In Latin America, Awash in Crime, Citizens Impose Their Own Brutal Justice

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16-year-old Victor Melo, falsely accused of stealing a cellphone, died at the hands of a teenage mob.

16-year-old Victor Melo, falsely accused of stealing a cellphone, died at the hands of a teenage mob.

BRASÍLIA—For Victor Melo, the end began with a stolen iPhone.

The 16-year-old had spent a balmy Saturday afternoon in May with his high school friends at a funk music party in Brasília’s central park, not far from the country’s presidential palace.

As he headed home shortly after sundown, someone in the crowd grabbed his classmate Ágatha from behind and snatched her phone, witnesses told police. She spun around and saw Victor. Believing him to be the thief, she screamed out for help. Her friends knocked him to the ground and began to beat him.

Hearing Ágatha’s shrieks, another group of partygoers presumed he must be the same teen who had swiped a pair of sunglasses from them earlier. One of them jammed a broken bottle into Victor’s stomach. A young blond woman known as Apple punctured him repeatedly with what police believe was a screwdriver, skewering the muscles between his ribs. A man then plunged a knife into his heart.

In the half-hour it took the group of 20 mostly high-school students to kill Victor, no one searched him for the stolen items. Another 100 or so partygoers looked on and did nothing, investigators said.

“Die, you asshole,” one onlooker can be heard saying in a video recorded on a witness’s cellphone, as paramedics later tried in vain to resuscitate Victor, hunched over his limp corpse.

The parking lot where Victor Melo died, not far from the presidential palace in Brasília.

The parking lot where Victor Melo died, not far from the presidential palace in Brasília.

Lynching is Latin America’s dark secret. The region has the world’s highest murder rate, and its highest rate of impunity. Some countries including Brazil solve just 1 in 10 murders. With little faith in the police or the courts to bring criminals to justice, mobs routinely kill suspected lawbreakers in spontaneous attacks.

Lynchings in the U.S. were historically linked to mobs of white Americans mostly killing blacks and other minorities, usually by hanging. Those peaked in 1892 with 230 people killed. It is by now a rare phenomenon and virtually unheard of in Europe.

Lynch Mobs

Over the past 60 years, as many as 1.5 million Brazilians have taken part in lynchings, estimates sociologist José de Souza Martins.

800 lynchings

700

600

500

400

300

200

100

0

60’s

70’s

1940’s

80’s

90’s*

50’s

2018**

800 lynchings

700

600

500

400

300

200

100

0

2018**

50’s

70’s

80’s

90’s*

60’s

1940’s

800 lynchings

700

600

500

400

300

200

100

0

90’s*

80’s

70’s

60’s

1940’s

2018**

50’s

800 lynchings

700

600

500

400

300

200

100

0

60’s

1940’s

2018**

70’s

50’s

90’s*

80’s

Note: José de Souza Martins compiled a database of lynchings reported by the press. *Data only goes to June 1997 **Estimated 365+ lynchings or attempted lynchings.

Source: José de Souza Martins

In Brazil, mobs now kill—or try to kill—more than one suspected lawbreaker a day, according to University of São Paulo sociologist José de Souza Martins, Brazil’s leading expert on lynchings. That figure is both the highest in the world, and more than at any point in Brazil’s history, he said.

While Latin America is known for its hardened drug cartels and street gangs, the region’s lynch mobs are made up of ordinary, otherwise law-abiding citizens, from school students to old ladies. They kill with the same grisly cruelty, sometimes mutilating victims’ sexual organs in cases of suspected rape, or burning them alive in broad daylight.

After an angry mob killed a young suspected thief in Rio de Janeiro recently, his decomposing corpse remained on the street for days, said Mr. Martins, who compiled a database of Brazil’s lynchings by combing through decades of newspaper archives. “Then one day a sweet elderly woman appeared with a spoon,” he said. She was there to remove the victim’s eyes—an attempt to destroy his soul as well as his body. “Someone finally called the police and it took various officers to remove her.”

A Peruvian man was publicly tortured by villagers in Azángaro, Peru, in 2004 after he was accused of stealing a propane gas tank used for home cooking.

A Peruvian man was publicly tortured by villagers in Azángaro, Peru, in 2004 after he was accused of stealing a propane gas tank used for home cooking.


Photo:

TPN/Associated Press

Months after Victor’s death in Brasília, his father Iris de Melo is still in shock. “Not even an animal would do something like that to its own species,” he said in a recent interview, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Mr. de Melo now lies awake most nights. His wife has started hearing voices. There are days when Victor’s little sister barely says a word. “We died along with him,” said Mr. de Melo.

