New Internationalist

Vigilante heaven

Issue 376

In Latin America it used to be ‘subversives’ who had to worry about the jackboots on the stairs. But in the post-9/11 days of ‘zero tolerance’ it is the most marginal who must watch for the cruising vans of the social cleansers. Anastasia MoLoney reports.

Photo: Martin Adler / Panos Pictures
Sleeping rough in Guatemala City: Latin America's growing underclass are targets for paramilitary 'justice'. Photo: Martin Adler / Panos Pictures

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. These ‘undesirables’ are often targeted because they are considered to be ‘bad for business’. Local businesses sometimes feel street dwellers and prostitutes devalue an area and put off potential customers.

Lying in the fertile lowlands near the Guatemalan border, the industrial and commercial hub of Honduras, San Pedro Sula, is known for its death squads, sponsored by local hoteliers to keep ‘unsightly undesirables’ off their doorsteps.

Government urban-regeneration projects also mean good business for social cleansing groups. Once a densely populated and large neighbourhood in downtown Bogotá, El Cartucho has during the last decade been reduced to a few blocks. Here social cleansing groups operate under police protection and supervision, sweeping the rubbish-strewn alleys of the drug dealers and crack addicts who make their homes there.

Undesirables are also targeted because of their sexual orientation. The self-declared guardians of morality have set themselves the task of stamping out any socially deviant behaviour that ‘blemishes’ society. During the last few years, human rights organizations documented an increase in ‘social cleansing’ attacks against homosexuals in Ecuador and transvestites in Guatemala, perpetrated mainly by the police. The Ecuadorian based Quito Gay, an organization that defends the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transvestites (LGBT), received calls from a homophobic group called Clean Total 7. The calls threatened a social cleansing campaign against LGBTs, whom they refer to as ‘human garbage’.

Dissidents and undesirables

The practice of targeting people of a different sexual orientation is perhaps most similar to persecuting people for their ideological beliefs – these victims are unprepared to subscribe to the dominant ideology. In Latin America, persecuting ‘undesirables’ was a common tool of government control and state political repression used to uphold the US-backed dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s. Authoritarian regimes developed ‘national security doctrines’ that involved the military protecting the state against internal ideological enemies and silencing opponents. During this era, the ‘undesirables’ were mainly suspected leftwing subversives or anyone who held different views from that of the state.

With the dismantling of these dictatorships in the 1980s, fragile, fledgling democracies emerged with a strong conservative military presence still looming in the background. Political repression gradually shifted from the eradication of those who thought differently, to those sections of society which were defenceless and unwanted – the marginalized. But the main perpetrators, the police and government security forces, remained the same.

Incidents of social cleansing tend to fluctuate and are periodic. In Bogotá, these groups are more active during the winter and summer school holidays. In the sugarcane-growing state of Alagoas in northeast Brazil, death squads operate more vigorously after a rash of inter-gang violence in the favelas, where the victims tend almost invariably to be young Afro-Brazilian males. A common pattern throughout the region is for sinister ‘wanted’ posters and lists of victims, warning of imminent social cleansing, mysteriously to appear on shop walls. Red and black typed posters appeared, for example, in Los Martires, in downtown Bogotá, announcing: ‘The industrialists, entrepreneurs, civic groups and community at large in the Los Martires area invite everyone to the funerals for the delinquents who work in this part of the capital, which will begin as of today and continue until they are exterminated.’

Carlos’s story

I met Carlos, a 14-year-old resident of Alto de Cazuca, a precariously built hilltop slum in south Bogotá. We spoke at a youth centre run by the Colombian Association of Young Christians. During our talk he revealed to me how the death squads operate: ‘Usually long lists of names are posted on school gates. Or sometimes an anonymous note will be slipped under the door of a house. When this happens you know you’ve been warned and you’ve got under a month to leave the area. My friend’s name appeared on the list. He was killed last August. He’d been hanging out with gang members.’

Ominous vans with blacked-out windows patrol rubble-strewn slum areas, usually after dark. One afternoon last July, Carlos witnessed the murder of street children and dwellers as he sipped a soft drink with a friend in the street.

‘A van gradually came to a halt. Its windows slowly lowered. Inside were masked men wearing DAS [Colombia’s security police] uniforms, who began to fire randomly at people in the street.’

It is common for messages to appear next to the bodies of the victim or tattooed on the body itself. According to the Guatemala City street kids’ charity Casa Alianza, the body of one child turned up recently with the message ‘cleaning the city’ chiselled on their back.

In Colombia, social cleansing is more politicized due to the country’s 40-year-old civil war. Leftwing guerrilla groups and paramilitaries use social cleansing as a way of imposing social and territorial control and instilling fear among communities.

The new anti-terrorist legislation implemented in Colombia after 9/11 makes it easier to condemn ‘subversive’ elements for inciting rebellion. It also infringes on the right of association – a throwback to earlier authoritarian regimes.

Social cleansing and its acceptance by society is encouraged by a zero-tolerance policy towards public disorder that has gained more popularity since 9/11. The marginalized youth and poor are stigmatized as dangers and threats to public security using anti-terrorist rhetoric. For the UN Special Rapporteur for Executions, Philip Alston, social cleansing is a result of the focus on countering terrorism. He told me: ‘When we hear about the declaration of “wars” – whether against terrorists, drug purveyors, criminal elements – we should be extremely wary. Such wars are often abused to give a carte blanche to police and security forces and their many “allies” to persecute or eliminate any groups that they consider to be troublesome or unwholesome. The door can thus be opened to forms of social cleansing.’

A zero-tolerance policy on crime that often involves the military carrying out regular police duties is particularly popular with governments in Colombia, Honduras and Brazil and appears to have been modelled on parts of the US Patriot Act. The Anti-Gang Policy in Honduras that allows suspected gang members to be imprisoned for up to a week without evidence is just one example.

Social cleansing persists because impunity and corruption are an ingrained part of the political culture of much of Latin America – a legacy of the military dictatorships. Few cases are reported to the police for fear of reprisal. Witness-protection programmes fail to guarantee the safety of courageous witnesses who have come forward in Honduras and Brazil. Many cases remain unrecorded and unsolved, allowing the perpetrators to roam freely. The consistent failure to investigate and prosecute social cleansing cases makes the state complicit at a certain level. In 2002 the Honduran Government set up a Special Unit for the Investigation of Children’s Deaths – but it has resulted in very few convictions. Social cleansing is seen by many as a harsh but necessary solution to the ills of public insecurity. Once a series of isolated cases, it has become a permanent aspect of urban living that has the support of state agents working alone and/or alongside hired guns. A rising crime rate, weak judicial system, corrupt police and a tendency towards zero-tolerance policies together create a fertile breeding ground for social cleansing groups to carry out their grisly business.

Anastasia MoLoney is a freelance journalist living in Bogotá, focusing primarily on education and human rights issues.

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