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latin america

Argentinean society’s values questioned after series of lynchings

The beating to death of a suspected purse-snatcher by an angry crowd ignites more mob violence

A group of people loot a supermarket in Tucumán during last year's protests in Argentina.
A group of people loot a supermarket in Tucumán during last year's protests in Argentina.Getty

There is something wrong with a society when neighbors, who come to the aid of a crime victim, turn into cold-blooded murderers who beat someone to death in the middle of the street.

An episode like this one took place on March 22 in the Argentinean city of Rosario, after two youths riding on a motorcycle snatched a purse from a 21-year-old woman who was walking with her young daughter.

A group of residents managed to capture 18-year-old David Moreira and beat him so severely that they broke his skull. He died three days later at a local hospital.

His mother, Lorena Torres, a woman with no legal background, offered a quick lesson in civics and criminal law with just one sentence: “If they believed that my son had committed the robbery all they had to do was to take him to police headquarters.”

Since then, journalists have asked Torres what she would say to her son’s killers. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. The only thing I would like to ask them is that if they have children, how can they get up every morning and be at peace with themselves?”

The Rosario daily La Capital also asked the mother her thoughts every time she hears the argument that the residents of the city are fed up with the high crime rate.

“I understand that, because I see the violence outside my door. I see it every time I go to buy groceries. But I don’t leave my home with the intent to kill. My son was also a robbery victim. He came home one day without his jacket and cellphone, but he didn’t go out the next day with the intent to kill. He continued working until he could buy another jacket and cellphone. That’s is why we have police; they are the ones responsible for catching the thieves.”

If they believed my son committed the robbery all they had to do was to take him to the police ”

In less than three weeks, about a dozen cases of public lynching have been reported across the country.

In Argentina, thieves are called chorros, and if they are on motorcycles, they are referred to as motochorros. But instead of shocking a society, the case of David Moreira only served to encourage others to hunt down more motochorros.

Four days after Moreira’s death, a similar incident occurred in the Buenos Aires middle-class neighborhood of Palermo.

Journalist and author Diego Grillo Trubba witnessed the brutal attack and described it on his Twitter account. “A big guy wearing a doorman’s uniform was on top of a kid of about 16 or 17. He couldn’t move. Suddenly, a bystander ran up to them and kicked the kid in the face. The others who were going up to them must have done the same because the kid’s face was bloody and nearly deformed.

“So that you can get a good picture of this: a stream of blood flowed from his mouth, forming a small pool nearby, before it continued to run into the street. Each time the kid seemed to show some signs of life, someone from the crowd would run up and kick him in the face again.

“Suddenly, one of the guys who had kicked him broke off from the crowd to catch his breath. He sat down near the street corner. He must have been about 30 to 35 years of age. I went up to him and put my hand on his back. ‘Easy, dude, stop; just leave it alone.’ The guy looked up at me and he had tears in his eyes. ‘The son-of-a-bitch grabbed my wife’s purse’.”

Grillo went on to describe how the bystanders and passers-by turned into cold-hearted aggressors. “The majority of them were screaming, ‘Kill him!’ At one point, they started threatening an elderly woman who tried to stop the beating.”

It was the “big doorman” who had captured the youth, but he may have saved his life by shielding him with his large body. “I did what I had to do,” he told the TV station TN. “Not even a dog deserves to die that way.”

I felt the kicks to his soul. This was a boy of our people,” wrote Pope Francis

“All I wanted was for them to stop beating him. I told them, ‘All right, you hit him already, now you are going to kill him’.”

Several days later, another incident occurred in the capital’s affluent Recoleta neighborhood, when a group of people were beating a suspect while another crowd tried to stop them. By the time the police arrived, the man had sustained savage injuries to his face.

Pope Francis, an Argentinean, wrote to a friend after he saw the video someone took of David Moreira’s attack. “That scene pained me. Fuenteovejuna, I thought [referring to Lope de Vega’s play about mob violence].”

“I felt the kicks to his soul. This wasn’t a Martian, this was a boy of our people; true, he may have been a delinquent. I remember Jesus’ words: those who are free of sin cast the first stone. What has happened here? The worst thing that can happen now is for us to forget this scene,” the pope said.

According to polls, crime tops the list of major concerns among Argentineans ahead of inflation and public corruption. A recent UN report concluded that Argentina has one of the lowest murder rates in all of Latin America, just behind Chile and Cuba. But it ranks high on the list of regional countries where there are more robberies committed per inhabitants.

The rash of lynchings has become a major political issue. Sergio Massa, an opposition politician who is said to be preparing a run for the presidency next year, blamed the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for the incidents. “These things occur when the state is absent.”

The president, for her part, has called for calm throughout the nation and instructed people not to take the law into their own hands. But more than a year ago, Fernández de Kirchner put the blame on the judiciary – a sector with which she has been at odds over several decisions – for the high crime rate.

“There are judges who release people who just go out and rob, murder and rape, and the people are tired of this,” she said in December 2012.

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