Venezuela mobs kick, burn thieves in lynching epidemic
Swearing in fury, the crowd strips the man naked and stomps on his head as he sprawls on the ground.
“You want things that come easy? Then take this, you b*****d.”
In Venezuela, this is what robbers get when they are caught by passers-by.
It is not just the country’s economy and political system that are sick, but society itself, experts say. An epidemic of lynchings is one of the most gruesome symptoms.
AFP journalists filmed a lynching close-up in a busy street in the capital Caracas. A witness said he stopped the man who had tried to rob a woman at gunpoint in a bakery. Then the mob took over.
“You’re lucky we didn’t burn you,” a voice yelled, as police lugged the man, limp but breathing, into the back of their car.
The crowd shouted in satisfaction – but not at the man’s arrest. They think they are the ones who have done justice here.
“Their aim is to kill the person before the police arrive,” said Marco Ponce, coordinator of the Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory (OVCS).
The group said about 60 people were killed in lynchings in the first five months of this year alone. Last year there were 126 such killings – a surge from the 20 reported in 2015, coinciding with the worsening of political tensions and economic chaos.
“In lynchings, citizens let out their anger in the face of a state that is not defending their right to justice,” says Ponce. “They think they are dispensing justice, and they do so with anger, so they go as far as killing the person.”
Caracas resident Damaso Velasquez recalled taking part himself in a separate lynching: “I didn’t feel pity for that person because I knew he was a criminal.
“I felt rage and hatred towards that person ... I saw him committing a robbery. That makes you feel furious, so whatever happens to him, it’s alright.”
Venezuela has one of the highest annual murder rates in the world – 70 for every 100,000 inhabitants in 2016, according to the state prosecution service.
“People feel that the state is not protecting them, so they opt to defend themselves,” said Freddy Crespo, a criminologist at the University of the Andes.
Ponce said the rise of lynchings was a sign of a “social breakdown” in Venezuela.
For some Venezuelans, the lynchings inspire as much terror as the criminals they are meant to punish.
“The state is supposed to provide you with civil and judicial security, which we are totally lacking,” said one Caracas resident, Maria Hernandez.
“But I don’t think it is just for me to come and kill or burn you just because you have robbed. That way I would turn into someone more barbaric than you.”