Fake news about child abductions in Mexico led an angry mob to burn two men to death, despite their innocence.
Intentionally biased misinformation has always been a serious problem, but it seems to be getting even worse. Not only are people asking how fake news could influence future political elections, but now it has been proven to be at the source of two gruesome murders.
The story begins with a huge crowd surrounding a police station in the small town of Acatlán in Puebla, Mexico. The crowd was trying to attack two men they believed to be the child abductors and abusers they heard about, but police explained they were only “minor offenders.”
In fact, there was no evidence the men committed any crime at all, according to the BBC.
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.
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.”
The story sounds like a pretty obvious urban myth, and it didn’t contain any legitimate sources, yet people still fell for the trick. In this case, the story manifested a form of hysteria that cost people their lives.
Ricardo and Alberto happened to be near an elementary school, which prompted people to say they were the criminal offenders. That’s when they were arrested, and word spread online just as the original rumors 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.
This is absolutely insane. These two people were minding their own business, when they got swept up in a fantasy that never would have been a problem if people cared about checking their sources. In a matter of no time at all, the mob descended on them to do what they promised.
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. Video footage shows his limbs moving slowly as the flames licked around them.
Tragically, the bodies of the innocent men remained for two hours after all of this. But the mob didn’t, as people realized what they had done and faded into the city.
This is one of the most tragic cases I’ve ever heard, but it’s important that we see it for what it is and learn from the mistakes others have made. We need to pay close attention to what we believe, and what we post, and how we act in response to the unconfirmed reports that we hear.