Michele Norris, host:

NORRIS: From NPR News, this is All Things Considered, I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Here's a grim statistic from Latin America. Gun homicides are four times the world average. The head of the Organization of American States warned recently that violent crime there is an epidemic fueled by street gangs, drug trafficking and poverty. In Guatemala, people have had enough. To fight the brutal gangs and corrupt police, many Guatemalans have turned to vigilantism. They call it "social cleansing," and now lynch mobs and death squads are commonplace. In the first of two reports, NPR's John Burnett looks at the emergence of el sicariato, literally, the assassin culture.

JOHN BURNETT: Twenty-five years ago, public enemy number one was the leftist guerrillas who were at war with the government of Guatemala. They were branded subversives, delinquents, anti-social elements, and they were disappeared by death squads in the dark of night. Today, the enemies of society are the maras - the street gangs, whose members are estimated to number 80,000. And the violent campaign to eradicate them is called "limpieza social" - social cleansing. El Flaco is the nickname we've given to a 26-year-old Salvadoran who says he left the Mara Salvatrucha, by his own admission, after killing 22 people, and committing countless extortions.

Mr. EL FACO (Salvadorian, Gang Member): (Through translator) We have a saying, if you don't pay, we won't hurt the father. Sadly, it's the children who'll pay. We send them a letter. Then we surveil their kids. We ask for $5,000 to $13,000, depending on the kind of business he's in. If he doesn't pay, we kidnap his wife or child, then we kill them. Then we send him body parts showing him we mean business, and we keep kidnapping family members until he pays.

BURNETT: Flaco sits shirtless in a halfway house for ex-gang members in Guatemala City. The heart tattoo over his left breast signifies his barrio, where he was once feared. His teeth are bad, he's skinny, and his eyes are hard and emotionless like small brown stones.

Mr. EL CAFO: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: Flaco says the money they stole was spent mostly on weapons and drugs, and to support fellow gang members in jail. He says he and others became deeply involved in satanic rituals, which involved human sacrifice and cannibalism. He says he joined the gang when he was eight years old, after he was abandoned by his parents. Flaco says street gangs are growing in number.

Mr. FLACO: (Through translator) Because most young people today are looking for the love of a father and a mother. They don't get that in their homes, so they look for that in a gang. But it's a deception. A gang is not a family. All you get from gangs is income, brutality and scars.

BURNETT: Today, gang members are in the crosshairs. Operating under names like the "Angels of Vengeance" and the "Justice Makers," hired hitmen called "sicarios" have changed the calculus of risk within which the gangs operate. Time was, when shootouts between gang members were the greatest threat. But today, says a 17-year-old former gang girl we'll called "Babyface," it's not the same. Tearfully, she says a lot of her friends have left the gangs, but now they fear for their lives.

BABYFACE (Former, Gang Member): (Through translator) For example, the sicarios killed the father of my son because he had tattoos. I've had other friends riding in buses, and perhaps someone gets on and pulls out a gun and kills him right there, without another thought. Lots of us have left the gangs. We don't want to return to that life. We're trying to do better. They should support us and not shoot us like animals.

BURNETT: Social cleansing has become so prevalent in Guatemala today, that young people with no connection to gangs say that it's become dangerous to look even mildly iconoclastic. Edgar Alvarez is a 23-year-old university student who wears his hair in a bushy ponytail and had his tattoos removed.

Mr. EDGAR ALCAREZ (University Student): (Through translator) If you have tattoos, you're a gang member and they'll threaten you. They'll say, "you're going to end up dead." The police tell you this, too. Social cleansing is a fact.

BURNETT: Social cleansing has also become a lucrative business. Two sicarios who have their names as Christian and Roberto agree to an interview in a popular shopping mall in Guatemala City. A familiar figure in a red suit poses for pictures with toddlers on his lap, outside the pizza parlor with the two assassins sitting nervously at a table.

Mr. ROBERTO (Assassin): (Through translator) Look, we do it for the money and because we're friends. They know us. A store owner tells me, "Look buddy, some people are (bleep) with us, they're asking me for money." I say, "We can do something about it." He tells me, "How much do you want?" I say, "$650." "OK, then, go do it."

BURNETT: That's Roberto. He's 44, bulky, dark-skinned and friendly. His partner, Christian, 25 years old, unsmiling and hollow-eyed, joins in.

Mr. CHRISTIAN (Assassin): (Through translator) Our contracts are $500 and up, no less. It depends on who the person is. If it's someone powerful, someone who will require more time and more study, it goes to up to $2,000. Our clients are bus companies, taxi companies, store owners, lawyers - anyone with money.

BURNETT: The sicarios, who live in a world of paranoia, uneasily scan the restaurant, full of happy families with bags full of Christmas presents. They say there are lots of guns for hire these days. Most, like them, are former police. Both Christian and Roberto say they're married, with children and they claim their wives don't know what they do. We tell them we're auto mechanics, says one, chuckling. The two are asked if they consider themselves to be a death squad?

Mr. ROBERTO: (Spanish spoken).

BURNETT: Well, yes, says Roberto, but we're on the side of the people. Christian adds with the first smile of the interview, we're helping Guatemala to clean up all these garbage. There are those who believe the sicario violence and lynchings are a legacy of Guatemala's 30-year long counterinsurgency war, in which great numbers of innocents were slaughtered. Whatever the roots, there are no clear lines between the antagonists. Gang members hire out to sicarios to finger other gang members. Sicarios turn into extortionists themselves committing the same crimes they were paid to stamp out. And the police, instead of arresting the sicarios, have their own death squads. Last month, three national policemen were sentenced to 30 years in prison for executing five youth in a crime-ridden barrio of the capital, called El Gallito. Guatemala is a very violent country, said a longtime human rights monitor. This, sadly, is our cultural response, an eye for an eye. John Burnett, NPR News, Guatemala City.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, we take you to a Guatemalan town where lynch mobs and citizen patrols have driven out the street gangs. You can view a photo gallery and read excerpts from our interviews with the gang members and assassins at our website

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