Watching the US Election from Guatemala

Since I arrived with my family in Guatemala in August, I found myself, on more than one occasion, answering one version or another of the question, “And what will you do if the US elects Donald Trump?” My answer to this question was always the same: “Don’t worry. Donald Trump is not going to win the election.” I often suspected that the Guatemalans who asked me these questions were either wanting to give me a hard time in the good-natured way of “chapin” humor or simply wanting me to own up to some of the ugliness of my country’s own electorate. Fair enough. My friends and in-laws were in their rights when asking such a question, but I still thought to myself, “I don’t think they understand how far off such a possibility truly is.” How simple and utterly naive of me.

As we would learn on Tuesday night, I couldn’t have been more wrong. You might even say that my Guatemalan friends understood the American electorate and the so-called “whitelash” that fueled Trump’s upset, better than I did. Their repeated experiences with electoral dismay and the fear and racial distrust that can drive it, have taught them to be ready for anything. On the night of the election, our family happened to have a friend from Colombia visiting us for dinner. Her experience (and utter dismay and disappointment) with the rejection of the peace accords by a narrow margin in the popular vote was still fresh in her mind and she reminded us — even as we watched aghast as the results continued to pour in — that the polls conducted prior to an election regarding highly “sensitive” issues about race and politics can give a distorted view of things. Just as many Colombians were, apparently, hiding their disdain for the peace accords by answering survey-takers by saying they would vote “Yes” when in fact they were going to vote against the accords, so it seems very possible that at least a portion of white US voters were not willing to own up to being Trump supporters when speaking to survey administrators who might likely disprove of their views.

Fortunately for me, my Guatemalan friends have been gracious enough not to confront me about the elections and I suppose I have avoided bringing up the topic in most cases. It is, I must say, a shock and a disappointment to me that a candidate whose candidacy was clearly kickstarted by 1) a lie (birtherism), and 2) hate speech (Mexico is sending us its rapists and criminals) and who continued to traffic in obviously baseless conspiracy theories (the Russians hacked Hillary’s e-mail account), is rewarded by the electorate with the presidency. At the same time, it is also worth remembering that even if Hillary had squeaked out a win, we would still be citizens of a country in which a very significant portion of the population is angry with immigrants and Muslims. It is even more unsettling to realize that this population will now have a leader in the Oval Office, but either way, we would still have a LOT of work to do to try to counteract and calm such fear and anger in our own communities. At least now, we cannot deny that such hatred and distrust is alive and well and that we must learn to be MUCH better at counteracting it.

In the meantime, I have been trying to tell myself that my work must continue. (Of course it must.) On Wednesday,the day after the election, I finished writing an expert affidavit on behalf of a young Honduran who is seeking asylum protection from deportation due to a credible threat of gang violence aimed at her should she be deported. (Two of her relatives have already been killed.) Sending the affidavit was, I hope, my own little way of pushing back against “Wall-ism” and the scapegoating of undocumented (and Muslim) immigrants that proved so popular in the Trump campaign. Perhaps there is still time for us a nation to learn hospitality and to find the joy in learning to know our newest neighbors. Perhaps.

Jimmy Morales: “Transition” or Continuity?

Jimmy Morales

Anita Isaacs, Professor of Political Science at Haverford, has written an excellent NYT op-ed (published 11/6/15) about the shaky electoral transition currently underway in Guatemala. She does a great job navigating the the tension between optimism (due to the success of the grassroots movement to oust corrupt politicians including the President and Vice President) and realism (due to the unwillingness of the Guatemalan Congress to pass substantial electoral and campaign finance reforms). Without systemic change, Guatemala is not really any better off with its newly-elected president in Jimmy Morales.

About Jimmy Morales: Morales is indeed a “political outsider.” He is also not well-connected among the Guatemalan elites. His roots are in the lower-middle class, as evidenced by his K-12 education at the Colegio America Latina, one of the older and more traditional evangelical schools that has attracted many lower-middle and working class Protestant families since its founding in the 1950s. We know little about his political philosophy. Some of his public statements seem to suggest a kind of political conservatism — or perhaps naivete — which is disconcerting but would fit well with the alliances he has made with some of the old guard from the army. Marcelo Colussi, columnist for Plaza Pública put it rather bluntly when describing who “won” the election: Ganó la anti-politica. We can only hope that the momentum behind the plaza protests of this year has not spent itself.

