Just another day in a sinking economy: Venezuelan torched for robbing $5

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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. 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.
“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.
The ebbing price of oil has laid bare years of mismanagement. The economy is unraveling, and with it, the social fabric. “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 polling from the independent Venezuelan Violence Observatory.
Amid the general haze of violence, Bernal’s killing didn’t even stand out enough to make the front pages or provoke comment from local politicians. 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.
A quiet man with a muscular build from his time in the army, Bernal lived his whole life in a maze of narrow staircases and cheerfully-painted cinderblock shacks built into the hills above Caracas. This kind of slum is home for about half of Venezuelans, who are bearing the brunt of the country’s collapsing economy.
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 sisters that he and his wife were struggling to feed their three children. He wanted to find a way to move to Panama.
Bernal spent the days before his death presiding over his sister’s kitchen, preparing Easter stews and candied passion fruit. He chuckled softly when he won at dominos.
His six siblings thought of him as the one who made it, attending a cooking school and becoming a professional chef. He liked to turn on the TV as soon as he got home from work, and would leave the room at the first sign of an argument. 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.

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