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In Guatemala, a rise in vigilante justice

Citizens and police target violent gangs in what some charge is a 'social cleansing' policy.

By Jill ReplogleContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 6, 2005



EL MEZQUITAL, GUATEMALA

Groups of armed, masked men patrol poor neighborhoods. Threatening messages are left on mutilated bodies. Young men disappear, their bodies found later in a ditch.

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These acts weren't unusual during Guatemala's 36-year civil war. But people thought the bloodshed would taper off when the war ended in 1996.

Nine years later, though, human rights observers are finding alarming similarities between that violence and what's now happening to gang members and alleged delinquents.

Some say on- and off-duty police officers are involved, while others point fingers at private security guards and vigilante groups. But the killings have raised concerns about a "social cleansing" effort - one that is backed by citizens fed up with crime and insecurity and often willing to take the law into their own hands. Homicides in Guatemala rose 40 percent from 2001 to 2004, according to the government's human rights ombudsman's office.

"The population is tired of the government's lack of solutions to the violence," says Veronica Godoy, who heads the Public Security Monitoring and Support Group.

In Palin, near Guatemala City, armed male residents of a neighborhood recently began patrolling the streets at night. In June, neighbors burned two gang members alive, according to a municipal employee.

Police and media have attributed most of the brutal killings to gang violence. But some experts point to evidence of more sophisticated involvement as well. "The use of certain strategies or tactics [to kill] is worrisome," says Sergio Morales, a government human rights ombudsman, noting signs of torture.

Constant harassment and extortion could be provoking vigilante vengeance. Gangs often force businesses to pay "war taxes," causing many to go broke, relocate, or hire a guard. As a result, "we think small businessmen and their private police are carrying out social cleansing," says Emilio Goubaud, director of Aprede, or the Association for Crime Prevention, a private group that works to rehabilitate gang members.

Ms. Godoy estimates that private security guards now outnumber police three to one in the country. The Guatemalan congress is discussing a law designed to regulate these largely unmonitored forces.

Violent crime began to rise steadily shortly after the signing of peace accords that ended the civil war and called for reform of abusive security forces.

Adding to Guatemala's crime problems, the United States began deporting thousands of young Central American immigrants with criminal records in the late 1990s. Many of them belonged to gangs in the US, like the Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha.

Neighbors of El Mezquital, a violent slum outside Guatemala City, claim that groups of vigilantes threaten and kidnap gang members there. Many, including Father Miguel Peña, a priest from El Mezquital parish, also suspect that police agents are involved.

Pedro (not his real name), a former member of the gang Mara 18, says he is frequently threatened by police agents in El Mezquital. "One time they passed me and said, 'you're next, you'll see,' " he says. Nine friends have turned up dead this year, he asserts.

The director of the Guatemalan national police and the Interior Minister have both repeatedly denied a secret policy of social cleansing. "If there are individuals, from the private or public sector, involved, they must be aware that if they're caught, they'll pay the consequences before the law," says police director Erwin Sperisen.

Authorities have stepped up police and army presence in violent neighborhoods and cracked down on gang activities. But most of those arrested are set free for lack of evidence, according to a recent report.

Other efforts are being made to target violence at its roots. Aprede has teamed up with the government, for example, to offer rehabilitation, such as trade-skills training, for gang members. Police have also tried to provide training for neighborhood patrol groups.

Residents of El Mezquital say increased police presence in recent months has brought a respite to the violent area.

Esperanza de Luna says she isn't opposed to social cleansing of gang members, even if it means that some will die. "It's not that we're happy about it, but one feels safer because there's one less," she says. Meanwhile, the government human rights office has begun to send observers along with police patrols to monitor potential abuses of power.

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