On Lynchings and the Weakness of the State

Well, this is horrible:

The lynching began around 7:20 p.m., not long after the brothers had finished conducting their final interviews on tortilla consumption.

Residents confronted them, mistaking the pair for kidnappers. The police confirmed that the men were, in fact, pollsters for a marketing company and whisked them to safety. Irate residents rang the church bells in the town square anyway, summoning hundreds.

The mob then stormed the arched doorways of the government center, set fire to its library and snatched the brothers from the police. Finally, a man in a motorcycle helmet calmly walked into the center of the frenzied crowd, doused the semiconscious brothers with gasoline and lit a match.

A grisly cellphone video of the episode played for days on local news media last fall, eliciting condemnation and hand-wringing. Officials blamed the crowd and rumors that kidnappers were taking children off the streets. One local official suggested that it was the opposition party making trouble.

As appalling and awful as that particular act of public violence is, so too is the suggestion that lynchings are at a 25-year high in Mexico.

And the explanations are equally, if not more disturbing: it’s due to the absence of the state in many areas of Mexico and its inability to provide equal justice. And in some areas, where there is a state presence, the lack of justice persists, primarily because of corrupt police and politicians often looking the other way or even directly involved in violent acts that go unpunished, creating a sense of impunity (Ayotzinapa being the most visible, but far from the only, example in the last several years). And it’s not like Mexican citizens are alone; in numerous areas, from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro to the porous Amazonian border of nine South American countries, too many citizens’ encounters with the state are either through its absence (and the chaos that ensues), or through its violence and impunity (through contraband trade or through the unprosecuted murders of the poor). While the New York Times piece highlights Mexico, it is not alone, as lynchings are not infrequent or even on the rise in Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, and elsewhere, revealing the failures of the state on multiple levels.

Collectively, these images paint a bleak picture that reveals the effects of a weak state – an inability, or unwillingness, to ensure equal rights and justice to all of society. That is not to say that the solution is automatically a stronger state presence (especially in light of the state’s complicity or impunity in much of the violence), but rather, a better presence. Whether that is possible is uncertain, but for those who say a smaller state and less government is necessary, the recent bouts of popular violence that have arisen suggest that in many ways, the public is no better at issuing justice than the state.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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