Mob burns Venezuelan man alive over $5 as justice fails

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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. When a stooped, white-haired man then told them he'd been mugged, they went through Bernal's pockets and found 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.

"We wanted to teach this man a lesson," said Eduardo Mijares, 29. "We're tired of being robbed every time we go into the street, and the police do nothing."

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.

As the ebbing price of oil has laid bare years of mismanagement, the economy has unraveled, and with it, the social fabric. Venezuela now has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and it's hard to find a person who hasn't been mugged.

"Life here has become a misery. You walk around always stressed, always scared, and lynching offers a collective catharsis," Violence Observatory director Roberto Briceno-Leon said. "You can't do anything about the lines or inflation, but for one moment, at least, the mob feels like it's making a difference."

Reports of group beatings now surface weekly in local media. The public prosecutor opened 74 investigations into vigilante killings in the first four months of this year, compared to two all of last year. And a majority of the country supports mob retribution as a form of self-protection, according to the independent Venezuelan Violence Observatory.

Bernal lived his whole life in a maze of narrow staircases and cheerfully-painted cinderblock shacks built into the hills above Caracas. The shantytowns draped over the capital have not seen running water for months, and residents have begun raiding passing trucks for food. Bernal had been out of work, and recently confided in his siblings that he and his wife were struggling to feed their three children.

A quiet man with a muscular build from his time in the army, Bernal spent the days before his death presiding over his sister's kitchen, preparing Easter stews and candied passion fruit. His six siblings thought of him as the one who made it, attending a cooking school and becoming a professional chef. Many people who grow up deep in the slums assimilate some parts of street culture, sporting tattoos or jewelry, but not Roberto.

"He was so on the straight and narrow, he didn't even have a nickname," his aunt Teresa Bernal said.

The morning of the beating, he left the family's windowless shack before dawn to go to a bustling thoroughfare near the center of town. Bernal had told his wife he was on his way to a new job at a restaurant. But he stopped near a bank beneath a billboard advertising door-to-door delivery of scarce goods from Miami.

A man in his 70s walked out, tucking a stack of bills worth $5 into a baseball cap that he then hid in his jacket.

It would have been a lot of money for Bernal. It could have bought his family a week's worth of food. Or a plastic dining table. Or a proper school uniform for his daughter, whom the other kids were calling "stinky."

Bernal grabbed the cash and started running toward a taxi line where dozens of motorcycles were parked, the robbery victim later told investigators. The man pursued him, crying "thief!" People watching from a distance assumed they were racing to get in line to buy groceries.

In the meantime, the motorcycle drivers were sitting on a low wall in front of the supermarket, fiddling with cracked cellphones and drinking coffee from small plastic cups. They watched the pair come toward them.

When the beating began, workers at the curbside candy stalls and hotdog stands left their booths, not wanting to see what was coming. Other people stayed to watch and cheer. As the smell of burning flesh filled the air, the crowd's shouting turned to silence.

Bernal would likely have died there, if not for Alejandro Delgado. The youth pastor arrived for his part-time job as a motorcycle taxi driver just as the frenzy was reaching its peak. Horrified, Delgado whipped off his sooty black jacket and smothered the flames.

"These guys I work with every day had turned into demons," he said. "I could hear the man's skin crackling and popping. When I put the fire out, they threw bottles at my head."

Bernal was taken away in an ambulance. Video of the burning spread across social media but drew 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.

Bernal's eyes were seared shut, and his trachea was so scorched that he could only speak in whispers. He told his wife that the old man had mistaken him for the real thief, and his accusers had not given him time to explain. He died two days later.

A month after Bernal's death, public prosecutor Regino Cova charged 23-year-old law school dropout Maickol Jaimez with pouring the gasoline. He told the family that the other men who appeared in the video would now be off the hook. Overwhelmed by a murder rate on par with a war zone, prosecutors can't afford to chase after people for getting in a few kicks, he said.

Jaimez lived in the same hillside slum as Bernal and worked next to the supermarket guarding shoppers' parked motorcycles, one of the many security-related jobs that have proliferated amid the violence. Like Bernal, he had never been in trouble with the law before. But co-workers say he'd been upset lately because people had been stealing helmets and motorcycle batteries, and he'd had to pay.

Bernal's blood still stains a motorcycle taxi sign above the cracked sidewalk where he was burned. The men here say they won't wash it off; it's their trophy from the time they stood up to one of the criminals who have made city life a cauldron of stress and fear.

"People can try to make us look bad," said Francisco Agro, 29, a taxi driver who participated in the beating. "But the truth is, the courts, the police, they don't work. It's not the way things should be, but it fell to us to protect an old man from a thug."

Bernal's wife and children have been sleeping huddled together since the murder, afraid someone might come for them, too. His 11 year-old son has stopped going to school and is spending more time with the older kids in the slum's dirt alleys, wearing fake tattoos on his spindly arms.

The family still does not believe Bernal robbed anyone, but they agree with his killers on one point: There is no justice here.

"Everyone needs to be scared," said his nephew, Alfredo Cisneros. "People need to know there is no law here anymore. No one is safe."


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