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My article can be viewed if you visit the international section of Billy Briggs Guatemala City.

Outside the morgue in zone three of Guatemala City Fablo Fajardo waited to identify the body of his brother Jose, shot dead in the street the day before.

“He was a security guard and was coming out of a bank in the town of Amatitlan when robbers attacked,” said 40-year-old Fajardo, dressed all in black. He showed us Jose’s ID card then spoke about Melanie, his two-year-old niece now fatherless.

“No-one can go out. We cannot live in Guatemala anymore,” he added, wearily. Ten years on from the end of a 36 year civil war that resulted in the deaths of at least 200,000 people, Guatemala is a nation still riven with extreme violence.

A land of stunning beauty with more than 30 live volcanoes and jungles jewelled with ancient Mayan temples it seems an almost lawless society where murder is endemic and where public lynchings are a common occurrence, with around 400 cases between 1996 and 2002, according to the UN.

Guatemala City is one of the most brutal capitals in the world at the moment and in July, Philip Alston, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, said the levels of violence were worse than during the civil war.

At the morgue we are told that around 15 to 20 bodies arrive each day, mostly people gunned down in the street. Many of the victims are women and Amnesty International issued a report recently that highlighted a staggering rate of increase in the number of females being murdered in Guatemala. Since 2002, when 163 women were killed, the figure has increased by more than 300%. In 2005, 665 deaths were registered, the fourth consecutive year the figure had risen, and between January and May this year another 299 females were killed - that equates to around 60 murders a month, or two women each day. Even more disturbing is that according to Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, up to 70% of female homicides have not been investigated and no arrests have been made in 93% of cases.

In an interview with the Sunday Herald, Myrna Ponce, Guatemalan politician and President of the Human Rights Commission, accused the country’s police force of gross dereliction of duty.

“They do not care about female victims. They are the worst institution in the country because of the corruption. Last year 26 female recruits were raped at the National Police Academy. There is no fingerprint or DNA database, no crime or victim profiling, and no real forensic science,” she said.

The roots of today’s violence seems to be rooted in the civil war fought between left wing guerrillas and right wing military backed governments between 1960 and 1996. The barbarity of that era, particularly during the early 1980s when genocide against the Mayans was carried out by the forces of General Rioss Montt, echoed Chile under Pinochet and Argentina’s dirty wars. But in Guatemala no-one has ever been brought to book for war crimes.

Claudio Samayoa, a 39-year-old academic and human rights activist, says the acute violence is because of this culture of impunity.

“During the civil war women were killed extremely violently to give out a graphic message to communities that they should not support the rebels. Soldiers in their late teens at that time are now in their late 30s/early40s, but there was never any moral condemnation from society and so there now seems to be a fashion to kill,” she said. But as the 10th anniversary of peace in Guatemala approaches there was some optimism last week when the government and the United Nations signed an agreement to investigate killings carried out by clandestine armed groups in the country.

Recent murders of human rights activists, judges, prosecutors, journalists and union leaders, have been linked to these autonomous cells, said to have been active since the end of the civil war. Those accused of war crimes still wield enormous influence and in July 2003, demonstrations took place in Guatemala City as supporters of Montt called for his return to power. But four months later, Oscar Berger, the ex-mayor of Guatemala City won the presidential election with 38.8% of the vote. In July this year, Spanish Judge Santiago Pedraz issued an international arrest warrant against Montt, head of state 1982 to 1983.

(Copyright, Billy Briggs 2006. No reproduction without permission)

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