Plaza Publica investigates a vigilante group that has sprung up in a popular tourist destination in southwest Guatemala, where residents have taken the law into their own hands in the face of rising insecurity.

Panajachel is a village in Guatemala’s highlands, nicknamed “Hippietenago” for its relaxed atmosphere. It is popular with foreign visitors, who come to the Lake Atitlan region for its natural beauty and Mayan culture, but often take advantage of readily available drugs and a festive nightlife.

The area also has a darker history of vigilantism. During Guatemala’s civil war, a government counterinsurgency plan established civilian auto-defense forces to defend against the guerrilla threat, including in the region around Panajachel. Civil patrol groups were often used by the military to carry out assassinations and torture suspect members of their own communities.

More recently, violence erupted in neighboring Solala, northeast of Panajachel, when an angry mob attacked a police station holding suspects accused of robbing and killing a local bus driver. A large crowd of citizen vigilantes overpowered the police and pulled the suspects into the street, where they were beaten and burned to death. A Wikileaks cable from July 2009 documents a number of other incidents of vigilantism.

As Plaza Publica reports, the latest wave of vigilante groups first arose after Tropical Storm Agatha hit Panajachel in May 2010. Neighborhood patrols were set up to help relocate families whose houses had been damaged by torrential rains or were in danger of mudslides. Disorder and confusion in the wake of the storm created an atmosphere of insecurity. The groups responded by organizing nightly security patrols and gained offical backing from Panajachel’s mayor, Gerardo Higueros. These volunteer groups now patrol Panajachel under the authority of the Municipal Security Commission (MSC).

Within a few months, local hoodlums and suspected criminals began to fall victim to violent attacks. In March, a group of masked citizen vigilantes (called Los Encapuchados – The Hooded Ones) vandalized a local bar and nearly beat the owner to death for suspected participation in drug dealing. One July night, Los Encapuchados confronted two men on the streets of Panajachel. The hooded mob beat the men, dunked them in a river and cut off their hair, for the supposed crime of being “rockers.” Among other incidents, Los Encapuchados have been accused in the disappearance of a young father, Luis Tian.

Panajachel suffers from weak public security institutions and police are underequipped and understaffed. Police interviewed by Plaza Publica were hesitant to criticize the MSC’s security patrols and apparent connection to Los Encapuchados. However, one officer interviewed expressed concern over what will happen if the MSC and Los Encapuchados continue to take justice into their own hands. In the words of one agent, “Panajachel is a time bomb waiting to explode.”

Leaders of the MSC interviewed for the Plaza Publica article, including scultptor Victor Anleu and former mayoral candidate Juan Manuel Ralon, blame “hippies” and “foreigners” for the town’s rising insecurity and deteriorating social fabric. They also deny any involvement in extrajudicial activities carried out by vigilantes. However, one of the “rockers” attacked in July and witnesses to other vigilante incidents accuse the men not only of participation, but of directing the action of Los Encapuchados in Panajachel.

Recently, journalist Lucia Escobar wrote a column implicating Ralon, Anleu and Teresa Cohello, director of a cultural center and Secretary of the MSC, in the disappearance of Luis Tian. In response, Ralon and Anleu, in a television appearance with Panajachel’s mayor and chief of police, accused the journalist of dealing drugs and threatened her life.

The Plaza Publica investigation and the attacks on a respected journalist appear to have motivated Guatemalan authorities to move against Los Encapuchados. On Monday, Ralon and Anleu were detained and stand accused of participation in illegal detentions and leading attacks by Los Encapuchados. However, the arrests have not put a stop to vigilantism. A television correspondent who reported the arrests of MSC members received an anonymous phonecall threatening retribution for his involvement in the matter.

Vigilantism appears to be on the rise in countries across the region, as Central America suffers increasing levels of insecurity. Guatemala, particularly, is undergoing an invasion by the Zetas drug gang, which first sprung up in Mexico and is taking control of much of the country. Vigilante groups have appeared in Mexico and Brazil, and, recently, journalist Facundo Gerardo warned of the rise of extra-judicial vigilante violence in El Salvador.

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