Carlos M. Vilas (*)



Lynching, as a distinctive expression of collective violence, is not attached to a specific type of society. It is conducted in a great variety of social settings and times, including the current ones --which has not prevented its mechanical association to backwardness or primitivism. A balanced analysis of these brutal events is particularly uneasy due to their conflict with the basic legal and moral standards of the academic profession. Yet, it is necessary to understand them, as much as it is necessary to identify the many factors intervening in their build up. Despite their frequency, lynchings in Mexico have not aroused a great deal of interest in the social sciences, in contrast with many  important studies of similar events in other Latin American countries or in the United States.  Reactions have been mostly of an emotional vein.[1] 


To this author’s knowledge, this is the first systematic effort to mobilize the resources of the social sciences for the study of the phenomenon. It focuses on the more than one hundred lynchings  conducted in Mexico since the mid 1980s. During this time Mexican society experienced a dramatic process of economic and institutional transformation. It was a tensioning and conflictive time at both the macroeconomic and institutional levels (including such processes as economic de-regulation, income concentration, privatization of public assets, and electoral reforms) and the micro social one of daily life. Lynching inserts itself into this matrix of pervasive social and political tensioning. Triggered by offences attributed to the victims (robberies, rapes, assassinations, violations of community rules) in settings of massive poverty, insecurity, police or military abuse and impunity, most of lynchings show poor people taking justice into their own hands, or extracting revenge, against other equally poor people. 


The first section of the article develops the hypothesis that these facts are revealing of the type of state/society relations and the complex articulation of tradition/modernity in multicultural settings mixing varied standards of organization, domination and social and political legitimacy.  The results gathered by the investigation are discussed in the second section.  The final section summarizes the main conclusions.  A methodological appendix spells out the criteria that guided the gathering of information. 


I.          Violence in plural societies

            The conventional characterization of the state as having the monopoly on the use of physical force implies at least two basic questions: that which relates to the degree of effectiveness of the state monopoly, and that which inquires about its legitimacyEffectiveness refers to the degree in which the state has put an end to the dispersion of violence and of armed power in the hands of private individuals or groups.  Legitimacy points to the consent gathered by that monopoly, as much to its actual existence as to the way in which state coercive power is exercised, and to the goals it looks to attain.


            In not a few Latin American countries state monopoly on the use of physical force is more formal than real, in that a number of ways of co-existence between private violence and state force still persist. Illustrations include the private armies of Brazil´s nordestino  landowners, the guardias blancas of large estate owners in southeast Mexico, the rondas campesinas in Peru, the patrullas de autodefensa civil in Guatemala, the autodefensas unidas in Colombia, the fusion of economic power and political-military power in the large estates of the most modern agroexports, the armed drug trafficking bodies, or the armed entourages of protection for business people.


            Legitimate domination is that which the population of the state accepts out of conviction much more than out of fear for the punishment that would be brought by confronting it, even though the fear of punishment usually helps to enhance that conviction.  The web of social interactions and the effective role of public institutions affect decisively the sustenance of legitimate state power.  Participation in organizations is based mainly in an implicit system of reciprocities, and the state does not escape this (Service 1975; Moore Jr. 1978).  The intensity and scope of the consent that individuals give to authority are usually tied to their belief that whatever they provide (in work, personal services, taxes, products, observance of rules, participation in activities…) keeps a proportional relation with what they get in exchange (institutional services, security, recognition, employment or whatever other thing that is considered valuable).  State power and the legal system are then considered to be legitimate and social order is perceived as a just one. Not all incorporation in an organization is the exclusive product of consensus.  Observing state’s rules and participating in its institutional network are usually questions of an absence of alternatives as we are born in the territory of a state and in a matrix of relations configured by the state or articulated to it.  Yet the actual level of involvement is usually related to that notion of reciprocity.


            The discourse of the conventional political actors (such as political officials, parties, government agencies, unions, business groups) tends to focus on the macro political and macrosocial dimensions of legitimacy (e.g. compliance with constitutional and legal rules or with government goals) yet most of people build their judgments of legitimacy at the microsocial level where they have, or expect to have, some influence.  Legitimacy tends to be expressed in a concrete manner in daily life, as a response to the effects, at this level, of larger social, economic and political processes.  It stresses the way in which those effects are interpreted by individuals as a result of the trade-offs between formal and even abstract institutions and policies (such as the educational system, media, churches, political organizations, relative prices…) and more personal agencies or settings  (family, neighborhood, friends, parish).  The legitimacy of the state political order and its normative system usually maintains a strong dependency on the judgments that the population brings to bear with respect to the effective way in which certain agencies or public institutions penetrate local societies or realms of everyday life, much more than the grand definitions from constitutional politics or institutional discourses. The effective functioning of the neighborhood’s or village’s school, health care center, or police force, is usually more important in this sense than the government’s educational, health or national security policies (Vilas 1995:20ff).


Legitimacy is as basic an ingredient to the state as the effectiveness of the occupation or physical control of the territory by certain institutions.  The institutional power of the state is converted into authority when it is recognized as legitimate.  The formal institutions are put to the test by their performance in everyday life.  The formal legality of the army, the police, the tax collection agency, the courts, can and tends to dim with abuses of authority, complicity with crime, negligence, resort to conflicting value standards, etc., in local settings.  It is suggestive, in this sense, that the facts which motivate mass lynchings are usually related to daily questions in which there is an absence of state penetration –that is to say, the ineffectiveness of the public institutions— or state penetration in valued as illegitimate from the perspective of certain population groups.  At bottom, these conflicts point to the complexity of the processes of effective and legitimate state formation in multicultural societies, as well to the impunity characterizing, in certain social settings, the effective performance of state institutions. 


            The equalization of legitimacy to legality and the precedence of the latter vis-à-vis the former are characteristics of Western capitalism: they derive from the abstraction of commercial and social relations and the prevalence of the form of relations to the detriment of its contents.  Its manifestation as legal positivity is supposed to provide security and stability to transactions; it also permitted drawing objective limits to state actions thus guaranteeing realms of individual action free of interference from political power.  Positivity gives objective existence to rights, independent of the will of the powerful.  The relative divide between a public realm and a private one, together with the principle of the rule of law flow from, and are associated to, the identification between legitimacy and legality and the formal, positive expression of the latter.


            The development of the nation-state in multicultural societies implies the progressive imposition of a specific type of domination and a particular form of legitimacy –the “rational-legal” legitimacy of Weberian sociology— that conflicts with other types of rule and other forms of legitimacy emerging from the heterogeneity of the social structure and the plurality of criteria of political authority.  A number of studies call attention, precisely, to the cultural dimension of the process of state formation (e.g. Anderson 1983; Corrigan & Sayer 1985; Badie 1992; Joseph & Nugent 1994; Thruman 1997; Steinmetz 1999; etc.).  Citizenship, a characteristic institution of the official conception of the political system and foundation of the Western nation-state, coexists and is articulated with practices of clientelism and patronage, with patrimonial and charismatic forms of power holding, all at the same time and in the same territory.  What comes out is a tension between formal institutions and social practices, between politics as state format, and culture as social practice –as seen in the usually conflictive coexistence of multiple patterns of authority, of justice and of rationality.[2] 


            These tensions endow the state in peripheral societies of a peculiar “combination of power and fragility” (Clapman 1986:39). Power, in that the penetration of its agencies and processes in society always have a strong dimension of imposition, and in the sense that the coercive ingredient of state organization should be maintained permanently to guarantee that the tensions crossing its complex social base will not reach the point of dissolution of the political body.  Fragility, because the very heterogeneity and conflictive social or cultural identities and interests make the attainment of a basic consensus and the endowment of a minimum legitimacy to the state, its apparatuses and functions, --i.e. the conversion of power into authority-- extremely fragile.  In societies crossed by divisions and ruptures so profound the harmonization of the variety of interests, demands and expectations becomes a particularly complex task.  The state faces serious problems to perform as  the “organizer of social heterogeneity” (Heller 1985:257-268) and is perceived by many as the institutional expression of disorder.


