Growing Venezuela lynch mobs burn thieves alive

Josefina can still hear the shrieks two men made when a crowd set them on fire.

AFP| Updated: May 13, 2016, 12:13 PM IST

Caracas: Josefina can still hear the shrieks two men made when a crowd set them on fire.

She was heading home from work at dusk when she saw a mob beating them. As she got closer, the flames broke out.

"I shudder when I remember those lads` screams of pain," the 43-year-old hairdresser told AFP. Terrified by the violence in her neighborhood, she would not give her second name.

The crowd accused the two of thieving. They were among a growing number of people targeted by mob justice as Venezuela`s economic crisis boils over into desperation and violence.

In a worsening economic and political situation, citizens are suffering shortages of food -- and also police.

When someone is caught stealing in Josefina`s neighborhood of Los Ruices in eastern Caracas, the cry of "Catch him!" rings out.

Quickly a call goes out on the WhatsApp mobile phone messaging service to 350 neighbors in the group, she says.

They rush to their doorsteps to catch the suspected thief as he runs away.

"We have to defend ourselves because there are not enough police patrolling," says William Collins, a local neighborhood leader.

He insists the groups organized themselves aiming to scare off thieves, not kill them.

"The lynchings broke out spontaneously."The chief of police for the surrounding municipality of Polisucre, Manuel Furelos, admitted he does not have enough boots on the ground.

"The United Nations recommends deploying four police officers per thousand inhabitants," he told AFP.

"In Polisucre, like in most police forces in this country, we have half that."

Robberies accounted for 37 percent of all crimes investigated by Venezuela`s state prosecutors last year, according to official data.

The state prosecution service recorded 4,696 murders in the first quarter of this year -- higher than the average for 2015.

Last year there were 17,778 murders, or 58 for every 100,000 inhabitants. The state Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV) however estimates the rate is much higher -- about 90 murders per 100,000 people, or more than ten times the world average.

In mid-April, attorney general Luisa Ortega said her office was investigating 26 cases of vigilante violence that left 20 people dead. Two were from 2015; the rest dated from the first quarter of this year.

Two weeks later, Ortega said the number of such cases being investigated had risen to 74, involving 37 deaths.

"No one should carry out lynchings, even if the person has committed a crime, because sometimes injustices are committed," she said.

The family of 43-year-old cook Roberto Bernal said a crowd mistook him for a robber in Los Ruices. He was beaten, doused in petrol and burned to death.

One person has been charged for that killing, but prosecutors say he was ambushed by a whole group.

Psychologist Magally Huggins says lynchings show that citizens "do not believe they are guaranteed justice" by the authorities.

Furelos said that in Polisucre, "eight out of 10 people who are arrested red-handed get back on the street without being charged, because the courts are overwhelmed." But he condemned vigilante justice.

"It is dangerous when violence becomes an acceptable private way to settle disputes," said criminologist Andres Antillano.

"You lose sight of the difference between someone who kills to rob and someone who kills to stop it." One local man in Los Ruices showed AFP photographs on his mobile telephone: two men stripped naked and covered in blood, lying on the ground with their hands and feet tied.

He said they were seized by a lynch mob and kept that way while locals waited for the police to arrive.

That kind of photo is circulating frequently on online social networks.

Surveys carried out by the OVV between 2002 and 2012 indicated that just a third of Venezuelans disapprove of lynchings.

Adriana Torres, a 45-year-old shopkeeper, had no time to call her neighbors when a robber took her phone at gunpoint last year.

"I agree that local people should grab the thieves. We are fed up with them getting away with it," she said.

Josefina herself was robbed in the street, but she sees it differently.

"We are not God," she said. "We cannot decide whether a person lives or dies."

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