ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. Violent crime is rampant in Latin America, but equally troubling is the way many communities are responding to it. In Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala, anger at local gangs and distrust of police have led to lynchings. In Guatemala, vigilantism has become commonplace. The trend worries human rights monitors, but many Guatemalans say if the police won't clean up their streets, they will. NPR's John Burnett has the second of two reports.
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JOHN BURNETT: The plaza of San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala was not always so chaotically normal. Last year, this working-class town of Cachiquel Indians not far from the capital was overrun with gangs. Extortionists reportedly went through the phone book name by name demanding money and threatening violence against families that didn't pay. The town folk complained of an impotent police force and a justice system that releases criminals back into the population. So 14 months ago, the people of San Juan Sacatepequez took matters into their own hands.
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BURNETT: Every night, men gather in the plaza to go on patrol with machetes, truncheons and two-way radios.
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BURNETT: On a recent night, a group of 20 men, bundled against the mountain cold, some in balaclavas, walked the darkened, hilly streets of their sector. The only visible impropriety was the town drunk.
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BURNETT: The patrol leader, a local veterinarian nicknamed the Jackal, said the gangbangers have mostly left San Juan. He says their security patrols have been so effective, now other cities want to copy them.
"THE JACKAL" (Veterinarian): (Spanish spoken)
BURNETT: (Translating) Right now, nothing happens anymore, says the Jackal, because they know we're patrolling at night. And if the delinquents try to rob anyone during the day, everyone in the marketplace has whistles…
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BURNETT: (Translating) To sound the alarm. And everyone comes out and captures the thief.
And what happens then? The patrol leaders say they hand the thief over to the police. But San Juan's police chief, whose officers have effectively been marginalized by the citizen patrols, said there have been six vigilante killings in the 10 months that he's been on the job. There was an attempted lynching last month. The town folk caught two Nicaraguans they accused of being thieves. They tied the men up, stripped them, beat them bloody, and paraded them around town, says Arbol Pavilla, local representative of the Office of the National Human Rights Ombudsman.
Mr. ARBOL PAVILLA (Office of the National Human Rights Ombudsman): (Through Translator) They beat them. And they were at the point of pouring gasoline on them and setting them on fire. But it was avoided when the police intervened. They were lucky. I saw the gas can with my own eyes.
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BURNETT: At midnight, a cafe owner invites the patrol in from the streets to warm themselves with coffee and tamales. The owner, Osmar Mancilla, sits by the griddle and considers how things have turned around in San Juan.
Mr. OSMAR MANCILLA (Cafe Owner): (Through Translator) I have a brother-in-law who had a bad experience with extortion. It was a type of terrorism. They had him afraid all the time. Aside from this, there was so much insecurity in the streets. When you'd leave your house, you never knew if you'd ever return. Since they started these patrols, thank God, things have changed. There's more tranquility.
BURNETT: The restaurant owner is asked, did the street gangs flee San Juan because of the presence of the night patrols or because of the message sent by the public incineration of six gang members?
Mr. MANCILLA: (Through Translator) It's sad, because I think there's divine justice, and the only one who can take a life is God. But there are extreme circumstances. If the police protected the population, there wouldn't be the need for these measures.
BURNETT: Back out on the street, a burly patroller in a ski mask nicknamed el Chino put it bluntly.
EL CHINO (Patrolman): (Spanish spoken).
BURNETT: These people are human garbage, he said. We don't want them around.
A few years ago, the Guatemalan government, itself frustrated of the inability of its police forces to control the gangs, encouraged limpieza social, or social cleansing. It was an overt message for communities to organize and dispose of gang members, whose numbers are today estimated at 80,000. The current Interior Minister, Francisco Jimenez, has tried to distance himself from the lynch mob mentality.
Mr. FRANCISCO JIMENEZ (Interior Minister, Guatemala): (Through Translator) The state cannot be plunged into a situation where there is no rule of law. We have a saying, the medicine can be worse than the illness. Social cleansing doesn't solve problems, because the result is impunity.
BURNETT: The Interior minister says Guatemala is opening new police academies to beef up its police force, which is currently less than half the size needed for a country of 13 million. Human rights monitors accuse the police of condoning social cleansing, if not actually participating in it. Meanwhile, Guatemala's wave of vigilantism is having its desired effect.
Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken).
BURNETT: We don't mess with the people in the provinces, says a 26-year-old former member of the Mara Salvatrucha. In San Juan, Xela, San Lucas they're united. If they catch you, they'll pour on gasoline, light a match, and that's it. John Burnett, NPR News, Guatemala City.
SIEGEL: And you can find two photo galleries exploring the rise of vigilante violence in Guatemala at our Web site, npr.org.