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The "Bald Knobbers", an 1880s vigilante group from Missouri – as portrayed in the 1919 film The Shepherd of the Hills

Vigilantism (/vɪɪˈlæntɪzəm/) is the act of preventing, investigating, and punishing perceived offenses and crimes without legal authority.[1][2]

A vigilante is a person who practices or partakes in vigilantism, or undertakes public safety and retributive justice without commission.


The term is borrowed from Spanish vigilante, which means 'sentinel' or 'watcher', from Latin vigilāns. According to political scientist Regina Bateson, vigilantism is "the extralegal prevention, investigation, or punishment of offenses."[1] The definition has three components:

  1. Extralegal: Vigilantism is done outside of the law (not necessarily in violation of the law)
  2. Prevention, investigation, or punishment: Vigilantism requires specific actions, not just attitudes or beliefs
  3. Offense: Vigilantism is a response to a perceived crime or violation of an authoritative norm

Other scholars have defined "collective vigilantism" as "group violence to punish perceived offenses to a community."[2]

Les Johnston argues that vigilantism has six necessary components:[3]

  • it is planned or premeditated
  • it is carried out by private volunteers
  • it is a social movement
  • it involves or threatens the use of force
  • it occurs when established societal norms are perceived to be threatened
  • its primary goal is to enforce safety and security, especially to its participants, by combating crime


Vigilantism and the vigilante ethos existed long before the word vigilante was introduced into the English language. There are conceptual parallels between the medieval aristocratic custom of private war or vendetta and the modern vigilante philosophy.[4]

Elements of the concept of vigilantism can be found in the biblical account in Genesis 34 of the abduction and rape (or, by some interpretations, seduction) of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, in the Canaanite city of Shechem by the eponymous son of the ruler, and the violent reaction of her brothers Simeon and Levi, who slew all of the males of the city in revenge, rescued their sister and plundered Shechem. When Jacob protested that their actions might bring trouble upon him and his family, the brothers replied "Should he [i.e., Shechem] treat our sister as a harlot?"

Similarly, in 2 Samuel 13, Absalom kills his brother Amnon after King David, their father, fails to punish Amnon for raping Tamar, their sister.

In the Western literary and cultural tradition, characteristics of vigilantism have often been vested in folkloric heroes and outlaws (e.g., Robin Hood[5]).

During medieval times, punishment of felons was sometimes exercised by such secret societies as the courts of the Vehm[6] (cf. the medieval Sardinian Gamurra later become Barracelli, the Sicilian Vendicatori and the Beati Paoli), a type of early vigilante organization, which became extremely powerful in Westphalian Germany during the 15th century.

Vigilantism in Mexico[edit]

In some regions of Mexico, mainly in the state of Michoacan, people affected by criminal groups like Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacana, created vigilante groups called Grupos de autodefensa comunitaria in 2013. Their most notorious leader was Hipólito Mora, assassinated in 2023.

Other notable acts of vigilantism[edit]