            In social structures like these the state’s legal system coexists with alternative normative systems with parallel procedures for the resolution of controversies, and with mechanisms of legitimization other than those enforced by the state. In multiethnic societies as those of Mesoamérica and the Andean area the state institutionalizes a matrix of power relations that is class-based as much of as culturaly-biased; alternative legal systems known as “customary law” or “communal law” usually co-exist with state law in a subaltern and usually conflictive manner (see Collier 1973; Fitzpatrick 1983; Stavenhagen & Iturralde 1990; Rizo Zeledón 1991; Sieder 1997); etc.


            When cultural diversity overlaps with deep socioeconomic and regional inequality, legal pluralism moves along two-way paths.  Coexisting normative orders –the positive law of the state and the alternative law of the ethnically differentiated communities—define one of these directions, the more visible one: that which goes from the social ground to the state. In the configuration of the power matrix enforced through the state, it is a question of issues peripheral to the interests of the ruling classes and the capitalist economy.  Clashes between customary law and the state legal system are circumstantial and discrete: they do not question state power or its social foundations, but rather some specific aspect of its performance.  Nevertheless, the reiteration over a long period of time of petty challenges to the state power can lead to the undertaking of actions of confrontation of a more significant reach.


            Persistence of this alternative law and its ways of resolving conflicts is caused by several of factors of uneven incidence.  By definition, communal law regulates controversies that do not go beyond the community, or quarrels between neighboring communities; they involve small numbers of people and small financial figures in relation to the large aggregates of the national or regional accounting.  They are, so to speak, marginal conflicts of interests from the perspective of the central state and the power structure that is expressed through it –small scale robberies, communal boundary disputes, misuse of ejido lands, making mockery of communal practices, and the like—but which are strategic for the preservation of community life.  The mandatory character of this law is usually restricted to the members of the community.  In exceptional cases it can be extended to outsiders who in some way violate communal rules or villagers’ rights or properties; in such cases punished outsiders do not hold positions of economic or political power t the community relies upon or cannot oppose to.  Regional characters such as large merchants or landowners or cattle-raisers, and the like, are usually out of the reach of communal legal procedures. Communal law is one whose enforcement refers to equals, where criteria of equality refer as much to kinship and friendship as to locality and economic precariousness.


            Furthermore, poverty make it difficult to access judicial or administrative institutions to complain, make demands or resolve conflicts.  Official legality is expensive; it demands spending on lawyers and notaries which usually goes beyond the possibilities of the communities; it is necessary to travel to the provincial or even the national capital; despite the legal or constitutional recognition of multiculturalism, in court  matters it is better to conduct oneself in Spanish than in ones own language because outside the region it is difficult to find civil servants or judicial officers who either speak or understand it.  In all, these factors add an effect of physical separation to the cultural distance that lies in between state and communal institutions.   Finally, the state juridical order expresses a value system that often does not coincide, and even clashes with that which is expressed and reproduced through the communal normative system.  The state order does not consider many of the issues raised by the community to be significant matters, or it considers them in a different manner. Courts move slowly; the right to legal process, gradation of offences and punishments, etc. are experienced as arbitrariness, denial of justice, protection of criminals.  In sum, these issues underline the tensions and difficult coexistence between both normative systems as carriers of differing methodologies for dealing with social dynamics and conflicts.  All this in a historical and social setting of exploitation and domination, of unattended demands and of effective violation of rights.


            The other direction of legal pluralism emanates from the state itself.  I refer to the de facto existence of two legal orders that derive from the uneven enactment of state legality to distinct population groups.  The growing problematic of human rights violations in formally democratic and constitutional regimes witnesses to this duality.  Legality, especially in that which refers to individual rights and guarantees and to the set of principles, norms, and practices subsumed in the concept of “rule of law”, do not have effective enforcement, or have it in a sporadic way, for many of the more vulnerable segments of society   –e.g. indigenous communities, women and children, poor people, rural workers, villagers—or more conflictive ones: political opposition, critical journalists, union activists… The formally democratic and constitutional states tend to violate their own legality in the actual treatment of these population groups; in facts, and independent of formal legality, discrimination can take place between first class citizens and these others, implicitly and practically second class ones.[3]


            Duality in the legal treatment of the population implies an effective violation of the rule of law. Accordingly, democracy and constitutional guarantees tend to be effective from the middle classes upward; in middle and upper-class urban settings; for the white and mestizo populations; for men much more than for women.  In these circumstances the legality of the state is experienced as illegitimacy, injustice, authoritarianism, or arbitrariness by the discriminated ones, no matter what the legal format is.  Cultural, class or even political biases in media networks headline much more the violence of the poor and the oppressed than that of those who have been more favored in the social distribution of wealth and prestige.  The rudimentary quality or scarcity of their resources, their unsophisticated manners, collide with our frames of reference and raise immediately the specter of the return to barbarity just when we were convinced that we are full members of modernity.  But the discretion of the gunshot with a silencer, the institutional capacity to erase the fingerprints or to disguise as defense against an aggression the killings of peasants or workers does not change the nature of the violence exercised from political or economic power, and certainly reinforces its impunity. 


            The authoritarianism of the dominant classes and the state toward the subaltern populations may deliver an effect of perverse pedagogy upon the latter which impacts on their strategies of mobilization and resistance, as well on the organizations that channel popular discontent.  The coefficient of violence and brutality in societies fragmented by sharp differentiations of class, ethnicity, gender, and regionalisms, tend to be larger than in more integrated and homogenous societies. Moreover, they tend to be accepted as normal features of daily life by the victims themselves, as they perceive the functionality of violence as a means to conflict resolution, goal attainment, or assessing individual prestige (Vilas 1996).  When state agencies do not arrive, or are perceived by the people as arriving late or improperly, and this situation persists over time, the delegation of coercive power in the state does not make sense and direct exercise of violence by the actors reappears. 


            In these situations violence operates as a mediating dimension of daily social relations.  When the state monopoly on violence is nonexistent or imperfect, or is not perceived as legitimate, physical survival and social prestige may rely on the ability of individuals to display a likely threat of violence.  State’s tolerance of private violence, the abuses of state agencies of prevention and coercion, the insecurity of the world of poverty, all reinforce the traditional culture of possessing and using arms, and of violent resolution of conflicts.  In communities where hunting provides to nutrition, the use of guns is a basic condition for subsistence.  The idea that power is exercised through the possession of certain objects –land, money, livestock, arms—is present in all societies and cultures.  In some of them these elements are considered not only as resources of power, but as power itself; the poor effectiveness of the processes of socialization activated by the state, the modes  of interacting with nature, and above all general insecurity, keep that conception alive (Anderson 1972; Vilas 1989; Pinheiro 1997).


            The potential for violence in this type of society increases in periods of profound social and economic transformations, which put to question the established system of hierarchies, expectations, and reciprocities, and submit the existing processes or mechanisms of social cohesion to tension.  It is a well known fact the impact of capitalist penetration and of commercial relations in areas previously marginal to them: erosion of community relations, economic and social differentiation, use of money as the standard for exchange, etc.  Shifting fortunes may lead to further differentiation and deterioration of solidarity; mistrust spreads out, as well as gossip, envy, and insecurity.  The rapid change from relative homogeneity to economic differentiation turns out to be unexplainable according to traditional standards; suspiciousness arise of spurious plans or agreements to destroy or downgrade communal life or values, etc. (cfr Boyer & Nissenbaum 1974; Taussig 1980; Greenberg 1989; Haas 1999; etc.). More recent events, such as processes of neoliberal macroeconomic adjustment, trade and financial deregulation, or the expansion of production and commercialization of drugs, increase insecurity of life and social conflicts: dizzying enrichment of some and impoverishment of others; the surge of new criteria of legitimacy and authority; deterioration of labor markets; migrations; changes in the systems of relative prices and in patterns of land use; development of new criteria of prestige and deference, among others.


