Growing Bloodshed Rocks Guatemala

A recent massacre of riders on a passenger bus was a painful reminder that violence in Guatemala is out of control. Homicide rates now surpass even those of the country's bloody civil war. Savage violence is affecting all sectors of society and is being perpetrated by a dizzying array of sources—common criminals, narco-traffickers, street gangs, and the state security forces. Sadly, another generation of Guatemalans is growing up in a society consumed by violence.

December 15, 2008

Gunmen forced 15 passengers of a bus in eastern Guatemala on November 8 and executed them on the side of the road. Authorities said the bodies of the victims—15 Nicaraguans and one Dutch tourist—were then put back on the bus and the vehicle was set ablaze.

Confounded local officials suspect drug trafficking is somehow involved in the grisly slaughter of the tourist and the 14 Nicaraguan vendors who frequently use the chartered bus service to travel to Guatemala, where they buy cheap merchandise to sell back home. The mystery surrounding the incident and the seemingly random malice with which it was carried out shocked Guatemalans, who have become accustomed to alarming headlines on rising crime and murder rates.

The massacre was a painful reminder that violence throughout Guatemala is out of control. Homicide rates now surpass even those of the country's bloody civil war. Between 1970 and 1996, the country averaged 5,000 killings a year. The government predicts the number of people murdered in 2008 will reach 5,900 by year end. Sadly, another generation of Guatemalans is growing up in a society consumed by violence.

Savage violence is affecting all sectors of society and is being perpetrated by a dizzying array of sources—common criminals, narco-traffickers, street gangs, and the state security forces. Expressing the fear gripping many, an editorial in a national daily last month commented, "The spiral of violence is not ceasing, on the contrary, it's being ratcheted up every day, increasing worry and fear among a population hounded by kidnappers, extortionists, and other vile assailants."

Both rich and poor are being affected by the violence. The same weekend as the bus massacre, the national Heath Minister's son was murdered while driving home from a party. The murder occurred in an affluent part of the Guatemala City, where a rash of recent extortions and robberies already had residents on edge.

But it's the poor that are bearing a disproportional brunt of the instability. One result of the violence with serious implications for poorer Guatemalans is restricted access to public services, such as transportation—never mind police protection.

Major transportation systems were paralyzed in November because bus drivers refused to drive dangerous routes for lack of security. This year alone, 123 bus drivers, 39 bus assistants, eight bus company owners and inspectors, and 24 passengers have been killed.

Gangs are another problem gravely affecting the poor. The maras, as they are known, have taken over entire impoverished neighborhoods, where they ruthlessly extort street vendors, businesses, and buses. But incidents like the bus massacre show the maras, which governments have long used as an easy scapegoat, are not the main problem.

Government on the Ropes

Recently elected President Álvaro Colom campaigned on a promise to use intelligence gathering rather than the counterproductive mano dura approach of hard-line policing adopted in neighboring countries. But on November 13, after ten months in office, he admitted his administration has been unable to stop the violence and pleaded for the public’s patience. He pinned the blame on previous administrations, explaining the present situation results from “eight years of not taking care of the security forces."

The National Civil Police (PNC) has indeed failed to bring the situation under control. But, more fundamentally, the PNC is often a main perpetrator of crimes, including corruption, extra-judicial executions, and narco-trafficking.

After the bus massacre, Guatemala's human rights ombudsman Sergio Morales said complaints filed in the nearby governmental Human Rights Office indicated the police may have been involved in the killings. Morales called for an in-depth investigation after complaints revealed border security agents had temporarily detained the bus after it crossed into Guatemala from El Salvador. The charred bus also had its panels torn out, indicating that the gunmen were looking for something hidden on the bus, possibly drugs.

Guatemala's security forces are routinely accused of criminal activity. So far this year, at least 165 police officers have been arrested for crimes ranging from extortion and robbery to extrajudicial killing. One high-profile incident was the 2007 murder of three Salvadoran congressmen and their driver by four members of the PNC. After revealing they had received orders from superiors, the officers were promptly murdered in prison. For Guatemalans, the idea that the security forces are linked to major crimes such as the bus massacre is not a hard stretch of the imagination.

Government Vice Minister Arnoldo Villagrán recently acknowledged the PNC is heavily infiltrated by organized crime. For this reason, Morales, the human rights official, suggested, "The police are corrupt and need to be purged, but by outside groups, not by themselves."

Another Failed Drug War

In September, PNC agents responded to a traffic accident involving Flavio Méndez Santiago, alias "Amarillo," one of the most wanted narco-traffickers in Mexico. Police allowed Amarillo to be treated for his injuries and then inexplicably set him free.

Several incidents indicate much more than a collusive relationship between the security forces and drug dealers. In several cases, the security forces are actually the ones doing the drug dealing. In 2005, Adan Castillo and Jorge Aguilar, former heads of the PNC’s drug division, were arrested and sentenced in the United States for drug trafficking.

Since becoming a major transit point in the drug trade, Guatemala's already serious crime problems have only gotten worse. With a strategic geographic position relatively halfway between Colombia and the United States, sea access, a porous border with several Mexican states, and compliant security forces, Guatemala has become a haven for traffickers. In 2005, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala reported that 75 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States passes through Guatemala.

Guatemala's military establishment at all levels has been implicated in operating drug trafficking rings, including its top two former intelligence chiefs Generals Manuel Antonio Callejas and Francisco Ortega Menaldo. Retaining a well-organized and highly capable structure after the signing of the 1996 peace accords, some military elements turned to organized crime. The title of an investigation published by the Texas Observer magazine called Guatemala's military "The Untouchable Narco-State."

The arrival of the powerful and brutal Mexican drug cartels, which have begun entrenching themselves in Guatemala's hinterlands, is bringing more violence. In the first days of December, for example, a dispute between Guatemalan and Mexican traffickers over a horserace produced a gun battle that left 17 people dead.

The Impunity Problem

Compounding the public’s fear and the complexity of the crime problem is a paralyzing level of impunity. For instance, out of the 5,338 murders officially registered in 2005, only eight were successfully prosecuted.

The extent of impunity in Guatemala led the UN to sponsor the International Commission to Combat Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which is charged with uncovering and rooting out the infiltration of organized crime within the government and security institutions. In September, the Commission concluded the first year of its two-year mandate. According to the international Guatemala Solidarity Network the Commission "is following up cases grouped under the headings of femicide, the wave of bus conductor killings, people trafficking and attacks on human rights defenders, and trades unionists." So far, the Commission has recommended tighter gun control policies and legal reforms.

A blogger with the Guatemala Solidarity Network concludes, " I get the impression from the report that it has hardly got going yet. Given that it has only a two year mandate I wonder whether it will have enough time to see its proposed reforms through congress or its cases through the courts. CICIG's own measure of its success is that it should respond to the interests of the Guatemalan citizen, but I worry that it will be prevented from making that response by its own limited life."

Robert Lummack is working in the field of human rights in Guatemala.

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