A photo posted to a new Facebook page shows an alleged motorcycle thief tied to a pole and bleeding from his nose. The message below reads, “In Iquitos we capture thieves and paralyze them.”
On the same Facebook page, known as Chapa tu Choro Iquitos, a video of an angry crowd kicks a young man. “We caught this thief trying to rob a kid with a knife,” reads the accompanying message.
Facebook users in Peru are increasingly posting acts of vigilantism as a way to urge others to take the law into their own hands. Over the past month, residents of this South American country have created dozens of pro-vigilante Facebook groups with names like “Capture Your Thief and Paralyze him,” “Hang Your Thief,” "Capture Your Thief and Lynch Him," and even “Capture Your Thief and Dismember Him.” The sudden proliferation of vigilante pages has alarmed local authorities and sparked a national debate over how to deal with the country’s spiking crime rate.
The Facebook trend began in August, when a journalist from the mountain town of Huancayo created a Facebook group called “Chapa tu Choro Peru,” or “Capture Your Thief, Peru.” Cecilia Garcia, the group’s creator, said she started the online community after one of her neighbors captured a criminal breaking into her home and turned him over to police, only to see the thief released the next day.
“That really outraged us,” Garcia told BBC Mundo. “So we decided that we were no longer going to turn over thieves to the police. Instead we hung posters warning thieves that we would punish them, as has been done in other neighborhoods. We published pictures of those posters on social media, and the campaign went viral.”
The Chapa tu Choro campaign caught on in other cities, which started similar Facebook groups to promote vigilante activity. The trend spread so quickly it forced lawmakers, intellectuals and police to come out and urge people to respect the rule of law.
“We can’t solve violence with violence,” Cesar Gentille, one of Peru’s top police chiefs said in late August. “We must follow the laws of a democratic state, where local government and public institutions are the ones who fight crime.”
Supporters of the online campaign argue that vigilantism plays an important role in keeping the peace in communities where police are failing. According to Peru’s National Institute of Statistics, home burglaries grew 40 percent from 2006 to 2013, while armed assaults increased by 42 percent.
Now the pro-vigilante groups and the government are trying to find a middle ground. Garcia this week softened her position, writing on Facebook that she does not support lynchings but launched her campaign to “dissuade" criminal activity and urge authorities to find solutions.
A video recorded by a news crew in northern Peru shows local residents beating up three men who were presumably stealing tires from a car repair shop.
But not all authorities are criticizing the campaign. Curiously enough, the Facebook pages have found an unlikely advocate in Lima Mayor Luis Castañeda, who recently said that something “extraordinary” could be gained from the “Chapa tu Choro” pages.
According to Castañeda, the campaign has helped to remind people that it is actually legal to make citizen arrests in Peru, as long as they occur when a perpetrator is caught in the act of committing a crime. Castañeda and other officials have encouraged citizens to capture criminals and turn them over to police.
“This campaign can have a dissuasive effect [on crime],” the mayor said this week.
Castañeda could also just be listening to public opinion. A recent poll commissioned by Peru’s largest newspaper, El Comercio, estimates that 60 percent of Lima’s residents support the Chapa tu Choro campaign. Approval ratings for the Facebook campaign are highest among lower-income residents who tend to live in neighborhoods where crime is worse.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.