            During the 1980s and 1990s far-reaching structural reforms were implemented  in México, severely disrupting social and economic life at both urban and rural areas.  These changes were coupled by processes of intense social and political confrontation addressed to political democratization, which included display of government-sponsored violence against activists and sympathizers of the opposition parties –which also protested against the social impact of market-oriented reforms.  The 1994 uprising of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) in the southern state of Chiapas was followed in 1995 in the state of Guerrero by the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR).  During the period covered by the present investigation (1987 to mid 1998) several hundreds of violent conflicts set the stage for the specific type of issues targeted by this study: armed clashes between communities, conflicts between families, robbery of cattle and other belongings, executions conducted by groups linked to drug trafficking, kidnappings for ransom, religious conflicts, politically motivated violence, massacres of rural residents, ambushes, mistreatment of police or military prisoners, rapes, tortures, disappearances.[4]  In all, these facts stress  the imperfect character of the state monopoly on the use of physical force in its two dimensions of effectiveness and legitimacy as well the social climate in which the problematic of mass lynchings is located.


            The preceding assertion may seem excessive given the institutional strength of the Mexican state vis-à-vis others in Latin America in multiethnic contexts and with similarly extensive and varied geographies, or the spread of the state institutions throughout the entire Mexican geography.  However the material presence of the state, in particular of its coercive agencies, when clashing with the expectations and values of specific population groups, may lead to conflictive situations as much as the absence of those institutions when the population feels they are needed.


II.         Lynchings in Mexico

a.         The universe

            Two types of direct exercise of punitive force are differentiated: 1) that which expresses the more or less tense or conflictive coexistence of a plurality of normative orders.  With regard to our topic, conflictive observance of normative systems manifests itself in the communitarian dimension of lynching –i.e. lynchings conducted as reactions to violations of communal affairs or norms; 2) the reaction of people in the face of the ineffectiveness of the state legal order to prevent the commission and the punishment of conducts that state order itself classifies as illegal. In the first case community law or costumes are placed above state law; lynching expresses a  retention of punitive violence by certain social actors.  In the second case, it acts to fill the void created by the ineffectiveness of the state legal order; lynchings involve a re-appropriation of  violence by certain social actors.


            During the period covered by the investigation (1987-1998) 103 lynchings were conducted according to our definition (see Appendix). Nearly half of the lynchings took place in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero (table 1), all of them with high proportions of indigenous population that endow their social fabric with a strong communitarian structure. In fact, the existence of community networks based on living together in the same space for prolonged periods, on ethnic/linguistic or kinship links is a recurrent fact (table 2).  While not a few lynchings took place in typically urban environments (Mexico City, Guadalajara, Tapachula, Tijuana, Huejutla…) they were conducted mostly in neighborhoods with strong sociocultural, transgenerational ties (such as Milpa Alta or Tepito in Mexico City).  More than half of the urban lynchings (16 out of 28) were executed by residents of areas with these characteristics.[5]  


b.         Who commit  lynching?

            The high density of the social setting framing the lynchings is confirmed in table 3.  In most of cases those committing the lynching are related to the victim or victims of the actions blamed on the lynched: neighbors, friends, relatives.  This type of lynching is characteristic in villages or townships in rural areas. 


            Women participate in lynchings, though there seems to be a sort of differentiation of interventions according to sex.  While men predominate in the execution of the physical punishment (such as beatings), as well in hanging or burning the victim or in the use of firearms, women’s involvement consists above all in denouncing the actual or alleged crime to be punished, the encouragement of men, or in the deliberations on what to do with the eventual victim of the lynching.[6]


            In all cases the lynchings appear as a response to actions actually or presumably committed by the lynched that strongly offend the lynchers.  In lynchings committed by eye-witnesses the reaction is immediate to the action that triggers them,[7] and in several cases they were conducted by the same people who was hurt by the actions of the offenders.[8]  In these situations lynchings imply a mechanic appeal to the principle of “an eye for an eye””, which is not confined however to this specific type of lynching.[9] While most frequent in large urban settings, “reactive” lynchings are not exclusive to them.[10] Yet in any setting they display the highest levels of reactive spontaneity. The ingredients of deliberation and organization that are frequent in the lynchings which take place in rural environments are here nonexistent, or reduced to the minimum expression of the commanding voice of the most angry instigators of the action.


c.         The outcome

            Half of the lynchings eventually lead to the death of the victim (table 4).  The other half corresponds to interrupted lynchings, usually by police or other public authority intervention (table 5).  The latter are taken into account because in spite of their “unfinished” character they witness to the will  of the crowd to severely punish the victim. Putting the victim to death is, in fact, the ultimate outcome of lynching. Only in two out of 103 lynchings the crowd voluntarily desisted to carry things up to that end.[11]


            With the exception of cases when lynching is executed in application of village or community customs, seldom the lynchers acknowledge their intention to kill the victim. It is usually claimed that they only sought to punish or teach a lesson to the victim, and the death is explained as an accidental by-product.


d.         Lynching and threats of lynching  

            It is interesting to note the resorting to threats of lynching as a way of obtaining reparation for the harm caused by the threatened or his/her family.  To my knowledge, this is a type of action that does not appear in the studies conducted in other countries (see e.g. Holanda et al. 1995; Souza Martins 1996; Fitzhugh Brundage 1997).  There is a broad variety of circumstances in which the threat of lynching is professed, as well with regard to the victim of the threat and the purpose for it. This variety suggests that lynching presents itself as a standard procedure which is appealed to with relative naturalness in that it forms part of a range of available answers for the group when faced with what it considers a violation of its rules.[12] A hypothesis reinforced by the fact that in some communities it was observed a certain recurrence in lynching.[13]  


e.         The method

            The predominant form of lynching is by beating with fists or with sticks, machetes and rocks (table 6).  Only in 13% of the cases were firearms employed, despite their relatively easy availability in the rural world: 22 caliber rifles, hunting shotguns, and other arms of lower caliber.  Beating and stoning are ingredients present in all the lynchings, although not all lead to the victim’s death.  When it does happen as a result of gunshots, the preceding group beating allows distinguishing between a lynching and the illegal executions committed by drug traffickers, guardias blancas, or repressive official bodies.


            Lynchings display a brutality similar to that which is denounced in state authorities or in the actual or alleged conduct of the victim.  The appeal to the own body for executing the lynching, or the resort to elementary instruments which can be considered the body’s projection in that their effectiveness depends on the personal skill or the physical force of the person who uses them (sticks, machetes, rocks…) contributes to the image of cruelty and brutality characteristic of lynching.  They likewise increase the exemplary impact lynchers assign to their action.  Several of the cases recorded in this investigation are particularly expressive in that respect.  At the same time, the brutality and cruelty present in many lynchings can be considered illustrations of the effect of perverse pedagogy, already mentioned, of the exercise of power by the ruling classes or state agencies.[14]


            Resorting to beating also points to the lack of physical distance between the lynchers and their victim, thus reinforcing the sense of justice by one’s own hand that people use to describe lynching, and endowing it with a literal meaning.  Beating makes the individual an undifferentiated participant in the crowd and even endows him/her of a certain anonymity, as his/her action reinforces a collective dimension which, in the image of the lynchers, favors the idea that it is “the community”, “the people”, “the villages” (los pueblos) who does lynch, at the same time that it hides the individual involvement.[15]  In contrast to the cold or distant character of a gunshot, and to the comparatively easy identification of who pulled the trigger, the beating, the hanging, the fire, increase the feeling of direct personal involvement in the commission of the act, without anyone being able to be held responsible individually, or feel individually responsible for the final, additive outcome.


            This last point helps also to understand the apparent incongruence between the intentional application of a brutal physical punishment, and the subsequent statement that no one looked for the victim’s death.  The incoherence does not simply correspond to an opportunist attempt to avoid responsibility for the result –even though it does not exclude that.  It demonstrates more a verification of the disproportion between the individual contribution to the lynching, and the aggregate effect of the collective action –of the sum of the individual contributions.[16]


            All the events witness to the intense emotional involvement of the lynchers with their action.  Six lynchings began with crowds gathered in front of the local police station where the victim had been imprisoned by the police in order to be later handed over to the judicial authorities or simply to protect them from the anger of the people.  They were persons accused of the commission of crimes which were eventually turned over to the mob or captured by it to be later submitted to deadly violence.  In six other cases lynchings involved aggressions toward the police authorities who tried to stop the lynching along the way.


