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 user 2008-01-11 at 1:10:00 pm Views: 49
  • #18992

    Guatemala’s gruesome cleansing of the streets
    Police death squads, public lynchings and vigilante groups take a brutal toll on the country’s teeming poor and other ‘undesirables’
    GUATEMALA CITY — It is almost noon and Dura Rosales is still asleep. She is lying on a soiled mattress that is blocking a sidewalk on the outskirts of town. Her right arm is wrapped around the waist of her boyfriend, Carlos, who is asleep beside her. Her head is nestled into the back of his neck. They have no blanket.Ms. Rosales is disturbed by a street worker.”Cómo estás?” she asks.Ms. Rosales’s dark hair falls across her face as she looks up. She lifts a hand to shield her eyes from the early afternoon light. She is unimaginably small. Her yellow sweater, jeans and white running shoes look like they’ve been worn for months. Her fingernails are plugged with black grime. Her face is covered in what looks like coal dust. She could be a chimneysweep from Dickensian times.Twelve-year-old Edwin Cabrera of Guatemala City sniffs ink-toner for a cheap high that threatens to seriously damage his brain.Ms. Rosales, 20, has lived on the street almost half of her life. Beaten by her parents, she left home when she was 11. She has had two children, who have been given up for adoption, and suffered a miscarriage after being beaten up by her 17-year-old boyfriend, the one now lying beside her.

    She is pregnant again.
    Minutes after she wakes up, a friend gives her a small rag that has been dampened with ink toner. She puts it to her nose and inhales. The teenager who has given her the rag is high himself. His eyes are watering. His words are slurred. He staggers when he walks. Street workers say he has suffered brain damage from years of sniffing toner.There are pockets of people like Ms. Rosales all over Guatemala City. People who have called the streets home since they were little. Many have been out here so long they are effectively feral. It would be impossible for them to adapt to a normal lifestyle now. Street workers say most will be dead before their 25th birthday, just like Ms. Rosales’s teenaged brother, who she says died on the streets at the hands of the police.No one knows how many street children there are in Guatemala but Claudia Rivera, director of Casa Alianza, an organization that helps children in need, estimates the number is in the thousands.Street kids are among those considered “undesirables” and as such have been targeted and randomly killed by police hit squads, private security guards and members of the public.In Guatemala, they call this “social cleansing.”"I know I probably won’t live long,” Ms. Rosales says through an interpreter, as she watches her boyfriend sell the mattress beneath her for a few cents. “I have seen lots of people beaten and killed on the streets by the police and others. That’s what happens. I live for now.”According to Ms. Rivera, there were 312 children slain from January to September of 2007. That’s in Guatemala City alone.”Some of that was social cleansing and some of it was just general violence,” says Ms. Rivera, over a coffee in a local café. “But homeless children are often the target. They sometimes have to do whatever it takes to get food and neighbours hire security people to look after their property or stores. Rather than call the police if a street kid is hanging around, they just shoot them. And no one cares.”In Guatemala, social cleansing has caught the attention of the United Nations. In a report issued last year, the UN said the practice is reminiscent of the “selective killing” that was carried out by the military during the 30-year civil war here that ended in 1996. The death toll from the war is estimated to be more than 200,000, with more than 90 per cent of the killings committed by the government.

    The UN concedes that most of the more than 6,000 homicides that occur in Guatemala each year remain unsolved. But it has also concluded that police and soldiers are certainly responsible for many of the arbitrary homicides of so-called undesirables – a group that also includes gang members, prostitutes, homosexuals and transvestites.But it is not only police death squads carrying out random killings. It is also members of the public.Lynchings of suspected gang members or petty thieves have become common, especially in indigenous areas of the country. Fed up with an inept and corrupt police force, Guatemalans are increasingly taking the law into their own hands. It is their own form of social cleansing.Javier Monterroso, director of the Institute of Comparative Penal Studies, said in an interview here that there are groups now selling social cleansing services. One such group calls itself the Justice Angels. Its members even have business cards. The Justice Angels work mainly at a market here called the Terminal.”The Justice Angels will take care of anyone suspected of stealing from any of the merchants, and by ‘take care of’ I mean kill,” Mr. Monterroso said. “The police know what is going on but they turn a blind eye to their activities. It saves them work.”After the killing of three Salvadoran congressmen last year by what turned out to be four corrupt members of the Guatemalan National Civil Police, it was reported that there are eight squads, each with five members, within the police currently engaged in social cleansing activities, Mr. Monterroso says.In his report on the situation, UN envoy Philip Alston says that in a typical social cleansing scenario, police recruit an informant, promising amnesty from prosecution in exchange for information about the activities and whereabouts of gang members and other criminals.”Police will then drive to the location, typically without uniforms and in an unmarked car, apprehend the person identified by the informant and kill him or her at another location,” Mr. Alston writes in his report.

    A recent nationwide survey indicated Guatemalans support the concept of social cleansing in overwhelming numbers – nearly 80 per cent.”Because they are terrified, depressed and disenchanted with the justice system and they think that social cleansing will help this problem,” Mr. Monterroso says.Back on the streets, meantime, in another neighbourhood, 12-year-old Edwin Cabrera shows off his war wound. He was shot in the leg by someone whose house he approached in the hopes of getting some food.”I just knocked on the door and the man pulled out a gun and shot me in the leg,” Edwin says. He, too, is sniffing a rag doused in ink toner. He’s been doing it since he was 9, he says. That’s when he left home because he was being beaten.He is wearing a baseball hat backward. His dark pants look like they’ve never been washed. But when he smiles he has perfect white teeth that glisten in the sun.Does he worry about being killed”Sure,” he says, sounding much older than his age. “But what am I going to do? The street is my home.”Then he buries his nose in the rag.