Last month, on October 10, residents of Concepcion, Solola province, lynched to death a mayor accused of orchestrating a violent attack against his political opponent which left two teenage girls dead. Angry residents beat and set light to Bacilio Juracan, Concepcion’s newly elected mayor, believing him responsible for ordering the attempted murder of his rival Lorenzo Sequec.
Lynchings – or ‘justica por mano’ or ‘linchamientos’ –are a regular feature of the country’s post-war landscape. Although lynchings are also a problem in Brazil, Mexico, Bolivia and El Salvador, Guatemala’s numbers are among the highest in the region – according to the country’s human rights prosecutor’s office 47 people were killed and 441 were injured as a result of lynchings in 2013.
But why are Guatemala’s citizens turning to vigilante justice? Godoy (2002) suggests that lynchings can, at least in part, be attributed to former paramilitaries whose presence in some communities remained well after the end of the war. During the country’s civil war, the state systematically carried out lynchings against political targets as part of its counterinsurgency doctrine. However, this does not explain why ordinary citizens approve of and participate in violent, and sometimes fatal, acts of reprisal. Indeed, lynchings by ordinary citizens did not manifest until the 1990s, in the years following the signing of the 1996 peace accords.
Researchers Carlos Mendoza and Edelberto Torres-Riva (2003) argue that community participation in lynchings is motivated by deep distrust in a chronically ineffectual legal system. The opinion that justice cannot be meted out by state officials is a strong one, fuelled by the fact that according to the Guatemalan Human Rights Office only some 6% of all criminal cases end in conviction. Faith in the state’s ability to achieve justice is virtually non- existent. In 2013, the mayor of San Martín Jilotepeque Rudy Marroquín told the Inter Press Service that “people act like this not because they’re brave or because they’re bad people; it’s an instinct of self-preservation. They’re sick and tired of seeing so much failure by the police and judiciary”.
In the Concepcion case, Juracan’s political rival Lorenzo Sequec accused the mayor of financial mismanagement and demanded an investigation after he lost the local election. Then, on October 10, unknown gunmen opened fire on Sequec’s car when he and his family were driving. The shots hit his 17-year-old daughter and 16-year-old niece, killing them both. Five others in the car, including Sequec, were also injured. News of the attack spread through the town and just a few hours later angry residents, assuming Juracan responsible for the attack, tracked him down and attacked him. The town’s people did not wait for arrests to be made. Instead they collectively decided on Juracan’s guilt and went seeking revenge.
Earlier this year, a mob killed a 16-year-old girl accused of murdering 68-year-old taxi driver, Carlos Enrique González Noriega. An enraged crowd set the girl on fire because they believed she had carried out the killing on behalf of her father – a gang member serving time in prison – after the taxi driver refused to pay extortion.
The horrific lynching of the 16-year-old girl caused outcry throughout the country because of the victim’s young age. But according to The Telegraph not everyone was sympathetic. Some commentators applauded what they viewed as justice being done.
For many communities in Guatemala, vigilante justice has become the norm. In a country gripped by widespread impunity, violence and rampant gang crime, and a political and judicial system infested with corruption and under-resourced, its citizens have taken matters into their own hands. This form of crude and illegal justice has become normalised, a way of dealing with the accused when the police and judiciary system are unwilling or unable to do so.
Trust in the state needs to be regained if lynchings are to be addressed, but until Guatemala’s political system sees substantial reform, public confidence in the state will remain fragile. The country – which is still coming to terms with the impact of the civil war – has recently been experiencing political uncertainty. Throughout the year, thousands of people have protested against widespread corruption, calling for change. In September, President Otto Perez Molina – who has been linked to possible war crimes – resigned amid a corruption scandal. There has been hope that this could spark much-needed political reform. However, there is growing pessimism that real, substantive change will be achieved after Jimmy Morales – a former comedian (whose jokes have allegedly been at the expense of women, the poor and indigenous people) backed by some conservative members of the military – won the presidential elections in a landslide victory last Sunday (October 25).
Mendoza , Carlos and Torres-Rivas, Edelberto (2003) Linchamientos : Barbarie O Justicia Popular? Colección Cultura de Paz: Guatamala
Godoy, Angelina Snodgrass (2005) ‘La Muchacha Respondona: Reflections on the Razor’s Edge Between Crime and Human Rights’, Human Rights Quarterly, 27 (2), pp.597-624
Gdoy, Angelina Snodgrass (2002) ‘Lynchings and the Democratization of Terror in Postwar Guatemala: Implications for Human Rights’, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol.24(3), pp.640-661
Godoy, Angelina Snodgrass (2002) ‘When “justice” is criminal: Lynchings in contemporary Latin America’, Theory and Society, 2004, Vol.33(6), pp.621-651