Unreported World, Guatemala: City of Death
Death squads for hire as citizens tackle gang rule
From Ramita Navai in Guatemala City
November 3 2006
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.