Earlier this fall, the head of the Organization of American States warned that violent crime is an epidemic in Latin America, fueled by street gangs, drug trafficking and poverty. There, gun homicides are four times the world average.
In Guatemala, people have had enough of corrupt police and brutal extortions by gangs. They've turned to vigilantism. Lynch mobs and death squads are now commonplace. Twenty-five years ago, public enemy No. 1 was the leftist guerrillas who were at war with the government of Guatemala. They were branded subversives, delinquents, anti-social elements, and they were disappeared by death squads in the dark of night.
Today, the enemies of society are the maras, the street gangs whose members are estimated to number 80,000. And the violent campaign to eradicate them is called limpieza social, or social cleansing.
Going For Women And Children
El Flaco is the nickname we've given to a 26-year-old Salvadoran who says he left the Mara Salvatrucha, by his own admission, after killing 22 people and committing countless extortions.
"We have a saying: If you don't pay, we won't hurt the father, sadly, it's the children who'll pay," Flaco says. "We send them a letter. Then we surveil their kids. We ask for $5,000 to $13,000, depending on the kind of business he's in. If he doesn't pay, we kidnap his wife or a child, and we kill them. Then we send him body parts showing him we mean business, and we keep kidnapping family members until he pays."
Flaco sits shirtless in a halfway house for ex-gang members in Guatemala City. The heart tattoo over his left breast signifies his barrio, where he was once feared. His teeth are bad, he's skinny, and his eyes are hard and emotionless — like small brown stones.
Flaco speaks freely and casually about his 18 years as a marero. He says the money they stole was spent mostly on weapons and drugs, and to support fellow gang members in jail. He says he and others became deeply involved in satanic rituals, which involved human sacrifice and cannibalism. He says he joined the gang when he was 8 years old, after he was abandoned by his mother and father.
"Most young people today are looking for the love of a father and a mother. They don't get that in their homes, so they look for that in a gang. But it's a deception. A gang is not a family. All you get from gangs is income, brutality and scars," he says.
Stakes Are High
Today, gang members are in the cross hairs.
Operating under names like the Avenging Angels and the Justice Makers, hired hitmen called sicarios have changed the calculus of risk within which the gangs operate. There was a time when shootouts between gang members were the greatest threat. But today, it's not the same.
"For example, the sicarios killed the father of my son because he had tattoos," says a 17-year-old former gang member, tearfully. "I've had other friends riding in buses, and perhaps someone gets on and pulls out a gun and kills him right there, without another thought. Lots of us have left the gangs. We don't want to return to that life. We're trying to do better. They should support us and not shoot us like animals."
Social cleansing has become so prevalent in Guatemala today that young people with no connection to gangs say it's become dangerous to look even mildly iconoclastic.
"If you have tattoos, you're a gang member and they'll threaten you. They'll say, 'You're going to end up dead.' The police tell you this, too. Social cleansing is a fact," says Edgar Alvarez, a 23-year-old university student who wears his hair in a bushy ponytail — and has had his tattoos removed.
Social cleansing has also become a lucrative business.
Two sicarios who give their names as Christian and Roberto agree to an interview in a popular shopping mall in Guatemala City. The setting is jarring: The two assassins sit nervously at a table inside a pizza parlor, while outside the restaurant, a man in a Santa Claus outfit shouts "ho ho ho!" and poses for pictures with toddlers on his lap.
"Look, we do it for the money and because we're friends," says Roberto. "They know us. A store owner tells me, 'Look buddy, some people are f-- with us, they're asking me for money.' I say, 'We can do something about it.' He tells me, 'How much do you want?' I say, '$650.' OK, then, go do it.'"
Roberto is 44, bulky, dark-skinned and friendly. His partner, Christian, is 25, unsmiling and hollow-eyed.
"Our contracts are $500 and up, no less," says Christian. "It depends on who the person is. If it's someone powerful, someone who will require more time and more study, it goes up to $2,000. Our clients are bus companies, taxi companies, store owners, lawyers — anyone with money."
Guns For Hire
The sicarios, who live in a world of paranoia, uneasily scan the restaurant, full of happy families with bags full of Christmas presents.
They say there are lots of guns for hire these days. Most, like them, are former police. Both Christian and Roberto say they're married, with children — and they claim their wives don't know what they do.
"We tell them we're auto mechanics," says one, chuckling.
Between them, they figure they've executed maybe two dozen people. And typically, they say they wouldn't just board a bus and shoot whomever has a tattoo. Their work is more methodical. They try to learn everything about the extortionist, then carry the ransom money to the rendezvous, and do the job there.
"It depends on whether or not the person is running away," says Christian. "If he's standing, three or four bullets in the head to make sure the job is done well. You don't want them going to the hospital alive or identifying you."
And does this pair consider themselves to be a death squad?
"Well, yes," says Roberto. "But we're on the side of the people."
Christian adds, with the first smile of the interview, "We're helping Guatemala to clean up all this garbage."
There are those who believe the sicario violence and lynchings are a legacy of Guatemala's 30-year counterinsurgency war, in which great numbers of innocents were slaughtered. Whatever the roots, there are no clear lines between the antagonists.
Gang members hire out to sicarios to finger other gang members.
Sicarios turn into extortionists themselves — committing the same crimes they were paid to stamp out. And the police, instead of arresting the sicarios, have their own death squads. Last month, three national policemen were sentenced to 30 years in prison for executing five youths in a crime-ridden barrio of the capital called El Gallito.
"Guatemala is a very violent country," said a longtime human rights monitor. "This, sadly, is our cultural response: an eye for an eye."