Fighting on Christmas: Brawling as Self-Governance in Rural Peru

Summary of JOIE article (First View, 19 September 2019) by Edwar E. Escalante, Lecturer of Economics,  Department of Accounting, Economics, and Finance at Angelo State University, and Raymond J. March, Assistant Professor, Agribusiness and Applied Economics, North Dakota State University. The full article is available on the JOIE website.

If, like Frank Constanza, you have ever felt something odd about the religious and commercial aspects of Christmas and being surrounded by relatives is the perfect occasion to air grievances then you may find some logic about the annual Festivus-like holiday that takes place in the Andes. If you do not, then bear with us to discover why hundreds of Peruvian villagers choose Christmas to publicly fistfight and solve disputes with those that offended you in different ways over the past year. 

The event is called Takanakuy, which is a Quechua term meaning “to hit each other.” Each year the citizens of Chumbivilcas province in the Peruvian highlands joyously gather to watch dozens of sequential brawls each lasting between five and ten minutes. Fighters are prohibited from biting, pulling hair, striking each other while on the ground, and using weapons (but not much else). Each fight begins and ends with an embrace. Referees supervise each and make sure fighters adhere to the rules. Some parties fight to resolve disputes between family members and friends. Others participate to resolve neglected contractual obligations or destruction of property. Although violent, Takanakuy provides considerable grounds for cooperation. After the festival, the entire village feasts together. Due to this social acceptance, attempts by the Peruvian government and church leadership to ban and replace Takanakuy have been unsuccessful. 

Previous economics literature finds numerous examples of informal institutional methods providing effective means to mitigate social problems (Benson 1989; Stringham 2015; Anderson and Hill 2004; Skarbek 2010; Leeson 2015). However, much of this literature emphasized informal mechanisms ability to prevent or diminish violence. A second strand of literature finds that, under certain conditions, dueling provides signals social capital and provides personal benefits (Schwartz, Baxter and Ryan, 1984; Posner, 1996; Allen and Reed, 2006; Allen, 2009; Kingston and Wright, 2010; Ahn, Sandford, and Shea, 2015). However, this literature rarely examines thebroader social benefits or costs associated with fighting. 

Takanakuy provides a rare opportunity to examine how violent informal institutions can provide effective conflict resolution, contributing to both kinds of literature. In our forthcoming paper, we argue Takanakuy provides an effective way to resolve local disputes. Further, we claim Takanakuy more effectively resolves local disputes than formal conflict-resolution mechanisms provided by the Peruvian government. We bolster our conclusions by examining anthropological fieldwork and various other sources and by testing three hypotheses.

  1. Villagers rely on Takanakuy when methods to resolve conflict through formal mechanisms are unavailable or insufficient.

Traveling from Santo Tomas to Cusco or to Arequipa to access legal services requires taking multiple buses and riding in trucks that make the trip weekly at best.  Peru’s judicial system has historically discriminated against women and children. Further, “the courts frequently reach surprising verdicts that favor apparent criminals” (Tegel, 2018:  4).

Instead of appealing a costly, discriminatory, and untrustworthy judicial process, villagers turn to Takanakuy. Laime (2003: 47)writes that locals “attend the festival to publicly solve inter-family and interpersonal conflicts which were caused by agricultural land disputes, cattle rustling, discussions, casual events during drunkenness during celebrations, and another sort of abuses in the community. It is considered as a public justice administration to some degree by the locals”.

Tello (2018: 75) notes, “the peace that emerges from the festival is long-lasting, and it is what makes life in community possible.” Furthermore, this acceptance extends to the very few cases where brawling results in significant injuries. Trelles (2010)finds that 98 percent of fighters declared they did not appeal to any sort of formal process after the fight (regardless of the outcome). Similarly, Laime (2003)and Enriquez (2017)note that participants readily accept that they are expected not to report injuries from brawling to formal authorities.

  • Takanakuy will prevail as a mechanism to enforce the law if it terminates a feud, preventing violence outside the ritual and removing obstacles to social cooperation.

Unresolved disputes can be very disruptive for small communities especially if they become violent. However, Takanakuy provides a way to end conflicts by allowing parties the option to settle their differences through fighting in a structured, culturally accepted, and voluntary arrangement. Tello (2018: 72)also notes that the ritual aims to achieve “the social containment of vengeance.” Cama (2013: 400)documents an instance in which one party decided to fight outside the Takanakuy and the norms associated with the ritual: 

“Recently, one of the Mendoza brothers was heavily hit. They finally got their revenge. His nose got broken, andnow his wife is complaining. The aggressor—who pretends to know nothing—should have fought him at the Takanakuy festival. Now he will have to pay the healing and spend a lot of time and money. If he would havehit him in the Takanakuy, everything would be fine.” 

In contrast, efforts to prevent the ritual have resulted in prolonged conflict and more harmful violence. Laime (2003)notes an occasion when the police banned the ritual, and more unsupervised fighting occurred. Locals move the fighting to the streets. The result was an increase in the number of fights, injuries, and deaths.

  • If a villager has wronged another, the reputational gains from Takanakuy make it likely that the latter will carry out her threat to initiate a feud despite the risks.  

Choosing to participate or not to participate in a ritual with social significance provides valuable information for close-knit communities. With poor formal mechanisms to defend and define property rights, villagers have strong incentives to obtain information about the reputational status of a fighter – to bear the high costs of seeking information from others with direct knowledge of the individual’s status. The public display in an arena during a major holiday allows this information to spread quickly to large audiences. 

Successful fighting and keeping promises to participate also produces high status. A trustworthy reputation is an appreciated asset and well worth defending if it brings social recognition. Participants also commonly earn political standing to represent the peasant organizations. Although outmatched, weaker fighters also secure reputational gains. One’s perception as being “fearless,” even when defeated, also improves social standing and brings favorable treatment from villagers (Burga, 2014: 62). 

When two parties agree to brawl, they usually elicit support from friends and family members to participate. Those supporting a fighter provide an enforcement mechanism to ensure feuding parties do not back out of their agreements and it also operates as a deterrence to potential offenders which constrain fighters to use the ritual when they feel there is a genuine grievance. 

Fighting as a means to resolve conflict seems paradoxical. However, Takanakuy provides precisely this for Chumbivilcas and its neighboring villages. Further, it does so better than existing formal institutions. It is often said that fighting won’t solve anything. We say maybe it can.

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