Latin American Crime Wave Means Vigilante Justice is a Fact of Life

There’s a reason that caravans of Latin Americans – some peaceful, some not – ceaselessly trudge towards the United States’ southern border. Life in much of Latin America is pure hell, riddled by persistent crime and crushing poverty, with no obvious recourse to cure either ill. Without institutions to protect themselves, those living in the broken nations of Latin America have little choice but to take justice into their own hands.

What this justice can look like is, predictably, often horrendous. We rely on the police and other law enforcement agencies for good reason – most are trained, have a discerning eye, and can remain reasonably calm in tense situations. The case of Victor Melo, a Brazilian teen falsely suspected of being a phone thief, makes clear why vigilante justice can rapidly spiral out of control, to tragic result.

‘As he headed home shortly after sundown, someone in the crowd grabbed (Melo’s) 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.

…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.’ (Wall Street Journal)

Tragically, these sort of scenarios have become less and less alien in Latin America.

The Latin America region is now the murder capital of the world. This is not because of vigilante justice, in its honest form, but is conversely the explanation for why such levels of vigilante justice have arisen. The underlying violence that has overtaken so many structurally and authoritatively weak Latin nations is the true reason why individuals such as Victor Melo end up losing their lives. Even self-appointed crime fighters with the noblest of intentions get it wrong. Even Batman can’t be right all the time, and he shouldn’t be asked to be.

This is what police forces are for. But when corruption, incompetence, and sheer lack of funding cripple those forces, what we are left with is teenagers thrusting broken glass bottles into the stomachs of other innocent teens through some misguided sense of vengeance. Sadly, these ragtag forces, often in dereliction of duty due to fear of gangs, inadequate pay, or sheer corruption, have become the norm, not the exception, in most Latin American nations.

Every day, more than 400 people are murdered in the region of Latin America, which equates to roughly 145,000 homicides per year. The rate of impunity for these crimes is also sky-high, which is why so many people have taken to doling out justice in their own vision – the statistics show them that if they don’t take care of a real or perceived crime, then no authority will.

‘A 10-year study of murder cases in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte found that police investigations lasted an average of 500 days, the average trial lasted 10 years and in a quarter of the cases the statute of limitations ran out—allowing the suspect to go free. Some 7% of suspects were slain before their sentence was handed out, in many cases by families of victims tired of waiting for justice.’ (WSJ)

What has resulted from this system of self-adjudication is the re-emergence of a method last seen in America during the Wild West and Jim Crowe South: lynchings. Mobs in Brazil now attempt to kill at least one suspected lawbreaker per day, often via lynching. Though the hardened mobs – think MS-13 – in Latin America attract much of the world’s attention, these mobs of ordinary citizens doing what they perceive to be right – holding criminals accountable as best they can – often go unnoticed.

Unnoticed, maybe. But real nonetheless. And, they can be considered a living, breathing indication of how die the systems of law and order in Latin America have become. So dire, in some cases, that they may as well not exist. 

Which brings us to how this reality ties into the immigration narrative in the United States. While not every illegal, Latin American migrant attempting to enter the U.S. is facing imminent violence, the sheer lawlessness that has taken over the region makes it easy to argue that fear for one’s life arises from simply living in the region. Yet, Latin America – while technically the most homicide-ridden region – is not the only place in the world where corruption, homicide, and vigilante self-protectionism are a way of life.

And, the answer to these problems is not, for many, to simply export the decent citizens, resulting in even more of a failed, hopeless state. While many deserve an opportunity for freedom and peace in their lifetime, these issues must be faced at the source.

This will be a difficult, violent process, but taking back nations and entire regions from the throes of corruption, homicide, and gang violence is always  a worthwhile undertaking, whether it works or not. Ignorance and flight is not, on a national and regional level, the answer. 

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