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Editorial: On Lynchings, The Media, and Missed Opportunities

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It began on 26th March. “18-year-old thief lynched by locals in Rosario dies”, read the headline in La Nación. The ‘thief’ was David Moreira, who succumbed to severe head injuries four days after being beaten by a mob of up to 50 people who accused him of snatching a handbag from a young mother in the street.

Lorena Torres, David Moreira's mother holds a photo of her murdered son (photo: Carlos Carrión / Indymedia)

Lorena Torres, David Moreira’s mother holds a photo of her murdered son (photo: Carlos Carrión / Indymedia)

In the days that followed, reports started coming in of similar incidents around the country. Then, on 29th March, a Twitter user gave a vivid account of another brutal mob attack on a suspected mugger in Palermo, catapulting the issue to the front pages and opening a national debate.

Analysing the causes and psychology of collective violence is beyond the scope of this article. But before the news cycle moves on, it’s worth reflecting on some of the things we have seen and heard over the last week, and adding a bit of context and perspective to the hyperbole.

Modern-day lynchings are not a new phenomenon, nor unique to Argentina

Lynchings are already an established phenomenon in other parts of Latin America, especially in Guatemala, which reported 488 cases (and 47 deaths) in 2013 alone. However, these typically take place in rural areas and display more ritualistic tendencies, such as dragging the victim to a symbolic public place and burning or torturing them. There are more lines of comparison between here and Brazil, where a similar national debate is underway after a 15-year-old boy was beaten, stripped, mutilated, and chained to a lamppost with a bike lock by a mob who accused him of stealing in a middle-class neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro.

There is no official data on lynchings in Argentina, but one university study found 24 cases reported by the media between 1997 and 2008, while an online search reveals sporadic recent examples, including an almost identical case in November 2012 on the same corner where Moreira was murdered.

Experts signal that there are also likely to be other cases that are not reported at all. Sociologist Javier Auyero, co-author of ‘La violencia en los márgenes‘ (Violence in the margins) spoke on radio about how violent revenge attacks are not uncommon in the shantytowns and poor urban neighbourhoods, yet the press pay little attention. When it comes to crime and security, says Auyero, the media focuses overwhelmingly on that which affects the middle and upper classes, even though it is the poor that suffer from it most on a daily basis.

There is a disconnect between crime rates and the feeling of insecurity in Argentina

When Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri recently expressed relief that his daughter spent 2013 living in San Francisco, he probably had not checked that the murder rate was higher there last year than in Buenos Aires. Yet Macri is not alone: according to Latinobarometro, 35% of Argentines consider crime the biggest problem in the country, more than any other Latin American state except Venezuela and Uruguay, despite data suggesting it is relatively safe.

National crime statistics have not been published since 2009 – a major problem in itself – but in the province of Buenos Aires, the most populous and most affected by crime, the murder rate in 2013 was an estimated 9.7 (per 100,000 people). This is among the lowest in the region, according to UN data, with only Chile and Uruguay enjoying significantly lower rates. Even localised spikes in violence – the homicide rate in Rosario reached an alarming 22 last year – remain far below the worst affected urban areas of Brazil, Colombia, and most of Central America. The same UN report does show that Argentina has the highest rate of robberies in the region, though it has not changed significantly since 2005.

Rosario has seen a surge in violent crime related to drugs gangs (photo: José Granata/Télam/ef)

Rosario has seen a surge in violent crime related to drugs gangs (photo: José Granata/Télam/ef)

Argentine sociologist Gabriel Kessler, author of the book ‘El sentimiento de inseguridad’ (‘The feeling of insecurity’), says this disconnect comes from a mix of relatively high and risings rates of victimisation (the number of households that have been a victim of crime, mainly minor offences), and the media exposure of the most violent crimes and murders. This generates fear about the potential to be a future victim, centred especially on the arbitrary nature of street crime.

