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Understanding Extralegal Justice

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

Gema Kloppe-Santamaría’s new book, In the Vortex of Violence: Lynching, Extralegal Justice, and the State in Post-Revolutionary Mexico, explores the factors that contributed to a wave of lynching in mid-twentieth century Mexico. In examining the relationship between these events and state actors, the book offers insights on the dynamics of contemporary violence as well. In her interview with the Mexico Violence Resource Project, Kloppe-Santamaría discusses what we can learn from studying lynching.

In some ways, the book tells a story about parallel myths: the myth of post-revolutionary state consolidation under the PRI and the pax priísta, and the myth of the modern Mexican state after democratization. How do these periods compare? What does the persistence of lynching across those two periods tell us?

In the Vortex of Violence tells the story of Mexico’s process of state making through the lens of lynching, a collective, public, and particularly cruel form of extralegal violence. Thanks to this lens, we can move beyond macro, national, and state-centered approaches to violence and observe instead everyday people’s understanding of justice, the interactions between the state and communities at the local level, as well as the social, political, and religious tensions that exist within given communities. In telling this story, the book demonstrates how, contrary to the myth of post-revolutionary stability and pacification under PRI rule, the Mexican state remained incapable of exercising a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence and punishment. More so, it shows how state actors, who were in principle responsible for upholding the rule of law, contributed instead to the reproduction of extralegal and overt forms of violence, including lynching.

Rather than taking this as evidence either of state failure or state absence, I argue that the continuing occurrence of lynching offers a window into the ways in which state authority was forged in Mexico; namely, through central elites’ willingness to tolerate extralegal forms of violence at the local level as long as these violence(s) did not directly threaten the PRI’s political rule.

Indeed, the persistency of lynching up until today, following Mexico’s process of democratization during the last decades of the twentieth century, expresses the long-term legacies of the country’s process of state-making. A legacy that can be seen in people’s distrust in state authorities, citizens’ ongoing support of self-help forms of justice, as well as state actors’ propensity to use extralegal forms of violence. Although lynchings being perpetrated by state authorities are not common today, we continue to observe state actors’ involvement in the perpetration of extralegal forms of violence, including forced disappearances, mass killings, and the use of torture to fabricate suspects. The endurance of lynching and extralegal violence across these distant and different periods shows that, at the heart of Mexico’s institutional and social structure, remain deep-seated challenges of impunity, abuse of force, and citizens’ distrust in state authorities.

Many of the lynchings you examine were driven by the construction of a deserving victim—whether it was an ‘atrocious criminal’ or a ‘fat stealer.’ How do popular conceptions of justice intersect with stigmatization, and what does the legitimacy of lynching imply for security policies today and support for mano dura approaches?

Lynchings are intimately linked to processes of scapegoating. Supporters and perpetrators of this form of violence single out individuals that they identify as dangerous, threatening, or offensive for given social and political orders. In this sense, lynchings are ultimately an expression of social control, an effort on behalf of individuals and communities to delineate the boundaries between tolerable and intolerable conducts, and this so outside of the law. Victims of lynching are, by and large, people that are at the margins of society. They include suspected criminals, so-called witches, socialists, Protestants, and other religious minorities that are perceived as transgressors.

The support of lynchings against suspected criminals, in particular, has persisted across different periods in Mexico and occupies a central place in the country’s contemporary context of insecurity. Just as citizens supported the lynching of ‘atrocious criminals’ at the same time that they demanded the use of the so-called ley fuga or the reimplementation of the death penalty during the post-revolutionary period, in present-day Mexico people’s support of lynching exists alongside citizens’ support of self-defense forces, mano dura approaches, and other punitive practices (both within and outside the law).

Paradoxically, today as in the past, the same citizens that distrust authorities’ capacity or willingness to provide justice, are those that are eager to support the state’s use of repressive, punitive, and even extralegal forms of violence in order to punish so-called criminals. This dynamic (observed in Mexico but so too in other Latin American nations) shows how powerful and pernicious can citizens’ perceptions of insecurity and crime be for the creation of more inclusive and democratic societies. A society that lives in fear is a society that is more willing to tolerate the use of violence against others, and to do so in the name of justice and security.