  • Recognized since the 1980s, Sombra Negra or "Black Shadow" of El Salvador is a group of mostly retired police officers and military personnel whose sole duty is to cleanse the country of impure social elements by killing criminals and gang members. Along with several other organizations, Sombra Negra are a remnant of the death squads from the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s.[11]
  • Los Pepes was a group formed in Colombia during the 1990s that committed acts of vigilantism against drug lord Pablo Escobar and his associates within the Medellín Cartel.
  • In the early decade of the 2000s, after the September 11 attacks, Jonathan Idema, a self-proclaimed vigilante, entered Afghanistan and captured many people he claimed to be terrorists. Idema claimed he was collaborating with, and supported by, the United States Government. He even sold news-media outlets tapes that he claimed showed an Al Qaeda training camp in action. His operations ended abruptly when he was arrested with his partners in 2004 and sentenced to 10 years in a notorious Afghan prison, before being pardoned in 2007.
  • Formed in 2002, the Revolutionary Front is a Swedish anti-fascist organization. Members have been known to orchestrate attacks against known/suspected fascist individuals. The attacks usually involve damaging property, or even attacking the person themselves.[13]
  • On August 13, 2004, Akku Yadav was lynched by a mob of around 200 women from Kasturba Nagar, India. It took them 15 minutes to hack to death the man they say raped them with impunity for more than a decade. Chilli powder was thrown in his face and stones hurled. As he flailed and fought, one of his alleged victims hacked off his penis with a vegetable knife. A further 70 stab wounds were left on his body.[14]
  • Salwa Judum, the anti-Naxalite group formed in 2005 in India are suspected to be helping the security forces in their fight against Naxals.
  • In Hampshire, England, during 2006, a vigilante slashed the tires of more than twenty cars, leaving a note made from cut-out newsprint stating "Warning: you have been seen while using your mobile phone".[15] Driving whilst using a mobile is a criminal offense in the UK, but critics feel the law is little observed or enforced.[16][17][18]
  • Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), an Irish republican socialist paramilitary group, maintains a presence in parts of Northern Ireland and has carried out punishment beatings on local alleged petty criminals.[19] In 2006, the INLA claimed to have put at least two drugs gangs out of business in Northern Ireland. After their raid on a criminal organization based in the north-west, they released a statement saying that "the Irish National Liberation Army will not allow the working-class people of this city to be used as cannon fodder by these criminals whose only concern is profit by whatever means available to them."[20][21] On 15 February 2009, the INLA claimed responsibility for the shooting death of Derry drug-dealer Jim McConnell.[22] On 19 August 2009, the INLA shot and wounded a man in Derry. The INLA claimed that the man was involved in drug dealing although the injured man and his family denied the allegation.[23] In a newspaper article on 28 August, however, the victim retracted his previous statement and admitted that he had been involved in small scale drug-dealing but has since ceased these activities.[24]
  • Other Irish republican paramilitary organizations have served and continue to serve as vigilantes. Óglaigh na hÉireann for example in 2011 claimed responsibility for an arson attack on a taxi depot on Oldpark Road, Belfast, which led to the owners fleeing the country. It claimed that the owners were using the depot as a cover for drug dealing.[25] In 2010 The Real Irish Republican Army shot a man in the legs in Derry. The man was a convicted sex offender.[26] The Continuity Irish Republican Army in 2011 were blamed for the punishment beating of a heroin dealer in Clondalkin, Dublin. The man had previously been ordered to leave the country.[27]
  • Republican Action Against Drugs or RAAD are an Irish Republican vigilante organization active predominantly in and around Derry. Although often attributed as being a front for "Dissident Republican" groups by the media, the organization claim to have no allegiance to any particular Republican party or paramilitary. Formed in late 2008, RAAD originally offered an "amnesty" to all drug dealers, asking them to make themselves known to the group before giving an assurance that they had stopped dealing.[28] In an interview with the Derry Journal in August 2009, the group's leadership explained: "We would monitor the actions of those who have come forward and, given an adequate period of time, interest in those drug dealers would cease and they could start to lead normal lives".[28] Since then, RAAD have claimed responsibility for no less than 17 shootings as well as countless pipe bomb attacks (see Republican Action Against Drugs#Timeline).
