Hannah Dreier, Associated Press, May 19, 2016
The mob didn’t know at first what Roberto Bernal had done, but he was running and that was enough.
Dozens of men loitering on the sidewalk next to a supermarket kicked and punched the 42-year-old until he was bloodied and semi-conscious. After all, they had been robbed of cell phones, wallets and motorcycles over the years, and thought Bernal had a criminal’s face.
Then a stooped, white-haired man trailing behind told them he’d been mugged.
The mob went through Bernal’s pockets and handed a wad of bills to the old man: The equivalent of $5. They doused Bernal’s head and chest in gasoline and flicked a lighter. And they stood back as he burned alive.
Vigilante violence against people accused of stealing has become commonplace in this crime-ridden country of 30 million, once one of the richest and safest in Latin America. The revenge attacks underscore how far Venezuela has fallen, with the lights flickering out daily, and food shortages fueling supermarket lines that snake around for blocks.
Bernal was taken away in an ambulance on a cross-city quest to find a hospital with enough medical supplies to deal with his injuries. The videos spread across social media, but they drew curiously little condemnation. Even the trauma nurse who attended to Bernal thought a kind of justice had been carried out.
“If the people grabbed him and lynched him, it’s because he was a thug,” said nurse Juan Perez, who has himself been robbed too many times to count.
Police tend to approach mob violence like bartenders dealing with a fistfight; they’ll sometimes step in to break it up, but aren’t going to spend much time looking into how it got started.
Increasingly under attack themselves, police recently put up a thick brick wall around their station here. In the weeks after the killing, the taxi drivers who beat Bernal joked that they were waiting for officers to come by to ask for money and then go back to their bunker.
Robberies are so rarely investigated that most victims don’t bother to file a report, government surveys have found. And while police used to make 118 arrests for every 100 murders, they now make just eight, according to the Violence Observatory.