Easter in Guatemala brings violent tradition
Suspected thieves are publicly beaten
BY GLENN GARVIN
Forget those marshmallow-and-chocolate eggs -- in Guatemala, Easter
the time to beat the daylights out of suspected thieves.
Guatemala City's tabloid papers for days have been full of pictures
half-naked young men beaten by college students in one of Central America's
strangest Holy Week traditions.
``Easter here doesn't exactly mean a Norman Rockwell painting
or watching The
Wizard of Oz on TV,'' a foreign resident of Guatemala City dryly observed.
The beating of accused criminals by gangs of hooded college students
is part of
the annual hoopla surrounding the Huelga de Dolores, a wickedly satirical parade
that needles Guatemalan politicians and bigwigs in a parody of the solemn
religious processions common at this time of year.
Guatemala is by no means the only Central American nation that
Week in a way that might be considered bizarre elsewhere, with rituals that add a
regional twist to pre-Easter customs that originated in medieval Spain:
In the western Salvadoran town of Texisteteque, 13 lucky fellows
selected by city
fathers -- believe it or not, it's considered an honor -- dressed up as demons on
Monday, then wandered the streets so residents could slug them for tempting
Jesus. Some citizens pull their punches; some don't.
In Masaya, a market town just south of the Nicaraguan capital
thousands of residents have been leaving offerings for two weeks in front of a
wood carving of Gestas, one of the thieves crucified with Jesus. On Good Friday,
Gestas is said to climb down from his cross and run through the streets
smacking those who haven't gotten on his good side.
But nothing is quite so strange as the Huelga de Dolores, which
may appear to
foreign eyes as a sometimes funny and sometimes unsettling combination of
spring break, extortion scheme, Halloween and vigilante justice.
Huelga de Dolores means literally ``strike of sorrows,'' and refers
to the parade's
origins in an 1898 student strike on the last Friday before Holy Week, known in
Latin America as the Friday of Sorrows.
For weeks before Easter, thousands of students from the University
of San Carlos
prowl the streets of Guatemala City, wearing red and black executioners' hoods,
asking donations for their parade.
``It's not always very good-natured,'' said a Guatemala City businessman.
Merchants who decline sometimes return the next morning to find their shops
painted with a nasty black tar. Other times the students surge into the streets at
rush hour, creating hellish traffic jams until motorists start handing over money.
No one seems to know exactly how the ritual of beating accused
and pickpockets started.
``It happened about 10 years ago,'' said Alvaro Cruz, editor of
the Salvadoran daily
newspaper Mas, who grew up in Guatemala City and attended college there.
``Some students were in the market, asking for spare change, and they saw a
guy stealing something. So they grabbed him and beat the hell out of him. Now
it's kind of a tradition.''
Sometimes the suspected criminal is handed over to the police.
stripped of his clothing and paraded through the streets, then tied to a flagpole.
But whatever his destination, he'll arrive with a number of bruises and cuts.
Though street vendors and pedestrians in crime-ridden downtown Guatemala City
often laugh and applaud the proceedings, there's nothing funny about it all to the
``There actually was a little bit less of it this year than last,''
said a foreign
resident. ``But it's clear that most people think it's great. The police aren't very
The parade began as a protest against the corrupt rule of dictator
Cabrera at the end of the 19th Century. Estrada Cabrera's major achievement
during his 22-year reign was bringing the United Fruit Co.'s banana operations to
Guatemala. Years later, a United Fruit executive would write that it was a simple
choice for the company, since ``Guatemala's government was the region's
weakest, most corrupt and most pliable.''
When Estrada Cabrera was overthrown in 1920, the parade continued.
and placards take satire to an extreme; one float this year featured a statue of
President Alfonso Portillo sporting a giant, Pinocchio-style nose.
``It's always been a political escape valve for the students,''
Morales de la Cruz, a business and political consultant. ``It's an opportunity to go
beyond the limits of respect, of caricature, of ridicule.''
Some critics say the activities surrounding the parade have gone
limits, period. In a country where the lynching of suspected criminals is common
-- the United Nations counted 40 lynching deaths last year -- private justice is no
laughing matter, they argue.
But cops say there's nothing they can do.
``It is difficult for the police to intervene,'' National Civil
Police spokesman Gerson
Lopez told The Associated Press, ``because you have thousands of students
participating in a tradition of collecting money that has been going on for hundreds
of years. We don't want to take that away from them.''