Continental carnage

Lynchings typically follow the same ritual across Latin America. A group of friends, relatives or neighbors witness a crime or hear about one over the messaging service WhatsApp. They hunt down the suspect and drag him to a public place, where they torture and kill him with whatever weapons are at hand, from kitchen utensils to scythes from the harvest.

In April, Amazonian villagers in Peru dragged a Canadian tourist along the ground by a noose around his neck before killing him, believing him to be guilty of the murder of a local shaman.

An enraged mob in Mexico set a 21-year-old man and his uncle on fire in August, mistaking them for child snatchers. A video of the incident shows a crowd gathered around while men take turns pouring gasoline on the pair until their charred corpses stopped moving.

Violent Crimes in Brazil

140 cases per 100,000 population

Carjacking

120

100

80

60

40

Intentional homicide

20

Rape

0

’11

’12

’13

’14

’15

’10

’16

2009

140 cases per 100,000 population

Carjacking

120

100

80

60

40

Intentional homicide

20

Rape

0

’16

’15

’14

’13

’12

’11

’10

2009

140 cases per 100,000 population

Carjacking

120

100

80

60

40

Intentional homicide

20

Rape

0

2009

’10

’11

’12

’13

’14

’15

’16

140 cases per 100,000 population

Carjacking

120

100

80

60

40

Intentional homicide

20

Rape

0

’15

’16

2009

’10

’11

’12

’13

’14

Sources: Brazilian Forum of Public Safety (carjacking, rape); Igarapé Institute (Intentional homicide)

Many cases are sparked by robbery, another crime category where Latin America leads the world, according to U.N. figures.

In one of the region’s most bizarre lynchings, townspeople in western Bolivia tied up a woman and her two sons to a tree infested with poisonous fire ants on New Year’s Eve in 2016, mistaking the trio for car thieves. Her neck swelled up so much from the bites she suffocated to death, according to local press reports.

Lynchings are rarely a response to a single crime, researchers say. Rather, the crimes are simply the last straw for a community living in fear of endemic violence.

A crowd surrounds 19-year-old Wallison Silva Araújo, who was accused of killing an acquaintance in a drunken brawl in Araioses, Brazil.

A crowd surrounds 19-year-old Wallison Silva Araújo, who was accused of killing an acquaintance in a drunken brawl in Araioses, Brazil.

Brazilian bar owner Antonio Gomes da Cruz said the habitual criminal who murdered his son deserved mob justice—and he admits he took part in it. “Even if he had been put behind bars for 100 years it wouldn’t have been enough to pay for all his crimes,” he said.

Latin America accounts for a third of the world’s murders—about 400 a day, with almost half of them in Brazil. Yet throughout the region, less than 20% are solved. The numbers are even worse in Brazil and Mexico, where more than 90% of murderers escape conviction. In São Paulo, the region’s biggest city, more than half of victims from armed robberies don’t even bother reporting those crimes to the police, according to a study by Insper, a Brazilian business school.

When justice is done, it can be infuriatingly slow. Brazil’s Supreme Court, the last resort for even mundane disputes, currently sits on about 44,000 cases dating back to 1969.

In a society haunted by violence, lynchings are cathartic acts meant to reimpose order, said Gema Santamaría, an author on extralegal justice in Latin America and adviser to the U.N. on the issue. The irony, she said, is that since the lynchers themselves rarely face prosecution, the attacks “only create more injustice, and more insecurity.”

Wallison Silva Araújo’s mother, Fatima, sits on his bed after townspeople lynched him in Araioses. Below, residents gather at his home.

Wallison Silva Araújo’s mother, Fatima, sits on his bed after townspeople lynched him in Araioses. Below, residents gather at his home.

In Latin America, Awash in Crime, Citizens Impose Their Own Brutal Justice

In about 1 in every 13 lynchings in Brazil, the victim turns out to be innocent of the alleged crime, according to Mr. Martins’ research. Such cases—usually a result of mistaken identity—momentarily jolt society’s conscience.

Four years have passed since Brazil’s most famous case of a lynching gone wrong, the killing of a housewife in Guarujá, a popular beach resort. Fabiane Maria de Jesus, a mother of two, bought bananas on her way back home from church in May 2014, and offered one to a boy in the street.

“It’s her!” passersby screamed out, according to witness statements. A Facebook post had recently gone viral, warning locals about a blond woman who carried a satanic book and kidnapped children. Ms. Jesus had just dyed her hair blond and was carrying her bible.

Iris de Melo, the father of lynching victim Victor Melo, says of his remaining family, “we died along with him.”

Iris de Melo, the father of lynching victim Victor Melo, says of his remaining family, “we died along with him.”

