Vigilantes back to restore 'justice' to Guatemala

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The death squads have returned to Guatemala.

Ten years after the signing of accords that brought an unsteady peace to the central American nation, human rights campaigners say at least 98 people have been killed by vigilantes so far this year. The true figure could be as high as 360.

The killings have been carried out by gangs who target civilians they accuse of crimes or antisocial behaviour. Often, campaigners say, the bodies that show up overnight in the streets strangled and showing signs of torture are the victims of mistaken identity.

"The broader context for this is that the state has failed to enforce the rule of law," said Daniel Wilkinson, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "There is a climate of violence and lawlessness in which people are turning to these gangs."

Ever since a US-organised coup overthrew Guatemala's elected government in 1954, the country has been beset with violence. For more than 30 years the US supported the Guatemalan military during a war with Marxist fighters. The violence claimed the lives of up to 200,000 people - many killed by government-backed death squads.

This time, it appears many ordinary people support the vigilante gangs and say their summary justice is a form of "social cleansing". It is estimated that last year up to 3,000 people were murdered by the gangs.

Often the vigilantes are helped by internet blogs with names such as "We kill the gang members" and "United against the gang members", which publish the names and addresses of alleged criminals and then call for community action.

Campaigners say many of those killed are petty thieves, or people who have personal feuds with members of the vigilante groups. "That's the problem when people take matters into their own hands," Mario Polanco, head of the Mutual Support Group, a victims' rights organisation in Guatemala City, told The Washington Post.

The UN-brokered peace treaty that took 10 years to bring about was signed between the government and Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity guerrillas in December 1996.

Yet experts say that with the end of the conflict some of the combatants appear to have turned to crime and to vigilantism. Officials say recent murders may be the work of police officers, former paramilitary members and former guerrillas who have the support of their communities.

This month police arrested seven heavily armed Christian fundamentalists accused of extortion following a gun battle in the town of San Lucas Toliman, about 50 miles west of Guatemala City. Police said the group had been operating under the slogan of "Social Cleansing of the Town" and may have been responsible for more than a dozen murders.