The bells kept on ringing – a clamor that sounded even louder in the still of the night – as the people of Papatlazolco took to the streets. Beyond the cemetery, they had caught a man prowling around in a van and beat him to a pulp. They accused him of looking for children to abduct. The crowd gathered around him with machetes in hand, and the bells kept ringing. Daniel Picazo González, 31, was just minutes away from dying like the martyrs of old, publicly tortured and burned alive. With no judge or lawyer to defend him, he was accused and found guilty of being a kidnapper.
The young lawyer’s belongings are still scattered around his bedroom – shoes, rubber sandals, sneakers, some weights, a few toiletries on the dresser, a computer. His parents placed some photos on the bed that their sports-loving, hard-working and well-traveled son will no longer use. Questions abound in the Mexico City home where his family mourns. What was Daniel doing in that town at that time of night? Was he alone or with other people who fled the mob, according to some versions of the story? Who rang the bells? Why didn’t Daniel say something? Why were no questions asked? Why didn’t he tell them that he was originally from the neighboring town where he still has family? His mother, Angelica, takes comfort in the one thing she is sure of. “My son died a martyr and he is in heaven.”
Everything is green and lush in the mountains of Puebla. Abundant rainfall fills the reservoirs that were once plentiful fishing grounds. When the sun comes out, the heat can be fierce. It’s an inspiring landscape where local nurseries grow flowers for half the country. But fear recently swept through the humble wooden houses in the form of a WhatsApp message warning families about child abductors and advising them to keep a close watch on their children. And there was more reason to worry. According to some locals, a red van in the area had scared some children who reported it to the local authorities. It turned out to belong to someone from the neighboring town, nothing more. But the fuse was ready and waiting to be lit. Then, on the evening of June 10, Daniel Picazo drove his van to Papatlazolco for unknown reasons, and entered the lion’s den. The flames that ended Daniel’s life illuminated the faces of the raging mob that crowded around the doomed man.
The scene of the crime is a town beset with suspicion because, people say, the authorities have done nothing about the rapists, thieves, and criminals that have plagued the community for years. They are accustomed to taking the law into their own hands, and the justice system had never acted against the lynch mobs either. But the higher profile of this particular victim, a political advisor to the Mexican legislature, seems to have finally awakened the criminal justice system. Seven adults have been arrested so far, and the people of Papatlazolco are finally pointing fingers in order to defend the detained suspects. “First of all, I blame the guy who was watching the cattle. He was the first person to physically seize the young man. Then, the mayor Epifanio Aranda. He was there–why couldn’t he have done something?” asks Margarita, the mother of Abraham, one of the suspects arrested. “My son isn’t guilty – he was just an onlooker. You can’t arrest someone just because he appears in a video.” In a statement to reporters from Nueva Nación, the family said, “They [the authorities] broke into our home and kicked things around without an arrest warrant.”
“What they did was very bad,” said Margarita about the crime. She also blames the police, who arrived on the scene in dozens of patrol cars. “Couldn’t they have fired shots in the air or sprayed tear gas at the crowd to get the man [Picazo] out of there?” She wants some evidence from the authorities to justify her son’s detention. But then she starts to raise unfounded suspicions about the murder victim. “Why was he in that van, hiding in the underbrush? Why didn’t he identify himself?” Margarita repeats the rumor that Picazo was with two other people who fled, and that girls’ clothing, condoms, and blood were found in the van. “Well, that’s what the neighbors say,” is all the proof she offers. The van was burned at the scene by the same people who now stand accused of the crime, and is now in the custody of local prosecutors. Abraham’s sister picks up where her mother left off. “He [Picazo] wasn’t unprepared. He had some technology with him so he wouldn’t get lost.” According to this family, the mayor quickly arrived at the scene and asked the man to identify himself. “He only said his name was Daniel and that he came from Iztapalapa. We don’t know anybody from Iztapalapa.”
