VILLA NUEVA, Guatemala (Reuters) - On New Year’s day, six-year-old Evelyn Isidro went down the block in a shanty town near Guatemala City to buy a diaper for her baby brother. She never made it home.
As her parents searched the streets, they passed 18-year-old Walter Aguirre carrying a backpack. It was stuffed, he later admitted, with the little girl’s hacked up body, on its way to a shallow grave at the bottom of a deep ravine.
Guatemala suffered almost 48 murders per 100,000 people last year, one of the highest rates in Latin America. Every eighth victim was a child -- and a disproportionate number of the killers were youths.
Half of Guatemala’s population is under 17, and the number of kids exposed to brutal crimes bodes badly for efforts to shake off a bloody recent history, marred by a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.
Since the end of the civil war, crimes by Los Angeles-style street gangs and organized drug trafficking rings have exploded. Most cases are never properly investigated and, making matters worse, corrupt police and security forces have been found to be involved in kidnappings and murders.
Keeping kids away from violent crime is hard when many come from deprived households rife with sexual and physical abuse, said Carlos Toledo, who runs a home for street kids and youth offenders.
“Their psychology is not normal,” he said. “That child thinks, ‘society took advantage of me and now I‘m going to take advantage of it.’ It’s a type of revenge.”
“Gadget,” who is 19 and nicknamed after a U.S. cartoon character, left the notorious Calle 18 gang three years ago and is still in hiding.
“They told me when I joined: you enter alive but you leave in a box,” said Gadget, whose initiation into the gang at age 15 meant killing a rival gang member with a pistol.
The most brutal member of his neighborhood division of the gang was a then 9-year-old orphan dubbed “Wicked”, who Gadget said murdered kids and four bus drivers who had failed to pay extortion money.
“He was the craziest one. In a month he killed ten people,” said Gadget, whose chest and inside bottom lip are tattooed with the names of dead friends and his two young children.
A 16-year-old girl in Gadget’s division, called “Little Baby”, wore a school uniform and knee-high socks, but carried a gun in her backpack which she often used, he said.
She killed people who failed to pay extortion fees, set for some households at an exhorbitant $50 a week.
Mistreated or marginalized children join street gangs because they provide a kind of surrogate family. The number of child gang members in the Central American nation is reckoned at anywhere between 6,000 and 40,000.
Known as “maras,” these gangs originated in Los Angeles and spread to Central America in the late 1990s, when U.S. authorities began deporting illegal immigrants who had committed crimes.
Compounding the problems facing youngsters, youth advocacy groups say some police and civil war-era security forces simply target tattooed or homeless youths as criminals, brutally beating or killing them.
The violence is becoming a major issue in campaigning for September’s presidential election.
Former army general and congressman Otto Perez Molina promises a “strong hand” against youth gangs if he wins, and wants to change the penal code to allow 16-year-olds to be prosecuted as adults, down from 18.
“Young people are becoming increasingly involved in illegal activities from stealing cars to carrying out tasks for crime gangs that use them to commit murders and take advantage of the fact they can’t be tried because they are minors,” Perez Molina told Reuters.
Former head of prisons Alejandro Giammattei, also running, supports joint military and police action to fight crime.
Counting more and younger victims of gang violence each year, Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman’s office said there is no clear policy to address the problem.
“We’re scared to leave our children on their own,” said construction worker Ruben de Leon, a father of seven who lives in Villa Nueva, the shanty town where Evelyn Isidro was killed.
Aguirre and a friend have admitted luring the girl with candy into his metal-sided shanty, where they raped and decapitated her.
Frustrated with an inept justice system that convicts killers in less than two percent of cases, neighbors of the Isidros took matters into their own hands, and tried to burn down Aguirre’s shack in revenge.