BOGOTÁ — Lynching, as it is practiced in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America, represents a kind of fast-track "people's justice" fueled by anger over persistent crime and contempt for the pace and integrity of the police and judiciary.

It's not a new phenomenon, and a wave of lynchings was registered in Argentina a few years ago. But whereas episodes of this nature used to occur primarily in small towns and villages, they're now becoming commonplace in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, where between June 2014 and June 2015, more than 140 people were killed by vigilante mob violence. Another 600 survived only because of police intervention.

A more recent case took place in the impoverished Kennedy district in southern Bogotá, where police saved two people from being beaten to death. The crowd was so riled up, it attacked the intervening officers.

As alarming as these figures are, neither the State nor academia has given much attention to the problem. It wasn't until a year ago that someone — in this case the Eilusos research group from the National University's sociology department — finally decided to study the phenomenon. The group used media reports and official data bases to tally the number of victims. But they also sought to make sense of the phenomenon, and to propose solutions. The results of their work have kicked off a conversation that was long overdue in Colombia.

In theory, most Colombians (71%, according to a 2014 Latinobarómetro poll) oppose vigilante justice. In practice, however, lynchings occur far more frequently than elsewhere. Why? Part of it may be the general distrust people have of the state authorities, which are seen as too busy with big-fish cases like guerrillas and cartels to bother with muggings and other crimes affecting ordinary people.

"In the collective imagination, neither the police nor the army are effective," the Eliusos report states.

But the group also suggests that with the threat of the civil war fading away, people may be turning the common criminal into "someone who fills the gap left by the domestic enemy." In that sense, lynchings can be seen as a form of collaboration with law enforcement, rather than something that's done in the absence of police.

The study finds some parallels between lynchings and the paramilitary or "self-defense" movements that arose in Colombia. Self-defense militias liked to justify their activities by identifying leftist guerrillas not as political agents, but as simple criminals. The same goes for lynchings: victims are seen as "thiefs who get what they deserve."

A class thing

There is a socioeconomic aspect to these killings as well, the researchers found. Mobs tend to see poor people as "ratas" (rats) or "linchables" (lynchable), but have been known to settle down if a suspected thief is well dressed or has a more middle-class appearance.

A poor neighborhood in Bogota — Photo: Jonas Schleske

The study's lead researcher, Professor Rosembert Ariza, says that in lynchings, "defending sacred private property is more important than defense of life." There is also a tendency among people caught up in this kind of "collective fury" to attack anyone opposing the practice, even online, the Eliusos group found. Critics have been denounced on websites, for example, as "pro-rat."

A Colombian NGO called Fundación Paz y Reconciliación has also turned its attention recently to the issue of lynchings, finding the insufficient response to crime by regular authorities is a key contributing factor. Vigilante justice as such is driven by a desire to mete out justice immediately for fear that it wouldn't otherwise happen. Observers note the built-in irony of the practice: most people involved in lychings also go unpunished, which sends the message that the illegal practice is condoned. And the vicious circle of impunity is kept alive.