GUATEMALA CITY – President Alvaro Colom ordered soldiers deployed Thursday on the streets of the Guatemalan capital to aid police in quelling violent crime, the government said.
“President Colom on Wednesday instructed the Defense Ministry for the army to collaborate with the civilian security forces,” presidential press secretary Ronaldo Robles told Efe.
He said troops and police will conduct joint patrols in high risk areas of Guatemala City with an emphasis on protecting buses, targeted by youth gangs running protection rackets.
The defense minister, Gen. Abraham Valenzuela, told reporters 500 soldiers are taking part in the operation and that they would remain on the streets as long as necessary.
Guatemala’s business community and conservative opposition have been clamoring for the use of the army in law enforcement, but Colom’s social democratic government was reluctant to send in the troops given the military’s past involvement in human rights abuses.
Acknowledging in a radio interview that Guatemala is a “highly violent” country, Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said the mayhem is a part of a strategy by organized crime to terrorize the populace.
The army deployment follows several horrific attacks in recent weeks, including one in which a bus was set ablaze with the passengers still aboard.
Despite the presence of the troops, a bus driver was killed and his assistant badly wounded in a shooting early Thursday on Guatemala City’s south side.
Guatemala, a nation of roughly 14 million people, suffered more than 6,500 murders in 2009. That figure, which translates to an average of 17 slayings per day, is not far short of last year’s homicide total in neighboring Mexico, with 107 million residents. EFE