San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Guatemala City grapples with gang terrorism

CIUDAD QUETZAL, GUATEMALA – They are wearing masks, and are armed with bats, machetes, and guns. They line the road, block our car and signal us to get out. We have no choice but to do as we’re told. Their masks and weapons are a fearful demonstration of force, but these aren’t gangsters, and my fellow passengers, who are Guatemalan, remind me not to be scared. These are crime fighters.

One man silently keeps his gun aimed on us, another performs a pat down, another searches the car, and still another narrates the whole experience. “We are the patrol of Ciudad Quetzal. We are participating in the fight against crime and delinquency. Thank you for your cooperation with this organized community.” The other masked men (and supposedly a few women, though it’s difficult to tell behind their masks) stand to the side of the road, signaling other cars to stop for inspection or pass on through.

They call themselves “La Patrulla,” meaning “the patrol.” Anonymous, mysterious, and technically outside of the law, members of La Patrulla pull over vehicles, perform personal searches and demand entry into homes of suspected gangsters. The militia was formed in late January in response to escalating gang violence that has been targeting businesses, schools, churches, and individuals. “Ya basta” – enough is enough – is a common mantra among the patrol’s members.

Ciudad Quetzal, a slum a few miles north of Guatemala City, has a long history of gang violence. For decades, gangs have charged a “tax” on just about anything that moves in the city, a process that involves an anonymous phone call with instructions for paying a large sum of money in exchange for “protection.” The cost of not paying is well known: gunshots are heard nightly, and corpses appear regularly in the homes, shops, and streets of the city.

Fed up with ever-increasing demands for gang taxes, local bus companies stopped paying on Jan. 1. The gangs’ response was swift; two days later, a bomb exploded on a bus heading from the capital to Ciudad Quetzal, killing nine. A week later, two more buses were burned. Fear is a constant element in the areas surrounding the dangerous capital of Guatemala, growing worse even than in years past.

The attacks have put Guatemala’s gang problem in the international spotlight. President Alvaro Colom has responded by initiating a massive military presence in Ciudad Quetzal. Every bus traveling in or out is accompanied by two police officers (one at the front, one at the rear), and camouflage-clad soldiers now nearly outnumber street vendors.

The militarization may have made a difference, as no gang-related killings have been reported in the city since January, several of those suspected to have been involved in the bus bombing have been arrested, and residents have gone back to regularly taking the police-patrolled buses.

But the appearance of order and safety hides an almost universal feeling of skepticism among the city’s residents. “This is not the first time that the army has come to Ciudad Quetzal,” says Jorge, a local schoolteacher who asked that his real name not be used. “After the elections, [soldiers] will all be gone.”

The September national elections will indeed be key to addressing the escalating violence in Ciudad Quetzal, as well as the rest of Guatemala. Currently leading the polls is Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general of the right-wing Patriot Party who played a key role in Guatemala’s bloody 36-year civil conflict (TT, March 25).

In a distant second is First Lady Sandra Torres, who obtained a divorce to enable her to circumvent a constitutional ban that prevents spouses of sitting presidents from running for the office. 

Unlike Pérez Molina, whose platform and campaign advertisements focus on taking a tough stance against crime, including promises of longer prison sentences, less restrictions on police and military action within the country and other actions. Torres advocates fighting violence through state-run anti-poverty programs.

A myriad of other candidates, including a former dictator’s daughter, an Evangelical minister, an ex-president, a Swiss-born professor, a human-rights activist, and a medical doctor, have lined up for a chance at Colom’s job, all proposing different methods for best dealing with the gang problem.

To the residents of Ciudad Quetzal, though, the election, with its colorful cast of characters, will be at best a distraction from the daily grind of living under the shadow of a gang-run state. At worst, the electoral season will result in a significant increase in violence, as was the case in 2007.

Regardless of who becomes the next president, the current state of siege in Ciudad Quetzal is unsustainable. And Ciudad Quetzal residents, in preparation for the inevitable departure of the security forces, continue to cooperate with the gangs. All taxis operating in the city stop to pay a weekly fee of Q150 ($20) to gang-hired messengers at “La Cuchilla,” an intersection on the way to the capital. Despite popular knowledge of this gang checkpoint, neither soldiers nor policemen patrol the area.

“Police, politicians, they’re all involved with the gangs,” says Pedro, a taxi driver who ferries wealthier Ciudad Quetzal residents between the city and the capital. Pedro also asked that his real name not be used for this story. “Even I pay the gang tax, so I suppose I’m involved too.”

Meanwhile, under the watchful eyes of both gangs and the military, the Ciudad Quetzal Patrol continues its random searches. While this new twist on community crime prevention allows for plenty of provocative photo ops, it is unlikely to offer any long-term solutions to the issue of gang violence.

Still, effective or not, it is noteworthy that citizens feel empowered or desperate enough to take the law into their own hands. And whether for purely political reasons or not, the visibility of the army, police, and newly formed militia has led to a temporary respite in shootings.

Gang violence is a predominantly invisible phenomenon. Unlike security forces and community patrols, gangs operate largely in secret. In a society with easy access to weapons, nearly no access to well-remunerated employment, and de facto impunity for perpetrators of violent crime, the presence of security forces in Ciudad Quetzal will likely have almost no long-term effect on the gangs’ abilities to carry on business as usual. Militias and military create an image of security, but residents unanimously agree: the gangs are still winning the war for Ciudad Quetzal.

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