"Kill him!" someone in the Argentina mob screamed at police. "This motherfucker just tried to shoot me!"
The moment was captured in the latest video circulating in Argentina that shows an attempted lynching of a suspected street criminal, incidents that are on the rise and are stirring debate in this crime-weary country.
The video published Monday shows the suspected robber of an ice-cream shop in San Miguel de Tucumán, capital of the province of Tucumán, being chased by a group of angry men. The suspect manages to escape by running into the relative safety of a police patrol truck.
'The police protected the thief and did not participate in the lynching.'
Argentina is notoriously poor at collecting and publishing reliable crime statistics, further aggravating the sense that authorities are failing to tackle the hold-ups and robberies that affect many cities.
Observers blame persistent poverty and rising drug use for the crime epidemic. A 2013 report said Argentina has the highest rate of theft in South America, at almost double the continental average.
In response, some Argentine communities are behaving as judge, jury, and sometimes executioner against petty criminals. A poll taken in 2014 showed that 29 percent of Argentine respondents support vigilante justice, while a majority called it an extreme action.
The cases are not confined to Tucumán province. The provinces of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe have seen a share of mob violence since last year. In March 2014, twelve cases of attempted lynchings were reported in major cities in the span of 10 days. One of them was a fatal mob killing.
Carlos Waisman, a sociologist specializing in Latin America who teaches at the University of California at San Diego, said poverty due to the country's economic crisis and government indifference are to blame.
"In the last thirty years, Argentina has witnessed a rise in urban poverty, people who are not systematically connected to the labor market, people who don't have regular jobs," Waisman said. "Whenever there is a rise in crime or a rise in people's concern about crime, the possibility of vigilantism grows, as we've seen in Argentina."
While difficult to determine, experts also attribute the lynchings to Argentina's drug trade, claiming that a large segment of robberies and muggings are done by addicts looking for funds to buy their doses of drugs.
The 2013 report by the US Overseas Security Advisory Council suggests that consumption of paco, a highly addictive form of crude cocaine similar to crack, has led to a rise in street crime in Argentina. Experts also say local police forces are often bribed by drug gangs.
"What is also lacking is the political will to face criminality," Waisman told VICE News.
Argentina's first deadly lynching of 2015 came less than two weeks into the new year. On January 11, Gustavo Guerrero, 28, was brutally beaten after a botched robbery of a motorbike, which left one victim dead, in San Miguel de Tucumán.
"The thief tried to steal a motorbike with a 9-mm pistol. He killed the owner of the bike but his gun then jammed," a man who recorded the incident, who asked only to be referred to as Oscar, told VICE News. "The neighbors surrounded him and started hitting him."
The video of Oscar's lynching shows Guerrero — who had a long criminal record — semi-conscious and slumped in the street as blood streams from his battered face.
"The crowd kept him there and hit him occasionally, but they didn't kill him," Oscar said. "When the police arrived, they protected him from the crowd — but stood on his head. Everyone was yelling 'Chau ladrón' [Bye thief]."
Oscar said he filmed the video because he "wanted to reveal the thief's identity, and protest against this type of insecurity." His footage shows the shotgun-wielding police officers who were standing around doing nothing to stop an onlooker from kicking the suspect in the face.
Abel Montero, police chief of San Miguel de Tucumán, denied claims that officers were involved in any wrongdoing. "The police protected the thief and did not participate in the lynching," Montero told VICE News. "The crowd was so angry that it prevented the ambulance from reaching him."
Guerrero was taken in a patrol car to a hospital, where he later died.
His lynching bears similarities to that of 18-year-old David Moreira, who in 2014 was filmed being fatally stepped upon by a group of men after he allegedly stole a woman's purse in the city of Rosario. More than a year since his death, no one has been charged for involvement in the mob beating.
With the 2015 presidential election looming in October, potential candidates and lawmakers have been criticized for proposing short-term solutions to mob violence in a bid to sway voters.
Buenos Aires governor and presidential hopeful Daniel Scioli declared a 12-month state of emergency last April, and pledged to inject 600 million Argentine pesos (around $68 million) into improving security in his province, which borders the national capital of Buenos Aires.
"I understand that society is somewhat fed up with the revolving door of justice, but it would be inappropriate to use a lethal weapon to detain a cell-phone thief," federal security secretary Sergio Berni told reporters following the string of attempted lynchings last year. "These cases must be condemned with the rigor of the law."
Javier Auyero, a prominent Argentine sociologist and co-author of the book Violence at the Urban Margins, said the poor are most affected by urban criminality, while at the same time have little or no say when it comes to addressing security issues on the political stage.
"Public discourse about urban violence tends to be dominated by those occupying privileged positions in the social structure," Auyero told VICE News. "Those who are suffering most from it live at the bottom of the socio-symbolic order, but the inhabitants of the urban margins are hardly ever heard from in debates about public safety."
José Alperovich, Tucumán's governor, made comments justifying mob violence late last year.
"The truth is, you have to put yourself in the shoes of people who get robbed," he said. "I don't know how I would react if it happened to me, but you have to step into [victims'] shoes."
Outbreaks of vigilantism have ignited controversy between President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the various branches of the political opposition. The government has been blamed for not having enough police on the streets, which some say encourages citizens to act unlawfully.
"We're surely witnessing a situation defined by a lack of state presence, but this can by no means justify nor excuse anyone taking justice into their own hands," Argentine lawmaker Fabián Peralta told reporters.
At the height of last year's streak of vigilante violence, Berni defended the government's actions.
"The number of police we have in the city is impressive," he said. "If there is a sector of the justice system that does not want to work, and another sector that doesn't have the procedural tools to act swiftly, that is not the same as an absent state."
"If the state were absent, we would not have the number of arrests we have each day," Berni insisted.
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