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Photographing the Patrulleros – the violent vigilantes of Guatemala

All images © Daniele Volpe

In many slums in Guatemala – one of the most violent countries in the world – ordinary citizens form vigilante groups to try to ensure community safety against the proliferation of cartel-related violence. Hiding their identities for fear of reprisal, they patrol the streets, armed, taking the law into their own hands.

“Photojournalism allows me to get close to events on the ground, so that I may better understand them as they unfold,” says award-winning photojournalist Daniele Volpe, who left his birthplace of Priverno, a small town in Latina, south of Rome, and made his home in Guatemala. “This kind of intimacy allows me to share my reportage and maybe draw the viewers in, making them feel closer to the subjects.”

Volpe, now 34, started his career as a news photographer but soon felt unfulfilled. “There’s often little continuity in covering news, because news itself doesn’t always allow for follow-ups,” he explains. “As a natural consequence, I felt drawn to reportage, which allows for a more thoughtful approach to image-making, enabling me to tell a story, to create a narrative.”

Guatemala is one of three countries in the Northern Triangle buckling from the strain of the gang-related activity that permeates every aspect of society. It has long been besieged by criminality, much of it attributed to two prominent gangs – Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18 – that, like locusts, have decimated many aspects of Guatemalan society.

Law enforcement – overwhelmed by the scale of violence and too often complicit in criminal activity – has struggled to cope, giving rise to clusters of ‘Guardianes del Vecindario’, or guardians of the neighbourhood, community-based volunteers that patrol the streets, themselves armed with crude, makeshift weapons and guns.

“There’s no denying it’s difficult to live here – Guatemala has one of the highest rates of violence in the world. But there are two Guatemalas: the urban one, fraught with chaos and criminality – the one everyone reads about; and the hidden one – where the Maya live – a community that suffers exclusion and racism. They are a beautiful people, and it’s simply impossible not to fall in love with them.”

Volpe’s Patrulleros reflects the mood of a nation desperate for change. The series is ongoing and he continues to document the ever-changing defence strategies of Guatemalan society to gang violence. In different districts around Guatemala City, especially in the more dangerous neighbourhoods, vigilantes patrol the streets, public buses and communal areas, trying to limit the criminal behaviour of organised gangs, wearing balaclavas to conceal their identities from reprisal.

“Much of the criminality has direct links to drugs cartels – local maras who fight for control of a particular neighbourhood, where they can extort money from shopkeepers and residents, or run their own illicit businesses. In some of the most troubled regions, mob justice often steps in for a weak judicial system. News of criminals being beaten, lynched by mobs, and even set alight often make the headlines – killed openly as the community looks on.”

These vigilante groups are committed, believing that if they band together, their local community can isolate itself from the violence that plagues the country at large. “But many have been accused of killing innocent people and perpetrating acts of violence themselves. Still, others feel safer knowing that justice lies within their own hands.”

Approaching these vigilantes was quite a challenge; gaining their trust even more so. “It was hard to get access to these situations at first. They had to believe in what I was doing; they had to trust me before they allowed me to accompany them on patrols and photograph them. On my first day, just before we went out on patrol, I heard two gunshots. I felt terrified and asked what was happening. The patrullero said they were shots fired in the air and that I needn’t worry. I realised instantly that I didn’t know the rules of the game, and that I too had to put my faith in them and trust in where they were taking me.”

Volpe plans to remain in Guatemala where, beyond the reign of terror and the deep wounds it’s left behind, there lies a nation begging for change. “The rise of these vigilante groups is so unique to certain neighbourhoods that I think it’s worth exploring further. There is so much still to do, so much I’d like to document. I’d like to some day explore Mexico and Central America, and I think my experiences here have given me an excellent grounding.”

• Daniele Volpe was recently awarded 2nd Prize, Photographer of the Year in Latin America 2015, 3th Prize in the News Series category and Honorable Mention in News Single category at POY Latam 2015. For more of his work, visit his website.

Volpe’s series, Guatemala – Ixil Genocide, is now available as a book titled CHUKEL, published bilingually in English and Spanish, priced $40, plus shipping. To order CHUKEL, contact volpedaniele@gmail.com

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