A disturbing new report by elPeriodico shows how the Internet is being used to target alleged criminals in Guatemala. As with Anonymous' threats to "out" Zetas in Mexico, the case illustrates how cyber justice can get ugly fast.
The investigation says that four websites have identified 39 alleged members of street gangs or other criminal groups in San Benito, a municipality in Peten, Guatemala's most violent state, over the past three years. At least 10 of these were later killed.
The pages, which go by names like "Final Justice," are still active, and include photos of the accused and their alleged crimes. The blogs also mention names of the places where these alleged criminals spend their time, give license plate numbers of their vehicles, and other means of locating them.
The blogs bear all the hallmarks of a political crusade that seeks to right an imbalance the impotent state cannot.
"We want justice for all the crimes these individuals have committed," Final Justice says, in what amounts to its mission statement. "We want all the weight of the law on them."
They also show little restraint or regard for due process. One site has a poll, asking, "Which one of these punks' asses do you want us to break first?"
Guatemala does suffer from widespread impunity. Fewer than four in every 100 murder cases is ever processed, in a justice system that has been overwhelmed and remains poorly resourced.
And San Benito, a municipality with just over 50,000 inhabitants, is one of Guatemala's most violent places. In 2010, it registered 131 homicides by firearm per 100,000 inhabitants, a rate comparable to most dangerous places on earth. It is plagued by drug trafficking and gang activity.
The widespread violence makes for many suspects. Guatemala's elPeriodico notes that the blogs target only members of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and not members of its rivals, Barrio 18 (M-18). The blogs also have misspellings and provide very specific information, leading some to speculate they are run by rival gangs.
Other suspects are high-profile members of the community. ElPeriodico report mentions San Benito Mayor Javier Lopez who has come under scrutiny for his alleged connection to social cleansing. There is also mention of a criminal group called the Malula, which is allegedly run by a San Benito family that owns some local businesses. The report said the Malula were former bodyguards of Guatemala's powerful Mendoza crime family and now run the local drug market, which street gangs normally contest.
The Internet vigilante trend is not limited to San Benito. Another site, the "Black List," targets suspected gang members in Guatemala City. ElPeriodico says another such site exists in the state of Izabal.
The failures of governments throughout the region in their battle against organized crime has led to a rise in efforts to seek justice via the Internet. From Argentina to Mexico, blogs and community pages have become repositories for information about criminal gangs.
The Internet's potential to house anti-crime organizations has not gone unnoticed by the criminals themselves. Members of Mexico's Zetas criminal gang have killed four alleged crime bloggers in the past few months, two of whom were hung from a bridge, and one of whom was an editor of a site that posted a detailed map of where the Zetas had supposedly established drug distribution points in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
When the Zetas allegedly kidnapped a member of the online hack group Anonymous, the hackers threatened to retaliate by revealing the names of Zetas to the public. The threat came just weeks after a vigilante group calling themselves the Mata-Zetas (Zetas Killers) allegedly massacred 35 presumed members of the group in Veracruz state and dumped them in a busy intersection. Anonymous eventually withdrew the threat after the Zetas, supposedly, released their hostage.
The Guatemalan vigilante sites claim to stem from a common concern about justice, but are unlikely to help this cause. Instead, as the San Benito case illustrates, they seem to be making the situation worse. None of the cases involving alleged criminals in the Peten municipality have been investigated, and slandering someone anonymously on the Internet seems to be quickly becoming the easiest way to permanently rid yourself of a rival.