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Self-Styled Justice in Guatemala
'Social Cleansing' Squads, Though Welcomed by Some, Evoke Horrors of Long Civil War

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.

Far from outsiders, the detained members of the People's Social Cleansing Group are all native Mayan Indians who, like most of the population here, have had no formal schooling and are more comfortable in their indigenous Tzutujil language than in Spanish.

The man who police say they believe was the leader, Tomas Susof Ramirez, is a 60-year-old farmer who lived with his wife and youngest daughter in a two-room, concrete-block hut with only an open fire for a kitchen. His wife said she keeps a pot of coffee hot all day to serve the stream of visitors from their evangelical church.

The Santiago Atitlan region, ringed by volcanic peaks in a setting of uncommon beauty, was a hotbed of leftist activity during the civil war and the scene of brutal massacres by military and paramilitary units.

Neighbors of Susof Ramirez, who asked not to be quoted for fear of retaliation, said he was a member of a guerrilla unit at the time. Like the others arrested, he is in jail pending further investigation.

His son, Pedro Susof Damian, 28, denied that his father had been in a guerrilla group, but he recalled the dangers that many ordinary residents faced from the paramilitary squads.

"My parents used to tell me you had to be very careful. These were mean, dangerous people," he said in an interview at his parents' home on Monday. "If they even suspected you of sympathizing" with the guerrillas, "they would kill you."

The 1996 peace accords brought a measure of prosperity to the region. Wealthy Guatemalans began building chalets along the lake's stunning shoreline, and streams of foreign backpackers browsed the local textile markets. Even modest families began replacing their old adobe-and-straw homes with cinder block and sending their children to school instead of having them work the fields.

But the atmosphere of paranoia and distrust of authority never abated.

"I've been a policeman for 19 years and worked all over the country," said an officer who was transferred to the region two months ago, "and I have never seen people as closed as the ones here."

Gradually, the dangers of the war years were replaced with a new threat: rising crime, including roadside banditry and theft of ripening coffee, corn and other crops. Susof Damian said he and his father arrived at one of their fields to reap a large quantity of avocados several years ago, only to find that every last plant had been cut down.

"My father had been working that land from dawn till dusk for months," Susof Damian recalled. "He was so angry he fell to his knees and started crying."

The police seemed powerless to stop the criminals, and in some cases they became part of the problem. Two years ago, four policemen were nearly lynched here after residents spotted them changing out of their uniforms by the roadside and preparing to ambush motorists.

Susof Ramirez's family members said they had no knowledge of any involvement by him in violent activities. But in early 2004, banners began appearing around Santiago Atitlan announcing the formation of a social cleansing group. One sign warned that criminals would "reap what they have sown." The group also pledged to go after marijuana sellers and brujos -- witches who are said to cast hexes inspired by ancient Mayan beliefs.

Members of the group were soon seen patrolling the surrounding mountains in their trademark green uniforms and black masks. Last July, local journalists and police said, they became bold enough to hold a public meeting on the main road leading into town.

The same evening, men in the same outfits stopped a bus. Diego Pablo Ramirez, 69, who was reputed to be a brujo, was pulled off. When he was found dead, along with a second man seized from his car that day, farmers in the area assumed the social cleansing group was behind those killings and a series of unsolved murders.

And many said they thoroughly approved.

"If you were an honest person, you had nothing to worry about," said Diego Quebac, 40, a coffee planter wearing a T-shirt and rumpled cowboy hat. "They only went after the thieves and the brujos -- the really bad people who need to be eliminated."

Lucas Quezal, 43, another farmer, said one day he cautioned the masked men not to kill people based on mere accusations.

"I said to them, 'You need to really investigate,' " he recalled. "They assured me that they spend eight months examining each case and also give people two chances to change."

Even the police acknowledged that the group's emergence coincided with a marked drop in crime.

"Robberies were way down, but of course homicides went up," Alberto Mazariegos Garcia, an officer with Santiago Atitlan's force, noted with a grim smile.

When word spread that three laborers had been abducted by the social cleansing group on the morning of Jan. 30, rumors started circulating in the community about their alleged misdeeds -- long before their corpses were found.

It was whispered that Candido Choy Quebac, 41, had been paying pregnant women to give up their children for adoption or organ theft. Choy Quebac's son, Abraan Choy Ramirez, 23, and his friend Miguel Xiquin Toc, 25, were said to be petty crooks.

But the men's families insist they were simple construction workers. Choy Ramirez's mother, Rosa, 40, said she had been walking with her son and his friend along a path to the main road when the masked abductors emerged from a field of coffee plants. She said they offered no explanation for seizing the two.

"They just told me, 'Go away! These men belong to us now,' " she recalled. She said she raced back down the mountain to fetch her husband, then watched in horror as the masked men placed a rope around his neck and led him away as well.

Now she wonders how she, her daughter-in-law and the couple's three young children will get by.

"He was my only son. I have not slept since they took him," she said with misery, staring at the dirt in the yard next to the family's tiny concrete hut.

Choy Ramirez's widow, Clara, 23, sat on a rock nearby, tears streaming from her eyes as her children clung to her colorful skirt.

Not far away, on the path where the three men had been abducted, farmers heading to their coffee fields had concerns of a different kind.

"I really hope the authorities release them soon," said Diego Quebac, who still carries the receipt he purchased from the group, in case its remaining members resume their patrols. "Otherwise, see all these coffee plants?" he said, pointing with his machete at a row of leafy shrubs. "They'll all be stolen again."

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