San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

2006: Another Bloody Year in Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY – At least 59 police officers have been killed so far this year in Guatemala, four of them in the past six days, authorities reported Sunday.

The slain police officers are part of an even higher death toll in a country where crime in recent years is on the rise. In all, Guatemala registered a total of 3,649 murders between January and November, a human rights group said.

Among the victims of violence were 55 boys, 33 girls, 404 women and 3,157 men, according to the Mutual Support Group, or GAM.

The human-rights group, which is made up of relatives of the victims of the 1960-1996 civil war, said it gathered its figures from press reports of murders throughout the year.

In November alone, according to the GAM, 315 people were murdered in this Central American nation.

The most violent month this year so far was January, when 398 people were murdered, followed by September, with 362 killings, the GAM said.

President Oscar Berger has acknowledged the failure of Guatemala’s security forces to stop the surge in violence, which he has blamed largely on gangs and other organized crime groups that are often better-armed than police.

Interior Minister Carlos Vielman said earlier this year that the National Civilian Police, or PNC, which has 22,000 officers, does not have the resources to fight organized crime and stem the wave of violence plaguing the country.

Guatemala’s youth gangs, known as “maras,” alone have more than 60,000 members and have terrorized the country, especially people living in poor neighborhoods in the cities, according to police.

The country’s two largest gangs are the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18. Most gang members are young males between the ages of 15 and 25.

Eight in every 10 crimes in Guatemala are blamed on street gangs, according to the President’s office.

Official statistics show that levels of violence have increased during the past three years, with some 16 people slain every day in this nation of 12 million.

Human-Rights Prosecutor Sergio Morales said earlier this year that the violence plaguing Guatemala “has become an epidemic.”

He said Guatemala registers a yearly average of 40 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, a rate four times the worldwide average reported by the World Health Organization.

In 2005, there were 5,338 violent deaths registered in the country.

The GAM had reported in March that death squads, presumably with links to the security forces, were summarily executing up to 20 suspected criminals a week, many of them believed to be gang members.


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