VILLA NUEVA, Guatemala (Reuters) - Slum dwellers armed with shotguns have taken to Guatemala’s streets to hand vigilante justice to youth gangs as voters sick of crime increasingly back a hardline ex-general’s run for president.
Roving bands of masked men communicating over walkie-talkies and armed with sticks, machetes and shotguns patrol the poor Villa Nueva slum on the edge of Guatemala City at night looking for members of infamous “Mara” gangs.
The well-organized patrols, whose secretive members are suspicious of outsiders, killed at least one gang member, David Castillo alias “The Siren”, earlier this month.
“It’s another war,” said resident Sheni Godinez, 46, who had to borrow money to pay gang members $650 for the right to live in Villa Nueva, home to 500,000 people, many of whom live in zinc-roofed wooden houses.
The surge in violence in one of Latin America’s most crime-ridden countries could help ex-Gen. Otto Perez Molina win the presidency when he faces center-leftist Alvaro Colom in the second round of the vote on November 4.
Perez Molina came second in the first round vote this month but his campaign is gathering steam. He promises to use the death penalty more often and declare a state of emergency in crime-hit areas like Villa Nueva.
Despite the military’s black record in Guatemala — soldiers were responsible for most of the some 250,000 deaths in a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 — some feel crime is so bad that they are willing to take a chance with Perez Molina.
“I believe the general can help us to live without this anxiety that haunts us. When you get on the bus, you don’t know if you are going to get out alive with all these attacks,” said Ruben Estuardo, a 42-year-old salesman.
Gangs like the infamous “Mara Salvatrucha” terrorize poor neighborhoods by beheading rivals, raping women and fighting rivals in daylight shootouts.
More than 30 bus drivers and their helpers have been killed in Guatemala since January for failing to pay extortion money.
The gangs charge store owners around $25 a week and execute those who do not pay. It is easy cash, say gang members.
“Just robbing doesn’t make that much money,” said ‘Shy Girl’, 23, a member of the Mara Salvatrucha since she was 13.
Outgoing President Oscar Berger has sent police accompanied by some soldiers into Villa Nueva but residents say it is not enough.
Colom, who is Perez Molina’s rival in the runoff vote, has also made crime a central part of his campaign but his background as an economist and his gentle, bespectacled demeanor has worked against him.
He led Perez Molina by four percentage points in the first round of voting on September 9 after losing a large lead in opinion polls.
But the ex-general, who commanded troops in one of the most conflictive areas of the country during the civil war, is expected to pick up more support in November from voters who backed other conservative candidates in the first round.
His Patriotic Party’s logo is a clenched fist, symbolizing his toughness on crime.
Whoever wins the election will need to not only take on the gangs but clean up Guatemala’s corrupt police force. Police often take a cut of extortion money, former gang members and human rights investigators say.
“That is one reason the extortions are growing, it’s a business for the authorities,” said human rights expert Claudia Samayoa.