Civil Patrol


By Ewen Allison and Robert K. Goldman

In 1982, an army colonel ordered the Guatemalan village of Chichicastenango to form a “Civil Defense Patrol” to help put down an ongoing insurrection. The colonel made it clear that those who refused to sign a commitment to civil patrols would be seen as subversives and killed. The villagers signed.

Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan civilians had to serve in civil patrols, essentially paramilitary groups formed from the civilian population as a means to control them and gain their assistance in the civil war. Already poor, patrollers were forced to purchase weapons and uniform shirts from the army. Members had to patrol continuously for up to twenty-four hours a week, and sometimes went on army-accompanied sweeps that lasted up to several weeks. Males of nearly all ages—even eight-year-olds—were compelled into service. Besides their combat duties, patrollers had to work as laborers for army soldiers. Those who refused to participate had to pay a fine, find a replacement, or face beatings and other severe punishments or even execution, all without trial. Recalcitrant villagers in Chichicastenango were put into a specially dug well fifteen meters deep.

Humanitarian law does not interfere with a government’s right to suppress insurrections and implicitly allows a military draft. Human rights law takes a dim view of forcing people to serve in civil patrols. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly declared that the institution of civil patrols in Guatemala was a restriction of liberty and a form of involuntary servitude, in violation of Articles 6, 7, and 22 of the American Convention on Human Rights.

Yet civil patrollers are not only victims, they are also victimizers. Patrollers in Guatemala beat, tortured, and even killed thousands of suspected subversives, even those who merely refused to serve in the patrols. Sometimes civil patrols were ordered to do these things by army or government officials, sometimes the patrols acted on their own initiative. In either case, patrollers violated not only the human rights of the victims but also the rules of internal armed conflict that call for humane treatment of noncombatants.

Governments are usually held responsible for violations of both humanitarian and human rights law perpetrated by patrollers. This is especially the case when the patrols are organized by government or army officials. Also, governments are held responsible under human rights law when they fail to suppress violations by privately organized armed groups.

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