GUATEMALA CITY, Dec 16, 2011 (IPS) - Masked men came and threatened us. Some information was distorted, and they wanted to attack us all, said Enrique Boj, an activist from San Juan Sacatepéquez, 31 km from the Guatemalan capital.
Boj told IPS that in March the men came to the offices of the NGO where he works, the Community Development Association of Sajcavillá, which promotes projects that bring piped water and sanitation to poor areas, to meddle in the organisation's internal affairs.
"Some bad members who do not agree with the way we run the organisation asked that group for help to intimidate us. They wanted to attack the board of directors, they insulted us, and they broke windows in our building," he said.
For the past four years, the people of San Juan Sacatepéquez, a working-class town just outside of Guatemala City where most of the population is made up of Cakchiquel Maya Indians, have had to deal with this kind of intimidation from the local security committee.
Local security committees are vigilante groups comprised of masked citizens who patrol the town at night armed with revolvers, machetes, clubs and stones, purportedly to fight crime.
They were created in 1999 with the support of the state, "to facilitate citizen participation and provide support to build confidence and forge closer ties between the National Civil Police and local citizens," according to the interior ministry.
There are at least 300 such committees in this Central American country, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world - 52 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - while World Bank figures indicate that 75 percent of the population is poor.
But the original purpose of the committees has been distorted, and some members have been arrested on charges of extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance, illegal raids and torture.
"The chief aim was to protect the area at night," said Boj. "But in our community, they have abused their authority…and have gotten involved in trying to solve other issues, including family matters and boundary disputes, etc."
Cases of abuses by the local security committees abound.
Two former members of the local security committee of the northwestern city of Panajachel, the country's second most popular tourism destination, were arrested Oct. 31 by the police, accused of the Oct. 4 forced disappearance of Luis Gilberto Tián.
According to his neighbours, Tián was accosted by members of the local security committee, an argument broke out, and he was not seen or heard from again.
"It had gotten scary to walk alone on the streets, you couldn't even leave your house anymore. They (members of the committee) would beat up any drunks they ran across," Néstor Buc, with the San Francisco de Panajachel association of buses and taxis, told IPS after the local vigilante group became less active following the arrests of the two men.
Buc said the groups emerged because of the high crime levels and the ineffectiveness of the National Civil Police. In his view, "the committees should continue to operate, but under new rules, because while they used to fix problems on the streets at first, now they create problems."
He also said that while Guatemalans understand that the police should have the authority, "some police are not committed to their job," Buc said.
High-level local authorities have also been implicated in the abuses by the local security committees.
The mayor of the northwestern town of San Juan Cotzal, José Pérez Chen, was arrested on Jun. 26, accused of ordering the lynching of a police officer with the support of the local security committee.
According to the public prosecutor's office, the policeman's son had been arrested and tortured by the committee, which thought he looked like a member of a youth gang, and his father had started asking questions about what happened – and ended up dead.
According to the U.N.-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), no one is punished in 98 percent of all crimes.
Social organisations say the near total impunity drives the public to take justice into their own hands, leading to cases of torture and lynching by mobs, who are sometimes egged on by the local security committees.
"We are calling for the revocation of the agreement that gave rise to the local security committees, because they are a mechanism that falls outside the structure of the state, which have distorted citizen participation in crime prevention," Iduvina Hernández with Seguridad en Democracia (SEDEM), a local NGO, told IPS.
"The worst thing about it is that they have given rise to the commission of crimes, including the restriction of rights like freedom of movement, illegal arrests, torture, and extrajudicial executions," she said.
Hernández said the outgoing government of Álvaro Colom or the administration of president-elect Otto Pérez Molina – a retired general whose four-year term starts in January – should urgently take actions to reduce the number of firearms circulating in the country.
Jorge Santos, head of the International Centre for Human Rights Research (CIIDH), told IPS that the local security committees "have been based in many cases on old paramilitary structures from the time of the armed conflict."
During Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war, which left more than 200,000 victims – mainly rural indigenous people – the army set up "civilian self-defence patrols" (PACs), vigilante or paramilitary groups that took part in the counterinsurgency effort.
The PACs, which committed countless human rights violations during the 36-year armed conflict, were dismantled after the 1996 peace agreement was signed.
However, the tradition of vigilante groups is alive and well.
Santos said "some kind of participation by the population (in fighting crime) could be ok, but it is first necessary to strengthen democratic security and law enforcement mechanisms - because a group of individuals cannot take the place of the state." (END)
Picture: Barbara Schieber, women, Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala