In wake of brutal vigilante killings, views of the crime in Guatemala diverge
XALVAQUIEJ, Guatemala (AP) -- The crowd of Indians munched on potato
chips and drank Coke from glass bottles while they waited for the killing to
The trash they left behind indicates they smoked cigarettes and watched
of dogs mill about as a cold dusk fell along the roaring mountain stream.
Some 200 villagers had come from their muddy, one-room huts of stone and
logs to exterminate eight men rumored to be behind a number of local
kidnappings and robberies. The villagers had the main road blocked all day so the
eight -- five family members who ran a private transport service with their
pickup trucks, and three employees -- wouldn't get past them, residents said.
When the four Chevy pickups rounded the bend and started over an ancient
stone bridge shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday, the crowd sprang into action. They
pulled all eight men from the trucks, doused them with gasoline and burned them
one by one.
Vigilante killings in Guatemala are nothing unique: In 1998 such attacks
50 victims, and last year 41 people were killed. But this weekend's attack was
one of the country's worst.
In its wake, two distinct views emerged.
National authorities explain the attack as the brainchild of a few locals
a well-planned scheme and the propensity for mob rule in Guatemala's mostly
Mayan Indian rural areas to rid themselves of rivals. Investigators from
Guatemala City surveyed the scene outside this riverside village 90 miles
northwest of the capital and determined that residents inexplicably attacked a
group of men with "absolutely no" criminal record.
But local authorities here say it was little more than evidence that the
was tired of waiting for the authorities to collar a group of criminals.
"When I saw the names of the men that had been killed, I recognized them,"
Manuel Sut, mayor of Chichicastenango, a nearby tourist stop. "They were from
a family that we had gotten reports was forming a criminal group. It was
something we were investigating with police locally."
Sut said his office received reports Saturday morning that a group of men
Chevy pickups tried to kidnap a group of children that had been walking along a
road near where the vigilante attack was to occur. The men were also suspected
in the kidnapping and rape of a young girl last year, he said.
"There was a network of neighbors ready to go," he said. "Information on
attempted kidnapping got out and the group began forming at the bridge."
The efficiency of the mob's work was still obvious this week in the normally
tranquil woods here.
Clumps of blackened terrain along a sprawling hillside revealed where each
victim died. Footprints showed a desperate scramble, and signs of victims'
belongings were visible in all directions: a pair of blackened belt buckles. Bits of
the pink-striped shirts commonly worn by Indian men. A melted tennis shoe.
The charred remains of an Atlanta Braves baseball cap.
Mario Rene Cifuntes, director of Guatemala's national police, announced
authorities had secured arrest warrants for three local men thought to be the
ringleaders of the attack.
But the roughly 40 police officers assigned to Chichicastenango and the
surrounding hamlets which about 2,000 Indians call home said they aren't on the
trail of any suspects. And local investigators said no local judge had issued any
arrest warrants in connection with the attack.
"The law is very slow here and it can be very frustrating," Sut said. "An
like this is never justified, but there were reasons that are being overlooked by
those in charge of the investigation."
President Alfonso Portillo conceded Tuesday that the law can be slow to
prosecute kidnappers, and pledged to propose legislation this week to "modify
laws that have retarded important prosecutions."
He also said he would propose more police for rural areas, but warned:
in the world can avoid crime if its citizens decide to break the law.
"Saying that Guatemala has the capacity to stop all lynchings is like saying
United States has the capacity to stop all the shootings in its schools."
Portillo also said the government will spend $615 million this year to
Guatemala's image and make the country an "obligatory destination" for
international travelers. But regardless of how the case pans out, it is clear that
Saturday's violence is another blow to Guatemala's already beleaguered tourism
"All of Guatemala failed the people who were in the attack in letting something
like this happen," Sut said. "As a civilized country, we all need to do a better job."