Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Death squads for hire as citizens tackle gang rule

At first it looked like a family day out, with crowds gathering by the banks of a river in Guatemala City. Mothers chatted to each other as their children pushed forward, trying to get a better view. But the entertainment on offer was not as it seemed.

Lying on the grass in front of them was a family of five, their hands tied behind their backs and their throats slashed. The youngest was 8 years old.

“Could be gangs, could be a personal vendetta,” said a policeman. “But who knows, here everybody is killing everybody.”

With more than 5,000 murders a year in this country of only 12 million — more than during the dark days of the civil war — violence in Guatemala is out of control. But now citizens are fighting back, hiring assassins to kill gang members and criminals.

They call it “social cleansing” and, according to a USAID opinion poll, nearly half of all Guatemalans support it. They say that they have been forced to take the law into their own hands because of police corruption and inefficiency. Yet there are claims of complicity with the security services.

“Thirty per cent of murders I see now are social cleansing killings,” Comisario Tomás Gómez, the head of a special army unit that patrols neighbourhoods run by gangs, said.

“People have had enough. Communities are being terrorised by gangs, they are extorted and even evicted from their houses. If you don’t pay, you’re killed.”

Communities are clubbing together to hire hit men. Gang members, who control huge swaths of the city, are disappearing, their bodies found dumped and mutilated. The killers leave messages pinned to bodies, or sometimes carved into flesh, warning other gang members that this is what will happen to them. For the first time, gangs are living in fear.

When violence started affecting business in the sprawling La Terminal market, the Merchants’ Association hired a group of 12 hit men known as the Avenging Angels. In a year they killed between 50 and 60 gang members and criminals. Now they patrol the market and anyone caught stealing or causing trouble gets a bullet in the back of the head — three to four people a week.

“The murder rate hasn’t changed, but the crime rate is down,” a local butcher said. ()

The gangs claim that members of the police and security services are involved. Even the country’s chief of police, Erwin Sperison, admits that members of his force may be acting as vigilante death squads.

“It is possible,” he said. “I kicked out 1,200 policemen last year. This year there’s already around 600 policemen that have been taken out of the institution.”

Mynor, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, said that he knew scores of gang members who had been snatched from their homes in the middle of the night by men in police uniform.

“It’s always the same, homies [gang members] are taken in blacked-out, unmarked cars by armed men and their bodies turn up tortured,” he said.

As well as death squads, whole communities are handing out vigilante justice.

A year ago in the small town of Palin, just outside the city, three gang members were beaten and then burnt to death. More than a thousand people, including women and children, took part. After the lynching, the community formed its own protection group, which now patrols the streets every night, armed with guns and machetes.

“The community was forced to act. Crimes don’t get investigated here,” said José Dario López, head of the protection group. “The lynching sent out a pretty strong message.”

Original story here.

No comments:

Post a Comment