Hundreds cheered but 'no one' saw lynching
By JOHANNA TUCKMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
MAGDALENA PETLACALCO, Mexico -- When residents of the normally tranquil village of Magdalena Petlacalco on the outskirts of Mexico City beat an alleged thief to death, they thought they were striking a blow for divine justice.
Carlos Pacheco was caught in the village's 17th century church after dark apparently intent on stealing the jewels that adorn a revered statue of patron saint Mary Magdalene.
He was tied to some nearby railings with rope as church bells summoned a crowd from their homes. Pacheco, 29, was then mercilessly beaten until he fell unconscious.
"There were about 400 people. Children, young people and adults, and they were chanting 'lynch him, kill him, punish him,' " local priest Lorenzo Arroyo recalled with evident sadness. He arrived at the scene while Pacheco was still alive, but failed to persuade the crowd to allow the waiting police and ambulance access to the victim before he died.
The local media had also reached the village by then and pushed their way through the crowd, gathering images for the news shows that included an exuberant teenager pronouncing: "This is what happens to thieves around here," and pictures of Pacheco slumped over the rope still holding him to the railings, surrounded by a pool of blood.
The next day the exaltation of the night's mob justice had evaporated, but the community was just as united in its silence. That silence has prompted authorities to admit that their investigation into the July 25 killing will likely be closed for lack of evidence.
"Yes, a human life was lost, but who are you going to accuse?" asked the priest. "The authorities are not going to do anything. They don't know who was in front of the crowd and nobody is going to tell on anybody, so what can they do?"
Carmen Ramirez is clearly not telling. An otherwise chatty woman who runs a fruit and vegetable store opposite the church and a stone's throw from the blood stain indicating the site of the lynching, she said simply: "I didn't see anything."
Neither did her next-door neighbor, who insisted she was snuggled up in bed at the time; nor the teenage girl playing with her younger siblings down the road, who said she was at a party until the early hours.
Alberto Garcia, just a little further away, answered questions with evident suspicion as he mended a faucet in his front yard. The 45-year-old said he first heard the news on the radio the next day.
But while the residents of Magdalena Petlacalco may deny being even observers, many are far from shy of expressing their support for what happened.
"It was justified," said Ramirez, the storekeeper. "He (Pacheco) tried to take the Virgin from the house of God, and the people got angry because we venerate our Virgin."
She also explained the villagers' anger as the result of frustration with police inaction over a recent crime wave. "Should another thief be allowed to escape, or handed over to the police to be let go?"
A recent study by the Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center confirmed the popular view that most lynchings in Mexico take place in isolated rural areas, far from the institutions charged with administering justice. But the study's author, Carmen Pedrazzini, says lynchings are beginning to spread to more urban areas where corrupt and inefficient police and courts breed frustration with the formal justice system.
Perched on a hill within the boundaries of Mexico City that leads toward the Ajusco volcano, Magdalena Petlacalco is neither fully rural nor urban. Fields of corn provide the backdrop, and the capital city lies sprawled across the valley below.
Residents say that they eke out a living from the fields and from occasional work in the city but that fully urban "outsiders" have in recent years begun to move into the village and have brought with them an increase in burglaries and a budding drug culture.
While human rights organizations blame weak institutions for failing to instill a respect for the judicial system in the community, Father Lorenzo thinks Pacheco's death was primarily the result of the church's failure to guide the devout. "It was religious frenzy more than anything else. A kind of fanaticism for the idol."
On the night of the lynching, the village was in the midst of annual festivities held to celebrate the Virgin, which is why the statue had been taken down from its usual inaccessible niche to within reach of the fingers of the faithful.
"This is something very sacred," said the priest. "To touch the statue is to touch something dangerous that can get out of hand very quickly. That was his (Pacheco's) mistake. I feel very strange, and frustrated, and I don't know what to do."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111