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Bulldogs, bodyguards

"Bulldogs, bodyguards" Continued...

Issue: "The politics of grace," April 25, 1998

Mr. Contreros admits, "Our president does spend too much money on building freeways and cleaning city streets. I believe the biggest problem in Guatemala is that there are too many guns out there." In fact, crime statistics in Guatemala are astounding, making inner-city crime rates in the United States seem inconsequential by comparison. Violent crime is so bad that the State Department publishes blunt warnings, reading, "Travel after sunset anywhere in Guatemala is extremely dangerous."

Former guerrilla leader Ceasar Marin told WORLD, "We were promised land and government favors at the signing of the peace accord. Yet my soldiers have received nothing but empty promises. Many still have their guns, so they have turned to crime to support their families."

The targets of this peculiar form of family support are finding they have to look out for themselves, so vigilante justice is on the rise. Even a large group of university students is taking matters into its own hands. The group, Huelga de Dolores ("Labor Strike of Pain"), has a 100-year-old tradition of political satire, protest, and massive demonstrations during the week after Easter. Traditionally, hundreds of students take part in these activities, wearing colorful hoods to protect their identities. This year, the Huelga de Dolores students have resorted to a new political tactic. This month they have apprehended, stripped, and occasionally beaten suspected thieves.

Crime-weary Guatemalans cheered the initial episodes, and, as a result, the vigilante activities are escalating. Now some Guatemalans fear a recycling of the kind of incidents, like public lynchings, that took place during the civil war. But a nationwide poll, conducted April 1, found that 81 percent of the Guatemalan people approve of the actions of the students.

"It is easy to understand why people are supporting vigilante activity," says the pastor of a large evangelical church in Guatemala City who asked not to be identified because he fears reprisals from such groups. "We are all terrified that our children may be kidnapped or that our wives will be assaulted on the way to the grocery store."

The evangelical community in Guatemala-which numbers 19,000 churches and, by some counts, 33 percent of the entire nation's population of 10 million-has rightly focused on "preaching the gospel to the masses and the individual believer's direct relationship to God," the pastor said. But he pointed out that the churches failed to show believers how to bring the gospel to bear on society as a whole. "We stayed away from social reform," he said.

Some believe the evangelical community has purposely avoided public criticism or action because it witnessed what happened when Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants fell into liberation theology. That doctrine provided the theoretical basis for a so-called "preferential option for the poor," but class warfare is not biblical, and in practice the government viewed the Catholic church as joined with leftist guerrilla groups. Priests became frequent targets of violence and even murder.

The pastor says that a modest beginning is to ask fellow believers take a stand for moral restoration and against crime. To that end, he and others in the evangelical community are planning a March for Jesus through Guatemala City May 30. Their goal is to see 125,000 Christians publicly testify to their faith: "Now, we pray that evangelicals will have a burning desire to affect the moral fabric of our nation."

In a country that is burning both literally and figuratively, those evangelicals will need to act promptly.

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