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The rapes haunting a community that shuns the 21st Century

A group of men were jailed for attacking women and girls in an insular colony. Why do its leaders now want the men freed?
Mennonite women transporting milkImage copyright Jordi Busque
Image caption Mennonite women in Colonia Oriente, Bolivia

In Manitoba, an insular Mennonite colony in Bolivia whose residents eschew modernity, a group of men were rounded up in 2009. Later, they were convicted of the rape and sexual assault of 151 women and girls – including small children – within this small Christian community. So why are Manitoba’s leaders now lobbying to free the men from prison?

Unpaved dirt roads run alongside fields of soya and sunflowers and connect the far-flung houses of Manitoba, home to 1,800 people. Treads from the iron wheels of tractors are sunk deep into the mud – rubber tyres are prohibited on motorised vehicles, deemed too modern.

The hot, still air is occasionally stirred by the passing of a trotting horse pulling a buggy laden with women in wide straw hats and men in dark dungarees.

This is the principal form of transport in Manitoba. For members of the colony, driving a car or motorcycle is banned and punishable by excommunication by the bishop and ministers.

Buggies in Manitoba
Image caption Buggies in Manitoba

To outsiders, it looked like a peaceful, if mysterious, haven from the modern world. Then in June 2009 the prosecutor for the district of Santa Cruz received a call from a police officer in the eastern Bolivian town of Cotoca.