Guatemala's Lynch-Mob Justice ; Tuesday's Execution of Five Youths Is the Latest in a String of Such Incidents, in Part a Legacy of Civil War

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Within hours of the robbery and murder of a local farmer in Las Conchas, five teenage boys accused of the crime were pronounced guilty.

Sound like speedy justice in a country known for precisely the opposite?

Not exactly. The alleged bandits were cornered and "tried" on Tuesday by hundreds of angry villagers in the town, 200 miles north of the Guatemalan capital. Their sentence: The five youths were doused, one by one, with gasoline and burned. A sixth reportedly escaped.

This most recent case brings to 45 the number of vigilante justice incidents this year. That includes 29 lynchings - the murder by a mob of an accused without lawful trial. Since August 1995, there have been some 340 lynchings or attempted lynchings, according to MINUGUA, the United Nations Mission in Guatemala.

Experts in Guatemala and the international community are increasingly concerned with the phenomenon here, which they claim is not being adequately addressed by the government and is misunderstood by society. According to them, lynchings are symptomatic of ungovernability and are a window into more profound problems in Guatemala that need urgent attention. "Lynchings are just the tip of the iceberg," says a MINUGUA official, who asked not to be named. "It's just the part we see of a larger problem that we don't see, but that is much more dangerous."

As the international body responsible for monitoring the 1996 peace agreement that ended Guatemala's 30-year civil war, MINUGUA has followed the lynchings closely. In a report due to be released early this month, it will seek to counter some of the myths surrounding the vigilante justice phenomenon and to challenge society to seek solutions to a problem that threatens the peace and stability of the nation.

For many analysts, the lynchings are closely tied to militarization during the civil war. According to Luis Ramirez, a lawyer with the private Guatemalan Institute for Comparative Penal Studies in Guatemala City, historically, local indigenous leaders administered justice, or "indigenous law," in communities where there was a total absence of the state justice system. More than 50 percent of the population is Mestizo - of mixed European and indigenous ancestry - while 44 percent is native American.

As a way to prevent villagers from allying with rebel guerrillas, the government replaced these local authorities with military officers, and the state organized civil self-defense patrols. These groups often controlled communities through violence. With the peace accord, the committees were dismantled, leaving an authority vacuum along with a legacy of violence. "The lack of a state presence in these communities and the destruction of the traditional indigenous authorities and 'indigenous law' has generated a state of anomie, or absence of norms," says Mr. Ramirez.

Ramirez maintains that Guatemala needs to recognize the multiethnic nature of the country, and the legitimacy of indigenous law, to allow local authorities to reemerge and resolve conflicts in their communities. He adds that in addition to increasing people's access to the justice system, that system needs to be more intercultural and bilingual. …