In Cartagena a supposed thief is hammered with breeze blocks even as the police try and take him away on a gurney. In Ciudad Bolívar, Bogotá neighbours lynch a youth attempting to rape a young girl. If you, like me, watch the national news each morning you’d think that vigilantism is becoming the norm in Colombia. Is this wave of mob justice something that is currently de moda for telephone wielding citizen journalists or something which has always been practiced yet remained unreported here? There is no debate, however, that such violent and physically aggressive responses by those wronged is nothing less than the result of residents’ deep frustrations with the perceivably high crime rate and the ticking time bomb caused by the failure of the justice system to appropriately respond.
Where I live near to Lourdes Park, the CAI located there habitually falls in the shadow of the police truck used to house and transport drunken brawlers, pickpockets, addicts, street vendors and dealers from the Carrera 13 and the Avenida Caracas. I have been told that the police more often than not hold these petty criminals for a couple of hours overnight in the truck and then release them in the morning uncharged. And what would be the point of charging them? The prisons are overcrowded and the judicial system slow, inefficient and unsatisfactory leading constitutionalist Rodrigo Uprimny to declare it: “ambiguous and paradoxical.” Hardly surprising for a country ranked as one of the lowest in the “Order and Security” section of the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index.
But vigilantism is not the answer and must be admonished and stamped out. My own experience of such citizen brutality came in April 2004 when Cirilo Robles Callomamani, the Mayor of Ilave, a non-descript and windswept town at 3850 mts above sea level close to the banks of the mythical Lake Titicaca was dragged from his home, subjected to a vicious and continuous bludgeoning and then thrown from a bridge into a dry river bed.
I had been leading an expedition from Copacabana to Puno when my logistical expertise was required to negotiate our way through the burning tyres and boulders being used to blockade the passage of transport. The predominantly Aymara population was accusing their mayor of misappropriating of funds, corruption and a failure to fulfil his campaign promises. Mercifully we were not present for the murder itself as we had arrived just a few days earlier, but the tension was palpable.
Hours after placating a few key members in the angry mob the blockades were lifted for a convoy of tourism vehicles and Ilave was passed. Some days later in Cusco I happened across a newspaper displaying indescribably graphic images of Mayor Robles’ death. Disgusted, I was left with a desire to better understand and study the practice of vigilantism in South America and have found it to be remarkably widespread and commonplace.
It appears that here in South America there exists the conditions in society, which give rise to such levels of frustration, and indeed anger, which permit vigilantism to flourish when ordinary folk take the law into their own hands. The lack of police and justice efficacy leads to a participation in vigilantism, but it’s not this alone, there’s the belief that the law protects criminals instead of punishing them.
So, in recent weeks as further reports surface in Colombia’s mainstream press regarding a wave of vigilantism being exercised on thieves, child molesters, and rapists and beyond, I find myself uttering an internal scream and pleading with the authorities to do more. Where’s the prevention? Why do the police only act after the event? The state here needs to start from scratch, and it will be an uphill battle, to create a standard of law enforcement under which people do not feel the need to resort to self-help and vigilantism.
The current surge in vigilante justice would appear to be due not only to ignorance but to the failure of the state to properly discharge its duty, through the efficient administration of the criminal justice system, to ensure that criminals are apprehended and convicted as necessary conditions precedent to their punishment. International comparisons reveal that vigilantism does not thrive in societies in which an appropriate amount of resources and skill are brought to bear upon the administration of criminal justice through the proper and adequate provision of policing, prosecution services, Courts of law and correctional facilities. It is the unenviable task of Government to nurture respect for the rule of law in all inhabitants of the land.
With statistics showing that only four per cent of burglaries are brought to court and more troublingly, a mere ten per cent of homicide cases reach court in Colombia, who can blame people wanting to exercise mob justice? Yes, perhaps a majority does not have recourse to lawful procedures and the police are notably absent or gaseoseando rather than preventing misdemeanours and crimes, but vigilantism sets a dangerous precedent and mobs are just as easily swayed from grief or outrage to sadistic dementia within minutes. Just think of Mayor Robles in Ilave who was latterly found not to have been guilty of any of the accusations.