A law student returning home to visit his family was reportedly beaten and burned to death with his uncle after someone posted fake rumors to messaging service WhatsApp that claimed the men were involved in child abduction and organ trafficking.
In mid-August, a message spread through the small central Mexican town of Acatlan accusing two local men of being kidnappers who removed organs from their victims for sale on the black market.
“Please everyone be alert because a plague of child kidnappers has entered the country,” said the message, according to the BBC. “It appears that these criminals are involved in organ trafficking.”
The message, which residents quickly shared with each other, continued: “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.” There’s no evidence the alert was anything but a rumor, and the alleged kidnappers did not appear to be named or described.
But two men — 43-year-old Alberto Flores Morales and his nephew, Ricardo Flores Rodriguez, 21, — were somehow accused of being the organ harvesters when they were spotted near an elementary school in the nearby community of San Vicente Boqueron. The relatives were detained by police Aug. 29, and news of the arrest spread almost as fast as the original rumor.
The BBC said Ricardo grew up just outside Acatlan but had moved away to study law. He was back in town visiting his family and helping his uncle, a farmer, with some construction.
The day the two men were arrested they had reportedly gone into town to buy supplies to finish work on a well. Police said there’s no evidence the uncle or nephew had done anything wrong, but they were jailed for allegedly “disturbing the peace” after several local residents accosted them.
Soon, a mob of about 150 people descended on the police station — and one local resident, later identified as Francisco Martinez or “El Tecuantio,” used his phone to start a live stream of the events on Facebook.
“People of Acatlan de Osorio, Puebla, please come give your support, give your support,” he reportedly said during the broadcast. “Believe me, the kidnappers are now here.”
Police said Martinez was one of the people forwarding the WhatsApp message warning of kidnappers.
Another man, Petronilo Castelan – “El Paisa” – allegedly used a loudspeaker to call on local residents to contribute money so he could buy gas and set the two men on fire, and then he walked around the group collecting cash, the BBC reported.
Footage from the scene shows a large group outside the jail forcing open the cell where Ricardo and Antonio were being held. The two men were dragged out of the building with ropes and savagely beaten.
And through it all, the horrifying events were live-streamed for the world to see – and that included Maria Rodriguez, Ricardo’s mother, who had received an alert on her phone alerting her to the Facebook stream. At the time, Rodriguez was in Baltimore, Md., where she has worked since the early
According to the BBC, Maria Rodriguez received numerous messages alerting her that her son had been arrested and was suspected of being a kidnapper. She thought it was a mistake — until the livestream began.
She then watched as the mob beat her son and brother-in-law. In vain, she posted a comment on Facebook urging the group to stop.
“Please don’t hurt them, don’t kill them, they’re not child kidnappers…I am his mother,” Maria wrote.
She then watched as her two relatives were pushed to the ground, at the base of stone steps leading to the police department, and beaten. Then gas was poured over them.
Eyewitnesses told BBC they believe Ricardo was already dead from the beating but his uncle was likely still alive when the pair were set ablaze.
Petra Elia Garcia – Ricardo’s grandmother – was called to the scene to identify the bodies. She shouted at the mob as it began to disperse: “Look what you did to them!”
Jazmin Sanchez, Alberto’s widow, also watched the events unfold on Facebook.
“He was a good man, he didn’t deserve to die the way he did,” she told the BBC.
According to state authorities, five people have been charged with instigating the crime and four more with carrying out the murder. Among the five were Martinez, Castelan and a third man identified as Manuel, who rang nearby church bells and yelled that the two men were going to be released.
Police said the remaining two alleged instigators and the four suspects charged with murder are on the run.
“It was one of the most horrific things that ever happened in Acatlan,” Carlos Fuentes, a driver who works at a taxi stand near the police station, told the BBC. “The columns of smoke could be seen from every point in the town.”
Maria Rodriguez, her husband, Jose Guadalupe, and their daughter returned to Acatlan for the first time in more than a decade. They had left Ricardo and his older brother, Jose Guadalupe Jr., in Mexico for a better life in the U.S.
Now, months later, the family lives in fear in Acatlan, Maria said. She told the BBC she still cannot understand why the mob was swept up by “fake news.”
“Why didn’t they check? No children were kidnapped, no one filed a formal complaint,” she said. “It was fake news.”
According to the BBC, WhatsApp has been at the center of a wave of lynchings across Mexico — and well beyond its borders.
In June, two people were beaten to death by a mob of 200 in the Indian state of Assam, in an incident frighteningly similar to that in Acatlan
Last month, in Ecuador, two men and a woman, who were arrested for allegedly stealing $200, were killed by a mob after a message circulated on WhatsApp falsely accusing them of being child snatchers. Days later, in nearby Colombia, a mob killed a man falsely accused of kidnapping a child.
The origin of anything shared on the app is almost impossible to trace because of its end-to-end encryption.