None of this is to deny the existence of violent crime or diminish the emotional impact it has on those who suffer its consequences. But a legal system exists precisely to strip emotion from the judicial process – everyone has a right to demand a better judicial system, but not to circumvent it. And if there is to be a considered debate on the problem, it should be based on objective reality and not a feeling of persecution.

Condemnation comes in shades of grey

One thing that has resonated is the public response to this outbreak of lynching attacks, today more visible than ever thanks to social networks. Opinions in newspaper comments and social networks range from outright rejection of violence to unashamed celebration at the death of a ‘criminal’. Of course, virtual anonymity tends to bring out extremist views, and there has also been a strong online campaign rejecting vigilantism under the slogan ‘No cuenten conmigo‘ (‘Don’t count on me’). Yet a softer version of this ‘uno menos‘ (one fewer) mentality seems to have at least a foothold in the social conscience: two separate surveys published late last week found that around 30% of respondents support the use of violence against suspected criminals.

Media pundits and public figures have been almost universal in condemning the lynchings, though this is often nuanced with understanding for those that took part in them. Meanwhile, subtle judgements are cast through the select use of language: the person being beaten to death remains the ‘criminal’ while the mob is made up of ‘locals’ who are taking ‘justice’ into their own hands. The word ‘murder’ is largely missing from the coverage of the Moreira case, even though at least two Supreme Court judges and several prosecutors have made it clear that this is the only way it can be treated by the law.

Efforts to empathise are also one-sided. Talk of social frustration, suffering, and injustice is directed at the ‘normal’ people who resort to brutality out of ‘desperation’. The background story and social context of the person they are beating is largely irrelevant – he is defined solely by his alleged criminal act, and disregarded as just another anonymous thug from the slums.

Lurking behind it all is an undercurrent of racism. Even though in Spanish, the translation ‘linchamiento‘ does not have the same connotations as the English original, there is a clear profile of the dark-skinned, cap-wearing criminal that is reinforced by the media. It is this type of stigmatisation that led to a group of taxi drivers in Rosario to chase down, shoot at, and beat up a young man on a motorbike last week because he looked like someone who had just robbed their office. If we are talking about the feeling of insecurity, what about those of a certain complexion who now have to fear being wrongly accused by an angry mob?

Talk about an ‘absent state’ is misleading

Politicians have also weighed in on the debate, with opposition leaders Sergio Massa (Frente Renovador) and Macri (PRO) quick to point the finger at an ‘absent state’, as though Alto Palermo were South Sudan. This media-friendly soundbite is designed to appeal to those who demand a quick solution to the problem of crime via more police, more prisons, and harsher sentences.

This call to get ‘tough on crime’ has been heard before. But the state has long contributed – through corrupt or abusive security forces – to the violence that exists in the marginalised areas most affected by crime. In 1999, ex-governor of Buenos Aires province, Carlos Ruckauf, boasted about how his police would “use bullets” on criminals, effectively legitimising a type of lynching in uniform. News this weekend of current governor Daniel Scioli’s knee-jerk declaration of a “security emergency”, and the reincorporation of 15,000 retired police officers, is not going to be comforting to all.

A protester outside a villa dresses up as the grim reaper in a police uniform (photo: Kate Stanworth)

A protester outside a villa dresses up as the grim reaper in a police uniform (photo: Kate Stanworth)

The demands for sterner punishments are also selective: last week, there was an outcry over the swift release of the adolescent who was allegedly caught stealing and ‘lynched’ in Palermo, but no one seemed too concerned in September after the acquittal of five men who took part in the beating to death of 15-year-old Lucas Navarro in La Matanza in 2010 after he attempted to rob one of them with a toy gun. Meanwhile, little is being said about the fact that no one has even been arrested for the murder of Moreira.

The real state deficit in these “factories of violence”, as Auyero calls the slums and impoverished suburban enclaves, is the failure to provide public education, social services, and work opportunities. Those who were cut adrift in the rampant neoliberal reforms of the ’90s and have not felt the benefits of the so-called ‘decade won’ under Kichnerism know more about injustice and helplessness than most. As the villa-based cooperative magazine La Garganta Poderosa surmised last week: if inequality does not justify anyone going out to steal, why do some claim that insecurity justifies some people going out to kill?

