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Last Updated: Monday, 15 August 2005, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Mob justice in rural Guatemala
By Tim Mansel
BBC News, Chisec

A crimes wall chart in a police station in Chisec
Rural lynchings are a legacy of the civil war
The hand-written chart on the wall in the ramshackle police station conveys a chilling message.

Categories of crime are listed in a column on the left-hand side. At the bottom is the word "linchamientos" - lynchings. In the next column, under the date 1 July, is a large red number "one".

"They put the body in the back of a pick-up truck and dumped it here, right outside the police station. Dumped it like a sack of potatoes," says police chief Francisco Perez Camo.

This is Chisec, a small town surrounded by remote villages in the central highlands of Guatemala, home to subsistence farming communities of indigenous Mayans.

The police have little influence here. When it is felt necessary, people take the law into their own hands.

"We heard that two men had gone into the local radio station, had kidnapped someone and stolen a tape recorder," explains the police chief. "They had been caught by some of the local people and we went to pick them up.

"But then the radio station put out a message on air, saying the police were going to set them free, and inciting the local people to come and take the men from us, and kill them."

Vigilante

What happened next followed a pattern that has become familiar in recent years.

The police put the men in a car, intending to take them to the safety of a jail cell in nearby Coban.

But a few kilometres out of town a crowd had gathered and set up roadblocks.

Chisec police chief Francisco Perez Camo
Chisec has just four police officers for a population of more than 80,000
The police turned back to try another route. That too had been blocked. As the car stopped, the prisoners were dragged out.

One of them managed to escape. The other, 21-year-old Rolando Chub Coc, was beaten to death. His body was loaded into a truck, driven back into town, and thrown out on the road in front of the police station.

Two weeks later, all is silent at the small group of buildings where the radio station once operated.

"There's no-one here any more. They moved out the day after the lynching," says a local man.

The motive for the killing remains unclear. Was this a spontaneous uprising of popular anger?

Did someone at the radio station bear a grudge for some previous misdemeanour? Was this premeditated and planned?

The truth will probably never be known. The police in rural Guatemala are outnumbered and fearful of making arrests. The prosecuting authority has few resources.

Witnesses are reluctant to give evidence, perhaps through fear of reprisal, or perhaps because they approve of mob justice.

Civil war

It is very unlikely that anyone will stand trial for this murder.

Lynching has become something of a phenomenon in Guatemala and only a tiny percentage of cases get to court.

Chisec street
Chisec is at the centre of a municipality comprising of some 200 villages
Figures compiled by the UN show there were more than 400 cases of lynching between 1996 and 2002, resulting in more than 200 deaths. Since then, things are believed to have improved.

But, according to one Guatemalan human rights organisation, there were 27 incidents in the first six months of this year - roughly one a week.

Maria Cristina Fernandez Garcia, a Guatemalan judge who last year compiled a study on lynching at Harvard University, is at pains to deny that lynching is a traditional means of dispensing justice in Guatemala's indigenous communities.

She points to the violence suffered during the long and vicious civil war, which came to an end in 1996, as the major cause.

"People in these communities were not just victims but also perpetrators of violence," she says.

"The army organised people in the villages into so-called self-defence patrols against the guerrillas. All the men over the age of 12 were forced to take part.

"They carried out so many terrible acts of violence that it became almost a habit.

"So having suffered the violence, having seen it and having meted it out themselves, it became normal for them.

"And on top of that you have a system that has failed to respond to the needs of these communities, to the violence and the poverty they suffer."

Assignment, presented by Mike Lanchin, can be heard on BBC World Service at 0806 GMT on Thursday 18 August. It will also be available online for seven days after broadcast.


SEE ALSO:
Guatemala's epidemic of killing
09 Jun 05 |  Americas
Guatemalan mob kills judge
14 Mar 01 |  Americas
Country profile: Guatemala
01 Jun 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Guatemala
12 Mar 05 |  Country profiles


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