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 user 2008-01-11 at 1:12:00 pm Views: 95
  • #18990

    Guatemala’s gruesome cleansing of the streets
    death squads, public lynchings and vigilante groups take a brutal toll
    on the country’s teeming poor and other ‘undesirables’

    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

    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.

    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.

    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.