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  |   Insights & Views


Mexico’s slow slide towards vigilante violence

Mexican federal police forces maintaining order in the violent border city of Ciudad Juarez. Frontpage/Shutterstock

Mexico has witnessed two high-profile public lynchings within the space of two weeks. In late March, a woman suspected of murdering an eight-year-old girl in Taxco, Guerrero, was lynched by an angry mob. Then, on April 9, a policeman was beaten to death by residents of the city of Zacatelco after attempting to intervene in the lynching of two men suspected of killing a taxi driver.

These events are the latest in a spate of public lynchings in Mexico that show no sign of abating. A climate of insecurity has pitted one class of people gripped by fear to employ rough justice on a suspect at the slightest provocation. And the state appears powerless to prevent it.

Lynching, where a group of people kill someone for an alleged offence without due legal process or judicial trial, has an established history in the Americas. It arose in situations where communities lived far from the established judicial norms and legalities.

Without having an authorised legal arbitrator to address questions of wrongdoing, they often embarked upon communally sanctioned violent justice. Fear, prejudice and unaccountability motivated these communities to get rid of an undesirable person through mob-orchestrated killing.

Lynching has never enjoyed legal legitimacy. Once a common practice in Mexico, it was forbidden as the state began to consolidate itself. What is worrying, however, is the prevalence of lynching within modern Mexico where there are clear legal norms that stipulate what is permissible and what is not.

A history of lynching in Mexico

Mexico has always been plagued by incidents of lynching. During the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917), several political figures as well as those suspected of anti-state activities were lynched in the name of state consolidation.

One would have expected this phenomenon to disappear when Mexico emerged from those tumultuous years. Yet lynching remained a constant presence in the post-revolutionary period. Research suggests that the processes of state formation, mythical beliefs, and perceptions of crime and punishment have all contributed to shaping Mexican’s understanding of lynching as a legitimate form of justice.

In Mexico, lynching typically took place in isolated rural communities where justice is slow to arrive or never arrives at all. But, having once been dismissed by Mexico’s political elites as an occurrence committed by people that were only “partly civilised”, lynching is fast becoming an urban phenomenon as well.

The vast majority of lynchings over the past five years have taken place in four relatively affluent and modern central provinces, such as Puebla, Veracruz, Tlaxcala and the State of Mexico.

State complicity

There is an established historical precedent explaining cases of frequent lynching in Mexico. But there is another crucial factor that has intensified these undertakings in recent years: the Mexican state’s war on drug cartels.

This has seen a democratisation of violence where both the state and drug cartels have come to employ unrestricted violence in the public space. Rampant crime, ineffective policing, and a pervasive sense that lawbreakers go unpunished have fuelled citizen outrage.

The inability of the Mexican state to curb cartel violence has forced people to take justice into their own hands. And the state has increasingly turned a blind eye when faced with the task of adjudicating cases of mob violence and vigilante justice.

In late 2023, impoverished farmers in the central Mexican village of Texcaltitlán who had grown tired of paying criminal ground rent (extortion money demanded of farmers to till their own land) massacred ten members of the feared La Familia Michoacana gang. The prosecutors ruled that the farmers had “acted in self defence” and should not face any criminal charges or face prosecution.

Mistaken identity

But vigilante violence does not always deliver rough justice to the wrongdoer. Over the past 25 years, a substantial number of lynching victims in Mexico were found to have been innocent. Why were they targeted? Very often these hapless victims became the eye of fury because of mistaken identity.

In June 2022, a young Mexican political advisor called Daniel Picazo was killed by a lynch mob of around 200 people while visiting his grandfather in a town in Puebla. Picazo’s arrival had coincided with rumours on local WhatsApp group chats that he had been involved in the kidnapping of a child. The accusations proved to be false and after much dithering the authorities arrested seven people.

At the scene of Picazo’s death, Papatlazolco, people said that the authorities did nothing about the rapists, thieves and criminals that had plagued the community for years. The people of the town became accustomed to taking the law into their own hands.

So lynching has become a form of self-protection in modern Mexico. In a state now utterly incapable of guaranteeing the everyday security needs of its citizens, those exposed to spiralling crime and disorder have themselves become complicit in mob violence.

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