            Even though lynching is characterized by a strong dose of spontaneity –as opposed, e.g. to vigilantism which implies a relatively stable formal organization, with a clear internal hierarchy— several of the cases here recorded show the existence of a certain ritualism and some sort of previous deliberation: they are part of what we have characterized as community lynchings.  Four o them included walking of the victims through the community they had offended.  Hands-tied,  the victim is forced to walk as he is given hits, insults, spitting, or dragged by some vehicle or animal, before being finally hung and burned to death.  In addition to the torment, walking has a clearly mocking and exemplifying finality whose addressees are potential authors of actions similar to those which are blamed on the victim of the lynching, or his relatives.[17] In the lynching conducted in the village of Tatahuicapa (municipality of Playa Vicente, Veracruz), which was given great notoriety, the entire proceedings of the lynching were videotaped, film subsequently sent to an organization of human rights of the state capital (Case 56, August 1996).


            In seven other cases lynchings were preceded by community deliberations on what to do with the victim.  This suggests the existence of an organization that gives a normative framework to the action, deriving from the strong cohesion of the communities where lynchings take place.  Deliberations also emphasize the content of justice the authors attach to their actions.  In some instances it invokes an explicit form of observance of a community law or practices and customs, as legitimization of the lynching.[18]


            This circumstance explains the inexistence of regret or guilt in those who participate in lynchings and, on the contrary, a feeling of responsibility fulfilled, together with the solidarity that eventual imprisonment activates in the community.  It is not infrequent, in this sense, the launching of massive and prolonged mobilizations to obtain the liberty of the detained accused by state authorities of participating in lynchings.[19]  This also explains that in order to carry forward the lynching, violent actions are oftenly addressed against the state institutions (police, courts) that try to prevent or stop the event.[20]


f.          The victim

            In almost two thirds of the recorded events there was a single victim (table 7).  The victim is male in the vast majority of the instances (table 8).  In five cases the lynched was a woman, but only one lynching ended with her death.  In this case (the victims were accused of kidnapping children) the woman was lynched together with a man.


            There is no substantial difference between the lynchers and the lynched, in terms of socioeconomic standards of living. Lynching is above all a form of violence of poor people against poor people: poor peasants, trades people, indigenous villagers, petty shopkeepers, workers, do lynch other poor peasants, other trades people, other members of the same village.[21]  It is their performance as active or passive characters of the lynching tragedy, as either executioners or victims, which differentiates the lyncher from the lynched, much more than social status or income levels. 


            However 24 events (almost one fourth of the total) took as a victim people who held some sort of local position of authority, and who according to the judgment of the community to which the lynchers belonged, indulged in abuses by violating rights, goods, or values either of the community or of any of its members: policemen (16 cases), government officials (four cases), local caciques (two cases), religious leaders (two cases).  The hypothesis can be drawn that in these situations lynching is the collective sanction for breaking the basic commitments to collective goals that any person holding a position of authority should observe; something like a specific version of the traditional right of resistance against oppression: Fuenteovejuna without the embellishment of literature.


            Lynching of outsiders is relatively frequent above all in rural communities, as well in some urban centers.  This appears to be a classic case of suspicion or distrust  towards what is different or unknown. The outsider generates insecurity, is seen as potentially harmful and therefore as a virtual enemy.  The situation illustrates the conservatism of some forms of social organization based on deeply rooted cultural identities –something which does not have to do with socioeconomic shortcomings or primitivism, as illustrated by the ethnic and religious conflicts in several European countries.  Distrust toward the outsider is related, still, with threats and dangers that are not invented by the community: kidnapping children, violating the rules and symbols of the group, scoffing at community values, and the like.  These are real issues.  The fear of kidnapping of children, for example, is widespread throughout Mexico, in the face of the allegations, many of them proven, of the commission of such actions.[22]  The aberration is the imputation from the beginning of these actions to people who are not part of the group itself.[23]  It is not necessary that the stranger has actually committed, or attempted to commit, the action for which they sanction him: not belonging to the group is proof enough to conviction.


            It is worth to mention that, within this context, the stranger quality of the victim can refer as much to effectively belonging to another community, territory or family group, as to the result of modifications in the behavior, attitudes, and values of the subject –what we could characterize as a cultural outsider.[24]  The identity that legitimates belonging to the group is manifested externally in the observance of behaviors, rituals, values, and hierarchies: participation in traditional fiestas, involvement in community jobs, accepting cargos, and the like, whose inobservance threaten the principle of reciprocity as well the continuity of the group´s life as a social unit.  Incompliance with those obligations goes against the community and indicates loss of identity; therefore, loss of the right to live in the community. The frequent expulsions from indigenous communities in southern Mexico, as punishment for shifting religious allegiances constitute another manifestation of this phenomenon of mutation of identities and cultural alienation.[25]


            Defenselessness of the victim is one of the typical traits of lynching, and it is evident in several aspects of the action.  First of all, physical defenselessness, due to the tumultuous character of the operative.  The victim always ends up overwhelmingly outmatched by the number of direct victimizers or helpers.  Also, moral defenselessness: the lynching implies the absolute disqualification of the victim; the suspected is transformed automatically into guilty and subject to punishment; the possibility of regeneration is unthinkable.  Finally, legal defenselessness: even in the cases in which the application of a customary law is invoked, the defense of the victim is not practically possible; attenuations or justifications for the behavior that blamed on him or her do not exist.


g.         The motive

            Lynching is experienced as a way of collective reparation vis-à-vis the offenses blamed on the victim. It is faced as a response to provocations committed by, or imputed to, him or her.


            Most frequent lynchings are conducted as reactions to assaults: an action that involves physical violence leading to patrimonial detriment.  Almost one fourth of lynchings were executed as a reaction to this type of aggressions (table 9).  In twelve of them lynching was committed by the victims themselves –at times in collaboration with people passing by immediately after the assault.  Next in order are  “attacks to the community”, which encompass the threatening of values, practices, or objects of relevance for the identity and continuity of the group: robbery of religious objects, scoffing at or failing to respect the community authorities, opposition to fulfilling community obligations such as jobs or contributing to fiestas, damaging the community patrimony, and the like.[26]  The victim of the lynching is accused of having violated values basic to the group lynchers belong to. In other cases it is a question of actions that in any sociocultural context evoke repudiation and are met with penalties by positive law: kidnapping children, reckless driving, assassinations, rapes.


            Some of the lynchings triggered by actions of this type turn out to be disproportionate given the magnitude of the harm caused by the victim of the lynching.[27]  The idea that penalties should hold a relation of proportionality with the infraction belongs to modern Western criminal law. Yet the disproportion that is observed between the action committed by or imputed to the lynched, and the sanction via lynching indicates something more than the persistence of traditional or archaic forms of punitive norms.  The petty theft of a pig, a bag of corn, or a bicycle is considered a minor crime by the most of criminal legal systems with strong urban biases.  However, in populations drowning in poverty it usually inflicts a very strong harm for the victim.  In these particular settings lynching can appear as a sanction much less disproportionate for the actually or supposedly harmed.  Still, the application of an eye for an eye in a number of the lynchings, implies the appeal to a principle of limitation and of suitableness between the imputed action and the sanction.


            The imputation of responsibility for the actions that trigger the lynching can be extended to people who did not actually participate in them, yet are considered guilty because of their friendship or some other bond with the lynched.  This is a typical process of mechanic guilt as it stems from the inference of a mechanical solidarity (in the Durkheimian sense) in turn based on the belief that the offender’s entire group is responsible for his/her deeds. Mechanic guilt reveals either an insufficient development of the processes of individualization of social relations, or that imputations of responsibility are carried out by the mediation of a magical sort of causality.[28]


h.         The settings

            The triggering factors of lynching take place in a particular social climate, which endows with additional graveness the event lynching is a reaction to.  Lynchings are carried forward in spaces marked by insecurity, impunity, abuse, and violence, which are integral parts of daily life in contemporary rural Mexico, and also in several areas of the urban habitat of the working poor.  This is a question already considered by the literature, and which has arisen persistently throughout this investigation.  Lynchings take place in situations where, as in the song by Jose Alfredo Jimenez, la vida no vale nada (life is worthless).


