NYTimes | When people begin to see the justice system as thoroughly corrupt and broken, they feel unprotected from crime. That sense of threat makes them willing to support vigilante violence, which feels like the best option for restoring order and protecting their personal safety.
Gema Santamaria, a professor at the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology in Mexico City who studies lynchings and other forms of vigilante killings, and José Miguel Cruz, the research director at Florida International University’s Latin American and Caribbean Center, used survey data from across Latin America to test what leads people to support extrajudicial violence.
The data told a very similar story across all of the countries in their sample. People who didn’t have faith in their country’s institutions were more likely to say vigilante violence was justified. By contrast, in states with stronger institutions, people were more likely to reject extrajudicial violence.
People turn to vigilante violence as a replacement for the formal justice system, Ms. Santamaria said. That can take multiple forms — lynch mobs in Mexico, for instance, or paramilitary “self-defense” forces in Colombia — but the core impulse is the same.
“When you have a system that doesn’t deliver, you are creating, over a period of time, a certain culture of punishment,” she said. “Regardless of what the police are going to do, you want justice, and it will be rough justice.”
Surprisingly, that includes increased support for the use of harsh extralegal tactics by the police themselves. “This seems counterintuitive,” Ms. Santamaria said. “If you don’t trust the police to prosecute criminals, why would you trust them with bending the law?”
But to people desperate for security, she said, the unmediated punishment of police violence seems far more effective than waiting for a corrupt system to take action.
And so, over time, frustration with state institutions, coupled with fear of crime and insecurity, leads to demand for authoritarian violence — even if that means empowering the same corrupt, flawed institutions that failed to provide security in the first place.