April 7, 2006

Guatemala recruits ex-soldiers to fight gang crime

By Mica Rosenberg

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala has rehired a
battalion of former soldiers to help police combat rising gang
violence, raising concern in a country that has struggled to
rely less on its once all-powerful army.

More than 2,000 ex-soldiers began patrolling in olive
uniforms this week alongside the civilian police force set up
to take over law enforcement duties from the military after the
country's 1960-96 civil war against leftist rebels.

They will mostly patrol crime-stricken neighborhoods in the
capital, Guatemala City, where two rival street gangs active
across Central America, Mexico and the United States are blamed
for a wave of terror including rapes and beheadings.

Guatemala had over 5,000 violent killings last year, one of
the highest per-capita murder rates in Latin America.

Many of the crimes are blamed on the street gangs or
"maras," which grew out of Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles and
then spread to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

"Never before in the history of our country has our society
been so damaged by delinquency, organized crime, drug
trafficking and gangs," President Oscar Berger told ex-soldiers
lined up with firearms at a hiring ceremony this week.

The program will last for 10 months, after which the former
soldiers will be contracted for another year or incorporated
into the police force.

The move came after El Salvador's police chief said this
week that military tactics could wipe out Central America's
gangs in two months. Rights groups in the once war-torn region
say extra firepower will not solve the problem.

A backlash against the gangs has often been brutal, with
shadowy vigilante groups targeting members accused of robbery
or extorting money from local businesses.

"Simply putting more men with guns on the street with
little training is a short-sighted solution," said Sebastian
Elgueta, Amnesty International investigator for Guatemala.

Most of the soldiers were discharged following 1996 peace
accords between the government and leftist insurgents which
sought to demilitarize the country after a civil war which
killed 200,000 people, most of them poor Maya Indians.

Most of the killings were blamed on Guatemala's military
and paramilitary groups.