Self-Styled Justice in Guatemala

Members of the
Members of the "social cleansing group" are arrested by police for setting up a checkpoint and extorting money from passing motorists and pedestrians. (Policia Nacional Civil, Guatemala - Policia Nacional Civil, Guatemala - Policia Nacional Civil, Guatemala)
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 24, 2006

SANTIAGO ATITLAN, Guatemala -- People here call it limpieza social , Spanish for "social cleansing." But the recent surge in armed abductions and murders by self-appointed anti-crime squads throughout Guatemala is leaving a messy trail of blood and tears.

Almost every night, teams of gunmen storm into the nation's poorest neighborhoods to seize another man, woman, or teenager deemed guilty of wrongdoing. Almost every morning, another corpse turns up showing signs of torture or strangulation.

Already this year, Guatemalan human rights monitors say, as many as 98 people in this nation of about 13 million are known to have been murdered by such groups, and 364 others have been killed by methods that suggest such groups could be responsible. Last year, nearly 3,000 murders similar to these took place, and officials predict the total this year could exceed that.

Often the targets are petty thieves or tattooed members of the fearsome gangs that have terrorized residents across Central America for the past decade. But just as often, they appear to be victims of mistaken identity, false accusations or petty personal feuds.

"That's the problem when people take matters into their own hands," said Mario Polanco, head of the Mutual Support Group, a victims' rights organization in Guatemala City. The anti-crime squads, he said, have "become so accustomed to killing of their own accord that when they have a personal enmity with someone in their neighborhood, they'll kill that person, too, and the country becomes more and more violent."

The murders have sounded a disturbing echo in a nation still haunted by memories of a brutal 36-year civil war. The conflict claimed 200,000 lives before ending with peace accords in 1996. Many victims were executed by government-backed death squads, and others were killed by anti-government guerrilla groups.

The combination of violence and poverty has driven many Guatemalans to seek a new start in the United States. An estimated 550,000 Guatemalans now live in the United States, including between 40,000 and 60,000 in the greater Washington area. Some have prospered and become U.S. citizens; others are illegal immigrants and laborers.

With the end of the civil war, some former combatants appear to have turned to crime -- and freelance crime-fighting. Officials say the recent murders may be the work of frustrated police officers, former paramilitary members and ex-guerrillas who have the support of their communities.

But only a fraction of the killers are ever arrested, and even fewer are brought to trial. So it was nationwide news three weeks ago when police in this picturesque tourist town beside Lake Atitlan apprehended seven armed men wearing olive uniforms and black ski masks, who had been extorting money from passersby.

The men, who put up a 30-minute firefight before surrendering, were charged with operating an illegal checkpoint on the main road into town. Witnesses said they had forced motorists and pedestrians to pay about $1 each in exchange for a receipt, stamped "The People's Social Cleansing Group -- Justice, Peace, and Equality," that promised the bearer safe passage for two years.

Police suspect that the group, some of whose members remain at large, is also responsible for more than a dozen murders in the area, including the killings of three laborers who were abducted at gunpoint the same day by men wearing the same outfits as those apprehended at the checkpoint hours later.

The arrests provided a rare, if somewhat murky, glimpse into how such groups have emerged.

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