In a landmark case in Guatemala, 86 gang members were sentenced in the same trial, a strategy that could serve to streamline judicial processes, but one that is not without potential pitfalls.
After over two years of investigations and close to four months of judicial proceedings, a court in Guatemala sentenced 86 members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang and absolved seven others, according to the Public Ministry (Guatemala's Attorney General's Office). The sentences ranged from two to 122 years behind bars for crimes including murder, extortion, conspiracy, and the use of falsified documents.
The longest sentence was given to Marco Antonio Sian Chavez, who was charged with ordering the decapitation of four people whose heads were placed in front of Guatemala’s legislature in 2010, reported Diario de Centro America. Other MS13 leaders were sentenced to up to 40 years for ordering crimes.
According to Prensa Libre, the judicial proceedings represent Guatemala’s most extensive trial against gang members tied to a single investigation. The prosecutor overseeing the case, who spoke to Prensa Libre on the condition of anonymity, said it also sets an important precedent by legally establishing the MS13 as a criminal organization.
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The strategy of trying multiple members of the same criminal group together could help Guatemala resolve cases more quickly, thus putting more gang members behind bars. This historic case also sends a message to gang members that even if they don’t pull the trigger, they can still be prosecuted for planning or ordering a crime. In a country in which catching criminals in the act is the most common way to prosecute gang members, this may serve as a deterrent for gang leaders, who may no longer be able to count on having their subordinates take the fall for crimes they order.
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On the other hand, prosecuting a large number of gang members at the same time raises the possibility that they won’t be given a fair trial. It could prove difficult for prosecutors and judges to carefully evaluate each individual’s involvement when close to one hundred people are accused in the same judicial proceedings.
Furthermore, while the strategy may put large numbers of gang members behind bars, it won’t resolve the country’s organized crime problem while the prison system remains broken and Guatemalan youth continue to lack educational and economic opportunities that would encourage them to pursue alternative lifestyles to gang membership.