This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Eighteen-year-old David Moreira was beaten up by a mob of 50 men after stealing a woman's handbag on the street in Rosario, Argentina.
He died from the injuries four days later, on March 26. In the same week, another bandit was attacked by a mob in Palermo, an affluent neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
At least 12 more incidents have since been reported in Argentina, and on April 7, Daniel Scioli — the governor of Buenos Aires Province — declared a 12-month state of security emergency.
However, according to a survey by D’Alessio IROL, 30 percent of Argentinians have declared their support for these bloody incidents of vigilante justice, arguing that the victims of the attacks had it coming. The phrase running around certain strands of media here is “justice by hand.”
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Among the 70 percent opposed to the violent crimes is journalist Jorge Cicuttin, who posted a photo on Argentinian news site Veintitrés of a lynching in the Deep South in the early 20th century, which depicts a crowd of white people gathered to celebrate the hanging of two black men.
"The question that hurts me," said Jorge, "is what differences exist between these people who participated in a lynching in the last century and the people who took part in the lynching of a young man accused of stealing a wallet in Buenos Aires?"
Jorge is one of many taking exception to certain Argentinian journalists — and members of the public — who continue to comment on the crimes with a two-clause sentence: "It's not right to beat him to death, but…"
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Marc Rogers, editor of The Argentina Independent, told me: "It would be easy to assume that the 30 percent are middle-upper class who feel threatened by poor street robbers, but I think that would be over-simplifying the matter, as people in poorer, marginalized neighborhoods are also demanding more action against crime, and they are the ones who really do suffer from it most.
The newspapers all reported the survey results as “70 percent disapprove of lynchings,” as though it was reassuring, when I thought it was startling that a third of the population supported them."
Juliana di Tullio — National Deputy and Head of Congress for the left-wing branch of the Justicialist Party — dismissed the 30 percent as "crazy people."
She told me: "David Moreira didn't have a criminal record — he stole a purse. The crime of stealing a purse is infinitely less than the crime committed against him, which was murder. The act of a mob killing a person for a crime of robbery is pre-historic.
The media are calling them “lynchings” and “justice by hand,” but they are crimes — they are homicides.
Di Tullio is backed by Supreme Court Judge Eugenio Zaffaroni.
"They are not attempts at justice, but premeditated murders for which article 80 of the Penal Code established a sentence of 30 years to life in prison,” he said. “This is not legitimate self-defense — it is murder, double premeditated, due to the malice intended and for the suffering caused."
After announcing the state of security emergency, Daniel Scioli vowed to spend 600 million Argentine pesos (around $73,770,400) on increasing security in his province, reinstating 5,000 retired policemen, increasing the number of patrol cars, the number of weapons and the number of bullet proof vests.
Crucially, though, the city of Buenos Aires — the federal capital, the place where most tourists visit and where the government is housed — has not declared a state of emergency.
"We have 24 provinces, and every province has their own security system," explained di Tullio. "The national government cannot intervene in a province's security system, so the governor of Buenos Aires Province announced a state of security emergency, but that is not the case in the capital."
Marcelo Bergman, director of the Latin American Center for the study of insecurity and violence, believes an increased police force will have little impact.
"What matters in policing is what the police do, not how many they are," he said. "As long as patterns of police investigation, use of information and the like continue to be poorly handled, there is no reason to expect that more officers will reduce crime."
As for the decision to declare a state of emergency, Bergman adds, "There were some legal changes that, due to the emergency situation declared by the governor, allow the Buenos Aires Province government to execute policies that otherwise would have taken years and a long legal process to legislate."
In a country where police are notoriously corrupt and prejudiced against thieves and muggers — who, more often than not, come from poor minorities — the $73,770,400 increase in police funding could, at best, be deemed excessive or, at worst, be the result of some ulterior motive. So why the grand gesture?
There appears to be a deep political bias at play in the media coverage, and the crimes have united several candidates running for presidency in the 2015 elections, including Scioli.
Marc Rogers commented: "I think Scioli wants to be seen to be doing something, to show that he is in control of an issue [crime and security] that's not new at all, but that was thrust into the media spotlight again in the wake of the lynchings [even though, curiously, none of the major cases were in the province of Buenos Aires].
"In this sense, I don't think you can ignore the political motivations, as he's one of the clear candidates for 2015 and doesn't want to be outmaneuvered by rivals. That's not to say that everything is fine, but some areas of his province have been in a 'state of emergency' for decades — not just in terms of crime, but health, education, infrastructure, etc — and him calling it now doesn't change anything for the people living it. I think it's quite telling that the 600 million pesos assigned to increase security comes just weeks after a month-long teachers' strike in the province, during which Scioli's government repeatedly said it had no money to offer more of a pay rise…"
Sergio Massa — national deputy for the opposition party, Frente Renovador, and also in the running for presidency — blames an "absent state" for the lynchings.
In a statement made on national television, he attributed the crimes to "a lack of state presence," expressing sympathy for the lynchers in his assertion that "society does not want to live with impunity."
He went on to use an Argentine phrase that translates to, "He who does something pays for it."
As di Tullio explained, the debate doesn't end there: "Mauricio Macri [Head of Government of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires] is also supporting the crimes. He wants to be president, too," she said. "If they get into power, they want to introduce a new penalty code, which is the strongest, most repressive code, so there would be more police and more violence from the state to stop violence on the street — but that's not how you stop violence! We [the government] believe that social inclusion is the way to fight criminality; they believe in harsher sentences and stronger penalties. The media are trying to scare the public and make them paranoid so they vote for the right-wing candidates who promise to enforce tougher punishments and crackdown on criminals."
Bergman, however, pointed to the social problems in the country as the root cause of the lynchings, which many feel are down to the state.
"Sociological theories emphasize that lynching generally represents some type of emergence of other social problems. The 'lynched' person is the loci of other social frustrations — for example, weak job markets, rising inflation, lower social mobility, etc. The fact that lynching erupted now and not two years ago is because the country is now entering a path of stagnation and many unresolved social problems. Many people are frustrated and authorities do not provide good solutions to their problems, among them the crime problem."
What began as the tragic murder of a teenager living below the poverty line has been warped into a political power struggle, blame game and media frenzy.
Di Tullio's Justicialist government are accused of being too lenient on criminals and favoring minorities over the majority, but social inclusion is one of the founding principles of Justicialism. So it seems at odds that sociologists are then pointing to the state as the root-cause of the problem.
What is clear is that 30 percent of the population have got it very wrong.
Di Tullio concluded: "The group of people who killed David Moreira did not see a person, they saw a criminal – and this attitude is built by the media every day. The state considers all people equal, and criminals have the same rights as everybody else; they have the right to a fair trial."
Follow Sarah Raphael on Twitter: @Sarah_Raphael
Photo via Flickr