in prison, and she was traumatized not only by the experience of being incarcerated, but also by the knowledge her young son may be living under very harsh conditions.
The two sisters were thankfully released after Marisol’s intervention on their behalf and assistance, and Lydia and Maria were both reunited with their children.
Maria’s 11-year-old daughter had been living with her grandmother in difficult conditions as well. The grandmother lives with her youngest daughter of about 20 and this daughter’s children whom she must care for, though the elderly grandmother herself is in poor health.
Lydia’s 11-year-old son was also returned to her from his father, and on his body, they said they saw the evidence of his treatment.
Lydia is barely able to speak she is still so sensitive to the impacts of her time in prison, and so she whispers parts of her story quietly, often looking at the floor and crying as she speaks, and Maria is worried her sister needs psychiatric help to heal from their time in prison.
The two sisters also still await a trial, which leaves the problem hanging over their heads, and Lydia lives in dread of returning to the prison and sending her son back to his father.
Marisol still helps to support the sisters as they continue to navigate the system, and hopes they soon can get a trial date so the women can get on with their lives.
She will argue for their release based on their story the leaves were given to them by a friend to dry. However, she says if the women are convicted of the theft, they would likely get two years.
While this would be unfortunate, even this would be a conclusion which then Marisol hopes would allow the women to get on with their lives which are now stalled in limbo.