The brutality of lynchings in Mexico: “We usually say that they are savage people, but that does not explain the phenomenon”

What happened to Daniel Picazo González last Friday is a new case of a phenomenon that sadly repeats itself in Mexico over and over again.

The 31-year-old was held by force, beaten and killed in a community in the state of Puebla on June 9. The crowd accused him, without any evidence, of being a child abductor after an unsubstantiated rumor circulated on WhatsApp.

The lawyer was passing through the indigenous town of Papatlazolco, while on his way to his family’s country house in the remote Sierra Norte region.

After being brutally beaten, they set him on fire while he was still alive.

Like him, others have been victims of lynchings in that and other states of Mexico in a phenomenon that follows a cycle: causes social impact, convictions by the authorities, impunity and oblivion.

But why do lynchings like that of Picazo González occur?

Daniel Picazo

Elisa Godínez Pérez, doctor in anthropological sciences and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, has studied this phenomenon in recent years.

In conversation with BBC Mundo, he warns that there are many prejudices that must be avoided in order to understand by what happenn the lynchings: “We are used to saying that lynchings are of savage people, but that is not the explanation.”

This is a summary of the conversation we had with Godínez.

Elisa Godinez Perez

Elisa Godínez Pérez is an academic at the UNAM Social Research Institute.

What leads to one person join a lynch mob?

I am very cautious with social psychology but, according to many interpretations, the individual becomes blurred, becomes one with the mass.

From my perspective, you have to understand the structural and historical causes; the concrete facts that have to do with the role of the police and the authorities, social deficiencies, etc. That’s what explains it most convincingly for me.

One does not explain how it is possible that one can become something like that. But the personality of the individual is blurred there, and that also happens in other more positive contexts, like when people shout at a concert and even kiss the person next to them even if they don’t know them.

I believe that in the specific case of lynchings, it is not a well thought out decision. People don’t give themselves time to think about whether what they are doing is right or convenient for them. Which doesn’t mean it’s irrational.

In the heat of things, emotions, anguish, fear and anger make us do things that one would not believe. There are elements that cause emotions of this type to be exacerbated and make many feel that they are at risk.

But when I interviewed people who were in places where lynchings happened, they are very embarrassed. Deep down, I think, many of the people who participate in them do not make any calculations. And when they realize what happened, they are shocked, they are ashamed.

Lynchings in Latin America

Getty Images
The feet of a woman who was lynched and burned alive in Guatemala in February 2015, after being accused of murdering her 8-year-old stepdaughter.

Why would a rumor trigger this kind of backlash?

The quintessential rumor in lynchings is that of the robachicos [secuestro de menores].

One would say ‘My God, how do people believe this?’ But let’s think about it and understand what the condition of children is in a country like Mexico. The risks that children are suffering are very serious.

There are girls who are victims of femicide from a very young age, or boys who are at the mercy of drug traffickers since they were little. Or who are in a very precarious care situation. Or lacking in the economic question.

And children are for families one of their most precious things. You do whatever it takes for your kids, because you know the degree of danger out there for them.

If they send a message on WhatsApp and tell you ‘here we are seeing the theft of a child’, it is not just any rumour. It is a rumor that appeals to the dearest, most important things.

Cell phones speed up the rate of rumor spread impressively.

An image spread in the community

These are the messages that were spread before the lynching of Daniel Picazo in Puebla, Mexico.

When lynchings happen, I know tends to affirm that they occur in communities with a lack of education and values, is that an explanation for the fact that a person or group of people joins a lynching?

We are used to saying that lynchings are of savage people, but that is not the explanation.

Societies are not violent for an issue that is inherent to their culture, that does not exist. Violence exists in all cultures. What are rather the conditions that cause violence to moderate or decrease?

There are authorities and a justice system. If these institutions do not work, we should ask ourselves why. And we must not repeat the prejudice that lynchings occur because they are backward, because they are irrational and savage by nature.

Both in India, as in Mexico, as in many places in Latin America, they occur. Until half a century ago, lynchings in the United States were an act not only of violence, but of profound, frontal and brutal racial discrimination.

Initiation of a new member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Getty Images
After World War I, lynchings in the US increased due to the action of supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

A very strong stigmatization of the communities in general is generated, but above all in the indigenous communities, which does not contribute at all to explain the phenomenon.

The same could be said of people who get involved in organized crime: they are people who have no education, who become dehumanized and, therefore, they are bad, naturally violent. And no, of course it is not.

People in general do not resort to violence – there are many forms of violence, of course, and each case deserves an explanation – but there is rationality in lynchings in the sense that they have an explanation.

The people who participate in them have reasons. That I do not agree with his reasons is another story. Whether they are wrong is another story. But they have their reasons and that is not a justification for the lynchings, but you have to know them.

It’s not just a lack of education or it’s not just a lack of values.

