Image: Gang member
Rodrigo Abd  /  AP
A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang is detained by army and police in Guatemala City on July 20. A string of violent killings targeting gang members and criminals in Guatemala has prompted rumors of a "social cleansing."
updated 10/17/2005 6:05:30 PM ET 2005-10-17T22:05:30

Some are shoved into cars with dark windows and never seen again. Sometimes bodies turn up in gullies and abandoned fields with messages left on paper or carved into their bodies: “Car thief.” “I behaved badly.” “I’m going to hell.” “This is how snitches die.”

A string of violent and mysterious killings targeting Guatemalan gang members and criminals has prompted rumors of a “social cleansing” in a country where crime is rising and gangs are rampant.

In recent weeks, at least two previously unknown groups have left fliers in parks claiming to be civilian vigilantes at war with gang members. Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman, Sergio Morales, suspects rogue police, but Attorney General Juan Luis Florido blames mob warfare — perhaps “drug dealers, bank robbers or gang members.”

1,615 violent deaths in six months
So far there is little evidence supporting any of the theories, though the ombudsman’s office calls it “social cleansing” and is trying to determine how many of the 1,615 violent deaths in the first half of 2005 fall into that category.

Morales claims information that some security forces were involved, but refuses to give details. He also says he doubts those in charge have knowledge of the killings.

The killings appear to have begun late last year. The term “social cleansing” was coined in July by Mutual Support Group, a human rights organization, and was widely accepted in a country known for vigilante justice and a deep mistrust of public officials, stemming in large part from the nation’s 36-year civil war.

For one thing, the murders seemed different — groups of gunmen arriving in poor neighborhoods and pulling gang members or suspected criminals out of their homes or off the street.

Some were never seen again, while the bodies of others turned up wrapped in blankets or sheets of plastic.

Most victims have been criminals or members of gangs whose ranks have swollen as the United States increasingly deports Central American immigrants suspected of gang activity.

Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann agrees with the gang warfare theory, saying “gang members fight for territory, for drug distribution, to blackmail bus company owners, to blackmail businesses and even private citizens.”

But in the city’s poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods, many blame police.

One 19-year-old gang member, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, said 14 of his friends have died or disappeared this year in circumstances he believes were social cleansing cases.

Harm, not help, from police?
He said one of them was Mario Toscano, 19, with whom he was having a drink in a neighborhood store on Aug. 27. He said two men shot Toscano, then drove him away in a green car with tinted windows. Witnesses said they saw a police cruiser follow the car.

Toscano’s wife, Ingrid Castro, said a motorcycle cop passed by shortly after and she asked him for help, “but he just left.”

Toscano hasn’t been seen or heard from again.

“We don’t know how badly he was wounded ... but he left behind a lot of blood,” said Toscano’s father, Heriberto Toscano. “We have been looking in the jails, the morgues, the hospitals, but nothing.”

He said that six months earlier, police had burst into his home and carried away Toscano, refusing to show a warrant. Toscano was released two days later by a judge who ruled the arrest illegal.

Another victim, 15-year-old Mario Melendez, disappeared April 22 and was found a few days later, with his head and body in different places. Three others were shot by hit men on motorcycles as they left a prison where they were visiting jailed friends.

Estuardo Munoz Sinar, 17, was last seen July 18 in a national police cruiser, according to the boy’s parents and witnesses.

Police said they have no information and have listed him as a missing person.

Munoz Sinar’s brother, 18-year-old Ricardo Munoz, was gunned down in an alley Feb. 6 by men in ski masks driving a green car.

A cousin, 19-year-old Jose Munoz, doubts the killings are the work of gangs.

“Gangs wait for you and shoot, and they leave you in the same place,” he said. “They don’t take you away in a car. They don’t arrive with assault weapons but with normal guns.”

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