            The reigning insecurity increases accessibility to this type of conduct.  Ex post justification of lynching is a recurrent one: the people resort to lynching because “the police set the criminals free”, “those with educational degrees (lawyers, judges) agree with the bad people”, “we are tired of nobody punishing them”, “we make claims and nobody pays attention”.  These and other similar statements verbalize feelings of frustration or skepticism with respect to the efficacy of state institutions either to prevent the acts that make harm to them, to reach a reparation of their rights, or to punish the offender.


            In several states of the Federation political conflict adds to this climate of violence and insecurity.  Armed conflicts between militants of the PRI, the PRD, and rural or union organizations related to them were frequent during the time span covered by this investigation.  Lynching does not seem unrelated to this background, at least in some of the events recorded.  Not in the sense that militancy in a given political group or social organization turns someone into a more likely victim of lynching, but rather in that the decision to lynch turns out to be more easily made if referring to individuals  who, in addition to having committed certain offenses, belong to antagonistic political or social organizations.


            The already mentioned disproportion between the action imputed to the victim and the punishment, could also be related to this articulation of the specific action triggering the lynching with a wider matrix of local or regional feuds of political, religious, kinship or any other matter. In these cases  the repudiation evoked by the action imputed to the lynched is reinforced by preceding local or regional  conflicts.  In the lynchings of Zapotitlan (case 23) it is easy to identify their connections with conflicts between family networks and political identities, which predated the actions that triggered the lynching (Vilas 2001).  Something similar can be stated in the San Blas Atempa (case 15),  Durazotla (Puebla, case 70) and Huetjutla (case 96) lynchings.


III.        Conclusions and hypothesis for further research

            Lynching is not exclusive to contemporary Mexico. As this investigation was conducted, similar actions occurred in Guatemala and Brazil, and with lesser frequency in Haiti, Honduras and Ecuador.  Nor is it exclusive to multiethnic societies, to the countryside or to settings of tight communitarian bonds. During the past decade more than a dozen lynchings were executed Buenos Aires and other cities in Argentina. Nevertheless, each setting stamps the action with a particular profile and a specific meaning.  Against the common backdrop of resorting to violence and to punishment by own hands there arises a wide range of triggering factors,  coadjutant elements and ingredients of opportunity, which turn lynching into a synthesis of a complex matrix of far reaching tensions and  conflicts. The approach adopted in the present work is one of many possibilities and does not exclude other theoretical-methodological perspectives.  In-depth case studies will shed more light on such a complex subject. This section sums up some tentative conclusion from the preceding analysis.


With dramatic overtones lynching points to the conflictive coexistence of parallel normative systems within the same state, together with profound cultural discontinuities, as well to the incomplete effectiveness of state institutions and their contested legitimacy.  Lynchings also picture the unequal and contradictory character of the processes conventionally called modernization, which develop much more rapidly in the formal implant of grand  institutions such as parliaments, constitutional or legal prescriptions than in promoting new microsocial performances.


Lynchings witness to the unfinished character of state-building processes, as much in their cultural or ideological dimension, as in what relates to the effectiveness and legitimacy of state penetration in the social realm.  The actions  triggering lynchings relate to daily questions whence there is an obvious  absence of state penetration –i.e. the ineffectiveness of public institutions— or state performance is considered to be illegitimate from the perspective of certain population groups.  In the end, these conflicting perspectives call attention to the complexity of the processes of effective and legitimate state formation in multicultural societies, as well to the impunity that characterizes the local, everyday  unfolding of not a few state agencies.


Yet it would be misleading to assess an overly strong relationship between the multiculturalism of a social formation and the propensity to resort to justice by ones own hand.  Even though in a sporadic manner, lynchings are carried forward in societies of great ethno-cultural homogeneity, as in, for example, Argentina.  Nor is it possible to assess a significant relation between lynchings and levels of socioeconomic development.  Lynchings are registered in highly varied socioeconomic environments, and societies with similar development levels or styles (in terms of per capita income, patterns of geographical  demographic distribution, or others) can differ markedly with regard to lynchings.  Without rejecting the incidence of these variables, the diversity of scenarios stresses lynching as a resource for filling a void of either state presence or state legitimacy.


Lynching is framed by scenarios of profound macrosocial and macro political changes that impact severely in local microcosms. Far-reaching socioeconomic and institutional restructuring of Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s introduced widespread modifications in the daily life of the people, questioned certainties and altered routines.  The magnitude of changes was aggravated by their speed.  This investigation was centered in that period; yet, as briefly mentioned in the preceding section, lynchings were also conducted in other equivalent moments in  Mexico’s history, even though the content and direction of social disruption were quite different to the contemporary one –e.g. agrarian reform and “socialist education” in the 1930s.  In both settings the common ingredient is the tremendous shock provoked by state policies and the transformations they force in the daily lives of large groups of the population, above all the population that was already vulnerable prior to those changes.  In a similar hypothetical sense one can mention the large number of lynchings recorded in Guatemala following the recent revolutionary conflict, the emergence of lynchings in Argentina after a decade of accelerated social and economic re-structuring, or racial lynchings in Southern United States after the civil war.  To stand firm in this terrain requires, nevertheless, a comparative investigation focusing on a more extensive period than that considered here.


Lynching can be interpreted as a tool for conflict resolution as well for consolidating the group’s identity through either retention or re-appropriation of violence when people is dramatically confronted to the institutional normative illegitimacy of the state or to the inability or unwillingness of the state to  honor its basic commitments to secure people’s life, security or belongings.  Two types of lynchings can be differentiated from this perspective: 1) those which express the execution of a punitive force that the group resists to transfer to state institutions, and 2) those which involve a reappropriation of punitive force when its monopoly by the state is considered to be ineffective.  In both cases the state shows itself unable to effectively mobilize its coactive potential –ultima ratio of its aspiration for legitimacy.  State’s inability  refers as much to the prevention of the actions blamed on the lynched, as to the lynching itself, and reaches its more evident manifestation in cases where the victim of lynching is previously taken from the hands of the state representatives (usually police officers) who had put him/her under custody.


The existence of a communitarian fabric or of strong group identities does not automatically increase the proclivity of a group of people to commit lynching, even though it does seem to augment the probability  of particular forms of carrying it on: previous deliberations, appealing to an alternative normative system, etc. which do not exist in the typical urban lynching of a mob reacting to a transit accident or to an assault.  It is possible to differentiate between community lynchings that play out the phenomenon of retention of punitive force by the group, and the more spontaneous ones typical of large cities, which we have characterized as illustration of the reappropriation of violence by social actors.  In both cases the climate of overwhelming insecurity and past experiences with state agencies’ passivity  or complicity, makes for the emotional background of lynchings.  A socio-cultural climate which is particularly strong in poor neighborhoods, or in territories with larger makeup of indigenous villages, frequently submitted to a variety of discrimination procedures and institutional violence –a situation which possibly reinforces the association of resorting to justice by own hand with the preservation of communal networks of identity and solidarity.  Lynching appears, for those who execute it, as a normal form of reparation for aggressions.  The rapid recovery of the usual rhythm of life in the communities, neighborhoods, etc. after the execution of the lynching suggests that this is not seen by its authors as something exceptional or outside the realm of daily life; it forms part of the legitimate repertoire of responses to certain offensive actions addressed against themselves.


Community lynchings make explicit the conflict between different normative and value systems and their varied legal encoding.  Even when there does not exist evidence of complicity or corruption of state institutions the conflict derives from this collision of normative systems and the hierarchy of values implicit in each of them.  The enactment of the due process of law and the principle that no one can be considered to be guilty without a legal trial, can be experienced as injustice when it permits the liberty (conditional, under bail, or probationary) of the person who caused a harm, or when similar treatment is denied to the members of the group itself. 


