Guatemalan Lynching; a symptom of postwar insecurity and racist leadership

Another great article from GSN accompanier Sam…

Implications of the findings of the UN High Commission on Guatemala.

  On Wednesday 24th of March 2010 the UN Deputy High Commissioner Kyung-wha Kang gave an analysis of the status of Guatemala’s human rights, the report did not read well, and the symptoms described sounded much like those of a failing state. The analysis described the roots of the problem as stemming from endemic structural weaknesses, weakness of public institutions, insufficient budget and resources and the prevalence of private interest over public interests. If these are the roots, then the symptoms mentioned include high rates of violent death; 6,498 (that’s almost 18 murders per day), high private security (106,700 private security officers) which is approximately 5 private security officers for every 1 police officer, 83% of violent deaths stemming from firearms, indicating high gun ownership and 119 lynching in 2009. When one takes into account the population of Guatemala is just over 13 million it makes for stark viewing.  


What grips me however is the growing social phenomenon of lynchings in modern Guatemala. Rural lynchings have been a feature of post-war Guatemala but are increasing at an alarming rate, rising from 56 occurrences resulting in 22 deaths in 2008 to 119 cases with a total of 47 deaths in 2009. Lynchings for me evoke images of a distant past; of a time without enforced law, security or human rights, such as the witch hunts in 16th Century Europe or those against African-Americans in the USA in the late 19th Century. These historical examples and a lack of understanding of the Mayan-Guatemalan experience of the 36 years of brutal civil-war allow for the misunderstanding of the current phenomenon.  

Two recent lynchings in December reached particular notoriety, in Panajachel, Solola, where one man was beaten to death by an angry mob for supposedly robbing a local vendor of $850, resulting in a standoff between the police and the mob who had to rescue three female accomplices to safety but having four police patrol cars torched in the process. With just days in between, Huehuetenango was the scene of another lynching where four men were burned alive for a supposed kidnapping. But as the statistics suggests there were another some 117 such incidents throughout the year. When analyzing the cases however, it is not so much about the quantity of fatalities, rather the brutality of the incident which frequently includes, burnings, being tied up in barbed wire, being dragged by cars, mob beatings etc.

  There is one statistic however that reveals much about the root causes of this social phenomenon. The department of Quiche has had a far higher rate of lynchings than any of the other departments, statistics from 2001 note, for example that Quiche totaled 51 lynchings, whilst the nearest of the other 25 departments was Petén (by far the largest geographical region) with 27.[1] The significance of this is that Quiche is also recognised as the area that suffered most brutally during the civil war with a very high proportion of the population being rural Mayan people. That’s to say that there is a distinct causal relationship between the brutality of the civil war experience in Quiche and the post-war culture of punitive justice in the department. During the most repressive years of the civil war under Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt the Maoist analogy of ‘draining the sea of its fish’ was used to signify wiping out civilian popular support of the rural guerilla. This essentially meant the Mayan population by default due to the racial nature of the war. So the war in Quiche as was the case in many other regions meant a war on racial lines, and of genocidal proportions. The aforementioned quote therefore became the justification for massacring innocent civilians.  

Given the combined facts that the Peace Accords in 1996 have been largely unfulfilled, the country is re-militarizing, that the national police force suffers from corruption and that there has been no government attempt at any fiscal or land reform, the country is dogged by the conditions that lead to civil war in the 1960’s. It is therefore, not difficult to understand why the poor in Quiche do not feel represented by those in power. Indeed the UN report states that in the department of Guatemala (the capital) there is a mean of one doctor for every 384 people, whilst the equivalent statistic in Quiche is 11, 948 persons per doctor, a staggering indicator of inequality.

It is well known that with the soaring level of impunity in Guatemala, perpetrators of crimes largely go unpunished, and in the case of theft this weighs as a heavy financial burden upon the poor who get robbed. Moreover as the UN report states that some of the lynchings are carried out in a context of the “acquiescence or tolerance of State officials. In the case of the lynching and death of police officer Pedro Rodríguez Toma in San Juan Cotzal, Quiché, in November 2009, the office received information which indicates acquiescence and instigation by some municipal authorities as well as tolerance on the part of members of the security forces.”[2]  

I am not justifying the cruel and barbaric act of such reprisals; in fact quite the opposite. Perpetrators of the crime are often driven by desperation and poverty themselves, who are subsequently denied access to their rights. The victims meanwhile are denied access to justice through judicial inefficiency or as a result of financial barriers. Lynichings therefore take on the aim of sending a message to those considering crime, as well as revenge for the crime itself. Ultimately however, both groups are being failed by the state and the message being sent out from the capital through their lack of resources and funding for police presence in regions such as Quiche is that rights and access to justice is not available for the poor, the same poor that suffered during the civil war. A testament to the enduringly racist nature of the Guatemalan power structure.

  By Sam Pearse

Categories: Culture, Indigenous peoples, Justice

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