Taking Justice Into Their Own Hands

by | Jan 28, 2012

dummy hung outside La Paz, Bolivia, threatens lynching for criminals. Photo by Winifred Parker.


For more than two hours, five Mexicans were tortured and threatened with hanging and death. This October 2010 lynching did not take place in some remote corner of the country, but just one and a half hours away from Mexico City in the small community of Tetela del Volcán in the state of Morelos. Several town residents carrying flaming torches beat the woman and four men, tied them to poles and threatened to burn them alive. This lynching took place in the town’s main plaza in front of hundreds of witnesses, some of whom videotaped the event. The five individuals were accused of belonging to a criminal organization specializing in kidnapping and extortion, whose members allegedly included former and current members of the local police forces. Local citizens uncovered evidence against the alleged criminals and got the local police to arrest them, but then decided to break into the police station to “take justice into their own hands.”

Like many viewers, I became a virtual “witness” of this event through videos posted on the Internet by some of the perpetrators. This is not the first lynching in Mexico to be videotaped and made available for a broader audience. Six years earlier, in 2004, Televisa, Mexico’s largest television network, broadcast images of a lynching as it was happening. That lynching, in the small town of San Juan Ixtapoyan in Mexico City’s Federal District, also involved similar accusations of kidnapping. The accused turned out to be police officers of a highly ranked security unit meant to combat the country’s organized crime and terrorism.

Similar lynchings have proliferated in Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil during the last 20 years. Reliable statistics on violence and crime in the region are hard to come by. Since the 1990s, however, media and specialized reports have documented an increase in the frequency of lynchings. Indeed, there may be more of them happening because crime tends to be underreported in many Latin American countries. The United Nations Mission to Guatemala (MINUGUA) documented more than 400 cases from 1996 to 2002. In Mexico, Antonio Fuentes Díaz identified 294 cases of lynching from 1984 to 2001 in his work Linchamientos: fragmentación y respuesta en el México neoliberal. Scholars working in Bolivia, Guatemala and Ecuador have identified a growing tendency in the media to depict these acts as expressions of indigenous forms of justice. In my own research in Mexico, I have come across similar observations in both media and official accounts. Nevertheless, many lynchings take place in mestizo and urbanized communities, and scholars have documented that indigenous forms of justice and lynchings have little in common.

Lynchings may be best described as a form of vigilante justice, characterized by collective, public and extra-legal use of violence against alleged criminals. In contrast with past forms of Latin American vigilantism—such as the death squads in 1980s Central America and paramilitary groups in Colombia and Mexico—these more recent lynchings have high visibility and are of a communal nature. They are closely tied to social claims for justice in response to perceived fundamental threats to the security and well-being of the community. Lynching perpetrators do not hide from authorities. These vigilantes choose public and open spaces to punish alleged wrongdoers. In this sense, beyond the illegal and immediate form of punishment they enact, lynchings ought to be understood as having a dual purpose. On the one hand, they seek to eliminate criminals in the community; on the other, they put into question the effectiveness of legal and institutional means in the provision of justice and security.

Current Latin American lynchings must be assessed against a backdrop of high victimization rates and increasing perceptions of crime. According to the 2010 Americas Barometer, levels of victimization by criminals and perceived insecurity have remained significantly high since 2004. Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guatemala and Mexico are among the countries that show some of the highest levels of perceived insecurity. However, the increase of delinquency and organized crime—whether real or imagined—cannot suffice to explain the rise in lynchings in the region. The rejection of legal means of punishment by lynching perpetrators also expresses a demand for effective justice and is a cry against a political system marked by corruption, ineffectiveness and injustice. As the 2010 Americas Barometer also illustrates, the perception of corruption amid public officials is consistently high in Latin America. For instance, in countries where lynchings have become more frequent, such as Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Guatemala, the average perception of corruption is higher than 73 points on a 0-100 scale survey.

Lynchings of alleged members of organized crime are a response to both perceived insecurity and to the perceived corruption of public officials, particularly members of the police. Furthermore, lynchings of individuals associated with organized crime have begun to gain greater attention and we may expect an increase in their occurrence. There are at least two reasons to support this prediction. The first is that the capacity of organized crime to penetrate social and economic activities is steadily increasing in several communities. For instance, drug trafficking has spread out into forms of micro-trafficking (narcomenudeo), as well as into other illicit and informal economic markets. The second is that the formal division between organized crime and other forms of common delinquency is increasingly invalidated by their intricate connections on the ground. In the last five years, for instance, criminal groups associated with drug-trafficking activities have started to carry out other criminal offenses such as kidnapping, robbery and extortion.

In the Mexican context, lynchings of members of organized crime usually relate to organizations that specialize in kidnapping and extortion. Some of these groups appear to be connected to drug-cartels such as Los Zetas or involve the participation of former or current police officers. The lynching in Tetela del Volcán, Morelos, is just one example. It was a response to an attempted kidnapping of a community member. The members of the criminal organization accused of the attempt—including former and current local police officers—allegedly planned other kidnappings in the state of Morelos, as well as in Mexico City, Puebla, and in Estado de México. In order to contextualize this lynching, it is worth mentioning that the state of Morelos has experienced several thousands kidnappings since the mid-1990s. In 1994, a specialized anti-kidnapping unit was created within the state judicial police. It was dissolved just four years later, when the chief as well as other officers were found guilty of directly participating in a criminal organization accused precisely of kidnapping. This case, involving the participation of former or current state agents in criminal organizations, has resonance with the Zetas cartel, originally formed by deserters from the Mexican army special forces.

State agents who are supposed to protect citizens often fail to do their job; indeed, some have been linked to criminal organizations. That fact may explain why, when confronted with representatives of the state authority, community members sometimes attack them, precisely because the authorities are perceived as being allied with the criminals, rather than with the pursuit of justice. In Tláhuac, the community decided to lynch and kill two of the three police officers believed to be part of a band of kidnappers in spite of—or perhaps because of—the men’s attempt to identify themselves as police officers. In Bolivia and Guatemala, newspapers have also reported cases in which police officers have become lynching victims after they were accused of participating in acts of extortion or kidnapping. In these countries, lynchings may also involve the destruction of police patrols or local police stations (comisarías), whenever police officers “interfere” with the attempt of these communities to take justice into their own hands.

Lynchings in contemporary Latin America are one of the most dramatic examples of the issues affecting justice and security in the region. These events reflect the citizens’ lack of trust of the legal means to secure their well-being and point to the vulnerability of state institutions to corrupt and criminal practices within their own structures. Lynchings comprise a story of failure. Yet this form of violence is still a relatively localized phenomenon. Most Latin American citizens continue to resort to legal means despite their frustration and overall distrust of the penal and legal systems. Those who can afford it have found other ways, non-violent and legal, to safeguard themselves, such as hiring private security guards or building gated communities. Still others have organized to protest publicly through non-violent means the inefficacy and corruption of state justice and security institutions.

Lynchings will most probably fail to deter or diminish the pernicious effects of organized and non-organized forms of crime. Their occurrence and their potential proliferation will, at most, continue to highlight the state’s inability to fulfill its mandate—to protect the security and well-being of its citizens.


Spring 2012Volume XI, Number 3

Gema Santamaría is a doctoral student in Sociology and Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research. She holds a Master’s in Gender and Social Policy from the London School of Economics. She works on social, political and criminal violence in Mexico and Central America in relation to concepts such as legitimacy, sovereignty and justice. 

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