In cities lynching testifies to the people being fed up with the conditions of insecurity, violence, impunity, and police and government corruption typical of many large Latin American metropolis.  As compared with the ingredients of ritualism, organization and deliberation that is registered in the community lynchings, the urban lynchings present themselves as brutal inorganic explosions of furious rage as much toward the concrete trigger as toward the state’s ineffectiveness in guaranteeing social coexistence.


The predominant scenarios for lynchings are those of poverty, oppression, subordination: the world of los de abajo –as in Mariano Azuela’s classic novel.  Lynching appears, fundamentally, as violence of poor people against poor people, each sharing the same lack of institutional justice.  They witness, therefore, to the ethno-cultural and class biases that discriminate access to public institutions, even in such elementary questions as people’s life, liberty, dignity, or patrimony –the values from whose defense the state is legitimized by liberal political theory.





Conceptual definitions

            In this investigation lynching is considered 1) a collective action 2) of private and illegal character 3) capable of causing the death of the victim 4) in response to acts or conducts of the victim, 5) who finds him/herself in overwhelming numerical minority when confronted by the lynchers.  This excludes, therefore, the cases of symbolic violence that are also assigned this name –for example, attacks through media or other public channels against certain people with the goal of harming their reputation, stopping courses of action, and the like.


Collective action: lynchings involve as active subjects a plurality of persons whose individual identities are subsumed into a collective actor: the lynching crowd.  It is in this specific sense, more qualitative than quantitative, that lynching is executed by a crowd: the group erases the particular identities of its members.  Lynchings can rely on a pre-existing permanent organization (village, community…) but as a distinct method of action it involves a loose and discrete organization, addressed to the specific action of lynching and which usually disappears subsequently to it.  Conceptualized in this way lynching is differentiated from punitive actions executed by more permanent organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan of the United States.


Of private and illegal character: the action is executed by individuals without any legal authority and do not hold a delegation of formal institutional authority; it therefore involves a violation of the legality sanctioned by the state.  This differs from lynchings as actions executed by vigilantes or other groups of people to whom the government agencies delegate punitive or repressive faculties; or with police’s or army’s abuses.


Not necessarily culminating with the death of the victim as the act of lynching can be interrupted by several intervening factors (e.g. intervention by police or family members of the victim, or the victim’s escape). Yet they always imply, at least, a severe physical punishment.


In response to actions of the victim or imputed to him/her: lynching usually appears as a direct reaction to an offense.  This implies that the time between the offense and the reparation is usually brief; it likewise suggests the absence of premeditation –in terms of criminal law-- and on the contrary emphasizes the ingredients of spontaneity.


Numerical minority of the victim: which gives impunity to the lynchers and differentiates lynching from other forms of private violence in the same social settings –for example, conflicts between communities.  Calling attention to the numerical minority of the victim avoids incurring discussions of little relevance regarding how large a crowd should be.


Sources and data base

            The sources of information are the following: a) Primary sources: police and judicial records of the actions; interviews of witnesses and of participants; direct ex post observation of a number of settings; b) Secondary sources: local and national newspapers; sociodemographic and economic reports and studies from INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática) at the municipal level. 


Research was conducted in 1995-98, as part of the author’s research programme at the Centro de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias en Ciencias y Humanidades de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (CEIICH-UNAM).












































(1)    Baja California, Durango, Nayarit, Tabasco, Tlaxcala, Veracruz, Zacatecas.














(1) Includes ejidos, villages, rural  townships (caseríos) and the like.


Table  3. WHO LYNCHES? 


Nº (a)

Neighbors, villagers


Direct victims of actions of the lynched


Relatives or friends of the victims of the lynched


People passing by




(a)The total exceeds the number of recorded lynchings because of the overlap of possibilities.





Death of the lynched



Interrupted lynching



Other (1)






(1) Threat of lynching






Police intervention


Intervention of another authority


Voluntary interruption


The victim escapes











Beating (1)










No information




(1)   Includes stoning and beating by machete.


















More than four










N° of Lynchings








Male and female















Attack against the community*









Running over by vehicle






Children’s kidnapping



Political motivation






Opposing to lynching









* Robbery against the village’s or community’s school or church; refusing to participate in community jobs; taking advantage of community resources for individual benefit; lack of respect for the community authorities, etc.

+  Does not involve physical violence upon the victim of the robbery (e.g.: cattle thefts, theft of cars or working tools or other goods in the absence of its owner).







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(*) Instituto Argentino para el Desarrollo Económico (IADE) and Universidad Nacional de Lanús (Argentina).  My thanks go to Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Francisco Zapata, Arturo Alvarado, Juan José Ramírez and Alejandra Araya in México, César Barreira in Brasil, and Fabián Sislián in Argentina, for their comments on prior versions. I also thank Emir Sader for connecting me with Núcleo de Estudios de la Violencia (NEV) at Universidade de Sao Paulo, and NEV’s members for sharing with me some outcomes of their own research. May I also thank Anayanci Fregoso for her cooperation as a most efficient research assistant. Remaining shortcomings are, of course, my only responsibility.

[1] E.g. Begné Guerra (1995); Castro (1995); Aguilar Camín (1996); Monsiváis (1996); Seguí (1996). 

[2] Most of literature on transitions to democracy ignored these questions; only lately were they focused on, given the unexpected course followed by many of them: see O’Donnell (1992, 1994).

[3] See Casaus Arzú (1992); Adams (1995). See in La Jornada (October 29, 1986:7) a flagrant case of inversion of onus probandi to the detriment of indigenous prisoners: in order to accept their claims for liberty, the Supreme Court of Justice of the State of Chiapas required that the prisioners (all of them indigenous persons) to “deliver proof of their innocence” .

[4] Vid Guillén (1997). On violence related to land conflicts, La Jornada, January 27, April 9 and September 3, 1992, March 4 and April 17, 1996; Mejía (1996).  On extrajudicial executions, see La Jornada, June 6 and 13, 1987, August 7, 24 1992, February 2, 1996, April 11, 1997, etc.  In June 1995 policemen from of the state of Guerrero ambushed more than one hundred of poor peasants affiliated to Organización Campesina de la Sierra Sur, killing 17 and severely  wounding more than twenty: see Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights (1995) and Gutierrez (1998).  In December 1997 paramilitary groups assassinated 45 defenseless indigenous people in Acteal, Chiapas, including many small children: La Jornada, December 12, 1997 and editions from the following days.  See also Mariscal (1997); Ronquillo (1999).   

[5] High proportion of rural lynchings in Mexico contrasts with the overwhelming urban settings of lynchings in Brazil, despite the fact that both countries present relatively similar patterns of urban/rural distribution of population. See Souza Martins (1996).

[6] Nevertheless in September 1998 (case No. 102) a group of women from Tijuana’s (Baja California) colonia Mexico lynched and killed by beating a man they accused of attempted rape of a child.  Men did not participate in the lynching, in contrast with other cases in reaction to similar actions (e.g. case  56, August 1996, and case 98, April 1998).

[7] In June 1994 witnesses of a running over of an elderly person and a child by a police patroller in Mexico City pulled the driver out of the vehicle violently (it turned out to be a drunk police officer, in plain clothes), turned over the car, lit it on fire, and severely beat the driver until he was finally rescued (case 32).  A similar case took place in Magdalena Contreras’ district  (also Mexico City, case 91, September 1997).  In November 1996 a bus driver was captured, beaten, and brutally kicked in Nezahualcoyotl City (a huge popular district of Mexico City) by pedestrians who reacted to the running over of four people (two of them died immediately from the effect of the impact) (case 71). 

[8] In Tlayuca (Morelos) an out of control car rushed onto local people who were celebrating a traditional fiesta.  The excited multitude pulled out the driver and his passenger (father and son) from the vehicle and killed them by beating, stone blows, and gunshots (March 1993, case 17).  In the Venustiano Carranza district of Mexico City passengers of a bus disarmed and savagely beat the man who tried to assault them (June 1993; case 29).  A similar action occurred in September 1996 in the Iztapalapa district (Mexico City, case 69).  In both cases the frustrated robbers had their lives saved by being rescued by the police.  In contrast, the one that tried to rob the passengers of a bus in Guadalajara was killed by strangling (February 1997, case 77).  In a similar occurrence near San Cristobal (Oaxaca) the failed thief perished as a result of the beating inflicted by the passengers (case 89, August 1997).

