The Miami Herald
April 19, 2000

 Easter in Guatemala brings violent tradition

 Suspected thieves are publicly beaten


 Forget those marshmallow-and-chocolate eggs -- in Guatemala, Easter week is
 the time to beat the daylights out of suspected thieves.

 Guatemala City's tabloid papers for days have been full of pictures of bleeding,
 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 celebrates Holy
 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 of Managua,
 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 purse-snatchers
 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. Sometimes he's
 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
 effective here.''


 The parade began as a protest against the corrupt rule of dictator Manuel Estrada
 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. The floats
 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,'' said Fernando
 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 beyond the
 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.''