An opportunity is being missed

Amid tragic circumstances, there is an opportunity to discuss seriously the complex and sensitive issue of crime, justice, and security. However, this discussion needs to be balanced and without prejudices: if we are going to try and understand social violence, we need to examine all of it. If we only ask ourselves whether it is acceptable or not to lynch a certain type of criminal (no one is talking about lynching people who cause road accidents or businessmen who steal), it will inevitably reinforce stereotypes and social divisions.

A full debate cannot exist without more voices from the margins, like those of La Garganta Poderosa or César Gonzalez, the former teenage drug addict and mugger who is now a publisher and filmmaker, and perhaps the most powerful argument against those who support lynching. “The demand for more security is shared by all,” said Gonzalez on one radio show last week. “But it’s only a certain social sector that ends up getting beaten.”

@marcdrogers

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7 Responses to “Editorial: On Lynchings, The Media, and Missed Opportunities”

  1. Werner Almesberger says:

    This is one of those rare moments where I find myself agreeing with Scioli: I think it’s imperative to put more police on the street at the moment. Police presence discourages the robbers and makes people feel more protected, it discourages prospective lynchers, and if police is rapidly at the scene of a crime, a mob won’t even have time to form. It’s a good way to cool things down a little.

    Regarding discrimination, the recent incidents are about largely opportunistic crimes, mainly robberies. These can happen in streets, shops, people’s homes, and even places like restaurants or buses. What they have in common is that – unlike, say, domestic violence – they are almost completely unpredictable for the victims.

    So it’s no surprise that people use unreliable prediction methods to plan their defense: the reputation of an area, social prejudices, and so on. Some prejudices may seem unfair but make perfect sense. As a rule of thumb, the higher the criminal’s social and economical status, the less likely that criminal is to engage in high-risk yet low-value crimes like robberies. So avoiding anyone who looks marginalized should be quite effective when it comes to lowering the risk of being robbed, even if only very few of these people actually have bad intentions.

    Perhaps the blame should therefore be not as much on the non-poor who try to make the best of the information they have to protect themselves, but on the violent poor who hide among the non-violent poor and make them look bad.

    Perhaps criminals should be obliged to wear uniforms. That way, we could avoid them without discriminating against suspiciously-looking innocents. Anyone who commits a crime without wearing that uniform would be considered an unlawful combatant and treated accordingly. Hah, now that was easy to solve.

    As the article mentions, robbery is rampant in Argentina and there are many reports of particularly savage episodes. The concept that poor criminals cannot be held responsible for their actions simply because they are poor doesn’t help at all in that context, because it basically dehumanizes them.

    But perhaps that message has just been sent too often and what we’re seeing are people drawing the logical conclusions.

    – Werner

  2. marc says:

    Hi Werner,

    More police can help calm tensions in the short-term, for sure, but they can’t be everywhere, and (more importantly), it is only beneficial if we assume the police are behaving properly, which evidence suggests is not the case. While we might feel safer in the city when we see a police patrol, plenty of people in the marginsalised areas of GBA might have good reason to feel more worried.

    I agree that the poor ‘criminals’ should be held responsible for their actions, and I would wager that they are much more than rich ‘criminals’ are. That’s the point, that all crime is treated, and condemned, equally.

    It is the disproportionate emphasis on these low-volume crimes in society (driven by the media) that I criticise in this article, as it reinforces and aggravates the prejudices we may already have, until they cloud all rational analysis, and skew the “logical” conclusions that [some] people draw.

    Marc

  3. Werner Almesberger says:

    Marc, yes, I meant the sort of areas where “lynchings” were reported. I think those weren’t no-go zones for the police. Ideally the police would just be present without having much to do. The knowledge that there is someone who could tremendously complicate a robbery is often sufficient for making criminals move to other hunting grounds.