[9] Case 58 (September 1996, Santiago Otalman, state of Mexico): 400 people lynched three robbers of a small shop which also wounded by gun-shots several local people.  Two of the robbers were rescued by the police, but the crowd managed to keep the third.  After savagely beating him to the point of completely disfiguring his face, he was fastened by feet and hands to the kiosk of the central park.  The people resisted the authorities and threatened to leave him to die if any of the victims of the robbery died.  In the township of La Honda (Zacatecas) a man, publicly reputed to be mentally handicapped, was beaten to death accused of having kidnapped his own daughter (a toddler) and of having caused her death by abandonment.  His wife, mother of the child, gave consent to the lynching (case 2, February 1988). See also cases 17, 29, and 77 referenced below.

[10] See for example Benevides and Ferreira (1983).  Also La Razón (Buenos Aires) August 8, 1999; Clarín (Buenos Aires) September 23, 1999, October 30, 1999; La Nación (Buenos Aires) October 30, 1999.

[11] Residents of Texcoco (state of Mexico) captured two supposed thieves and submitted them to a brutal beating, hand-cuffed and with their eyes bandaged; they turned them to the police more dead than alive, after they were promised that the individuals would be put into jail immediately (case  80, April 1997).  In April 1998 (case 100) residents of Palo Gordo village (Morelos), after severely beating two men accused of several hold-ups to members of the community, turned them in to the state police.  Upon doing so, they expressed their hope that the authorities “comply with the law” so that “we the villages will not have to again make our own justice.”  This referred to the lynching executed one month earlier by residents of the nearby city of Huetjutla against two outsiders accused of attempting to rob children (case 96, March 1998).

[12] In September 1994 people of the zapoteca community of San Miguel Yotao (Oaxaca) threatened lynching a 13 year old boy unless his family did pay back within a week a sum of money that had been stolen from the local CONASUPO store –the state network of basic supplies--, a robbery of which the boy was accused (case  34).  In November 1994 an assembly of peasants meeting with the Subsecretario de Gobierno of Chiapas threatened to lynch him if he did not honor promises to accept land demands, investigate and clear up the disappearance of villagers and put an end to the impunity of guardias blancas (case 41).  Villagers of Llano Grande (Oaxaca) threatened with lynching a municipal edil accused of poorly fulfilling his responsibilities –above all, application of fines and jail sentences considered arbitrary (may 1996, case 53).  In November 1996 infuriated villagers captured and threatened with lynching a policeman who had impeded the lynching of a man accused of assassinating another villager (Mapastepec, Chiapas, case 72). 

[13] In Rio Chiquito, Oaxaca, two lynchings were registered (cases 47 and 48, November 1995 and January 1996, respectively).  The township of San Miguel de Canoa (Puebla) also has a certain tradition of lynchings, as seen below.

[14] Residents of a shanty-town in Mexico City who were scared of being evicted by the authorities kidnapped two police officers from the area, beat them, tortured them by resorting to tehuacanazo and drugged them, forcing them to smoke marijuana (case 3, March 1988).  Tehuacanazo is a common police brutality technique in interrogations; it consists of shaking a bottle of soda mixed with chile (hot chili pepper) and pouring the liquid into the nasal passages of the victim.  In San Blas Atempa, Tehuantepec (Oaxaca) hundreds of neighbors took four people out of jail who were accused of assaulting and assassinating the township doctor.  They beat them with sticks, fists, kicking, rocks, dragged them through the township, hung them, and finally lit them on fire (February 1993; case 15).  People from the community of Arroyo Metate (Oaxaca) captured three of the four assailants on a CONASUPO store (whose clerk they killed).  After capturing them, the robbers were submitted to an intense beating with sticks, machetes, rocks, kicks, and punches.  One of them died from the beating and hanging; the second, after another round of beating, died from a shotgun in the face. They dragged the third to the municipal palace, where they gave him several machete wounds and finally hanged him from a tree, until he died (case 45, September 1995).  In San Nicolas Los Ranchos (Puebla) two supposed thieves were attacked by villagers; they were captured and submitted to severe beating throughout the day; they were rescued by the police as they were about to be burned (case 57; September 1996).  That same month three individuals accused as assailants and rapists died burned by excited villagers of the municipality of Mexotintla (Chiapas).  They were dragged to the village’s plaza, beaten by the crowd for several hours and burned alive (case 61).  In the village of Acalco (Guerrero) the victim, accused of cattle robbery, was tortured for hours to get him to denounce his accomplices (case 98, April 1998).  Contrast these actions with the following (taken at random from the daily newspapers): two girls, 13 and 15 years old, were kidnapped in August 1996 by militants of Paz y Justicia, a paramilitary organization sponsored by landowners and business people of Chiapas.  During ten days the girls were kept by force in the community of  Miguel Alemán (municipality of Tila), during which time they were repeatedly submitted to torture and rape, and finally assassinated: La Jornada, March 3, 1997, page 16.

[15] After the lynchings of Zapotitlán (case No. 23, December 1993) one of the detained declared “We did not do anything, the guilty ones are the villages (los pueblos)”.  According to another “the villages...did well for attacking the assaultants, but now we are here in jail”.  According to a villager who spoke as a witness, the responsibility was of  “the people who came together”.  See in the same sense case 17 (March 1993, Tlayuca, Morelos); case 42 (December 1994, Huayapan, Morelos).

[16] This situation appears also in hangings.  In most of cases hanging consists of hoisting the victim by the neck, beating him while attached, taking him down, hoisting him up again, beating him again, bringing him down once more, and likewise several times.  The death of the victim is not an accidental result of the action, but the lyncher can experience the process as intended to do nothing but scare the victim.

[17] In June 1989 more than 3000 villagers of Tehuacán de Guerrero (Hidalgo)  seized the the local jail and abducted the person (together with two prisoners who apparently had nothing to do with that) whom they accused of insulting and threatening with death the indigenous mayor of the village; they beat them, shaved their heads, dressed them in women clothing and walked them around the village.  The police intervention prevented the event from escalating (case 5).  In San Blas Atempa, Oaxaca (case 15, February 1993) three men accused of killing the township doctor were snatched from the local jail and walked through the town under heavy beating, before being strung up and burned.  In January 1996 (case 48) three individuals were lynched by neighbors from Rio Chiquito (a community in the municipality of Jocotepec, Oaxaca), accused of having gunshot a member from the community and threatening another.  In San Miguel Ayozintepec, Oaxaca (case 93, February 1998) the person accused of assassinating a young boy was captured and dragged through the town before being killed by sticks and rocks.

[18] In case 15 (February 1993, San Blas Atempa, Oaxaca) the population was called to assembly by loudspeakers and the decision to kill those accused of assassination was based on that the community punishes with expulsion or hanging undesired outsiders.  In San Miguel Yoato, Oaxaca (case 34, September 1994) the authorities of the assembly who decided to kill a child accused of robbing a CONASUPO store justified this decision arguing that their responsibility was “to enforce the decisions of the community, according to practices and customs”.  In San Antonio Tecomitl, Milpa Alta, Mexico City, 400 neighbors participated in an assembly protesting for the arbitrary detainment of two neighbors, after which they tried to lynch three police officers accused of the action; overturned two patrol cars and two police jeeps, invaded the police commando, committed destructions and stole arms.  The crowd disbanded when police reinforcements arrived (case  78, February 1997).  In the village of Purificación (Texcoco, Mexico state) the neighbors gathered a jury which decided to lynch two subjects caught robbing the car of a neighbor (case No. 80, April 1997).  In the community of Acalco, municipality Chilapa de Alvarez (Guerrero) a crowd hung an individual accused of robberies, rapes and cattle rustling, after deciding in an assembly to “do him justice”: case 98, April 1998).

