Guatemala's lynch-mob justice

Tuesday's execution of five youths is the latest in a string of such incidents, in part a legacy of civil war.

Within hours of the robbery and murder of a local farmer in Las Conchas, five teenage boys accused of the crime were pronounced guilty.

Sound like speedy justice in a country known for precisely the opposite?

Not exactly. The alleged bandits were cornered and "tried" on Tuesday by hundreds of angry villagers in the town, 200 miles north of the Guatemalan capital. Their sentence: The five youths were doused, one by one, with gasoline and burned. A sixth reportedly escaped.

This most recent case brings to 45 the number of vigilante justice incidents this year. That includes 29 lynchings - the murder by a mob of an accused without lawful trial. Since August 1995, there have been some 340 lynchings or attempted lynchings, according to MINUGUA, the United Nations Mission in Guatemala.

Experts in Guatemala and the international community are increasingly concerned with the phenomenon here, which they claim is not being adequately addressed by the government and is misunderstood by society. According to them, lynchings are symptomatic of ungovernability and are a window into more profound problems in Guatemala that need urgent attention. "Lynchings are just the tip of the iceberg," says a MINUGUA official, who asked not to be named. "It's just the part we see of a larger problem that we don't see, but that is much more dangerous."

As the international body responsible for monitoring the 1996 peace agreement that ended Guatemala's 30-year civil war, MINUGUA has followed the lynchings closely. In a report due to be released early this month, it will seek to counter some of the myths surrounding the vigilante justice phenomenon and to challenge society to seek solutions to a problem that threatens the peace and stability of the nation.

For many analysts, the lynchings are closely tied to militarization during the civil war. According to Luis Ramirez, a lawyer with the private Guatemalan Institute for Comparative Penal Studies in Guatemala City, historically, local indigenous leaders administered justice, or "indigenous law," in communities where there was a total absence of the state justice system. More than 50 percent of the population is Mestizo - of mixed European and indigenous ancestry - while 44 percent is native American.

As a way to prevent villagers from allying with rebel guerrillas, the government replaced these local authorities with military officers, and the state organized civil self-defense patrols. These groups often controlled communities through violence. With the peace accord, the committees were dismantled, leaving an authority vacuum along with a legacy of violence. "The lack of a state presence in these communities and the destruction of the traditional indigenous authorities and 'indigenous law' has generated a state of anomie, or absence of norms," says Mr. Ramirez.

Ramirez maintains that Guatemala needs to recognize the multiethnic nature of the country, and the legitimacy of indigenous law, to allow local authorities to reemerge and resolve conflicts in their communities. He adds that in addition to increasing people's access to the justice system, that system needs to be more intercultural and bilingual.

Ramirez and the MINUGUA official say one of the biggest obstacles to strengthening indigenous law - and stopping lynch mobs - is the widely held belief that indigenous culture fosters lynchings. In a recent op-ed piece in the El Periodico newspaper here, regular columnist Mario Merida, a retired colonel, asserted that the origin of the "violent attitude of indigenous people" could be traced back to ancient Mayan society. He told the Monitor, "These types of things don't happen in more developed communities with lower levels of ethnicity. It is an ancestral inheritance."

But analysts say that while 64 percent of lynchings take place in indigenous communities, there is also a correlation to areas hardest hit by war violence. The prevalence of this belief, they say, not only hinders recognition of indigenous law, but reveals the vast cultural divide between those in government and other influential positions - who are mainly Mestizo or of European descent - and the largely marginalized indigenous population.

So far, however, the government's response to lynchings has not addressed the issue of indigenous law or rebuilding the social fabric of war-torn communities.

At the onset of the lynching phenomenon, the MINUGUA official says the government failed to take a strong stance because of the initial perception that lynchings were a way to deal with common crime, and that the victims were "just criminals."

Since then, some areas of government have taken action, if belatedly. In recent weeks members of the judiciary have called for a halt to lynchings as they work to pass a law that would specifically codify the practice as a crime. Already, 26 cases of murder related to lynching incidents, with varying numbers of defendants, have been tried in court. In 19 cases there were guilty verdicts, but some are under appeal.

Concerned that vigilante acts scare off tourists - an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually - and taint the nation's image abroad, the state tourism institute on Tuesday unveiled a new education campaign. The effort consists of radio spots, a radio soap opera, and a television spot aimed at discouraging lynchings. A committee within the judiciary also has distributed manuals on civic values to schoolchildren and held 10 workshops with local and municipal authorities. "In the areas where we have had workshops, there haven't been any lynchings since," says Maria del Carmen Ortiz, an official with the judicial unit that is working on the issue.

According to the MINUGUA official, a lasting solution will require Guatemalan society to undertake a deep reflection on itself as a whole, as well as on the needs of its indigenous people and war-torn communities. "Lynchings are terrible things, from which something positive could come, if it means a recognition of the multicultural reality of this nation."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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