The public-safety infrastructure in Venezuela has been degraded to such a degree that citizens now take justice into their own hands. Agence France Presse reported that lynchings have risen sharply over the last year and a half as political and economic instability in the crumbling socialist republic has worsened. Witnesses who spoke to AFP said a 22-year-old man who was set on fire at an anti-government demonstration in May was actually lynched after being accused of stealing by the crowd - not because he was a government sympathizer, as President Nicolas Maduro had suggested at the time.
As AFP alleges, "it is not just the country's economy and political system that are sick, but society itself, experts say. An epidemic of lynchings is one of the most gruesome symptoms."
The OVCS says some 60 people were recorded as killed in lynchings in the first five months of this year alone. Last year there were 126 such killings -- a surge from the 20 reported in the previous year, coinciding with the worsening of political tensions and economic chaos.
"Their aim is to kill the person before the police arrive," says Marco Ponce, coordinator of the Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory (OVCS).
"In lynchings, citizens let out their anger in the face of a state that is not defending their right to justice," says Ponce.
"They think they are dispensing justice, and they do so with anger, so they go as far as killing the person."
Residents blame the breakdown in social order that’s resulted from Venezuela’s worsening economic crisis. In the capital Caracas, the army and police are focused on brutally suppressing the street protests that have become a daily occurrence in recent months. Meanwhile, the dire financial straits of the country’s residents, who are struggling with inflation rates as high as 10,000%, have caused crime to skyrocket.
AFP journalists witness one incident on a street in Caracas where a mob attacked a man after passers-by caught him stealing.
Swearing in fury, the crowd strips the man naked and stomps on his head as he sprawls on the ground.
"You want things that come easy? Then take this, you bastard."
A witness says he stopped the man who had tried to rob a woman at gunpoint in a bakery. Then the mob took over.
"You're lucky we didn't burn you," a voice yells, as police lug the man, limp but still breathing, into the back of their car.
The crowd yells in satisfaction -- but not at the man's arrest. They think they are the ones who have done justice here.
One Caracas resident, Damaso Velasquez, described taking part in a lynching. He argued that the mob must dole out street justice because the police don’t do enough to hold criminals accountable.
"I didn't feel pity for that person because I knew he was a criminal," he tells AFP.
"I felt rage and hatred towards that person... I saw him committing a robbery. That makes you feel furious, so whatever happens to him, it's alright," he goes on.
"The government grabs him, puts him in jail and then they let him go again. There is disorder here in Caracas -- starting with the government."
“People feel that the state is not protecting them, so they opt to defend themselves," says Freddy Crespo, a criminologist at the University of the Andes.
"Their fear turns into anger."
Venezuela now has one of the highest annual murder rates in the world -- 70 for every 100,000 inhabitants in 2016. Yet only about six crimes out of every 100 here result in a sentence. Still, at least one Venezuelan felt the need to speak out against the brutality.
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"The state is supposed to provide you with civil and judicial security, which we are totally lacking," says one Caracas resident, Maria Hernandez.
"But I don't think it is just for me to come and kill or burn you just because you have robbed," she adds.
"That way I would turn into someone more barbaric than you."