Vigilantes Fight Gang Violence in Guatemala
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
In Guatemala, people across the country are trying to fight crime themselves. They're tired of gangs, high crime rates and a police force they say doesn't do enough. So they're providing their own local security. They patrol their neighborhoods every night looking for lawbreakers. But some people there worry that this vigilante justice is a big step back to the country's violent past. Reporter Lorenda Reddekopp has more.
Mr. JULIO TAVALAM(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
LORENDA REDDEKOPP reporting:
Julio Tavalam lifts up his shirt to reveal the remains of an attack. A thick scar runs from his chest to below his bellybutton, 28 stitches. It happened just after 9:00 one night. He went out to buy some cold medication just around the corner.
Mr. TAVALAM: (Through Translator) You see what happened? It hasn't just happened to me. It's happened to a lot of people, people assaulting the stores and pharmacies. What haven't they done? Before it was better. I used to come home at whatever hour of the night and nothing happened.
REDDEKOPP: Every night Guatemalan TV news programs mention more violent deaths.
(Soundbite of music)
REDDEKOPP: Crime is up, and gangs are growing. Killings by gang members are often gruesome, with victims raped and tortured. The US government has joined the fight against gangs. An international sting in September led to the arrests of more than 600 gang members in Central America, Mexico and the United States.
But the biggest gangs weren't born in Guatemala or El Salvador. The Salvatrucha and Mara Dieciocho started in the streets of LA. They're also known as MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang. They headed south thanks to a US policy decision. In 1996, the government started deporting immigrants who weren't US citizens and had a criminal record. Thousands were sent back to Central America. Years later the gang problem is forcing Guatemalans out of their homes and into the streets to patrol.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
REDDEKOPP: It's 8 PM in the Guatemalan highland city of Ketzel Tanagel(ph), meeting time for the local vigilantes.
(Soundbite of walkie-talkie)
REDDEKOPP: If any crime happens, they're ready. They use walkie-talkies to pass information to another group a few blocks away. Most of the men are armed with sticks. One man carries a machete. Marvin Viagrand(ph) is one of the patrollers. He says their version of justice works better than the court system.
Mr. MARVIN VIAGRAND: (Through Translator) We give a punishment because sometimes there's no credibility in the authorities. The delinquents tend to threaten those who testify against them. So it's better to give a good strong punishment. It clears the situation up a bit, but we act in self-defense. That's how it is. We do what we have to do as vigilantes. We'll never kill someone, but we'll give a strong punishing.
REDDEKOPP: The men all have balaclavas stuffed in their pockets. They say if they don't hide their faces when they capture someone, their suspects will come after them.
(Soundbite of siren)
REDDEKOPP: The country's police force for the most part supports these patrol groups. In this city, the police check up on the vigilantes, and the vigilantes have all the phone numbers for the nearest police station. Police Officer Antelin Semet(ph) says they're making the country safer.
Officer ANTELIN SEMET: (Through Translator) Their presence means that common criminals no longer commit their misdeeds. We can say that in the neighborhoods where they patrol there are fewer robberies and other crimes.
REDDEKOPP: Some vigilantes patrol because of a distrust in the police. The national police force says 3,000 of its members are under investigation for abuse and corruption. In 2002, the country's anti-narcotics department was dismantled. It was discovered that more than 300 officers were on gang payrolls.
Mr. CORKEY RODRIGUEZ(ph) (Justice Pastoral): (Foreign language spoken)
REDDEKOPP: Corkey Rodriguez is with the Justice Pastoral, a human rights organization funded by the Catholic Church. He fears the vigilantes may be making things worse, taking the country back 25 years to the massacres of Guatemala's civil war. Some of those massacres were committed by civil patrol groups.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (Through Translator) The same thing happened during the armed conflict. At first the patrollers only had sticks. Then delinquency increased. The grievous committed acts against members of the population, and the people armed themselves. The state provided them with arms.
REDDEKOPP: So far the state hasn't done much about the vigilantes, but one official interviewed says citizens shouldn't be patrolling the streets and putting their lives in danger. Still, the patrols continue. In gang neighborhoods, vigilantes patrol with guns. To some, the groups give a sense of safety that the police doesn't. To others, they're just self-appointed vigilantes under no one's control. For NPR News, I'm Lorenda Reddekopp in Ketzel Tanagel, Guatemala.
CHIDEYA: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Farai Chideya.
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