When a community feels that there is no justice, what should they do? In the United States, citizens’ have taken to protesting. We’ve had the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation Movement, Black Lives Matter, and the recent Women’s March. However, what happens when a country’s citizens are constantly disappointed in their government and police authority? When they have lost trust and faith in the judicial system? Traditionally, in many Latin American countries people have taken up vigilante justice. However, this vigilante justice is not a man/woman dressed in a costume fighting to keep their neighborhood safe; it is lynchings. Lynchings are acts of violence against individuals that usually result in death. These lynchings are not being committed by criminals, nor crazed individuals, but by normal citizens/communities that come together as vigilante groups. Lynchings started back in 2007 in many Latin American countries.
Serving Some Good Old Fashion Vigilante Lynchings
Today, it has been reported that Guatemala, Bolivia, and Peru are dealing with an increase of vigilante lynchings. Also, the Côte d’Ivoire has seen a rise in vigilante lynchings. The victims are usually tortured, in order to force them to reveal the names of any accomplices. They are beaten, mutilated, stoned, shot, or burned alive before being hung. These victims are taken after being suspected of committing a crime, with many victims taken from home or the workplace. In Latin America, men are mainly the victims but there have been a few cases involving women and children. However, in the Côte d’Ivoire, children are mainly the victims due to their association in street gangs.
In countries like Bolivia and Guatemala, there has been an argument that vigilante lynchings can be linked to indigenous people (there is a high population of indigenous people). However, many experts have attacked this argument because “indigenous justice” rarely includes death as a punishment. ItIndigenous justice tends to focus on “righting the wrong” committed by the wrongdoer through manual labor and in extreme cases expulsion from the community.
Cash Me Ousside, How Bow Dah?
In Guatemala, for example, from 2008 to October 2015, 297 died and 1,043 people were injured from lynchings. The National Civil Police (PNC) reported that, of the 84 people who died at the hands of lynch mobsfrom January 2012 to May 2015, 76 were men and 8 were women. Often vigilante lynchings are linked to the corruption and ineptitude of the police authorities. A robbery, for example, often illicits no response or slow and ineffective response from the authorities and, therefore, the crime is never solved. In the Côte d’Ivoire, violent crimes committed by street gangs have sparked vigilante lynchings of suspects. In Bolivia, impunity of government officials responsible for human rights violations are the reason for vigilante lynchings. In March 2016, a mentally disabled man was burned then lynched because a mob had suspected him to be a criminal.
One major problem with vigilante lynchings is that often many of the victims are innocent. For example, in Bolivia, a 54-year-old grave worker was mistaken for a grave robber by five Bolivian men visiting a grave. He was tied, beaten, and hung, and, by the time he arrived at the hospital, he was declared dead. In Peru, a local prosecutor’s son, was beaten, burned, and hung to death after being mistaken for a thief.
What Can Be Done?
A big problem is that lynchings usually go unpunished. This is due to the many different actors involved and the code of silence the community takes once the lynching is done. In Bolivia, the prosecutor’s office is still investigating 12 lynchings from 2013. There have only been a minimal number of lynching cases that have been resolved by the judicial system. The idea of “People’s Justice” seems to control.  Therefore, the government must do more to restore the people’s confidence that the authorities and judicial system can and will resolve crimes.
Guatemala recently submitted its country report to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. The Commission’s recommendations were underwhelming and not very helpful. It stated:
“The Commission urges the State to adopt a comprehensive policy for preventing and combating lynchings. The State must provide a prompt, coordinated and interinstitutional response in places where lynchings could be committed. There must be a rapprochement between the State and the communities, and the Government must have with a prevention policy, and the political will to enforce it. There must also be collaboration with municipal authorities, traditional indigenous authorities, and the Ombudsman’s Office.”
This vague recommendation doesn’t help to guide Guatemala. It is merely a reiteration of things that Guatemala should be doing. The Organization of the American States is a regional legal organization. Its influence and presence could help countries like Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia and make them more accountable. It would also let the people know that there is somewhere they can put their trust in besides themselves. In the Côte d’Ivoire, the government has taken steps to remove the word “microbe” (“germ”) to describe children in gangs. However, it has not come up with an effective and comprehensive strategy to put this change into effect.
In the case of Latin America, it seems that a more international presence is needed to help reduce corruption and train police authorities in resolving crime. A great way to do this is to use the Organization of the American States since it is a regional organ. The same can be suggested of the African Union with the Côte d’Ivoire. These regional organizations are a part of the international community. Therefore, if they help these countries with vigilante lynchings it gives them more legitimacy and validity, but also helps to promote international law and security.
An example of the Organization of the American States taking lead would be to have the Inter-American Human Rights Court take a case on the vigilante lynchings since a case has yet to go before the court. However, the lynchings are being committed by non-State actors who are not acting under the State’s control or permission. Therefore, police officers who are in the crowd and fail to act can be tried. The police officers are State actors who are failing to act when they have a legal duty to do so. So, the omission of acting would be attributable to the State.
Kia Roberts-Warren is a 3L at UB Law. She is concentrating in international law. Kia graduated from Temple University receiving a BA in East Asian Studies during that time she spent a semester in Tokyo, Japan. Kia has an interest in international trade and human rights. She is also interested in fashion law and art law in the international context. Last year, she held the position of Career Development Director of the International Law Society and participated in the 2016 Philip C. Jessup Moot Court Competition. She recently attended UB’s Aberdeen Summer Abroad Program.