Five days after the bloody, fiery lynching, the stores of Papatlazolco are open and a woman busily sweeps her entryway. A shopper exits the store and hurries away to avoid the reporter’s questions. The unpaved roads are pockmarked with puddles, and there is little of the usual chatter in the streets. A quick “Good afternoon” is all that is offered. Others say nothing and continue about their business with a quick, suspicious glance at the strangers’ car. The town hall is closed, and no one knows the whereabouts of the mayor or the justice of the peace. About the lynching… no one heard anything, and no one saw anything. But everyone saw the president of the municipality of Huauchinango, which Papatlazolco belongs to, at the scene, and watched him “half-heartedly raise his hand when they brought a container of gasoline. But he didn’t stop them.” They say the justice of the peace was also at the witch hunt, “with his noose.” In fact, around 200 people were there that night, as can be seen in the videos confiscated by the prosecutor. The videos show Daniel, bloodied and handcuffed, being dragged along by some men and followed by a mob. A police van trails behind, like an official escort to the lynch mob.
The mob prevents the police from rescuing Daniel and more patrol cars arrive as the minutes tick away. Dozens of state and local police from nearby Huauchinango, as well as some military personnel all descend on the town. An eyewitness to the crime says Daniel “was not handcuffed by the police, as some say. A few men from town did it–they have handcuffs, as does the municipal president. The police did nothing, absolutely nothing. Everyone who came to see what was going on started hitting him.” The videos clearly show the flashing lights of all the police cars. Some say that the police challenged anyone who tried to help Picazo, asking, “Are you his accomplice? Do you know him? Why are you defending him?” Five days later, the murder scene is littered with candles and a piece of burnt cloth. A step away, the cement steps are charred by fire.
Daniel spent his last enjoyable hours in Las Colonias, a community near Papatlazolco where his family is from. He would always look up his old friend Sebastián during his frequent visits. “How about a few cold ones?” he texted via WhatsApp with a photo of a can of beer. They had known each other since they were little and got together often at Daniel’s grandfather’s house. “We were drinking beer and driving around the lakes,” said Sebastián. “I went with him to the hotel so he could drop off his things. At about 9.30pm we were with a cousin of mine and another friend, but then Daniel jumped into his van and left without saying a word. It seemed strange to me, but I assumed he went to Tlaola, where I think had a date with some girl. I tried calling him but couldn’t get a good signal. Then I sent him an audio message asking, “What’s up, is everything okay?” But he never answered. Sebastián thinks that Daniel was on his way to Tlaola, took a wrong turn and ended up in Papatlazolco. “He was alone. I think he got lost.”
Around town, anyone who didn’t witness the crime firsthand soon heard about it. EL PAíS interviewed some eyewitnesses and viewed some of the videos obtained by the prosecutors. Some women can be heard shouting, “Let him speak!” Others are sobbing, “Oh God, no, no, no, they’re hurting him!” in between the cracking sound of machetes hitting the victim broadside. By then Daniel was on his knees, his body partially burned, and could barely speak. In a last-ditch attempt at identifying himself, he asked for his wallet and key to the Lindavista Hotel, where he was staying, in Tenango de las Flores. His wallet had his credentials from Mexico’s House of Representatives where he worked as an advisor, his credit cards, the subway ticket he used to travel to work every morning. The police took pictures of those documents, but did nothing to stop the beating and let the mob set Daniel on fire a second time. The kneeling body fell forward and was consumed by the bonfire. Some of the eyewitnesses said the detained suspects have killed before, but were never brought to justice for those crimes. Other suspects have left town fleeing the law.
