Where the people rule

September 20, 2012


By Jorge Dan Lopez

I was listening to the alarmed voice of a radio commentator. Once I realized what he was talking about, I began to worry about how long it would take me to get to the location.

Within minutes, all local radio and TV stations were talking about the man who had killed two children inside a school in Tactic and who was lynched by exasperated and outraged villagers. It took me three hours from Guatemala City to get to Tactic. In those three hours, the climate changed several times and so did the language.

While driving I started to remember the stories that are told in this part of Guatemala, in Alta Verapaz and Quiche, where people are predominantly of Mayan descent. Where “the people rule” and Mayan law is applied.

Now, the Mayan law of today has very little to do with the Mayan law before the arrival of the Spaniards. It has adapted to modern times but it is basically the legal order that most members of villages from the area will adhere to.

But lynchings, very common in this area where a suspected murderer can be beaten and set on fire, were never part of Mayan law. Mayans believe in a cosmic order, everything around them is intrinsically related to each other and the mandate is to live in harmony with the earth, and although they did have capital punishment, it was not decided on lightly or as a result of a hysterical mob.


Numerous studies suggest that the lynchings are reminiscent of the 36-year brutal civil war that ended in 1996 with the signing of peace accords and with approximately 200,000 people killed and disappeared. It also appears that lynchings occur more frequently in areas where the population suffered the most under the violence inflicted by government soldiers and Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (Civil Self-Defense Patrols).

Arriving in Tactic I could sense the tension. I went to the school and the first thing I saw was two children walking over a blood stain and something that had burnt. Suddenly I was surrounded by Indians, they were serious but asked me kindly who I was and what was I doing there. I told them that I’m a photographer, one of them grabbed my credentials that were hanging around my neck and said “Ah, Reuters”. He smiled. It was like a key opening an invisible but very palpable door. I started walking around freely and they openly told me what had happened. The blood stain and the burnt spot was the place where 23-year old Julio Xicol finally died.

Engulfed in flames, he dragged himself for 10 yards after people had beaten him with sticks, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. There was a thick trail of blood on the floor coming from the classroom where he had killed eight-year-old Evelyn Yanisa Saquij Bin and 13-year-old Juan Armando Coy Cal.

Xicol who, according to his mother, suffered from mental problems and substance abuse, had barricaded himself in the classroom. Holes in the door suggested that villagers shot at him through the door. They said that only by shooting him in the leg were they capable of getting him out of the classroom.

The villagers let me work and take the pictures I wanted to take, but they also observed me quietly. I could feel the looks of people who had just done “justice” with their own hands and in their own law. Looks and silence can sometimes be more eloquent than words.

When I went to the houses of the two young victims, I could feel the piercing pain of the family who were the only ones who know what they had just lost. I always try to keep my feelings under control, to maintain a distance, be able to work freely, without hurting anyone, without feeling too much, but this time I felt something very different. I don’t like to mix my personal feelings with work, but this time it was inevitable. I was carried away by their pain.

The bodies of the two children arrived at their homes after midnight. The government assured the family that they would receive all the financial support they needed to carry out the funerals but I saw only simple coffins on the back of a truck, secured with rough ropes.

The wake was attended by humble people who had come to mourn the deaths of these children, while the corpse of the killer lay in the morgue without anybody coming to pick it up.

Suddenly, the man who had been kind to me when I arrived, told me that they had “caught the accomplices and that they are burning them behind the church.” It had been a rumor that Xicol hadn’t acted alone – stories full of contradictions, in a language I couldn’t understand.

When I arrived behind the church, everything was in a state of confusion. People were screaming in their language but this time I could understand the word “gasoline.” It was chaos. A man, beaten and with blood dripping from his nose, was tied to a light post.

I could see another three men in a police car. One closed his eyes, seeming relieved to be sitting inside the car. But people were screaming to burn the car with the three men in it. Two were sitting in the back seat and one lay on the truck bed. Infuriated villagers opened the car door and tried to drag the men outside.

Suddenly, a woman in a typical outfit jumped on the back of the truck and started hitting one of the men with her shoe. She poked one of her fingers deep into his ear and the police just stood nearby and looked in the other direction.

The woman kept on hitting him, stopping just for a brief moment when a boy passed her a stick. She then continued to beat the man relentlessly with the stick. The man groaned and whined with his hands tied behind his back. His panicked screams couldn’t stop the fury of the woman. The crowd just applauded. They were content, maybe because for them, justice was being served. For them, this kind of punishment was justified.

Luckily for the four men, the gasoline never arrived and a mediator appeared. He said thanks to the lynching, the town of Tactic was now all over the news and nobody else could be killed. People now said that the four men were actually thieves. Mostly the women said they recognized them as thieves. The mediator was good and managed to calm the people. He said that it was better to parade the men around the village so everybody gets to know who they are and what they have done. (I keep on asking myself “What have they done?”)

The four men won precious time and that meant life. Several police officers escorted them to the main square, surrounded by villagers who followed their every step, punching and jostling came from every direction.

The chorus was the same: “Lynching, lynching once they get to the main square…” Suddenly, one thought crossed my mind: “Maybe I shouldn’t be here.” I felt vulnerable. I couldn’t understand a word people were saying, but the tone and their eyes were threatening. I felt like a coward and tried to get rid of that feeling as quickly as possible.