    Maybe it’s territorial thinking that’s at play. If a territory is claimed by some other predator then you may have to fight that one if you go after its prey. If no “owner” is in sight, then you’re free to hunt.

    Of course, this also suggests that merely putting more police in the conflict zones is but a short-term solution because the criminals will try to find new victims elsewhere or switch to crimes that are harder to spot.

    Regarding discrimination of the poor, people fear violent crime because of the enormous damage it can do. If someone defrauds me of some money I’ll be angry but it’s generally not immediately life-threatening. If a robber gets nervous and shoots me the story is quite different.

    In cases where white-collar crime doesn’t seem to be handled properly by the authorities, see the scandals surrounding Boudou and Baez, public opinion is very intense, too. It would of course take a fairly big lynch mob to get hold of a vice president, but if online posts could kill he would have died a few million deaths already.

    I’m not sure what you refer to with “low-volume” crimes. The murders ? About two per day in the province of Buenos Aires alone [1]. The robberies ? About 770 thousand reported (!) per year in Argentina [2]. The “lynchings” ? One dead recently, a few beaten. There seem to be about 1-2 “lynchings” ending in the death of the suspect per year. Usually the press doesn’t make much noise about them, e.g., [3].

    Press attention seems to be more intense than usual, this is true. Not sure why. Could be that they sense that the public has lost patience, could be that it’s the string of beatings that draws their attention, could be that they’re trying to help those politicians – well, it’s mainly one, Massa – who chose a “tough on crime” platform for 2015.

    Of course, the president rushing to national TV right the next work day after that purse snatcher was beaten to death only made the topic so much more interesting.

    [1] http://www.infobae.com/2014/04/02/1554412-en-2013-cuatro-personas-fueron-asesinadas-dia-la-provincia
    [2] http://www.infobae.com/2014/04/05/1555086-menos-del-3-los-robos-termina-una-condena
    [3] http://tiempo.infonews.com/2012/12/05/policiales-92238-mar-del-plata-linchan-a-un-violador.php

    – Werner

  4. marc says:

    My mistake, Werner, I meant to quote your ‘low-value crimes’. Although, now that you mention it, two murders per day sounds like quite a lot (especially when reported like that), but in a population of over 15m, it is still relatively low compared to other countries in the Americas (including US).

    Of course, violent crime generates more fear than, say, fraud. But then what about the emotional damage of a fatal car accident? You are much more likely to be killed on the roads (almost 7 per day in BsAs province alone [1]) but people do not live in fear of that, nor are they so ‘fed up’ that they are ready to lynch dangerous drivers.

    The crucial thing is not to deny that violent crime and insecurity exists, because it clearly does and is very traumatic for victims, and society. But when debating policies, the thinking has to be rational and objective, and not based on a feeling or emotion that is targeted by the media’s fetishisation of the issue (to the point where crime is a regular section in many daily newspapers, like sport or politics).

    Going back to discrimination, Scioli made my point very clear when he said recently that “it is criminals, not people, that should be afraid”. Who are criminals, if not people? Not many of us reading this piece can say we have never committed any crime at all, but we know Scioli doesn’t mean ‘us’. Nor does he mean the corrupt police in his province, who are directly involved in at least some of the violent crime that goes on. Nor tax evadors, politicians etc… and most importantly, he does not mean the people that take part in the lynchings, because well, they are ‘people’.

