A Plague of Urban Violence

Guatemala City (WFS)--Like many children in this sprawling urban centre, 12-year-old Marcos Fidel Quisquinay worked several jobs to help support his family. In the mornings, he washed laundry. In the afternoons, he helped on a garbage truck. At night, he washed and guarded cars.

But Quisquinay's short working life recently came to a sudden, violent end. As the ragged boy was guarding cars near a restaurant, two men approached him and handed him a bag, as if offering food. Moments later, a bomb inside the bag exploded in his hands, blowing the child to bits.

Although Guatemala's 33-year civil war has officially ended, violence still besets the capital of this Central American nation. A spate of vicious armed robberies, muggings and kidnappings--which have frequently ended in the victims' death--have earned Guatemala City a reputation as the most violent urban centre in the region.

"Night of Urban Terrorism: Boy Dies," a newspaper headline screamed the morning after the child's death. But within a few days, media attention had turned to frightening new incidents. "Ten Gun Deaths This Weekend," "Kidnappers Free Six Students" and "Youth Gangs Terrorize City."

An average of 10 to 15 people are killed every day in Guatemala, according to Police Chief Salvador Figueroa. Between May and October of 1994, 573 people were killed in violent crimes. An increasing number of victims are women whose bodies, dumped on the outskirts of the capital, show clear signs of rape and torture.

Much of the crime has been attributed to youth gangs from the vast ring of shanty towns surrounding Guatemala City, population 1 million. The endless rows of wooden shacks without potable water or electricity are the base for more than 60 separate armed gangs.

Violence has long permeated Guatemalan society, often sponsored by the state itself. During the civil war, Guatemala's military government was responsible for the death of at least 100,000 of its own citizens. Many of those killed were peasants and workers in rural areas whom the government suspected of supporting the insurgency.

Now, although a civilian government is in power, the culture of violence lingers. Analysts say that years of political killings underlie the barbarity of today's urban crime.

"These practices cultivate the violence that plagues our citizens," says Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge Garcia Laguardia.

However, the motive now is usually gang members' enrichment. Assaults occur on the streets, on buses, in shopping centres and even in restaurants. For frightened city residents, nowhere seems safe anymore. But police officers say they do not have enough agents or other resources to combat the problem.

"We have only 4,000 agents to provide security for 10 million people throughout the country," says Interior Minister Danilo Parinello. "There's nothing more we can do."

Citizens have responded by stockpiling weapons to defend themselves. The Department for the Control of Arms and Munitions has issued gun licenses to 300,000 Guatemalans for self-defence purposes. The department's director, Col. Alfonso de Leon Tarzo, estimates that another 1 million citizens own guns illegally.

Copyright 1995, Women's Feature Service