Two men were burned to death by a mob after rumours spread through their town that they were child abductors.
The rumours began in Acatlán, a small town in Mexico, and were spread quickly from person to person via the messaging app WhatsApp.
Ricardo Flores, 21, and his uncle Alberto Flores, 43, had been taken to jail earlier that day for ‘minor offences’ but soon became the town’s prime suspects for the alleged abductions.
According to the BBC, the message which was spread to people’s phones read:
Please everyone be alert because a plague of child kidnappers has entered the country. 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.
This message was seemingly all people needed to blame the two men, who were driven through the town earlier that day in a police car.
As they drove through the town, a crowd of people followed the car accusing the men of being child abductors. While transferring Ricardo and Alberto into the small police station, police assured the mob that the men were minor offenders, not child abductors – but by this point no one was listening.
Ricardo, a 21-year-old law student, and Alberto, a 43-year-old farmer, could do nothing but sit in their cell as the crowd grew in size.
The pair had been taken to the station because as they had been shopping in town for construction supplies earlier that day, they had been accosted by local residents. Police said there was no evidence the men had committed any crime; they were taken to the station simply for ‘disturbing the peace’.
So how did these rumours start?
According to the BBC, a long-time resident of the town known as ‘El Tecuanito’ was allegedly part of the crowd which gathered outside the prison. According to police, he was one of the people who spread messages on Facebook and WhatsApp accusing the two men.
Taking to Facebook, he allegedly posted a video outside the police station, saying:
People of Acatlán de Osorio, Puebla, please come give your support, give your support. Believe me, the kidnappers are now here.
Other people quickly got involved, with one man climbing onto the roof of the town hall and ringing the bells to alert people that the police were intending to release Ricardo and Alberto.
Then things turned nasty, as another man used a loudspeaker to rally people into buying petrol to set the two men on fire. As tensions rose, the mob broke into the prison cell and dragged the two men into the street, savagely beating them before pouring petrol on them.
Ricardo and Alberto were then set on fire for everyone to see, with people filming the murders on their phones.
Carlos Fuentes, a taxi driver who works near the police station, told the BBC:
It was one of the most horrific things that ever happened in Acatlán. The columns of smoke could be seen from every point in the town.
Ricardo’s mum had to watch her son and brother-in-law get beaten and set on fire via a Facebook stream; she begged people not to hurt them in the comments section, but to no avail.
State authorities have confirmed that five people have now been charged with instigating the crime and four more with carrying out the murder.
A spokesperson for WhatsApp told the BBC they are taking steps to improve the messaging service.
We believe the challenge of mob violence requires action from technology companies, civil society, and governments. We’ve stepped up user education about misinformation and provided training for law enforcement on how to use WhatsApp as a resource in their community.
Hopefully change will come sooner rather than later, to avoid any more preventable deaths because of unsolicited rumours.
Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Ricardo and Alberto.
If you have experienced a bereavement and would like to speak with someone in confidence contact Cruse Bereavement Care via their national helpline on 0808 808 1677.