GUATEMALA CITY — In some parts of the world, people paint Easter eggs. In Guatemala, thousands of hooded students mark the coming of Easter by stripping down suspected criminals and beating them publicly.

One of the lavish public processions traditional in the Holy Week leading up to Easter in this devout Roman Catholic nation is Huelga de Dolores, a parade organized by students at the University of San Carlos.

In a tradition as old as the 103-year-old parade itself, about 15,000 mostly male students hit the streets in red and black executioner's hoods, asking for spare change to help finance their procession.

Last year, the march took a bloody turn, with students cornering hundreds of men they claimed were guilty of crimes, stripping them to their underwear and parading them through crowded streets to the delight of onlookers.

The beatings started even before Holy Week this year. Mobs of students have been seen parading men through the streets. Countless other incidents, where time hasn't permitted such extravagant displays, have ended with students simply pummeling suspected criminals bloody.

Though police insist they are not looking the other way, not one of the vigilante incidents in Guatemala City has ever been prosecuted. Many people are happy to see the attacks beginning anew.

"These people are getting what they deserve," said Margarita Pinto, a hot dog and steak vendor who sets up her stand outside the bustling Central Market in downtown Guatemala City. She said she witnessed five vigilante beatings last year.

"They steal your purse, they rob you — then they get beaten until they bleed," she said excitedly.

Vigilante acts are nothing unusual in Guatemala. Last year alone, the United Nations documented 108 lynching attempts in Guatemala, 40 of which ended in the deaths of suspected criminals.

The overwhelming majority of lynchings and other vigilante acts take place in rural areas where the inhabitants of tiny villages — which often do not have police stations — rid their communities of outsiders thought to be involved in crimes.

So far, this year appears to be quieter, with less than 20 lynching attempts and no deaths reported so far.

During a recent student procession in the capital, one participant collected money in a red hood on a downtown bus. He said he and other students beat up a man they saw snatch a woman's necklace.

"The community is frustrated. So are we," he said, giving only his first name, Jorge, for fear of retribution.

Students began to administer public beatings for the first time several years ago when they discovered non-students in similar masks panhandling under the guise of the parade.

Last year, the violence spread to include other suspected criminals, said Carlos Perez Brito, a spokesman for the university, whose campus of 100,000 students sprawls on the southern outskirts of the city.

The university, where students pay a token fee of just 40 quetzales ($5) a semester, maintains that its hands are tied by a desire not to interfere with the Huelga parade and its traditions.

"A lot of us are asking, how is it possible that the police can't capture these criminals but our students can," Brito said. "But we need to make our students understand that a couple of acts of violence aren't going to solve problems with crime or make the frustration here disappear."

Gerson Lopez, a spokesman for Guatemala's National Civil Police, said the authorities face the same problems as the university in trying to stop the violence.

"It is difficult for the police to intervene because you have thousands of students participating in a tradition of collecting money that has been going on for hundreds of years. We don't want to take that away from them," he said.

For now, the only ones documenting the violence are the photographers for Guatemala City's tabloid newspapers, who camp downtown for hours on "beating watch," waiting for the graphic shots of hooded students attacking half-stripped suspects.