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In Guatemala, a rise in vigilante justice

Citizens and police target violent gangs in what some charge is a 'social cleansing' policy.

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Groups of armed, masked men patrol poor neighborhoods. Threatening messages are left on mutilated bodies. Young men disappear, their bodies found later in a ditch.

These acts weren't unusual during Guatemala's 36-year civil war. But people thought the bloodshed would taper off when the war ended in 1996.

Nine years later, though, human rights observers are finding alarming similarities between that violence and what's now happening to gang members and alleged delinquents.

Some say on- and off-duty police officers are involved, while others point fingers at private security guards and vigilante groups. But the killings have raised concerns about a "social cleansing" effort - one that is backed by citizens fed up with crime and insecurity and often willing to take the law into their own hands. Homicides in Guatemala rose 40 percent from 2001 to 2004, according to the government's human rights ombudsman's office.

"The population is tired of the government's lack of solutions to the violence," says Veronica Godoy, who heads the Public Security Monitoring and Support Group.

In Palin, near Guatemala City, armed male residents of a neighborhood recently began patrolling the streets at night. In June, neighbors burned two gang members alive, according to a municipal employee.

Police and media have attributed most of the brutal killings to gang violence. But some experts point to evidence of more sophisticated involvement as well. "The use of certain strategies or tactics [to kill] is worrisome," says Sergio Morales, a government human rights ombudsman, noting signs of torture.

Constant harassment and extortion could be provoking vigilante vengeance. Gangs often force businesses to pay "war taxes," causing many to go broke, relocate, or hire a guard. As a result, "we think small businessmen and their private police are carrying out social cleansing," says Emilio Goubaud, director of Aprede, or the Association for Crime Prevention, a private group that works to rehabilitate gang members.

Ms. Godoy estimates that private security guards now outnumber police three to one in the country. The Guatemalan congress is discussing a law designed to regulate these largely unmonitored forces.

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