When we got to the plaza a woman pulled out a pair of scissors from underneath her shirt. She aimed them at the face of one of the men in a frenzy, over and over again; he had minor cuts but she failed to hurt him badly.

To the dismay of the people the police formed a circle around the men, almost like a shield to protect them. They started running, the accused almost faster than the police. The officers threw a couple of tear gas canisters at the crowd of 200 angry villagers to stop them from following. The four were stupefied by the blows but someone managed to put them aboard a military truck and they left. It was more an escape than a rescue.

People were still angry and threatened to burn the main square, an unfinished thought as the anger had to be channeled somewhere else.

Later I went to the morgue, wanting to know what happened to Xicol’s body as nobody had come to collect him. A small, elderly lady was there. With the help of an interpreter working for the morgue, she told me that she was the mother of Xicol. “I’m Adela Xicol,” she said. She wanted to take the body, wishing to bury him quickly. She’s the mother of the man who killed two small children with a machete inside their classroom.

Very few people attended the funeral of Xicol. Adela asked for the coffin to be opened. She stood in the rain, crying when she saw the mutilated body of her son, beaten, burnt and destroyed.

The next day was the funeral of Evelyn and Juan Armando. A procession of villagers followed the coffins. Again I heard words I couldn’t understand. Even their crying sounded different to me; it sounded like music.

Adela Xicol crossed the procession’s path. She lives near the school where her son killed the two children. “Poor woman,” I thought, like this would help in an already hopeless situation.

The procession took a long time until they all arrived at the school. Young students, dressed in their school uniforms, stood ready for the arrival of their dead school mates. They sang the national anthem, nervously shuffling their small feet. Some laughed innocently. They are so young that they completely ignore the magnitude of what has happened. There was no word on when classes will resume.

The procession continued over bumpy roads en route to different churches. One victim’s family is Catholic, the other one evangelical. After their individual masses, the two groups met again at the cemetery. Both children were buried a mere 200 yards away from Xicol’s grave.

It was raining and the sun was hiding. In only two days I saw violence, pain, crying and hate interlaced, present in the same people. But their crying was different and the more I listened, the more they sounded to me like a soulful and nostalgic song.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

What is truly ironic is that these barbaric people cannot understand that the initial cause of the incident that provoked all this may well have been motivated by exactly the same kind of “do it yourself instant ‘justice’” thinking that they are using.

Why did he kill the two children in the first place? It’s quite possible that they did something that he felt merited that kind of ‘instant’ justice. Maybe he had mental difficulties that disordered his thinking but if he hadn’t been primed to think in terms of “instant justice” by his society would that disordered thinking have led to such a horrendous result or something far less serious?

Is it possible that the children themselves did essentially the same thing by thinking that something he’d done (or that they thought he had done) merited “instant justice” (by stealth because they were children) and then they got caught?

Note that the blood lust of the crowd wasn’t satisfied by the death and suffering of the initial target so they shifted to other targets as well, the suspected thieves. Who suspected then and why? What was the evidence? Then when those targets were removed they started talking about burning the town square! What crime was the town square guilty of? Clearly there is a real problem with the cultural thinking here and that supports the suspicion that the children may have started the whole escalating spiral of violence by something they did.

What is clear is that this society has sunk to a truly barbaric level. It wasn’t always this way. One has to suspect that the current extreme economic conditions may have exacerbated the situation.

Posted by A2C3E5 | Report as abusive

Uh? I’m looking at the photos of the woman beating the guy in the truck, and the woman with the knife to another guys throat, and thinking what is the Rueters photographer’s part in all of this vigilantism. Your camera is fueling the fire. If not for the camera may be mob would have quelled itself.
Also, I saw three different men in these photos. Did all do the killing. I don’t understand. Let me read again.

Posted by charlesmartel | Report as abusive

Ok. Got it. The other men were “thieves.”

Posted by charlesmartel | Report as abusive

Charles: Latin America, especially the more remote areas, are very, very different than what I imagine you are familiar with. I have lived in the middle of Mexico for almost 13 years.

The photographer did not exacerbate this situation.

Posted by MDickson | Report as abusive

Yes. These people have different cultural standards but I don’t buy that the camera would not incite further violence. What about the guy who was so impressed by the Reuter’s credentials?

Posted by charlesmartel | Report as abusive

Yes. These people have different cultural standards but I don’t buy that the camera would not incite further violence. What about the guy who was so impressed by the Reuter’s credentials?

Posted by charlesmartel | Report as abusive

On second thought, no one else was killed so the camera was obviously not an determining factor.

Posted by charlesmartel | Report as abusive

“Gatekeeper” systematic suppression of viewpoints and it’s contribution to prevention of social progress:

Certain viewpoints as to the possible relationship of the vigilatante justice to the violence that initiated the incident in the first place are apparently not being allowed to be expressed in this media.

Such systematic suppression of viewpoints and opinions as to roots causes and contributing factors severely limits the debate and has no valid place in a supposed democracy.

Posted by A2C3E5 | Report as abusive

Great story!

Posted by WestTxCrude | Report as abusive