[19] Days after the lynchings of Zapotitlán in which five men were hung (case  23, December 1993), 200 people organized a standing protest in front of the municipality offices, demanding the release of the accused; the protest continued for nearly six months.  During March and April 1994 other people enacted road blocks to pressure for the freedom of detainees, including the blocking of highways by people from ten communities and several social organizations.  In the beginning of May 1994 five of the detainees got freedom in exchange for the termination of the protest and the end of the hunger strike that several villagers had been maintaing during fifteen days in  Chilpancigo, the state capital.  Finally on the 4th of June 1994 the last of the accused was set free.  According to a member of the Regional Commission on Human Rights, the decision to free them was correct: “it was not them who killed the supposed assaultants, but rather the village enraged by the constant robberies and rapes of its women”.  The filming of the Tatahuicapa lynching (case 56, August 1996) led to the identification and confinement of a dozen of lynchers. In response, mazatecos, mixtecos, mixes and zapotecos from more than sixty communities of the area mobilized demanding the liberty of the detainees. 

[20] For example: case 5 (Tepehuacán of Guerrero, Hidalgo, June 1989): a crowd took the victim from the local jail in order to lynch him. San Juan Totolac, Tlaxcala: more than 200 citizens attacked the police who stopped the lynching of someone accused of kidnapping children (case 22 September 1993). Case 35 (September 1994, Chalcatzingo, Morelos): some 800 enraged inhabitants took three men from the local jail that had been of children’s kidnapping.  While they beat them to death, another 400 villagers blocked the entrances to the village. Case 64 (September 1996, Tepito, Mexico City): an enraged mass of workers from the market, customers and small shopkeepers attempted at lynching the police who stopped the lynching of a driver who ran over a child. Case 92 (February 1998, community of Yaltem, Chiapas): a crowd attacked the policemen who took into detention a thief, who was subsequently released by the scared policemen an then lynched.

[21] I use the expression tradespeople as in Vilas (1985).

[22] On children’s kidnappings  in Mexico see Mergier (1992), Avilés (1999). According to an official source, an average of eighth to ten children are kidnapped every day in Mexico City, for purposes of sexual exploitation or trafficking body-organs in the black market of implants (Romero Sánchez 2001).

[23] One of the most notorious cases of lynching of outsiders was that which took place in San Miguel de Canoa (Puebla) in September 1968, with the background of the students’ mobilizations in Mexico City.  A group of students and employees of the Universidad Autónoma de Puebla arrived in the township looking for a place to stay overnight already having planned for the following day to climb one of the nearby volcanoes.  A local indigenous resident gave them a place to stay at his home.  Alerted, the catholic priest  (also publicly known as the principal capitalist/moneylender in the village), denounced the presence of unknown people, warning the villagers on the danger that entered the community: they were “communist agitators”, “messengers of Satan”.  He ordered to place loudspeakers in several places, summoning through them that the people be “alert” to the danger that “the devil arrived to implant communism.”  By midnight the tone of the messages escalated, proclaiming that the strangers came to the village to kill him, steal the holy statues from the temple and slit the throats of the children.  A mob of several thousands, including women, elderly people, children, descended upon the excursionists atrociously killing three of them as well the villager who offered them residence, using axes, machetes, sticks, rocks, shotguns, and pistols.  The intervention of the army saved the lives of the others.  Later on five villagers were detained; two of them were convicted despite the fact that the surviving victims had not identified them.  The priest was not called to testify and continued as the head of the parish.  Due to the context in which it occurred (the student mobilizations in Mexico City) the lynching went almost unnoticed.  It achieved widespread attention thanks to Canoa, the film by Felipe Cazals (1975).  A similar fate had been suffered by several teachers of  the so-called “socialist education” sponsored by general Lazaro Cardenas’ government in the 1930s, lynched at the instigation of some catholic priests and local caciques (Lerner 1979).  In June 1996 (case 54) another lynching occurred in Canoa; indigenous villagers held for eleven hours and were about to kill two reporters and a driver, who they confused with state policemen that, just before, had arrested several villagers accused of secretly cutting down trees.  The lynching was stopped when the outsiders were able to prove that they were not police officers.  In March 1993 in Tepetlaxco, Puebla, parents tried to lynch two itinerant photographers accusing them of trying to kidnap school children (case 16).  In October 1994 in Naucalpan (Mexico state) two “strangers” were lynched, accused of kidnapping children (case 37).  In March 1998 in the city of Huetjutla, state of Hidalgo, two outsiders, apparently traveling salesmen, were beaten to death and burned accused of kidnapping children (case 96).   

[24] The case of a lynching in the community of Rio Chiquito (Oaxaca, November 1995, case 47) illustrates this phenomenon of “cultural outsideness”. The victim (a 24 year old man, native to the place) had migrated to the north looking for better job opportunities.  He returned after some time, and his behavior began to contrast with the traditional one –in particular, his reluctance to carry out communal works.  One night when he was walking, intoxicated, back to his home, he was intercepted by a group of local policemen who robbed and beat him.  He managed to escape, yet the following morning he was detained by a mob while he was bathing in the river.  They beat him with the butt of a shotgun and dragged him for a stretch.  He was subsequently brought to the local jail where they continued beating him until he lost consciousness.  He was in that situation (beatings, insults, faintings) for days.  In the midnight of November 2nd (which in the Catholic Church’s tradition is devoted to pray for the dead ancestors) he was taken out from jail, with bandaged eyes and a rope around his neck. Three times he was strung up to a tree that was in the center of the village, among the angry shouts of the people.  He lost consciousness again.  After the third try there was a deliberation regarding whether they finally killed him or not.  He was defended by a group of women who got them to spare his life, but he was expelled from the village. See Harris (1995) on the processes of building symbolic borders in lynchings. 

[25] See La Jornada, April 2, 1992, May 11, 1992, November 26, 1996; Excelsior November 11, 1992, etc.

[26] The Michimaloya village of Tula de Allende (Hidalgo)  attempted at lynching the sexton of the parish accused of robbery of religious and historical objects (case 9, September 1991).  Indigenous people of the village of San Juan Huichicovi, Oaxaca, lynched by beating two subjects accused of robbing the bilingual school (case 21). In December 1993, in the township of Santiago Iztaltepec a subject accused of secret logging in community forests was beaten and hung (case 25). In November 1994, the catholic priest of El Arenal, Hidalgo, was rescued by police officers from a crowd that planned to lynch him, accusing him of having robbed a highly worshipped miraculous picture –as a matter of fact, it had been moved to a different location in the same church (case 39). Lynching of persons accused of refusing to do jobs for the community is referred to above (case 47).

[27] Residents of San Martin Cuatlalpan, Mexico City, attempted at lynching a man blamed of stealing elotes (fresh maize cobs: case 66, September 1996). Neighbors from San Miguel Xicalco, Tlalpan (Mexico City) lynched a man suspected of attempting to steal soda cases from a delivering truck (case 67, October 1996). Chamula people from the community of Yaltem (Chiapas) killed a subject accused of robbing a bicycle (case 92, February 1998).

[28] In Zapotitlan (case 23, December 1993) the relatives that had arrived to carry the bodies of three people lynched the day before were assassinated, although they had not participated in the actions imputed to those previously lynched.  Two of the four men lynched in Axichiapan, Morelos, in May 1994 (case No. 31) were friends of the assaultants, without participation in the crime imputed to the other two; they simply were drinking beer with them.  Four indigenous tzotziles were killed with sticks and rocks (the other two managed to flee) by some 1000 chamulas from five communities; they were accused of assassinating nine people, by the “revelations” of a sorceress who stated that she had “had revelations” (case 38, municipality of Mitontic, Chiapas, October 1994).  In November 1996 in Duraznotla (Puebla) seven members of a family were killed by beating with sticks and machetes upon being accused of killing by witchcraft two daughters of one of the lynchers (case 70). On witchcraft as a trigger for lynchings in indigenous communities see Freyermuth (1999); Collier (1973).

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