When fake news kills: Lynchings in Mexico are linked to viral child-kidnap rumors
Ricardo Flores’ goal was to study hard, become a lawyer and earn enough so that his parents could return from the United States — the destination of multitudes from this impoverished corner of south-central Mexico.
“Ricardo always said that once he was working, he was going to tell my mom to come back, because he missed her so much,” recalled his younger brother, Jose Guadalupe Flores, 16.
That dream came to a violent end one afternoon last month after rumors began circulating on social media and the WhatsApp messaging service that a pair of robachicos, or child snatchers, was on the prowl.
An enraged mob attacked Flores, 21, and his uncle, Alberto Flores Morales, 56, beating them before dousing them with gasoline and burning them alive on the street outside the police station here. The pair had been mistakenly suspected of child abduction, authorities said.
“It was like a great spell had overtaken the people,” said Lidia Palacios, a handicrafts shopkeeper who witnessed the linchamiento, or lynching, as such mob killings are known in Mexico. “They were yelling, ‘Kill them! Kill them!’ ”
The barbaric episode — reminiscent of mob killings in India fueled by viral messages — illustrates how in an era of proliferating smartphone use, rumors looped on social media and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp can generate hysteria and vigilante justice.
Mob attacks are nothing new in Mexico, where rampant crime, ineffective policing and a pervasive sense that lawbreakers go unpunished fuel citizen outrage. Cellphone video of townsfolk pummeling cornered suspects accused of robberies and other misdeeds is a regular feature on TV news.
In some high-crime areas, handwritten billboards warn “delinquents” and “rats” that they will face street justice.
At least 25 people have been slain by mobs in Mexico this year, including victims beaten to death and burned, and 40 more have been rescued, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, a quasi-governmental watchdog group.
Law enforcement officials fear that hoaxes spread on Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms may be exacerbating the disturbing trend.
In the days before Flores and his uncle were targeted, half a dozen Mexican states issued public warnings refuting incendiary social media tales of kidnapping rings that remove organs from captive children to sell on the black market.
One WhatsApp message, labeled “red alert,” advised parents, teachers and others that a “plague of robachicos” had snatched an unspecified number of children, some as young as 4.
“We cannot permit [that] this keeps happening, parents, please pay attention,” the sham message advised.
This mountainous swath of Mexico’s Puebla state, close to the state of Oaxaca, is heavily dependent on dollars wired from townsfolk who have immigrated to the United States, especially the East Coast. The remittances supplement meager incomes from planting corn, sugar cane and other crops. Many inhabitants are of indigenous Mixtec origins; villagers tend to be wary of police and outsiders.
Ricardo Flores’ parents, residents of Maryland, sent money home to pay for his education, as well as the schooling of his younger brother. Like so many others, the Flores family endured separation so that the children would have opportunities.
On the afternoon of Aug. 29, Flores and his uncle drove in Morales’ black Ford SUV from their hamlet, Tianguistengo, to the nearby village of San Vicente Boqueron. The uncle planned to buy material for a fence he was building at his mother’s home nearby.
They parked near a school and had a few beers, relatives said. Their timing couldn’t have been worse — rumors were swirling across the internet that two robachicos, both men in an SUV, were lurking in the area.
The presence of the two strangers aroused the suspicions of villagers, who approached and accused the men of being kidnappers. Witnesses said Flores and his uncle were dragged from the car, tied up and beaten.
“If the police won’t do anything, el pueblo will defend itself against delinquents,” said Maria Lopez, a San Vicente Boqueron resident. “If they were the ones robbing children, they deserved to be killed.”
Church bells began to toll, residents said, signaling an emergency and attracting more villagers. Some wanted to lynch the two on the spot.
Instead, they drove Flores and his uncle from San Vicente Boqueron to Acatlan de Osorio, a town of 16,000 about 20 minutes away, where there is a police station. An irate crowd — perhaps as many as 100 people, according to witnesses and video footage — gathered outside where the two were being held, ostensibly for their own protection.
“Everyone shouted, ‘Get them out! They must face justice!’ ” recalled Palacios, 65, the shopkeeper. “Then suddenly they entered [the police station] and took out the two men. Outside it was a scene of terror.”
The mob chanted, “Burn them! Burn them!” recalled Mario Solis, a fruit vendor.
Someone brought some gasoline.
“I can’t imagine the pain that they felt,” said Hortensia Santos, who watched from her clothing shop as the two writhed in agony. “The fire would go out and they would pour on more gasoline. I haven’t been able to sleep; I can’t forget the image. I don’t know how people can be so ruthless.”
The villagers also torched the uncle’s vehicle.
Relatives, alerted by telephone, rushed to the scene.
“I was crying, ‘Let them go, they’re innocent,’” said Juana Ramirez Flores, 42, a cousin of Flores and niece of his uncle. “But these people just mocked our pain. They took photos, video. They laughed at me.”
Police did not intervene, witnesses said. Law enforcement failed to “follow protocols” such as negotiating with the crowd and immediately seeking backup, the secretary of public safety of the state of Puebla said in a statement.
Two suspects in the attack have been arrested; one later died in custody of natural causes, officials said. State authorities said they were reviewing video of the incident to track down other participants. They also launched an investigation to determine who was responsible for the cyber hoax that sparked the incident.
Officials at WhatsApp and Facebook declined to comment on the attack. But the companies — Facebook owns WhatsApp — did say that both were taking measures to cut down on the rising tide of false information.
“WhatsApp cares deeply about the safety of our users,” the messaging service said in a statement. “We believe the challenge of this horrible mob violence requires action from leaders across society, including from technology companies.”
This year, after viral reports about child kidnappers sparked a series of lynchings in India, WhatsApp took out full-page advertisements in Indian newspapers — along with radio spots and internet ads — providing “easy tips” to spot spurious assertions. A similar, Spanish-language effort is planned for later this year in Mexico, a WhatsApp spokesman said.
But recent attacks in Mexico suggest that such steps — and even formal warnings from local law enforcement — may not be sufficient to calm residents.
The day after the mob slayings here, vigilante justice struck in Mexico’s central Hidalgo state, where authorities had just sent out a Twitter message alerting the public of the child-kidnapper hoax.
A mob pulled a man and a woman from their truck in a rural area and beat and burned them, authorities said, despite the pair’s pleas of innocence. The man died at the scene, and the woman succumbed in a hospital.
Just as social media and smartphone apps helped spread rumors of child kidnappers, these same platforms disseminated word of the fate of the lynching victims.
Video of the grisly scene in Acatlan de Osorio — and photos of the two charred bodies — soon reached cellphone users in the United States. A distraught Rosario Rodriguez said she viewed the carnage on her phone and read Facebook commentaries about the assaults on her son and brother-in-law.
“It took my soul apart,” Rodriguez said.
She and her husband flew to Mexico the next day, in time for a funeral. She says she will remain until “justice” is rendered.
“I pray to God that what happened to me, this great pain, never happens to those who did this to my son,” said a sobbing Rodriguez. “That they never feel the impotence of a mother who sees her son killed in such a heartless manner.”
Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Mexico City, special correspondent Sanchez from Acatlan de Osorio.
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