American Power After Afghanistan
How to Rightsize the Country’s Global Role
On September 15, the people of Andas, a small community in the mountains of central Peru, caught two men suspected of fatally shooting a local 57-year-old father of six. Since the nearest police station was two hours away, the mob took justice into their own hands: they stripped the alleged criminals naked, bound their hands and feet, drenched them in gasoline, and burned them alive. As Andas’ mayor later told the newspaper La República, “La muerte de ellos fue la solución”—Their death was the solution.
This was not an isolated incident. A new wave of vigilantism has been sweeping Peru since the late summer, starting in the cities and then spreading outward. There is even a Twitter movement, #ChapaTuChoro, a slang term that translates to “Catch Your Thief,” that has sprung up and encourages citizens to go one step beyond civilian arrests—to take justice into their own hands and punish suspected criminals through public humiliation and even mob lynchings. Documentation of the gruesome behavior is often uploaded to YouTube.
But Peruvian citizens feel that their brand of street justice is justified. “It’s not that we are barbarians,” Someya Rojas Leivas, a supporter of the movement, told me. “It’s that we are tired of being at the mercy of criminals, and the bloody authorities do nothing.” Around the time of the Andas incident, national support for the movement hovered at around 53 percent; by early October, it had soared to 72 percent. “Run, run, run,” singer Rony warns criminals in “Chapa Tu Choro,” a catchy new pop song. “The village is after you.”
By any measure, this is a distinctly twenty-first-century phenomenon—a genuinely viral reaction to crime in a country whose battered mineral-based economy and stagnant minimum wage have made locals, especially in cities, feel starkly less safe than they did a year ago. According to a survey released in mid-October, 90 percent of people living in Lima do not feel safe walking the city’s streets. Citizens are fed up with their unresponsive state. In that sense, the #Chapa phenomenon is as much a call for government action as a cry of helplessness.
And that’s exactly what the trend was designed for. It began earlier this year in Huancayo, one of Peru’s largest cities. Cecilia García Rodríguez, a journalist and businesswoman, started the Chapa movement when she became outraged after police arrested a man who had broken into her neighbor’s home with a knife, only to release him 30 minutes later. The community’s sense of frustration was so palpable that Rodríguez had no trouble corralling them to make and post signs around their neighborhood: “Crooks, if we catch you, we won’t call the police,” they read. “We are going to lynch you.”
Rodríguez’s efforts, however, and the Chapa movement in general, may be a front for more political activities—it is cleverly timed, given Peru’s upcoming general elections in April 2016, and candidates have already begun campaigning. Although Rodríguez has never sought political office before, she is now considering a run for Congress in the spring. She was later revealed to have been a vocal supporter of Peru’s controversial former right-wing president Alberto Fujimori, who was convicted in 2009 of embezzlement and human rights violations.
If Rodríguez does run, she would find herself in good company—Fujimori’s daughter Keiko Fujimori is running for president again, after having lost to the current left-wing president Ollanta Humala in 2011. Keiko’s brother Kenji Fujimori, a sitting congressman, tweeted that the Chapa movement points to “the ineffectiveness of the government to provide security to the population.” Not coincidentally, Rodríguez’s movement feels largely derived from Fujimorism: it relies on right-wing populism, brutal pragmatism, and the attitude that Humala’s government doesn’t know what it’s doing. Leftist politicians have either denounced the movement or kept mum—they’re on the losing side of the public opinion battle.
Indeed, this past June, a spate of vigilante attacks erupted shortly after Humala’s approval ratings sank to an all-time low of 17 percent, in part because of his silence on raising the $230 monthly minimum wage, one of the lowest in Latin America. Peruvian police earn nearly double that, but it’s still a fraction of cops’ salaries in neighboring Chile and Ecuador. To compensate, Peruvian officers can be legally hired as private security guards, theoretically working part-time at both jobs; in reality, many work up to 25 days a month in the private sector thanks to institutional corruption, a former interior minister revealed to The Economist. In turn, the public’s needs fall by the wayside. It is no wonder that there is such public distrust toward the police, especially when the government’s official response to #Chapa is a tired-sounding plea to stop lynching and let officers do their jobs.
