Peru has been gripped by a massive crisis of law and order, with trust for ineffectual police and courts dropping to fearfully low levels. Vigilante justice is now being meted out on the streets—and, of course, uploaded to Facebook.
The UK Daily Mail identifies the video vigilante pioneer as Huancayo housewife Cecilia Rodrigues, who helped her neighbor catch a thief who repeatedly burglarized her house, only to see the police let him go in half an hour. Another story that enraged Peruvians involved a mob of 56 youths trashing a house in Lima and getting caught red-handed by the police, only to be released without explanation a few weeks later by a judge.
“From that day onwards, we decided to spread a message in the community – the next time we catch a criminal, we won’t call the police but we will punish them ourselves,” Rodrigues declared. She created a Facebook page called Chapa Tu Choro, “Catch Your Thief,” which became a viral sensation. People across Peru began capturing criminals and subjecting them to various forms of corporal punishment and humiliation, with videos of their vigilante actions posted online.
“Punishments range from being stripped naked and whipped in public and being forced to perform tough military exercises to even being force-fed raw chili peppers,” writes the Daily Mail. “One video shows a woman undressed and being walked through a busy street, with a banner around her neck reading ‘I’m a thief’. Another shows two whimpering alleged pickpockets being forced to stand on anthills until they beg for mercy as the insects bite their legs, feet and private parts.”
The Daily Mail provided one such video as an example, showing two men beating an accused thief and forcing him into the trunk of a car:
Another shows a mob beating and kicking a thief. One guy actually jumps on top of him with both feet:
The Peruvian government has made it clear that such vigilante violence can bring penalties of up to four years in prison, or 25 years if someone gets killed, but the problem is that no one takes the police seriously. The Daily Mail says no vigilantes have been prosecuted thus far, even though many of their actions are carried out in broad daylight with numerous witnesses, and there are now over a hundred Facebook pages hosting their punishment videos, which are accumulating on a daily basis.
So far, there do not seem to have been any fatalities, although some of the beatings have been vicious enough to put blood on the streets and disfigure the victims. Many of the newer Facebook pages riff on Rodrigues’s original page by adding stern suggestions for punishment, such as “Catch Your Thief and Cut Off His Hands” or “Catch Your Thief and Castrate Him.” The list of crimes punished by vigilante mobs has expanded to include prostitution and adultery.
The concept of shaming criminals has a long pedigree in the region—for example, when Abimael Guzman Reynoso, the Shining Path guerrilla leader, was captured in 1992, the government took him down a peg by dressing him in a Hamburgler-style zebra-striped convict uniform and parading him around in a cage. For that matter, people in many other countries, including the United States, have suggested bringing a greater element of shame and humiliation into punishment—perhaps even a bit of brief, nonviolent shaming in lieu of jail time for minor offenses.
What is happening in Peru, however, is violent, and it is being administered by self-appointed mobs, which obviously do not follow any sort of due process, and are highly prone to making mistakes. It says something about how bad the crime situation in Peru that the “Catch Your Thief” crowd does not appear to have made many mistakes so far—the Daily Mail recounts one incident in which a curious fellow inspecting a stolen truck was mistaken for a thief and grabbed by a mob, but evidently there are so many genuine thieves acting so brazenly in Peru that the accuracy of these street-justice prosecutions has been fairly high.
The Global News of Canada noted last year that this “rondas urbanas” (urban rounds) movement had been building for a decade. “If the police did their jobs there would be no need for us,” said popular movement leader Fernando Chuquilin, touting vigilantes’ success at breaking up crime and prostitution rings untouched by the police. (Chuquilin grants that prostitution is actually legal in Peru but says his group “only targets bordellos with underage sex workers or that have become magnets for criminals who rob people nearby”—a policy that has prompted some media to describe them as Taliban-style morality police.)
Chuquilin is right that vigilantism on this scale is a failure of government, especially when it is conducted so brazenly over such a long period of time. The Global News article describes the rondas urbanas working out of a storefront where people fill out paperwork to request mob justice: “No case is too small, no dispute too trivial. People don’t dare ignore the summonses, and the hearings are often standing-room-only.”
The preferred implement of punishment in the Peruvian highlands is the “peacemaker,” described as “a whip fashioned from the twisted sinew of a bull penis.” The Global News dryly noted that it “gets a lot of respect.”
The vigilantes are even arbitrating lesser property and debt disputes. It is a full-blown alternative legal system, with echoes of how organized crime groups such as the mafia and yakuza win community support by providing the sort of “justice” that cannot be found in the courts. No doubt the rondas urbanas would bristle at that comparison, but the salient point is that when corrupt and/or inept government fails to hold up its end of the social contract, the people will write a new one.
This is true everywhere, by the way. There are parts of America where people are accusing the justice system of comprehensive failure and taking the law—the use of compulsive force—into their own hands. Some of the people doing that are themselves seen as examples of a disintegrating rule of law. Crime rates have soared as police forces have come under attack. The difference between unrest and revolution lies in how imperiled government responds to a crisis of order.
A prosecutor quoted in that Global News story from last November warned that “if this is allowed to spread, there’s going to be chaos,” even as she conceded she was obliged to coordinate her efforts with the very groups she warned about. A year later, with Facebook videos of vigilante operations being uploaded daily, her prediction seems to have come true. Parts of Peru seem to have undergone a revolution that the government didn’t even bother to show up for.