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.
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.
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.
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.
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 rising 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.
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?
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 everybody.
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?
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.”