In Latin America, Awash in Crime, Citizens Impose Their Own Brutal Justice


For Victor Melo, the end began with a stolen iPhone.

The 16-year-old had spent a balmy Saturday afternoon in May with his high school friends at a funk music party in Brasília’s central park, not far from the country’s presidential palace.

As he headed home shortly after sundown, someone in the crowd grabbed his classmate Ágatha from behind and snatched her phone, witnesses told police. She spun around and saw Victor. Believing him to be the thief, she screamed out for help. Her friends knocked him to the ground and began to beat him.

Hearing Ágatha’s shrieks, another group of partygoers presumed he must be the same teen who had swiped a pair of sunglasses from them earlier. One of them jammed a broken bottle into Victor’s stomach. A young blond woman known as Apple punctured him repeatedly with what police believe was a screwdriver, skewering the muscles between his ribs. A man then plunged a knife into his heart.

In the half-hour it took the group of 20 mostly high-school students to kill Victor, no one searched him for the stolen items. Another 100 or so partygoers looked on and did nothing, investigators said.

“Die, you asshole,” one onlooker can be heard saying in a video recorded on a witness’s cellphone, as paramedics later tried in vain to resuscitate Victor, hunched over his limp corpse.

Lynching is Latin America’s dark secret. The region has the world’s highest murder rate, and its highest rate of impunity. Some countries including Brazil solve just 1 in 10 murders. With little faith in the police or the courts to bring criminals to justice, mobs routinely kill suspected lawbreakers in spontaneous attacks.

Lynchings in the U.S. were historically linked to mobs of white Americans mostly killing blacks and other minorities, usually by hanging. Those peaked in 1892 with 230 people killed. It is by now a rare phenomenon and virtually unheard of in Europe.

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