It doesn’t help to stigmatize people and say that this happens due to lack of values, lack of education, lack of everything. Because then you are omitting everything we were talking about, the grievances that these communities suffer.


In Guatemala, some 40 people have died annually in lynchings in the last five years, according to the NGO Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM).

But why in other places where they have shortcomings and Social problems Similar No lynchings happen?

The first things they tell you in these communities is that they are tired of letting criminals go free.

We can enter the discussion about whether that is due to the design of the judicial system, of the laws in Mexico, which require complaints to act. But for the people, their daily experience is that there is impunity.

The police don’t come, the thugs are released when they are caught, we don’t see anything happen. That is the real experience of the people there.

If in my building, in the city, we had closer relationships, perhaps we would react to the rumor of the theft of children by closing the street, setting alarms, seeing people as suspicious.

But another element to note is that here where I live I would call 911 and the police would arrive. That is already a big difference.

In those places the police are very small, probably poorly equipped, sometimes penetrated by organized crime. How trained is that police to be able to contain a lynching?

They are preventable, in the broad sense with attention to social needs, but also at the moment, when authorities of all kinds must negotiate.

The communities where these things happen – I saw that when analyzing the cases – many times give a margin for negotiations. There is always room for the authorities to intervene to negotiate.

The police let things happen and do not intervene until the end, when the situation has already grown to an uncontrollable level.

A police officer enters the police station in Acatlán, Puebla

Brett Gundlock
Some people who have been guarded in attempted lynchings have been snatched from the authorities in Puebla.

doThis Mexico experiencing an alarming increase in lynching casess?

Indeed, there is a perception that lynchings have been on the rise in recent years in Mexico. But there are no official records and there is a lack of further cross-referencing and analysis of the different counts that exist to determine if there really has been a greater or lesser incidence of lynchings in Mexico.

In my research I found that lynchings happen in waves and not exponentially, and that needs to be taken into account.

I think that in Mexico, in recent years, there seems to be an upward trend. And that is also due to the fact that there is currently a faster way to report these events, with the internet and social networks.

Now it is known more quickly when one of these events is happening and therefore it seems that more occur.

That does not mean that it should be minimized. It is a problem that Mexico has, unfortunately, and it has normalized, which is serious. But I also think it is because we are in a country that has been in a crisis of violence and justice in a very notorious way in the last 10 or 15 years.

lynchings in Atlatongo


Is there something that happens in Mexico to make its cases different from those of other countries, for example, in Latin America?

One tends to believe that this incidence is typical of our countries, but the truth is that lynchings and other similar forms of collective violence are common in other parts of the world, such as in India, where they are sadly frequent.

Guatemala has had a high number of lynchings. They arise at a time after an armed conflict in which indigenous peoples, especially, were victims of violence.

Bolivia also has an important index of this type of events, in which the protagonists are also indigenous communities and there came to be a legal consideration a few years ago in which community justice was recognized. In my opinion, lynchings were accepted incorrectly as a form of community justice.

It is very common in Mexico and in other countries to repeat the idea that lynchings are uses and customs of indigenous peoples. But I would say categorically that it is not true.

It is not something that is accepted, normalized and considered as part of their regulatory or law enforcement systems. They do have ways of resolving conflicts and a sense of justice that is more restorative than punitive, but they do not include lynching as an accepted way. We must stop repeating that it is part of their uses and customs.

The place where the body of Daniel Picazo ended up

Paul Torres
Some people placed an offering in the place where Daniel Picazo died.

Why have a greater incidence in indigenous communities?

The collective community action that indigenous peoples have to deliberate, discuss their problems or organize themselves in many aspects of daily life should not be confused with that which makes them prone to lynching.

What happens is that they have a much more communitarian way of finding out, of solving and of acting.

For this reason, in many indigenous peoples, the presence of a rumor spreads very quickly and generates a very rapid response. That’s not going to happen in the Mexico City neighborhood where I live, that’s not happening.

No matter how much I alerted my neighbors, nothing would happen because my neighbor across the street and I don’t know or greet each other. And there people know each other. People there know who is who. They are small places, they are places where people have permanent daily relationships.

A ringing of bells in the towns tells them that something is happening and they gather.

But it must be noted that these are populations that have suffered a series of adverse conditions, of dispossession, of deprivation. And above all, the gradual arrival of all kinds of organized crime.

Before, it was not that they were self-absorbed, as is sometimes believed, but that they had a distance from it.

Now they are at the mercy of the collapse of their practices, which allowed them to be relatively calm. More recent and other historical factors combine to cause very profound changes that are not necessarily seen, but sometimes come about through phenomena like these.

A man rings the village bells

Brett Gundlock
A ringing of bells usually mobilizes the population in small communities.

and almost always the lynchings remain unpunished

The authorities are not questioned. What it is about is saving lives and in several cases the lives of innocents.

To the extent that there is impunity, the door is left open for this to continue happening.

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