Police estimate about 100 people beat her to death, while more than a thousand others came to watch. Five men were convicted for the attack in a rare case of lynchers being brought to justice.

A local congressman later worked with her family to come up with a bill to introduce harsher punishments for those who incite crimes over the internet. Congress still hasn’t voted on it, and the lynchings continue.

“It seems that the tragic example of my wife did not serve as an example for Brazil,” said Jailson Alves das Neves, Ms. Jesus’ husband.

Indifference to death

Law-enforcement officials point to lynchings as the expression of a pathological indifference to death.

“We’re the world champions of murder…and people are getting used to living alongside barbarity,” said Leonardo Jubé de Moura, a public prosecutor in Brasília. Brazilians are losing their capacity to feel empathy for the strangers continually slain around them, he said. “That is making people less civilized.”

Losing Confidence

A survey conducted by a São Paulo Law School found that Brazilians have little trust in many institutions.

Percentage of surveyed have confidence in:

Armed forces

Catholic Church

Printed press

Television stations

Big companies

Public Prosecutors

Police

Courts

National Congress

Federal Government

0

20

40

60%

Percentage of surveyed have confidence in:

Armed forces

Catholic Church

Printed press

Television stations

Big companies

Public Prosecutors

Police

Courts

National Congress

Federal Government

60%

40

20

0

Percentage of surveyed have confidence in:

Armed forces

Catholic Church

Printed press

Television stations

Big companies

Public Prosecutors

Police

Courts

National Congress

Federal Government

40

20

0

60%

Percentage of surveyed have confidence in:

Armed

forces

Catholic

Church

Printed

press

Television

stations

Big

companies

Public

Prosecutors

Police

Courts

National

Congress

Federal

Government

40

20

60%

0

Note: Based on 1,650 interviews, with a margin of error of 2.5%, representing approximately 65% of the population of Brazilian metropolitan regions, according to data from the 2010 Census.

Source: FGV DIREITO SP São Paulo Law School

At the eastern edge of São Paulo, Francisco Pawlik Street looks like any other quiet corner of Brazilian suburbia. Elderly men sit on plastic chairs at the local bar, women sweep the sidewalks, children play in the street. Just a few months ago residents tried to murder a man.

It was a Saturday evening in June and everyone was in a festive mood, decorating the street ahead of the soccer World Cup. Suddenly a car came hurtling down the steep road, ricocheting off parked cars as its drunken driver struggled to regain control, witnesses told police.

One of the mothers frantically pulled the children aside. But Juan, a 7-year-old who lived across the street, got left behind. “The car pinned him against the wall, crushed him to pieces,” said Sandra Guimarães, 60, who owns the local bar.

The scene of a fatal car crash on the outskirts of São Paulo, where a boy was crushed against a wall. Locals nearly killed the driver with pieces of wood and rocks before the police arrived.

The scene of a fatal car crash on the outskirts of São Paulo, where a boy was crushed against a wall. Locals nearly killed the driver with pieces of wood and rocks before the police arrived.

About 40 locals turned on the driver, hitting him with rocks and bits of wood. They would have killed him if the police hadn’t arrived, she said. Patrons at her bar confirmed her story. No one said they took part, or knew the names of those who did.

Lynchers often remain anonymous. In some cases, locals adhere to an unspoken pact of silence. Even when the police manage to identify perpetrators, it is hard to prove who was responsible for the fatal blow.

But one thing is clear from interviews with the residents of Francisco Pawlik Street: no one feels much remorse.

“If we don’t deliver justice ourselves, who will?” said one neighbor. “We’re on our own.”

Thirst for revenge

This thirst for violent retribution against criminals is now commonplace across Brazil, helping to elect Jair Bolsonaro in presidential elections in October. The ex-army captain rode to victory promising to fight crime with an iron fist, loosen gun laws and give police more freedom to kill suspected criminals.

“If the government needs to hire someone to kill off criminals, I’ll do it for free,” said Mr. Bolsonaro recently, describing criminals as “not normal humans” who need to be exterminated.

In Araioses, police chief Raphael Reis says he needs about 170 officers to patrol the town of nearly 50,000, but has just 12.

In Araioses, police chief Raphael Reis says he needs about 170 officers to patrol the town of nearly 50,000, but has just 12.

Brazilian police officers already sometimes give tacit approval to lynchings, making little effort to intervene or collect evidence to bring assailants to trial.

One burly São Paulo police officer put it simply. If Brazil had a death penalty like the U.S., then many local lynching victims would be killed for their crimes anyway, he said. “So?” he asked defiantly, “What’s the problem?”