“There’s been this long history of self-defense forces and communities responding to either the unwillingness or the inability of the state to address these things,” according to Steven T. Zech, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Denver who has spent the last five years researching Peru’s rural militias. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Peruvian Presidents Alan García and Fujimori armed roughly 4,000 willing civilian militias to help fight the Maoist Shining Path terrorist group—a move widely credited as having been crucial to defeating the Path. But the civilians received their arms only after state military and police officials had been deployed to these rural communities like an occupying force rather than government aid. For many locals, the military-police presence soured their relations with the Peruvian government. It was at that time that Peruvians decided they’d rather handle issues of justice and security themselves. “There’s this huge pride in resistance now,” Zech says. “There are these massive movements in rural populations, they’re making demands on the state right now to be recognized and compensated for their efforts.” After the Shining Path threat died down in the mid-1990s, the civilian militias evolved into political forces, neighborhood watch groups, and on-call security forces, often involving local politicians and community leaders.
If the government could find a way to work with street justice advocates, #ChapaTuChoro could potentially become a productive, progressive force for reducing crime. But there are two problems with this approach. One is that, unlike the country’s myriad rural militias, #Chapa supporters are divided on tactics. Some mobs turn to murder, others stop short at public humiliation. There’s little sense of community among them—only a manic thirst for justice. Once they’re done, everyone goes home.
The second problem with vigilantism is that the government faces a “damned if you don’t, damned if you do” scenario when responding to the problem. To accept vigilantes is to admit the failure of the police; to fight them is to digress from larger crime-fighting issues, such as rampant theft and drug trafficking. The Mexican government is currently struggling with that very dilemma on a much larger scale: its militias, ostensibly formed to keep communities safe from cartel wars, operate similarly to Peru’s rural defense forces. But with little government intervention, those Mexican groups occasionally spiral into drug trafficking, human rights abuses, and wanton murder. Many Mexican policymakers and academics condemn these crimes, but the state is helpless to prevent them until their dysfunctional national justice system modernizes—a process that could take decades.
There are similar instances of vigilantism elsewhere in Latin America. This past May, citizens of Río Bravo, Guatemala, chased down and attacked a 16-year-old girl who allegedly shot a motorcycle taxi driver; she was drowned in gasoline and burned alive in the street. In Bolivia—where only 45 percent of municipalities have a judge and three percent have a public defender—there were 180 public lynchings of alleged criminals between 2005 and 2012. The Brazilian sociologist José de Souza Martins, who has written a book on the subject, suggests that there is at least one lynching attempt every day, often in São Paulo.
Each of these governments condemns these actions, but none is able to stanch them—if they can’t catch criminals, how could they catch self-appointed crime fighters? Brazilian officials have tried, albeit in a ham-fisted way. After a national newscaster defended a recent example of street justice on the air, the country’s public prosecutor launched a civil complaint against her television network, accusing her of violating human dignity. But on the ground, with such a glaring lack of police presence, governments are far less effective. Across Latin America, murder rates have consistently grown since 2000, while systemic extortion and robberies cost people untold amounts. Few locals have faith in any country’s criminal justice system, and for good reason: Latin America’s homicide conviction rate is around 20 out of 100, less than half the global average. Guatemala ranks among the lowest, with a meager six percent conviction rate.
This summer has proved a breaking point for Peruvians, whose level of trust in their police is the lowest of any other Latin American country, according to a poll taken for the 2012 Latin American Public Opinion Project. It’s too early to tell whether the social media–fueled trend will fade away or develop into something larger and more politically organized; Rodríguez may well use it as a political platform.
But the tide could also flow in the other direction. On October 4, a 25-year-old father of two, mistaken for a criminal, was beaten for three hours by a mob of wedding attendees in the rural Chanchamayo Province. His aunt, a lawyer, has since filed a lawsuit on her nephew’s behalf, alleging that Rodríguez is condoning crime. “For the white terrorism that is happening throughout Peru, which is punishing the innocent, I have made the complaint,” she announced to the press. But Rodríguez isn’t worried. After all, far more Peruvians support her movement than they do the current president. If the situation remains the same come springtime, it’s likely that Peru will witness Fujimorism version 2.0—on social media and beyond.