Burned to Death Because of a WhatsApp Rumour
Unfortunately, the access to technology and information can lead to this too – rumors start and get shared at an alarming rate and nobody bothers to check/confirm them anymore and you get these tragedies.
Maura Cordero, the owner of an arts and crafts shop in the small town of Acatlán in the central Mexican state of Puebla, noticed an unusual number of people gathering outside the municipal police station next to her shop.
Cordero, 75, moved closer to the door and peered out. Dozens of people were outside the police station on Reforma Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, and the crowd was swelling. Soon there would be more than a hundred people. Cordero could not remember seeing such a crowd in Acatlán except at a holiday celebration.
The mother was watching on Facebook live as her son and brother in law were burnt alive. She watches it in real time. I can’t even imagine what that poor woman is going through. Those people are savages
As she watched a police car passed her shop bearing two men into the small jail house. The car was followed by more people and cries went up from the crowd accusing the two men who were taken into the jail house of being child abductors. From behind a narrow metal gate at the entrance to the station, police replied that the men were not child abductors but minor offenders. They were minor offenders, the officers said again and again, as the crowd grew in size.
Inside the station sat 21-year-old Ricardo Flores, who had grown up just outside Acatlán but moved to Xalapa, 250km to the north east, to study law, and his uncle Alberto Flores, a 43-year-old farmer who had lived for decades in a small community just outside Acatlán. Ricardo had recently returned to Acatlán to visit relatives, who said the two men went to the centre of town that day to buy construction supplies to finish work on a concrete block water well. Police said there was no evidence the men had committed any crime, and that they had been taken into the station for “disturbing the peace” after they were accosted by local residents.
“Social media can really alter a community through the spread of false information that many of us perceive as truthful, because it’s being sent by people we trust,” he said. “Society really needs to evaluate what is true and what is false, and decide what is trustworthy and what is not.”
But the mob outside the station on Reforma Street was in the grip of a different version of events, a story stirred up somewhere unknown and spread through the private messaging app WhatsApp.
“Please everyone be alert because a plague of child kidnappers has entered the country,” said the message that pinged from phone to phone.
“It appears that these criminals are involved in organ trafficking… In the past few days, children aged four, eight and 14 have disappeared and some of these kids have been found dead with signs that their organs were removed. Their abdomens had been cut open and were empty.”
Sighted near an elementary school in a nearby community called San Vicente Boqueron, Ricardo and Alberto became the child abductors conjured up by collective fear, and news of their arrest spread just as the rumours of the child abductors had.
The crowd that descended on the police station was whipped up in part by Francisco Martinez, a long-time resident of Acatlán known as “El Tecuanito”. According to police, Martinez was among those who spread messages on Facebook and Whatsapp accusing Ricardo and Alberto. Outside the police station, he began to livestream events on Facebook via his phone.
“People of Acatlán de Osorio, Puebla, please come give your support, give your support,” he said into the camera. “Believe me, the kidnappers are now here.”
As Martinez attempted to rally the town, another man, identified by the police only as Manuel, climbed up onto the roof of the colonial-style town hall building next to the police station, and rang the bells of the government office to alert locals that the police were planning to release Ricardo and Alberto.
A third man, Petronilo Castelan — “El Paisa” — used a loudspeaker to call on the citizens to contribute money to buy petrol to set the two men on fire, and he walked through the crowd to collect it.
In her shop, Maura Cordero watched with fright, until she heard from someone outside that they should run because the crowd would set the men on fire. Dear God, she thought, this is not possible.
Moments later, the crowd coalesced into a mob with one goal. The narrow gate at the entrance to the police station was wrenched open and Ricardo and Alberto Flores were dragged out. As people held their phones aloft to film, the men were pushed to the floor at the base of four stone steps and savagely beaten. Then the petrol that was brought earlier was poured on them.
Eyewitnesses believe Ricardo was already dead from the beating, but his uncle Alberto was still alive when they set the two men on fire.