  • On April 15, 2011, a group of women in Cherán armed with rocks and fireworks attacked a bus carrying illegal loggers armed with machine guns in Michoacán associated with the Mexican drug cartel La Familia Michoacana. They assumed control over the town, expelled the police force and blocked roads leading to oak timber on a nearby mountain. Vigilante activity spread to the nearby community of Opopeo. They established Community self-defence groups. The government of Mexico has recognized Cherán as a self-governing indigenous community, but criminals continue to murder residents in the forest.[29]
  • On June 13, 2014, Darius, a 16-year-old Romani residing in France and who has been several times interrogated by the police on the account of suspected burglaries and larcenies, was kidnapped, beaten up, and then left in a supermarket trolley by an unknown party after rumors circulated of him being implicated in a housebreaking, which happened several hours before in the city of Pierrefite-sur-Seine.[30]
  • Since the May 9, 2016 Philippine elections and the start of Rodrigo Duterte's term as the President of the Philippines, numerous suspects (particularly drug users and pushers) were killed by various unknown hitmen labelled as a summary execution during his war on drugs.[31] Duterte has been accused of being linked to the Davao Death Squad, a vigilante group active since the mid-1990s in Davao City, where Duterte had previously served as mayor.[32]
  • The Gulabi Gang, formed in 2006 in Uttar Pradesh, is a female vigilante group dedicated to protecting women of all castes from domestic abuse, sexual violence, and oppression.[33]
  • On the 5th of May, 1981 Marianne Bachmeier pulled out a handgun from the right side of her trench coat and shot her seven year old daughter's sexual abuser and murderer dead during his trial in the courtroom of Lübeck District Court.
  • On the 28th of November, 1994, Jeffrey Dahmer, a famous Milwaukee serial killer and cannibal was beaten to death by Christopher Scarver, a fellow inmate at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin.
  • On March 16, 1984, Gary Plauché shot and killed Jeff Doucet, who was on trial for the kidnapping and rape of Plauché's son. The case received wide publicity because some people questioned whether Plauché should have been charged with murder.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Bateson, Regina (2020). "The Politics of Vigilantism". Comparative Political Studies. 54 (6): 923–955. doi:10.1177/0010414020957692. ISSN 0010-4140. S2CID 224924776.
  2. ^ a b Cohen, Dara Kay; Jung, Danielle F.; Weintraub, Michael (2022). "Collective Vigilantism in Global Comparative Perspective". Comparative Politics. 55 (2): 239–261. doi:10.5129/001041523x16630894935073. S2CID 252721449.
  3. ^ Johnston, L. (1996). "What is Vigilantism?". British Journal of Criminology. 36 (2): 220–236. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.bjc.a014083.
  4. ^ Dumsday, Travis (2019-06-17). "Alexander of Hales on the Ethics of Vigilantism". Philosophia. 48 (2): 535–545. doi:10.1007/s11406-019-00093-5. S2CID 189951647. Retrieved 2021-12-30.
  5. ^ Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery (2004-11-01). A Great Effusion of Blood?: Interpreting Medieval Violence. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9780802087744.
  6. ^ "Germany: Die Feme". Time. Oct 16, 1944.
  7. ^ Capozzola, Christopher (March 2002). "The Only Badge Needed Is Your Patriotic Fervor: Vigilance, Coercion, and the Law in World War I America". The Journal of American History. 88 (4): 1354–1382. doi:10.2307/2700601. JSTOR 2700601.
  8. ^ Hochschild, Adam (October 2, 2018). "1. Lessons from a Dark Time". Lessons from a Dark Time and Other Essays. University of California Press. p. 13. doi:10.1525/9780520969674-fm. ISBN 978-0-520-96967-4.
  9. ^ a b Levi, William (May 12, 2022). Badger state nationalism: World War I, the Ku Klux Klan, and the politics of 'Americanism' in 1915-1930 Wisconsin (Thesis). James Madison University. pp. 45–47. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  10. ^ Nicholas Farrelly (July 2, 2010). "From Village Scouts to Cyber Scouts". New Mandala. Retrieved February 10, 2011.
  11. ^ Gutiérrez, Raúl (2007-09-04). "RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Death Squads Still Operating". Inter Press Service. Archived from the original on 2007-11-08. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  12. ^ "1985-2001: A short history of Anti-Fascist Action (AFA)". Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  13. ^ "The Rise of Sweden's Far-Left Militants". VICE. Archived from the original on 31 May 2014. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  14. ^ Prasad, Raekha (2005-09-16). "'Arrest us all': the 200 women who killed a rapist". the Guardian. Retrieved 2020-09-07.
  15. ^ "Phone vigilante slashes car tires " BBC News dated 14 August 2006. Recovered on unknown date.
  16. ^ "Careless talk". news.bbc.co.uk. 2007-02-22. Retrieved 2009-04-24.
  17. ^ "500 drivers a week flout phone ban". www.thisislondon.co.uk. Archived from the original on 2009-05-02. Retrieved 2009-04-24.
  18. ^ "1,100 fined drivers get off the hook - Scotland on Sunday". scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com. Archived from the original on 2012-07-18. Retrieved 2009-04-24.
  19. ^ "Action Taken Against Ardoyne Thug Necessary - INLA". Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  20. ^ Brendan McDaid (31 March 2006). "INLA hands over drugs seized from cocaine ring". Belfast Telegraph. Archived from the original on May 17, 2011.
  21. ^ INLA dismantles another criminal gang April 07, 2006 10:51 Indymedia.ie
  22. ^ "INLA claims responsibility for murder of Derry drug dealer". Archived from the original on March 6, 2016. Retrieved 26 May 2009.
  23. ^ "INLA say they shot father-of-three". Derry Journal. 21 August 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-08-24.
  24. ^ "INLA victim tells 'Journal' 'I did deal in drugs - but not anymore'". Derry Journal. 28 August 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-08-31.
  25. ^ "Belfast Media | News | ONH claim arson attack on depot". Archived from the original on 2011-07-07. Retrieved 2011-05-26.
  26. ^ "Real IRA shot sex offender - Local - Derry Journal". Archived from the original on 2012-01-18. Retrieved 2011-05-26.
  27. ^ Cormac Byrne (16 March 2011). "CIRA blamed for attack on man (20)". Herald.ie. Archived from the original on 2012-09-04.
  28. ^ a b "'Only way to eradicate drugs scourge is to remove the dealers'". Derry Journal. Archived from the original on 2012-01-18. Retrieved 2011-05-27.
  29. ^ Karla Zabludovsky (August 2, 2012). "Reclaiming the Forests and the Right to Feel Safe". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012.
  30. ^ Willsher, Kim (June 17, 2014). "Roma teenager in coma after being attacked by residents of French estate". The Guardian. Retrieved June 19, 2014.
  31. ^ "THE KILL LIST". Philippine Daily Inquirer. July 7, 2016. Retrieved July 30, 2016.
  32. ^ Quiano, Kathy; Westcott, Ben (2017-03-02). "Ex-Davao Death Squad leader: Duterte ordered bombings". CNN. Retrieved 2017-05-29.
  33. ^ "Women's Vigilantism in India: A Case Study of the Pink Sari Gang | Sciences Po Mass Violence and Resistance - Research Network". www.sciencespo.fr. 2016-01-25. Retrieved 2023-04-03.
  34. ^ "Father of Kidnapped Son gets Revenge-1984 Remember those moments on TV?-Jeffrey Doucet bites the bullet". Toluna. 2011-03-15. Archived from the original on 2011-07-22. Retrieved 2024-01-25.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bateson, Regina. "The politics of vigilantism." Comparative Political Studies 54.6 (2021): 923-955. online
  • Bjørgo, Tore, and Miroslav Mareš, eds. Vigilantism against Migrants and Minorities (Routledge, 2019), 19 essays by experts on Europe and North America.
  • Kantor, Ana, and Mariam Persson. "Understanding vigilantism." in Informal security providers and Security Sector Reform in Liberia (Stockholm: Folke Bernadotte Akademin, 2010). online
  • Kowalewski, David. "Vigilantism." in International handbook of violence research (Springer Netherlands, 2003). 339-349.
  • Moncada, Eduardo. "Varieties of vigilantism: Conceptual discord, meaning and strategies." Global Crime 18.4 (2017): 403-423. online
  • Pratten, David. "The politics of protection: perspectives on vigilantism in Nigeria." Africa 78.1 (2008): 1-15. online
  • Rosenbaum, H. Jon, and Peter C. Sederberg, eds. Vigilante politics (U of Pennsylvania Press, 1976), essays by experts on USA , Africa and Ireland. online
  • Rosenbaum, H. Jon, and Peter C. Sederberg. "Vigilantism: An analysis of establishment violence." Comparative Politics 6.4 (1974): 541-570. online

External links[edit]