MEXICO CITY — The images are chilling: A young man, his face bloody and swollen, struggling to tell a television reporter that he is an undercover federal agent, shortly before a mob burns him and another officer alive on camera.
The horrific footage from the Tuesday night killings have sparked a debate on growing vigilante justice in Mexico, where police are viewed as inept at best and corrupt at worst, and where many people say they must take matters into their own hands.
The latest violence came amid rumors that children had been kidnapped from an elementary school on Mexico City’s southern outskirts. When residents saw three men taking photos and staking out that school, they beat the men. Surrounding crowds cheered and shouted obscenities as the three were splattered with blood.
Reporters arrived, and the assailants pushed the victims before television cameras so they could be interviewed. Barely conscious and struggling to talk, they nodded and gave one-word answers when asked whether they were federal agents.
As television helicopters hovered, police began to arrive. One man was rescued, carried away unconscious by his arms and legs. The two others were bathed in gasoline and set ablaze, their charred bodies left bleeding in the street as dozens of people milled around the scene.
Federal police director Adm. Jose Luis Figueroa said the three men were plainclothes agents who had been sent to San Juan Ixtayopan to investigate drug dealing near the school.
Police were searching yesterday for those responsible for instigating the violence, but had made no arrests.
Yet public debate focused on the police. Many questioned why it had taken riot officers hours to arrive. Others said vigilante justice was to be expected in a country where the police are infamous for seeking bribes and often implicated in the same crimes they are supposed to prevent.
There appeared to be little remorse in San Juan Ixtayopan, a picturesque community of small, cement homes tucked into pine-covered hills at the foot of a snowcapped volcano.
“If the police aren’t going to do anything, then the town has to take matters into their own hands,” said 15-year-old Maria Eva Labana, who witnessed some of the violence firsthand before she ran home to watch the rest on television.
Adm. Figueroa said a full schedule had prohibited federal authorities from concentrating on the kidnapping cases.
Mexicans, frustrated by soaring crime that often goes unpunished, have taken justice into their own hands on numerous occasions.
Earlier this month, in another town on the capital’s outskirts, police rescued a 28-year-old man whom residents were threatening to beat to death for purportedly trying to steal a guitar and tape deck from a community center.
And two years ago, a mob killed two of three youths who purportedly tried to rob a taxi driver in Mexico City.