Guatemala, like much of Central America, has spent its last few generations besieged by violence. A civil war ripped through the country for the 36 years leading up to the 1996 Peace Accords, which did little to ease old tensions. In 2009 and 2010, it registered more civilian murders than Iraq. Though some of the violence ties to the presence of Mexican drug cartels in the country, most is at the hands of local maras, or gangs, who fight for control of neighborhoods where they can run illicit businesses, sell drugs and contraband, and extort shops and residents.
In some of the most troubled regions, mob justice stands in for a weak judicial system. Beatings, lynchings, and burnings of crooks regularly make the news—alleged criminals killed for the community to watch, and to serve as a warning to others. Some regions have more developed justice systems, with the accused embarrassed before a public audience or extradited from the community instead of physical punishment.
Groups like Guardianes del Vecindario, the Neighborhood Guardians, offer another option. With the blessing of local authorities—who often can’t keep up with the violence—local volunteers take on massive risks to patrol with a mix of crude weapons and aging guns. They keep an eye on who enters the barrio, monitor activity, and turn over any suspected criminals to the military or police, who also run checkpoints throughout the city.
With power in numbers, groups like the Guardians believe, local communities can isolate themselves from the violent statistics of the country at large. Far from a perfect solution, many such groups have been accused of killing innocents and of perpetrating violence themselves. Still, many residents in protected neighborhoods feel safer from the masses with the power of justice in their own hands.