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When “justice” is criminal: Lynchings in contemporary Latin America

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cross Latin America, the 1990s saw an increase in popular lynchings of suspected criminals at the hands of large crowds. Although it is often assumed that these incidents involve random, regrettable, and relatively spontaneous acts of violence or throwbacks to the past, I argue in this article that these represent purposeful, powerful, and deeply political acts. Most literature on the region tends to regard contemporary violence as a predominantly “top-down” phenomenon—by state against citizen, landowner against peasant, mestizo against Indian—yet these incidents reveal a new sort of violence that originates at the bottom. I argue that the lynchings suggest an attempt by embattled communities to reassert their autonomy after decades of repeated assault by state armies, local elites, the globalized economy, and other adversaries. By enacting these highly ritualized, unequivocally public displays of “justice,” marginalized communities seek not only to punish and to deter criminal activity, but perhaps more importantly, to reassert themselves collectively as agents rather than victims. In this way, lynchings may reveal a dark side of what passes for “democracy” in the region.

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Godoy, A.S. When “justice” is criminal: Lynchings in contemporary Latin America. Theory and Society 33, 621–651 (2004).

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