Just the other day, two teenage boys were chased down and ambushed by a mob of angry neighbors in rural Guatemala. The group of one hundred people dragged the boys to the city hall and tried to beat them to death. Their crime? Robbing money from local businesses.
If you thought hangings were limited to the work of the Ku Klux Klan, or to countries where they're used as part of capital punishment, think again. Many lynchings in the world today involve brutal beatings, gasoline, and the victims being set on fire. In short, it isn't pretty.
Although security forces were able to rescue the two teenage robbers just mentioned from an almost certain demise, many people aren't so lucky. In fact, the Human Rights Ombudsman Office of Guatemala reported 243 injuries and 51 deaths due to lynchings during 2011 alone. That amounts to 24 people directly affected by lynchings every month in a country roughly the size of Tennessee. And this kind of thing doesn't just happen in Guatemala, but in recent years has occurred in a number of other Latin America countries as well as in Spain and Britain. The question is: why?
University of Notre Dame researcher Carlos Mendoza sheds some light on the subject in his paper on understanding lynch mobs. He says that three basic factors make lynchings more likely to occur: ethnic identity, weak justice institutions, and a high instance of crime. We’ll break these down and talk about them in a little more detail.
People in a community who share a local or ethnic identity are able to organize themselves quickly. This, says Mendoza, leads to “collective action”. They are able to act quickly, and together. In places where citizens don’t identify as a group, or where they live spread apart from one another, lynchings are less likely. This part of Mendoza’s theory might explain why, at least in Guatemala, most lynchings occur in indigenous communities.
A lack of justice, combined with high levels of crime, is one of the most compelling reasons for lynchings and vigilantism. Mendoza says: “If the most fundamental purpose and justification of the state’s existence is the provision of order, security and justice, what happens when the state does not provide those public goods?” Citizens of many Latin American countries feel that their lives, belongings and security are at constant risk. Inadequate, corrupt or illegitimate justice systems leave people feeling vulnerable and defenseless. It thus makes sense that they will take the law into their own hands.
However, not all lynch mobs confine themselves to lynching criminals or suspected criminals. In some instances, they may attack the authorities. Martha Knisely Huggins, author of Vigilantism and the State, writes: “In Brazil, citizen lynch mobs have sometimes attacked the police and police stations in order to get faster justice... In Argentina citizens have taken violent action against the police themselves for their corruption, dereliction of duty, and violence.”
This is a complex topic that involves multiple sociological, cultural and political factors. However, the prevalence of lynchings in Latin America underlines, most of all, the need for strong public justice systems. Until that need is met, you might want to think twice before stealing anything in Latin America.