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Is rogue suburban 'justice' spreading in Brazil?

Whether it's chasing after a thief, hunting down a suspect, or seeing a criminal nearly getting lynched by a crowd, you'll find examples of vigilantism even in Brazil's biggest cities.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

Flamengo is a picturesque middle-class neighborhood in Rio that sits on the Guanabara Bay with tree-lined streets and upscale apartment buildings. There's a big park on the water filled with joggers and bikers, and soccer games going on at all hours of the day and night. In this area, you can catch breathtaking views of the bay and Sugarloaf Mountain, and Corovado looming above the water. But on Jan. 31, a Flamengo resident came upon a completely unexpected sight in this neighborhood – a sight that sparked national furor. It was a young black man stripped naked, beaten, and chained to a post with a bike lock around his neck.

It wasn't only shocking, but it brought to mind the type of scene you'd see during the slavery age. And like the rolezinhos, the incident represents a perfect storm related to issues of race, class, and security.

Slowly, details emerged about the incident. The young man is only 15 years old. According to Folha, he said that a group of 30 men, some of whom were on motorcycles and one of whom was armed, surrounded him and three other young men. Two [of the young men] got away, but he and the other man were beaten; he said the men threatened to kill him. The young man is from an impoverished part of the city's West Zone, and claims he was kicked out of his house, where he was living with his mother, by the militias, or armed paramilitary-like groups that emerged as vigilantes and as criminals in their own right. He said he's been homeless and has been living on the streets and in a shelter. He's been arrested three times for robbery, reports G1.

The woman who found him, who happens to work with at-risk kids, called the fire department to have the young man freed; he was later taken to the hospital. She took a photo of the young man and shared it on Facebook to denounce the incident. But some of the reactions were undeniable: they praised the people who did this, saying the man deserved it. And some people directed their wrath toward her, leading her to close her personal Facebook account.

Reports emerged about a group of middle-class vigilantes who were responsible for the incident. Around 14 people were detained by police. They denied being part of the "Justiceiros," a vigilante group operating in Flamengo and other middle class neighborhoods in the city to "take justice into their own hands." The group is also suspected of beating two young men in another part of the city. The suspects were all freed by police.

O Dia reports that these kind of vigilante incidents have become "routine" and cited two other incidents of alleged thieves getting chased and beaten in Copacabana and Centro in the last two weeks. In Centro, a policeman told the paper, it's common for suspects to be apprehended by civilians before they're turned over to police.*

The reactions were divided among those who denounced the incident and those who defended the vigilantes. "The first victim of a vigilante is the democratic idea of justice. Any justifiable pretense is an inherent shortcut to barbarity," wrote the Rio state attorney general on Twitter.

Similarly, Átila Roque, the executive director of Amnesty International Brasil, said that Rio cannot tolerate vigilantes at the risk of creating more violence. "It's another sign of how much we can sink as a society when public institutions are unable to respond to the state of social emergency in which we live," he said.

On the other hand, there were those who came to the defense of the vigilantes. Controversial pundit Rachel Sheherazade initially praised the vigilantes, saying they acted in "legitimate collective defense" against "an endless state of violence." Later, facing criticism, she backpedaled, saying she is against violence. But her supporters continued to stand up for her, including infamous evangelical pastor Pastor Silas Malafaia, who wrote on Twitter that Sherazade "defends Christian values."

The incident also saw support from some in the Flamengo area. After a shoot-out in neighboring Botafogo this week, passers-by who saw suspects getting arrested shouted "Chain them up!"

What does it mean?

It's important to understand both views on the incident, because it encompasses a much larger issue about vigilantism in a country that continues to struggle with crime, impunity, and rule of law.

Let's start on the local level. In Flamengo, muggings more than doubled from 2012 to 2013. Just last week, a cyclist was stabbed during a mugging in Flamengo's Aterro park, even though it was full of people. In Rio, crime is on the rise after a period of improvements. In the first nine months of 2013, muggings went up 15 percent, and after three years of a decline in homicides, murders are on the uptick. In the first ten months of last year, the number of shooting victims rose 27 percent. This week, a man was executed in broad daylight in Rio's gritty Belford Roxo area, and in the city's working class North Zone, a hospital experienced a mass mugging as ten armed gunmen robbed patients and staff alike. And believe it or not, it's the second time in a month that this hospital has been robbed in this manner.

There's also the anger that comes from getting robbed in a country where the tax burden is over 36 percent of GDP, where taxes mean many consumer goods are prohibitively expensive, and where a rising cost of living continues to erode salaries both for the working and middle classes. In a country where a professional can spend a month's salary on a smartphone, it's no wonder there's a lot to lose in a mugging.

Finally, there's the issue of the criminal and judicial system. With tenuous rule of law, an inefficient and corrupt police force, and a slow and problematic criminal justice system, some Brazilians just want to see swift results because they've come to expect failures by the state. Also, because minors under 18 cannot be tried as adults, they won't go to prison even if they commit serious crimes like murder. And even if an adult commits murder, he's unlikely to go to prison: less than 10 percent of homicides in Brazil end in an arrest. Impunity is too often the rule rather than the exception, and when crimes do get solved, the court cases can drag on for years, even a decade.

If you ask Brazilians if they've experienced vigilantism, they may be cautious in revealing details, but it's an issue that touches people across the socioeconomic spectrum and across the country, whether they have seen it, heard about it, or even been a part of it. Whether it's chasing after a thief, hunting down a suspect, or seeing a criminal nearly getting lynched by a crowd, you'll find examples even in the country's biggest cities. In fact, an erroneous report was circulating on social media this week of a second incident of a youth getting stripped and chained to a post, this time in Botafogo. This event actually took place in 2010, so this week's incident isn't a first. And while the Flamengo ocurrence may not be rate, it was exceptionally brazen and unusually cruel.

Beyond these factors, Brazil has a long history of vigilantes, particularly in the country's Northeast, an area traditionally run by strongmen in a feudalistic manner. It was something of the Wild West, and outlaws like Lampião and Maria Bonita who robbed and killed in defiance of the powerful landowners have become folk heroes. Where there is a lack of authority and a strong state presence, Brazilians have created their own form of justice. Even today, Rio's criminal groups, be it the drug traffickers or militias, continue to fill a power vacuum, acting as judge and executioner in the areas they control.

Incidents like this one may be shocking, but they''ll continue to happen until Brazilians not only trust the police to do their job, but also trust the country's institutions to bring criminals to justice.

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog

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