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Lynching in Latin America: Crime or Popular Justice?

The history of targeted mob violence in this country is not pretty. The act of lynching – heavily racialized in the American context – was characteristic of a dark period of the past, when ignorance and violence was the norm for relations between racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. As a symptom of social insatiability, lack of security and systematic abuses of power, lynching is also characteristic of a difficult period in Latin American history – the present day.

Argentinians protesting against many of the causes of mob violence.  Wikimedia Creative Commons License
Argentinians protesting against many of the causes of mob violence.
Creative Commons License

Several governments in the Latin American region are facing a lynching problem. One of its most problematic aspects is that it’s a new (or rather resurgent) phenomenon, with levels of mob violence reaching new heights in the last couple of years. Though the practice has been observed throughout the region, the cases of Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil demonstrate its main characteristics.

The most impactful lynching stories of the last months have come out of Argentina. Reports of group beatings and killings, of thieves and assailants, are spreading in several provinces as well as in the urban center of Buenos Aires. The frequency of the events has pushed the issue out of the margins and into the political arena, with politicians being pressured to respond to this grim reality. The variance of responses is somewhat surprising, with some naturally condemning the action, and others offering up a quasi-apologetic rhetoric, saying “I don’t agree, but I understand.”

The tendency of opposition politicians to condition their criticism of lynching shows that some underlying roots of the problem are politicized. The resurgence of  “popular justice” – as some have called the instances of mob violence – responds to increasing criminality and a growing distrust of state institutions.

A recent poll shows that most people in Buenos Aires are against lynching. However,  90% of them believe crime is out of control. Many do not trust the police forces, which have a history of abuse and have had declining success indicators for years. To top it all off, the economic insecurity that Argentina chronically suffers from adds to the disintegration of the social fabric and leaves more people destitute and without legitimate sources of income. Anger, violence and theft are only to be expected. Without appropriate state institutions to respond to this, and no effective police forces to stop them, local communities have de facto impunity in handling these issues themselves through violent means.

Bolivia is dealing with a different, yet similarly political problem. Unlike in Argentina, complicity in mob violence tends to correlate with ethnic identity. In 2009, Bolivian President Evo Morales – himself an Aymara Native American – constitutionally sanctioned the use of native justice systems in indigenous communities. While native justice systems rarely sanction death as punishment, some believe that the high rate of lynching in the country – 70 cases last year alone – is to some degree a result of the legal recognition of alternative punitive codes. Its still a contentious issue, since Bolivia’s new legal system only allows indigenous communities to handle minor crimes. However, recent cases have taken place in historically indigenous areas of the country, giving weight to the earlier argument.

Just as in Argentina, the violence results from an alternative means of dispensing justice based on communal rules vis-à-vis the state. Unlike Argentina, the state itself has chosen to restrict its capacity to impart its own justice in many areas. The legality – or illegality – of lynching is not entirely clear, which seriously complicates any attempts to address the problem directly.  

The increase of lynching in Brazil also results from underlying social and political issues. The practice is widespread, observed in most of the country’s states. However, there are no statistics on the prevalence of mob violence. Unlike in the United States, Brazil does not have legal restrictions specifically against lynching.

So even though some argue that Brazil has the highest number of lynchings in the world, there is hardly any hard data or legal tools with which to prosecute attackers.

Rio de Janeiro has always been a violent city, but just three years ago, reports of lynching attempts came out two or three times per week. After the recent street protests last summer the number has climbed to an attempt per day.

The possible causes for this are many, but perhaps the social exclusion felt as a result of World Cup and Olympics preparations exacerbates the problem. Military Police “pacification” missions in favelas may also be causing greater resentment towards the official peacekeeping authorities in already marginalized communities, leading more people to take justice into their own hands.

While all these factors may help explain the political and social motivators for increased mob violence, the question remains as to why it happens in the first place.

What leads people to maim or kill strangers without even corroborating their guilt? Why, after years of positive economic and social indicators, are some Latin American countries reverting to such a medieval punitive measure?

The deeper sociological answers to these questions are beyond what I can pretend to know or cover in this column. However, in these three examples, there seems to be a basic underlying trend of distrust towards the state’s capacity to address crime.

The rules by which we are accustomed to abide by are not natural but imposed, a product of collective bargaining and social pressures originating from different subgroups in our societies.  What is right and wrong is ultimately codified and implemented through institutions, which is why we have states. Perhaps what we are seeing in Latin America, like in so many other places, is a crisis of legitimacy for the state. As its capacity to enforce itself is rolled back (or voluntarily retreated,) one of the main justifications for its existence – collective security and justice – loses strength.  Alternatives emerge, and other linkages (communal, ethnic, religious) supersede the national identity.  People can beat up and even kill total strangers in the name of their community because all connection with their victim – any sense of solidarity – is lost in the equation.

The re-emergence of mob violence and “popular justice” poses a threat to the legitimacy of the commonly agreed rules of any state. It must be treated as a sociological problem stemming from basic insufficiencies and not just as another variant of violent crime. Only when the affected governments address insecurity, corruption, criminal impunity and other social conditions that lead to it will the problem be solved.




About the Author

Francis, Class of '16, is a BPR columnist and International Relations concentrator from San Juan, Puerto Rico, with an interest in Latin American politics. He also enjoys playing guitar, salsa dancing and keeping up with the Latino indie music and film scene. Perpetually in search of a Puerto Rican-themed food truck.