Militia groups made up of retired and off-duty cops have long operated in Brazil’s slums, modeling themselves as modern-day superheroes with aliases such as “Batman.” One of Brazil’s latest movie releases, The Awakener, features a rogue officer in a superhero-like disguise who assassinates politicians accused of corruption before blowing up Congress.

A town possessed

Almost 2,000 miles north of São Paulo in the town of Araioses, lynching is now so common that evangelical churches have begun sending missionaries there, convinced locals have been possessed by the devil.

“Violence runs in their veins,” said missionary Luiz Carlos Cunha, 41, about the young men he has met, many of whom took part in recent lynchings. “They said they couldn’t stop themselves…until they saw the blood,” he said, gazing out onto Araioses’s picturesque waterfront where the Parnaíba river flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

Police on patrol in Araioses.

Police on patrol in Araioses.

Sunday mass on the main square of Araioses.

Sunday mass on the main square of Araioses.

In one recent case in the region, townspeople decapitated a man who shot a local in a bar fight, skewering his bloodied head onto a fence post for all to see.

Local police say Araioses isn’t in need of an exorcism, just more officers.

Brazil’s deepest recession on record from 2014 to 2016 left many states virtually bankrupt, forcing some to miss salary payments to police and depriving police stations of everything from fingerprint powder to bullets.

Percentage of people who say they are victim of crime in previous 12 months

Peru

Ecuador

Venezuela

Mexico

Colombia

Brazil

U.S.

Chile

20

30%

10

0

Percentage of people who say they are victim of crime in previous 12 months

Peru

Ecuador

Venezuela

Mexico

Colombia

Brazil

U.S.

Chile

10

0

30%

20

Percentage of people who say they are victim of crime in previous 12 months

Peru

Ecuador

Venezuela

Mexico

Colombia

Brazil

U.S.

Chile

20

10

30%

0

Percentage of people who say they are victim of crime in previous 12 months

Peru

Ecuador

Venezuela

Mexico

Colombia

Brazil

U.S.

Chile

20

10

0

30%

Source: Vanderbilt University, Latin America Public Opinion Project 2014

In Araioses, police chief Raphael Reis says he needs about 170 officers to patrol the town of nearly 50,000, but has just 12. With patrol cars in short supply, an officer recently had to hitch a ride to a crime scene with a passing hearse that was on its way to pick up the dead bodies.

Even when criminals are put behind bars, townspeople are still intent on killing them. Angry mobs have attempted to break into Araioses’s police station three times in the past two years to kill prisoners. Inmates have taken to protecting themselves, once unwiring the fans in their cells and flooding the police station with water, ready to electrocute any invading mobs.

These jail break-ins partly come from a fear that incarcerated criminals will wriggle free. This year, a convicted local rapist was allowed out of prison briefly to visit his mother in Araioses on Mother’s Day. He went to beat up his wife instead. In Brazil, prisoners are frequently let out of jail on national holidays as a reward for good behavior, but police say they lack the manpower to monitor the visits. The town police chief, Mr. Reis, says the prison didn’t even notify him of the rapist’s release that day.

Antonio Gomes da Cruz took part in the lynching of Wallison Silva Araújo after the 19-year-old killed his son Mykson in a drunken brawl.

Antonio Gomes da Cruz took part in the lynching of Wallison Silva Araújo after the 19-year-old killed his son Mykson in a drunken brawl.


Photo:

Luciana Magalhaes/The Wall Street Journal

Sometimes lynchers just want to see criminals dead. That is how Mr. da Cruz, the bar owner, justifies helping to kill the man who murdered his son.

Wallison Silva Araújo, a wiry 19-year-old, had long been suspected of carrying out a spate of violent robberies, including tying up an elderly lady and leaving her to die at the bottom of a well. Then, one Saturday night in June, he murdered Mr. da Cruz’s son, Mykson, stabbing him more than 30 times in the chest during a drunken brawl over a motorbike in front of witnesses. It was the last straw.

“I remember everyone in the town egging me on to kill him…They were shouting: ‘You’re not a man, you’re a coward,’ ” Mr. da Cruz recalled. Cellphone video footage shows the thief ducking under washing lines and scaling walls to scramble free as hundreds of locals feverishly chase him down. Then someone in the crowd handed Mr. da Cruz a knife.

Mr. da Cruz said he can’t remember who delivered the final fatal blow that day. The 44-year-old is out on bail awaiting trial. Asked if he regrets his actions, his answer left no doubt. “I regret being caught on camera.”

A street in Araioses at night.

A street in Araioses at night.

Write to Samantha Pearson at samantha.pearson@wsj.com and Luciana Magalhaes at Luciana.Magalhaes@wsj.com

Appeared in the December 7, 2018, print edition as ‘Latin America’s Mob Justice.’