Magazine article New Internationalist

Vigilante Heaven

Magazine article New Internationalist

Vigilante Heaven

Article excerpt

A STREET kid in bare feet with matted hair huddles in a doorway sniffing glue. Further up the road, a young prostitute loiters on a street corner. A street dweller shuffles past her, stopping to scavenge through the rubbish. A group of fire-eaters attempts to entertain drivers waiting at traffic lights. Homeless street vendors hustle cigarettes to passers-by; an entrepreneur in a sharp tailored suit hurriedly crosses the road to avoid them.

These people make up the everyday urban landscape of Latin America's major cities. They represent the marginalized, 'undesirable' groups of society. In Colombia, they are clinically referred to as los desechables (the disposable ones), like an object that can be thrown away after use. In Honduras, they are known simply as los miserables.

The 'undesirables' are threatened daily by a semi-clandestine reality that is particularly widespread in the major cities of Guatemala, Brazil, Honduras, Argentina and Colombia: 'social cleansing'. This macabre practice involves the premeditated elimination of particular groups considered to be dangerous or worthless. Social cleansing campaigns exterminate those people perceived as no longer 'useful' or who display what is considered to be immoral behaviour.

Sporadic and isolated cases of social cleansing first appeared in Latin America in the early 1980s. In the course of that decade, this phenomenon developed into a systematic and well-organized method of eradicating marginalized groups. The fall of dictatorships effectively meant the deregulation of the state use of violence, allowing new groups to hand out death sentences. In the 1980s in Colombia there existed some 40 known social cleansing groups operating under such names as Terminator, Kankil, and Toxicol-90 (the last inspired by a brand of domestic pesticide). Death squads comprising former or off-duty police officers were formed in Argentina and Brazil.

Maras beware

In Central America's second largest country, Honduras, the main targets now are street children, young males suspected of gang membership and other delinquents. Such people are considered the principal cause of crime and violence in Honduras. The number of gangs, las maras, rose sharply in recent years particularly with the deportation of thousands of gang members from the US back to Honduras. Yet the idea that there is a correlation between an increase in crime and more mara members in a local area is a fallacy. Human rights groups emphasize that, while gang warfare certainly exists, young Hondurans do not commit the majority of crime. Two-thirds of all Honduran children and youth who die violently do not belong to gangs and have no criminal background.

Across Latin America, the political agenda and dinner debates among the élites and middle classes are dominated by how to combat rising crime and by anxiety about personal safety. The evening news is filled with violent, bloody stories which fuel the idea that crime is out of control. In this climate, social cleansing groups flourish. The perception that the state, justice system and police are incapable of stemming soaring crime means more work for death squads. Local residents and entrepreneurs actually sponsor social cleansing campaigns.

In Brazil, death squad members are often the military police, who for a price deal with the 'problem' in a quick and efficient way. One police inspector, alias 'Robocop,' is known to head a Rambo-style death squad whose mission is to shoot on sight any burglar in Brazil's northern state of Pará.

The same pattern is repeated farther south in Argentina. A 50-minute ride away from the elegant tree-lined boulevards of central Buenos Aires, the working-class neighbourhood of Don Toruato has been the scene of well-documented murders of suspected delinquents carried out by the Don Toruato Death Squad. Since 2000, this death squad, led by off-duty police sergeants, has sold security to the neighbouring middle classes that has involved 'cleansing' the area of undesirables in exchange for a monthly salary. …

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