The dearth of criminal investigations and widespread impunity In Mexico are such that at times justice can be described as non-existent. People who live in many remote, mountainous areas might be victims one day, perpetrators the next, and then go back to business as usual. The government’s absence is notorious. That is what the people of Papatlazolco say over and over again. “Where is the [state] governor when they drown people in the lake and when they abduct children? They show up now just because this young man was somebody important? I understand why mothers around here are worried for their children’s safety,” said one local resident interviewed on the street. “We’re not ignorant people like they portray us on television. People have the right to defend themselves.” She says yes when asked if Papatlazolco is a quiet place to live. What about child abductions? No, there haven’t been any. So what then were the people defending themselves against that night? Perhaps a rumor that got out of control. At the makeshift shrine where Daniel died, no one has bothered to clean up the blood on the bleachers. A woman standing nearby frets about the bad reputation they’ll get because of a few “troublemakers.” The area attracts tourists who like to take scenic boat rides on the lakes. But those who know the area caution against going into some of the villages, especially at night. Suspicions, so often unfounded, can end in death and no police officer will be able to rescue you.
Lynching is not unusual in Mexico and doesn’t normally disrupt daily life. It can occur in remote areas when the locals think they have caught a thief, an abuser or a thug. Once the bodies are in the ground, the cases are buried as well. The State of Puebla is known for tragic events like these. A 1976 film told the story of the 1968 lynching of five people in San Miguel Canoa. Many more lynchings followed, some more notorious than others. A study by Iberoamerican University (Universidad Iberoamericana) in Puebla documented 57 cases from 2015-2019 in which 78 people were lynched in the state. The study also documents another 599 attempted lynchings. Authored by Tadeo Luna, the study established that lynchings increased by 600% during that four-year period, and correlate closely to the historical poverty, inequality, and isolation of these communities. Luna claims that an absent government and social stress caused by specific events in daily life are driving this increase in lynchings, which are becoming part of the social imaginary as a legitimate form of defense against lurking dangers. A 2017 survey on perceptions of public security and social coexistence reveals that 77% of Mexicans approved of hitting a person caught in a criminal act. This may explain why many people say that Daniel Picazo was killed “by mistake,” implying that there wouldn’t be much to talk about if he had been a criminal.
Some characteristics of a lynching are its collective nature and the spontaneity that seizes an unorganized mob, although some lynchings are perpetrated by more organized groups. According to the study, a public execution is a symbolic response that seeks higher visibility. It’s “a message that can be seen by the community,” because it is about “punishing and educating the community,” thus becoming “spectacular cultural performances” that turn lynchings into powerful acts of communication.
The mob that attacked Picazo seemed to know what they were doing. They first pushed him toward the cemetery, stopping halfway between his van and the multipurpose sports field. One of the witnesses heard one of the killers say, “No, let’s go to the field, so that everyone can see him.” And the crowd followed the horrifying procession.
Nicandro Picazo stands in despair next to his son’s coffin, shrink-wrapped in plastic like a suitcase at the airport. With teary eyes he completes the ritual of serving tequila in plastic cups to the mourners present. The family owns a print shop in Iztapalapa, a business that provided enough for Daniel and his sister Angélica to study at private universities. Daniel went on to complete a master’s degree in Spain and traveled extensively after graduation. In his short but intense life, Daniel’s mother hopes to find some sign of his ultimate destiny.
The day after Daniel’s murder, Nicandro Picazo received a call from the Puebla prosecutor. He says he didn’t answer because calls from unfamiliar numbers in Mexico can often turn out to be extortions. But it didn’t take long for the bad news to reach the family through other channels. At first they didn’t believe it and tried to contact Daniel. His father texted him repeatedly: “Hello, Danny, how are you?” Hello, Danny.” “Hello” “Hello Danny” “Hello”. No response.
The study by Iberoamerican University begins by quoting the 20th-century Mexican writer and reporter Carlos Monsiváis. “The mobs gain power from anonymity. They are nobody and they are everything. They are the stone that is hurled at an armed policeman, and they are anger in the face of injustice. They are the desire to inflict harm and they are the memory of the raped girl.”
Daniel’s mother said, “What they did to my son is inhuman.” That may be the only thing she is wrong about.