‘You’re lucky we didn’t burn you’: Venezuela mobs torture thieves in lynching epidemic | world-news | Hindustan Times
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‘You’re lucky we didn’t burn you’: Venezuela mobs torture thieves in lynching epidemic

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.

world Updated: Jun 16, 2017 13:18 IST
This file photo taken on May 20, 2017 shows opposition demonstrators set an alleged thief on fire during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. It is not just Venezuela's economy and political system that are sick, experts say -- but society itself.
This file photo taken on May 20, 2017 shows opposition demonstrators set an alleged thief on fire during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. It is not just Venezuela's economy and political system that are sick, experts say -- but society itself. (AFP Photo)

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 bastard.”

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.

‘Justice’

AFP journalists filmed a lynching close-up in a busy street in the capital Caracas.

A witness says 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 yells, as police lug the man, limp but still breathing, into the back of their car.

The crowd yells 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,” says Marco Ponce, coordinator of the Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory (OVCS).

The body says some 60 people were recorded as 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 the previous year, 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.”

No pity

Caracas resident Damaso Velasquez recalls taking part himself in a separate lynching.

“I didn’t feel pity for that person because I knew he was a criminal,” he tells AFP.

“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,” he goes on.

“The government grabs him, puts him in jail and then they let him go again. There is disorder here in Caracas -- starting with the government.”

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.

Yet only about six crimes out of every 100 here result in a sentence, says criminologist Fermin Marmol.

“People feel that the state is not protecting them, so they opt to defend themselves,” says Freddy Crespo, a criminologist at the University of the Andes.

“Their fear turns into anger.”

‘Social breakdown’

Ponce sees the rise of lynchings as a sign of a “social breakdown” in Venezuela.

President Nicolas Maduro suggested that a man who was set on fire during a demonstration in May was targeted for being a government supporter. Witnesses said the crowd accused him of thieving.

Maduro broadcast a chilling video of the 22-year-old man running in flames after being doused in fuel and set alight. The man died in hospital two weeks later.

In another case, a man was set on fire by a crowd who thought he had committed a robbery, but it turned out he had been trying to help the victim.

A man was sentenced to six years in jail in March for taking part in that killing.

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,” says 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,” she adds.

“That way I would turn into someone more barbaric than you.”