GUATEMALA CITY – “They are trying to extort us!” That’s all a taxi driver needed to yell to cause 500 residents to swarm Daniel Cabrera Ávila, 17, beat him, dowse him with gasoline and burn him to death.
What happened on the morning of April 14 in the town of San Pedro Ayampuc, 15 kilometers north of the Guatemalan capital, illustrates how what allegedly started as a common crime resulted in a teenager’s death.
The taxi driver claimed Cabrera Ávila gave him a cellphone on which the caller was going to extort him. But when the taxi driver – whose name hasn’t been made public – refused to take the phone, Cabrera Ávila allegedly hit him in the face, prompting him to cry for help.
The police never had the chance to intervene, as Cabrera Ávila became the country’s sixth victim to be lynched in 2014, according to the findings of the National Civil Police’s investigation.
Lynchings caused 295 deaths and 1,700 injuries nationwide between January 2004 and November 2013, according to the Attorney General’s human rights office in Guatemala.
Of Guatemala’s 14 million residents, almost 25% don’t trust the justice system, according to the United Nations Development Program’s “2013-2014 Regional Human Development Report, Citizen Security with a Human Face: Evidence and Proposals for Latin America.”
“There are different points of view on the meaning of justice, and people don’t understand the way in which the processes are carried out,” said Mildred Luna, the coordinator of Guatemalan Judicial Authority’s Lynching Prevention Program National Support Commission. “Because of this lack of knowledge, [people] see weakness in the system and take justice into their own hands.”
According to the UNDP, 27.6% of Guatemalans agree with “social cleansing of people who some consider to be undesirable,” though 66.2% disapprove of taking justice into their own hands.
“The poor have had their belongings stolen for many years by gangs, [and] people defend themselves through lynching,” said Alfonso Yurrita, an urban designer and Guatemalan security analyst. “That’s the population that adopts the system of urban violence that we now have.”
Beatings and lynchings
The Guatemalan justice system handles three types of lynchings:
Of the 305 lynchings investigated in 2013, 76 were victims in 38 attempted beatings, 182 were tortured in 119 beatings and 47 were killed. Thirteen victims were minors.
In 2012, there were 76 victims in 35 attempted beatings, 119 beaten persons in 94 beatings and 19 who were killed, according to the National Support Commission for the Lynching Prevention Program of the Judicial Authority.
The lack of security has forced some communities to form vigilante groups, which often are the ones to call for lynchings, according to Mario Polanco, a representative of the Guatemalan NGO Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM).
“There are parallel security groups in many communities that patrol and safeguard their areas, but they also incite lynchings, and because of this, they should not exist,” Polanco added. “The authorities should investigate and prevent the creation of these groups, and that’s achieved by providing security.”
On other occasions, unruly crowds prevent police officers and firefighters from reaching lynching victims until it’s too late.
Additionally, police officers have been forced to leave the community while residents beat and lynch suspects. On other occasions, the PNC has arrested the accused, only to have a mob arrive at the police station and demand the suspect be released so punishment can be carried out swiftly. It’s common for lynch mobs to destroy police stations, according to Jorge Chinchilla, a PNC spokesperson.
But since lynching is not classified in the Guatemalan Penal Code, the justice system punishes lynching with sentences for other crimes such as torture, illegal execution and homicide, among others. The National Center for Legal Analysis and Documentation (CENADOJ) doesn’t keep statistics on sentences for these crimes.
Axel Romero, a prevention consultant in the Vice Ministry of the Interior, said authorities are seeking more employment opportunities for the population, which will show the government is trying to improve residents’ lives by keeping them occupied.
“We are seeking to create a joint agenda for the Convention for Security, Justice, and Peace,” he said. “We can’t try to take back control of the community if employers don’t provide jobs to the people who live in high crime areas.”
In Guatemala, 3% of the Economically Active Population (EAP) are technically unemployed, but 64.4% of them have informal jobs, according to the Ministry of Labor. Additionally, three out of four Guatemalans in rural areas live beneath the poverty line, according to the National Statistics Institute and the World Bank.
“We have identified networks of young people who work in the area of the prevention of violence across the entire country,” Romero said. “The centers for youth organizations are active in most towns and departments, but they have not been encouraged to widen their activities. These are isolated, local and modest efforts. We are trying to identify these factors to organize the institutions and support them, because that is a responsibility of this Vice-ministry.”