While the lynchings you examine fit a particular typology, they have resonance with other forms of popular justice, whether it is proto-state justice by paramilitary groups in Colombia, or ‘social cleansings’ in Central America. What is the relationship of this extrajudicial violence to the rule of law more broadly?

I understand lynching as part of a continuum of extralegal forms of violence and self-help justice, including indeed paramilitary groups, social cleansing operations, and vigilante groups. All of these phenomena are driven by people’s disregard for the rule of law, and more precisely, by their distrust in the authorities’ capacity to provide the type of justice they deem necessary to preserve a given social and political order. The relationship between the rule of law and the legitimation of these acts is an important one, but is not as straightforward as it tends to be understood. The perpetration of these acts is a reflection of the levels of impunity, violence, and abuse of force that have characterized Latin American countries’ processes of state building and democratization. But not only; these acts also reflect the ways in which, over time, Latin American citizens have come to tolerate and justify the use of violence in order to punish, control, and exclude “others,” regardless of the perceived efficacy of the law.

The extralegal killing of communists, gang members, and suspected criminals across different countries, including Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Argentina, Ecuador, and Mexico, reflects not only the prevalence of impunity but also citizens’ inclination to support lethal and extralegal forms of punishment against individuals that are considered unworthy of being punished through procedural and legal means. That is why, I believe, strengthening the rule of law in Latin America requires not only an institutional but also a cultural and social transformation.

What does your research reveal about strategies for “reading” violence? How does it help us understand or interpret violence that occurs within other communities, such as forms of punishment or sanction within criminal groups?

A central characteristic of lynching is its spectacular, public, and overt character. Perpetrators of lynching do not see their use of violence as a crime but as a form of justice. By showing the tortured, maimed, or burned body of the victim, their intention is to send a message: to the state, to the community, and to other so-called criminals. That message says: in this community we do not tolerate your presence and behavior and we will take matters into our hands. In their expressive and explicit character, lynchings share important similarities with several other forms of violence that exist in Mexico today, from brutal femicides to killings perpetrated by organized criminal organizations, at times with the covert or overt complicity of state actors. While the brutality of these acts could push us to characterize them as irrational, fanatic, or backward, as a scholar interested in understanding the legitimation and occurrence of violence, I believe we need to move beyond this characterization and examine instead the logic, drivers, and reverberations of violence in state-society relations, as well as in intra- community dynamics and conflicts.

Some of the arguments that I put forward in order to understand these brutal acts can offer an interpretative roadmap to elucidate other forms of violence in contemporary Mexico.

First, this violence is spectacular and public because it aims at communicating to others – be they competing criminal factions, other women in the case of femicides, suspected criminals in the case of lynching– that their conduct wont be tolerated and that they (perpetrators) neither believe nor trust in the law or in the authorities’ legitimacy.

Second, this violence aims at marking the body of the victims, at tarnishing their integrity and dignity, in order to show that their lives are vulnerable, disposable and unworthy. By marking the body of their victims, perpetrators inflict harm not only on their direct victims but also terrorize and intimidate others, and ultimately establish control over a given community or group.

Third, while this violence is extralegal, it does not exclude the participation of state actors and, therefore, it would be wrong to characterize this violence simply in opposition to the state, a characterization that could add to a narrative that (wrongly) presents the state as the ultimate representative of legal, modern, and legitimate violence. Unfortunately, today, as in the past, extralegal violence is not exercised only by so-called criminals but also by state actors that, instead of upholding the rule of law, use intimidation and coercion to advance their interests. And is this continuity what makes In the Vortex of Violence a book that is as much about the recent past as it is about the present of Mexico and Latin America’s context of insecurity and violence.


Gema Kloppe-Santamaría is an assistant professor of Latin American history at Loyola University, Chicago. Her research analyzes the history of Latin American processes of state building across the 20th and 21st centuries, with a particular attention to questions of violence, crime, justice, and the rule of law. In the Vortex of Violence is available from University of California Press here:

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