    M

    [1] http://www.luchemos.org.ar/es/estadisticas/muertosanuales/muertos2013

  5. Werner Almesberger says:

    Just to illustrate what sort of crimes infuriate people around here, I’ve listed a few cases that go well beyond some poor chap stealing because he can’t stand the hunger any longer. The links should be “safe for work” and not show any shocking images. In some cases, you can find these as well …

    Let’s begin with a bit of burglary. Three times at the same place – in one day. Peter Tosh (“Don’t Wake Up Policeman”) would certainly approve.

    http://www.informatesalta.com.ar/noticia.asp?q=60484

    “Burglary, that’s nothing !”, you may complain. Okay, here are two robberies then, one of them armed, both in the same shop and on the same day.

    http://www.pergaminoverdad.com.ar/archivos/4565

    “Oh, but they only scared the saleswoman.”, you may say. Very well. In the next case, a shop got robbed, the guard was left with some facial cuts (?) and the two other employees got some kicking. Oh, and it’s only the 17th time that little chain of three shops got robbed.

    http://www.lagaceta.com.ar/nota/563471/policiales/asaltaron-17-veces-ano-comerciante-tafi-viejo.html

    “Seventeen times ? That’s a lot !” It is, but don’t worry, there’s so much more. Here we have a shop owner – just one this time – who can look back to no less than 28 robberies. In the last one, lest he got bored with being merely robbed, they added a mock execution.

    http://www.eldia.com.ar/edis/20140404/Sin-paz-ya-lo-asaltaron-veces-milagro-lo-puede-contar-tapa1.htm

    “But no permanent harm was done.”, you may say. Don’t worry, just from today’s news, one young man was first robbed (that bourgeois carried a whopping 20 pesos), then mock-executed (it does get a bit repetitive, doesn’t it ?), and finally they hacked off one of his fingers.

    http://www.infobae.com/2014/04/09/1555998-le-gatillaron-y-le-rebanaron-un-dedo-porque-tenia-solo-20-pesos

    What’s unusual in the above case is that the victim wasn’t a bus driver. Because they’re the by far most popular target for cutting fingers.

    http://www.ambito.com/noticia.asp?id=729777
    http://tiempo.infonews.com/2014/02/21/policiales-119181-le-cortan-parte-de-un-dedo-a-un-colectivero.php
    http://www.telefenoticias.com.ar/es/news/policiales/20131112/asaltaron-colectivero-cortaron-dedo/23017.shtml

    Women receive a gentler treatment. While they may not escape the customary beating, they rarely lose their limbs. They may even be offered – without the choice to decline – an unexpected opportunity to have sex. Granny sex in the following case.

    http://www.diariouno.com.ar/policiales/Entradera-violenta-ataron-golpearon-le-robaron-y-violaron-a-una-anciana-en-Junin-20130616-0060.html

    And of course there are robberies that end with murder. Especially popular is the variant where a car robbery ends that way.

    http://www.diariopopular.com.ar/notas/187129-matan-repartidor-pollos-un-intento-robo-glew
    http://www.telam.com.ar/notas/201402/51270-lo-mataron-de-un-disparo-al-resistirse-al-robo-de-su-auto.html
    http://www.ambito.com/noticia.asp?id=727638
    http://www.lacapital.com.ar/ed_impresa/2014/1/edicion_1901/contenidos/noticia_5111.html
    http://www.infobae.com/2014/04/03/1554603-inseguridad-dos-nuevos-crimenes-conmocionaron-la-matanza

    Note that all these cases are from 2014. The last one is special because they actually stole the car. In the other cases they killed because they were dissatisfied with how the robbery was going.

    All the above is what you find with Google with just fairly general keywords, like “robo auto mataron”. No need to actually remember any details.

    – Werner

  6. marc says:

    Of course these crimes infuriate, and shock. They should.

    Let me stress again that I am not defending those who commit these crimes or relieving them of responsibility because of their background or social status. The vast majority of people living in poverty would never dream of committing these crimes – in fact, they are most likely to be victims of them.

    It doesn’t change the main thrust of my article: if we are going to discuss lynchings, crime, and security, the debate needs to be balanced and inclusive, and not skewed as it is towards the fears (justified or otherwise) of just one part of society.

    M

  7. Werner Almesberger says:

    Marc, I think almost anyone would agree that the failings of police and justice go far beyond violent crime. It’s just that violent crime by strangers – due to its nature – produces intense and very focused reactions. Hence the “lynchings”.

