Lynching Persists in Guatemala

December 15, 2009

by Daniel Altschuler

Lynchings are wreaking havoc again in rural Guatemala. In a recent 15-day span, nine people have been lynched here by citizens who chose to take justice into their own hands. And in the past year, lynch mobs have attacked over 250 people, resulting in at least 42 deaths. The numbers are scary, and they reflect the reality that Guatemala has not forgotten a crucial part of its grisly past. In addition to the deaths caused, the lynchings reflect the inadequacy and inaccessibility of state justice institutions and the legacies of violence from civil war and state-sponsored genocide.

Lynching may seem like an antiquated concept to Americans, but it remains a very real part of rural Guatemalan life. The practice of linchamientos differs somewhat from the mob-led hangings of African-Americans that once plagued the American South. Instead, Guatemalan lynch mobs resort to stoning, beating or pouring gasoline on victims and setting them on fire, often resulting in death. Petty criminals have been the most frequent targets, but lynch mobs have also attacked figures of state authority (such as a judge who issued an unpopular rape verdict). Some reports have even attributed lynchings to drug gangs seeking to eliminate competitors.

In the Americas, lynching is not unique to Guatemala. Carlos Vilas has also documented cases in Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, and Brazil, most often in areas where the state is weak (see below). But lynchings have been particularly pervasive in Guatemala, where the practice attracted a lot of attention immediately after the 1996 Peace Accords. From 1996 to 2000 alone, scholars noted well over 300 lynchings in Guatemala. A decade later, the practice seemed to have subsided somewhat, with only eight deaths in 2008. One might have hoped that the practice would have been headed for the dustbin of history, but the figures from 2009 suggest otherwise.

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Tags: Guatemala, Lynchings, 1996 Peace Accords, Guillermo O’Donnell