The photo shows a sign which I photographed in a poor neighborhood of Cusco a couple of days ago. You can find many versions of this text in poorer districts all over Peru and, roughly translated, this one reads “Community watch group warns that all thieves caught will be tortured” and it goes on to say “No unknown vehicles to be parked here at night, !!!!Be warned!!!
Is this widespread across the whole country?
In the countryside the messages are often more extreme with threats of being burnt or stoned, and these threats are sometimes delivered on. However, unlike the recent Zimmerman case in the US, this is something that will not make even the national news much. In a country where poor urban areas and most of the countryside lack much police presence local communities see these threats as a valuable deterrent to crime. In richer districts you wont see these warnings, more wealthy Peruvians and ex-pats generally enjoy (i.e. pay for in their taxes) a “decent” police cover and also “Seranazgo” which is a municipal security force that backs up the police. In my opinion Serenazgo are often more effective than the police but they dont carry firearms, so need police muscle in some cases.
Do I need to worry about this as a visitor?
For foreigners living here that have not grown up with this type of rough justice it seems a tricky line for community groups to walk between providing a deterrent to crime and being savages. I sympathize with locals who see the situation as black and white and feel that this needs to be done because police in their areas are seen as corrupt and fairly useless (a major issue in Latin America generally), but these primitive punishments are sometimes brutal and reduce communities to savages perhaps. More often than not however the punishment is a public whipping while tied to post with very little clothing on. Note that there is a policeman in the photo below, not by request probably, but trying to make sure the punishment does not get out of hand! Police will generally not get involved in the early stages as they risk the wrath of the mob.
Thieves are the most prolific offenders that are caught by local communities and the usual treatment is that the person will be paraded through the streets in their underwear and wearing a sign round their necks which will say something like “I am a dirty thief” quite embarrassing maybe but not too much of a deterrent in itself, hence the whipping and then hand over to the police. More serious crimes such as rape or a hit and run driver will provoke a much stronger reaction and in such cases if the police do not get involved the offender will rightfully fear for their lives.
It needs to be pointed out that foreign visitors to Peru will likely never see anything like this, much less be involved. I have lived here for over 15 years and have never seen an incident live (but have so on local TV), it comes down to local people policing themselves in mainly rural and poorer areas. As visitors you may well see the signs though and now will know a little more as to what they mean.