Guatemala's long-running problem with vigilantes took an unusual turn this week when police arrested seven armed Christian fundamentalists accused of extortion as they distributed religious leaflets and collected money on a local highway.
Using the slogan "Social Cleansing of the Town," at least seven men armed with assault rifles had apparently been operating for three months in the town of San Lucas Toliman,70 km west of the Guatemalan capital, police said on Wednesday.
"This was a fundamentalist Christian organization in character that harangued the town's population on religious themes, saying things like `having two women is against the Bible,'" Victor Soto, the head of the national police force's criminal investigations unit said.
Police also say the religious group enforced a rough brand of justice and are investigating the recent deaths of people accused by the organization of being criminals.
The suspects were being held without bail on Wednesday on suspicion of illegal weapons possession and extortion, while police carried out ballistics tests on their weapons to determine whether the group was involved in local killings. They were assigned a public defender, but the lawyer was not immediately available for comment.
Central America's largest country has been plagued by vigilantes and mobs that have lynched hundreds of suspected criminals in recent years. But few have exhibited the strange characteristics of the suspects arrested on Monday.
The group first allegedly targeted local men accused of being highway robbers, but quickly turned their attention to shaking down local bars, stores and other businesses, demanding money to protect them against thieves.
Meanwhile, the group also claimed to be acting in accordance with biblical precepts, and would harass anyone suspected of "not agreeing with the Bible," Soto said.
Residents suspected of petty theft or being unfaithful to their wives were sent notes containing quotations from the Bible and threats that they would be killed if they failed to mend their ways.
The men allegedly set up a roadside checkpoint and charged travelers 10 quetzales (US$1.25) to pass -- a "contribution" to their cause. They even handed out receipts for the so-called toll bearing the group's name and the slogan "Social Cleansing of the Town," authorities said.
"We are investigating them in connection with five deaths," Soto said. "They started out saying they were protecting the town from criminals, and they wound up extorting money from people."
Reports of vigilante killings in Guatemala have declined since the peak years of 1998 and 1999, but remain common. The practice has claimed more than 350 lives since the end of the country's 1960-1996 civil war.