Professor from Mexico discussed how history of lynching in Mexico affects modern vigilante crime

Will Clark

In modern Mexico, 47 percent of people condone lynching as a legitimate way to attain justice, according to Gema Santamaría, an assistant professor at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México. 

Santamaría presented her research on campus Wednesday, where she argued lynching in Mexico needs to be examined in the context of the country’s historical and socio-political dynamics. 

“The political climate is one where citizens have come to embrace violence as a legitimate means to assist political rule and assert their right to security and justice,” Santamaría said. “Distrust in the police is not new in Mexico. It might actually be symptomatic of a longer history of tense and conflicted relationships between the state and citizens.” 

While these acts have gained attention in the media over the last decade in Mexico, Santamaría said contemporary lynchings are a symptom of deeper historical trends in Mexico, not recent surges in crime.

“People were distrustful of the police and challenged their authority to punish criminals,” Santamaría said. “Contemporary lynchings can be understood as a symptom rather than as an aberration of the de-pacification processes underpinning Mexico’s 20th century.”

As lynching and other types of mob violence generally receded in the U.S. throughout the 20th century, these events remained more common in Mexico as many people did not trust the police and took matters of justice into their own hands. 

“In the context of the current situation in Mexico where you see a lot of news about lynching and presents it as this phenomenon that’s related to current events in Mexico, especially drug violence, it’s useful to have a longer term perspective,” government graduate student Jake Dizard said. In many cases, Santamaría said these lynchings do not represent a lack of presence from the state officials, but rather these events are used by officials to retain power.

CJ Alvarez, assistant professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, said Santamaría confirmed a lot of the suspicions he had about the kinds of violence he’s seen in his own research in 1940s Michoacán, a region in Mexico.

“I really appreciated the nuance with which she pushed back against some of the more dominant conventions about how people think in too simplistic terms about the Mexican people and the Mexican government,” Alvarez said.