    There are other crimes that are just as violent – domestic violence and gang wars come to mind – but that follow different rules and are thus less likely to result in “lynchings”. (And who would want to get between warring gangs anyway.)

    So I don’t really see much discrimination against the poor. The beating resulting in the death of the purse snatcher could be considered a discrimination against criminals, though. But then it’s far from certain they actually intended to kill him. (Of course, the risk of such “accidents” is one of the reasons why lynchings are a bad idea.)

    Also, (with one exception [1]) the incidents so far have been direct responses to an actual crime immediately preceding them, and directed at either the perpetrator caught in the act or suspects supposedly resembling the perpetrators.

    You wrote that other offenses, for example vehicular manslaughter, don’t result in such reactions. But it does happen. Here is a recent case where a mob was forming but was prevented by police from getting violent [2]. A few months ago, after such a beating, someone from that place announce to the press, if I remember correctly “If you strike us (with your car), we lynch you.” Alas, I can’t find the article anymore.

    Here are more somewhat similar traffic incidents: some idiots decide to walk across a highway (autobahn, so clearly off-limits for pedestrians), one gets hit by a car and is killed, the others attack the car and its occupants, and apparently even rob them [10]. And here’s a bus driver that passed out, nearly crashed the bus, and was beaten by passengers [11].

    When a public figure is suspected of wrongdoing, they can also attract a mob. It happened to Axel Kicillof (booed and insulted when identified on a boat trip with his family [3], and then – a bit more intense – people protesting outside his home during a – minor – blackout), and even more often to judge Oyarbide: when voting [5], when traveling [6], and – this time a pretty big mob – at home [7]. Also the home of former secretary of commerce Guillermo Moreno was visited [8], combined with a death threat [9].

    Of course, all the incidents involving public figures were tame. No beatings, and certainly no killing. But then, these people are accused of what one may call “moral corruption”, which is something people tend to react to less strongly than to direct violence.

    Regarding the fears of the non-poor receiving preferential treatment, well, that’s probably unavoidable in general, even without any discrimination. But in this case, if police and justice were to make an effort to get better at neutralizing criminals, and executive and legislative were to make an effort to get better at changing incentives (which includes promoting an industry that can ensure prosperity for all. I would also like to see a complete legalization of all drugs and their supply chain as well, to drain that swamp, but I realize that I probably won’t get my wish anytime soon.), resulting in a reduction of violent crime, then this would benefit all strata of society.

    [1] http://diarioepoca.com/2014/04/03/santa-fe-vecinos-enfurecidos-echaron-a-una-familia-narco-de-un-barrio/
    [2] http://www.infobae.com/2014/03/30/1553802-el-ex-piloto-lalo-ramos-protagonizo-un-grave-accidente-y-quisieron-lincharlo
    [3] http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1551699-axel-kicillof-abucheado-en-buquebus
    [4] http://www.clarin.com/politica/mala-noche-paso-Kicillof_0_1072093110.html
    [5] http://www.iprofesional.com/notas/173023-Al-grito-de-ladrn-el-juez-Oyarbide-fue-escrachado-despus-de-emitir-su-voto
    [6] http://www.clarin.com/politica/Escracharon-Oyarbide-volvia-Punta-Cana_0_1069693047.html
    [7] http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1511625-realizan-un-escrache-contra-oyarbide
    [8] http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1511921-los-escraches-llegaron-hasta-la-casa-de-guillermo-moreno
    [9] http://www.centediario.com/ordenan-continuar-la-investigacion-por-la-difusion-de-la-imagen-de-guillermo-moreno-en-un-ataud/
    [10] http://www.baraderoteinforma.com.ar/campana-muere-un-menor-al-cruzar-la-panamericana/
    [11] http://www.infobae.com/2014/03/08/1548694-el-chofer-un-omnibus-se-descompenso-la-ruta-y-milagro-no-ocurrio-una-tragedia

    – Werner

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