The Facebook vigilantes catching thieves - and punishing them

The Facebook page of a Peruvian vigilante group Image copyright Chapa tu choro

A large and often violent vigilante movement is spreading on Facebook in Peru.

When Cecilia Rodriguez's neighbour found a burglar in her house in Huancayo, she called for help. Cecilia rushed to her aid and, along with other local residents, they apprehended the thief and held him for two hours, until the police arrived and took him away.

When she later discovered the man had been freed, Cecilia decided to take action. "From that day onwards, we decided to spread the message in the community - that next time we catch a criminal, we won't call the police but we will punish them ourselves," she says.

She set up a Facebook page called "Chapa tu choro", or "Catch your thief", calling on others to follow her lead, and her campaign has had a dramatic effect. More than a hundred similar pages have cropped up in rapid succession, and more are being created all the time. Many have far more brutal names than the original, adding phrases like "leave him paralysed", "cut off his hands" and "castrate him" into the title.

These are encouraging criminal violence against alleged thieves, without any trial to determine their guilt or innocence.

These pages often feature potentially disturbing imagery, and we don't recommend viewing the videos or images uploaded. Many of the groups are open to the public, and seem to quite brazenly show the revenge being meted out by civilians across the country. On one page, a video shows a man being stripped naked and whipped with a belt. In another, a young teenager is being hit so hard his features become disfigured. A third video shows a woman undressed and being walked through the street, with a banner around her neck reading "I'm a thief".

It's impossible to be sure about the details of any of these incidents.

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"I didn't imagine the campaign would catch on the way it did," says Cecilia. "I do accept that it has got out of control and that some are taking the violence too far, which I'm not justifying but I do understand." Performing a citizens arrest - apprehending someone you think is guilty of a crime, but not hurting them - is legal in Peru, but harming them in any way certainly isn't, and even encouraging others to do so could lead to a long jail sentence.

So why are the vigilantes happy, or even proud, to post evidence of their actions on Facebook? Well, to date, none of them have been arrested by the police. Acceptance of this kind of justice is very high in Peru, more so than in other Latin American countries according to a recent study. Cecilia says faith in the police, and indeed the entire judicial system, is very low. "We're living in a failing state, which is not fulfilling its duty of giving us all security."

Jose Luis Perez Guadalupe, Peru's interior minister, admits that the system does need improvement. "Basically there are problems within our police forces. Sometimes their reach is limited, there aren't enough men on the ground," he says. "We've had the issue here in Peru of fine-tuning the co-ordination between the police, the public prosecutor, and the judiciary. So I would say these three institutions share the responsibility on that matter."

But he's not entirely negative about the vigilante movement. In fact, rather than condemning the "Catch your thief" campaigns in their entirety, he says he actually wants to harness its energy, and endorses the notion of citizen's arrests. "Catch your thief yes, but hand him or her over to the police. Don't take justice into your own hands," he says.

But what of the risk of retribution from the criminals themselves? Noam Lopez, a Peruvian social scientist, says that by regional standards, Peru is a relatively safe country. "The rates of homicide are very low. These robbers don't have guns, so residents aren't afraid," he explains.

It's an unexpected twist that helps explaining the rise of a vigilante movement. Because statistically speaking Peruvian criminals just aren't that violent, those who would wish to be criminally violent towards thieves - without any of the niceties of a proper trial - seem to be less afraid to do so.

Blog by Estelle Doyle, Gabriella Torres and Sam Judah

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