The New York Times, Mar. 8, 2003
By DAVID GONZALEZ
CONCEPCIÓN TUTUAPA, Guatemala — In this market town tucked into the western highlands, picking a pocket can be a capital offense.
The smallest crimes have provoked the most violent deaths in countless villages like this one, where the end of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war has brought neither law nor order to remote regions most ravaged by the conflict.
Just this January, a screaming mob of 2,000 people grabbed two pickpocket suspects, tied their hands, dragged them to the outskirts of town, drenched them in gasoline and burned them alive. Police officers responding to the violence said they barely escaped with their lives, fleeing to the station house with no hope of pursuing justice.
It was one of hundreds of lynchings since the peace accords were signed in 1996, officially ending a conflict that claimed 200,000 lives. Most of these deaths by hysterical mobs occur in indigenous villages where the worst war massacres took place, and most of the victims are young indigenous men. But in 2001, a Japanese tourist was killed in one village, and last year a lynching death occurred in the capital, Guatemala City.
Human rights advocates and diplomats now worry that some of the same paramilitary groups responsible for the war’s worst abuses have resurfaced as vigilante patrols, singling out the police and judges who try to enforce the feeble rule of law against rampant crime.
“We are living through anarchy,” said Bishop Álvaro Ramazzini, who leads the diocese in San Marcos, a state on the Mexican frontier that is plagued by lynchings. “People do not believe in the legal system. Instead, it is the law of the strongest, that violence can solve any problem. They can tell anyone `burn them,’ and it will be done.”
Dilmo Liberto Castañón, commander of the police in Concepción Tutuapa, said bluntly of the lynching in January: “The people do not want the police here. They decided to take justice themselves. If they call us, it is only so they can burn somebody in front of us.”
Figures compiled by the United Nations mission verifying the fulfillment of the 1996 accords show that an average of 24 people die by lynching each year. Tom Koenigs, the head of the United Nations mission, said peacetime conditions in most indigenous areas hardly improved people’s lives or expectations of justice.
Government services are few, and police officers and judges often speak only Spanish, rather than the Mayan languages spoken by most residents. He said police staffing shortages resulted in few if any patrols in the remotest villages, while prosecutors have offices in only a tenth of the country.
“The peace accords on indigenous rights were the least implemented,” Mr. Koenigs said. “The weakness or absence of the rule of law makes it obvious that people become desperate.”
Only a fraction of the lynchings are set off by serious offenses like murder or rape. The United Nations estimates that 40 percent spring from accusations of theft.
Several factors lie behind the violence. The shared experience of decades of war and the resulting breakdown in village leadership left divisions and suspicions that set the stage for vigilante outbursts.
Several human rights advocates also said that fast-growing Evangelical churches, whose preachers work independently in small congregations, had frightened villagers about the dangers of satanic cults and encouraged retribution with strict interpretations of Scriptures.
Such teachings by locally trained Guatemalan preachers, they said, played a role in whipping up hysteria among the villagers of Todos Santos, a western mountain village famous for its colorful textiles, where a lynching in 2001 claimed the life of a Japanese tourist who tried to photograph a child.
Days before he arrived in the town, a religious radio station had warned listeners about rumors of a satanic cult that was snatching babies for grisly rituals, said Guillermo Padilla, who has studied lynchings and is an advocate for indigenous rights in Guatemala.
“The evangelicals like to fish in turbulent waters,” Mr. Padilla said.
“All week the evangelicals warned, `Take care of your children because there will be satanic rituals and children will be carved up and their organs removed,’ ” he said. “There was so much panic that the school was closed that Friday so the children could stay home. By the time the Japanese tourist arrived, there was a state of paranoia.”
But the police and other witnesses here in Concepción Tutuapa, about 100 miles northwest of Guatemala City, also blame a breakdown in policing.
The police stay mostly in the station house, watching television or chatting up local girls, said residents, few of whom will admit even seeing the mob just those few weeks ago. The police counter that they are powerless; in the lynching in January, one officer was doused with gasoline, but managed to escape before the crowd could set him alight, they said.
The Rev. Mario Aguilón, the town’s Roman Catholic pastor, said the crowd was enraged by a rumor that one of the pickpockets bragged that he would be out of jail in a day.
In Huehuetenango, the police were actually run out of five villages for reasons ranging from trying to save a suspect from a lynch mob to trying to enforce laws against cutting down trees illegally — thus depriving impoverished residents of income.
Rights advocates see the attacks on the police and judges as a worrisome harbinger of increased violence at the hands of newly reorganized Civil Self Defense Patrols. These groups of villagers, forced to take part in massacres during the war, have demanded payment from the government for their wartime service.
The United Nations has already received reports of patrol members setting up so-called popular jails, where they imprison people they consider to be threats to public safety.
In Jacaltenango, First Officer Otto Chávez Robles angrily recalled how he and his men had to run, hide and change into civilian clothes when a lynch mob chased them as they detained two men suspected in a stabbing. Reinforcements arrived at the western highland town more than five hours after they first phoned for help — too late to prevent the sacking and burning of the police station, which to this day is unoccupied.
“When even your bosses do not support you, you feel useless,” Officer Chavez said. “This crime should not go unpunished. But the prosecutor has not even been there yet.”
Almendra Teresa Gutiérrez, a judge in the western town of Santa Barbara, said armed patrollers in one village told her that they were more powerful than the police and had refused to stop their nighttime rounds. She suspects that they are responsible for two deaths since October. “Like during the war,” she said, “if someone is outside at night after a certain hour, they are up to no good and must be executed.”