Pérez Molina Resigns

Hard to believe that Pérez Molina has resigned and will face a tribunal. Even as recently as last week I did not expect this to happen. But the pressure, first from the groundswell of anger manifested in weekly demonstrations in the Plaza Central, and then from Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture (among which there are some folks who no doubt hope that the investigations will stop after the President’s trial), left Molina without political cover. From the New York Times:

At the center of the events that led to Mr. Pérez Molina’s downfall is a persistent citizens movement that brought together vastly different groups for the first time. Guatemala City’s middle class, long reluctant to speak out after a brutal civil war demonstrated the costs of opposition, joined forces with peasant and indigenous groups.

Clearly, Molina seems to feel betrayed the most by CACIF. This from El Periodico:

Al arribar a la torre judicial enfatizó: “Vamos a llevar el debido proceso, ahora corresponde ir a los tribunales” y “he visto al CACIF haciendo señalamientos, queriendo liderar y salir de blanco, pero muchos aglutinados ahí, son parte de la corrupción”.

The real question remains, not who will win the upcoming elections but rather, will the social movement be strong enough to ensure that this Congress or the next passes the legislative package that includes campaign finance reform. This is something that the Guatemalan (Roman Catholic) Bishop´s Conference pointed out in its press conference last week calling on the President to resign. In fact, the Bishop´s Conference saved it´s harshest words for Congress, saying that:

“Never in the history of our democracy have we had a Congress like the present: inefficient, complacent with its own personal or party interests, with the majority of deputies playing absent. . . We ask that they put the paperwork in motion for impeachment and for reforms to the LEPP [Electoral Reform Law] proposed by the Electoral Supreme Court.

Good news from Guatemala?!

Tens of thousands of Guatemalans weathered a downpour in a rare and powerful demonstration of civic solidarity. Not satisfied with the resignation of the Vice President, many are asking that the President himself step down. Others carried signs demanding that congress pass stalled legislation aimed at tightening campaign finance rules and make government contracting processes more transparent.

Tens of thousands of Guatemalans weathered a downpour last Sunday in a powerful demonstration of civic solidarity. Not satisfied with the resignation of the Vice President, many are asking that the President himself step down. Others carried signs demanding that congress pass stalled legislation aimed at tightening campaign finance rules and make government contracting processes more transparent.

Positive political events in Guatemala? Who ever heard of such a thing? It has been a long time indeed. But recent events have unfolded in ways that almost no one could have predicted. As a result of solid investigative reporting from the national newspaper El Periodico and the intellectual/political blog Plaza Publica (founded and funded by the Jesuits’ Universidad Rafael Landivar) combined with widespread outrage expressed nonviolently in the central square each Sunday by Guatemalans from across the political spectrum, Guatemala is undergoing a kind of political consciousness-raising the likes of which only its very oldest citizens could recall. It’s too early to say what the full outcome of this series of national non-violent demonstrations will be, but already the effects have reverberated throughout the nation and within the halls of congress and the presidential palace. After a series of well-documented corruption scandals pointing directly to Vice President Roxanna Baldetti, the political tides turned sufficiently against her that she was forced to resign last week and is likely to stand trial for her connections to a contraband and tax-fraud network called La Linea. There is a fair bit of evidence to suggest that (former army general) President Perez Molina himself has connections to the network and, feeling the heat from crowds of tens of thousands of protesters amassing in the central square seeking his resignation, the President has attempted further “damage control” by rescinding several obviously corrupt government contracts he vehemently defended as legitimate only weeks ago. In the end, though, the most important potential outcome is neither the rescinded contracts nor his resignation, which may or may not come, but rather the “window of opportunity” suddenly open for the possibility of passage of a campaign finance reform bill that congress has studiously ignored for years. Congressional deputies have ignored it not only because the media has traditionally shown interest only in election-year horse races, but also because the deputies and political parties have for decades depended on loose or non-existent campaign rules in order to be able to raise money from political “investors” seeking the benefits of having friends in high places. Indeed, according to a detailed report by the International Crisis Group in 2011, Guatemala has one of the most expensive election cycles in the region precisely because, much like in the US after Citizens United, the political machinery is structured to be wide open for spending on political candidates. [The situation is even worse in Guatemala because there is very little transparency about who is doing the investing.] The fact that even CACIF, the enormously powerful chamber of commerce, is supporting this reform (albeit with fairly tepid enthusiasm) is profoundly surprising and exciting. Just as important, across the political spectrum, on Facebook pages and in everyday conversations, Guatemalans are talking politics — and not even mentioning candidates or parties. Instead they are talking about the need to put pressure on both the executive and the legislative branch to put a stop to the rampant corruption that, for so long, has become so commonplace as to be virtually expected of the political class. It seems that the experience of organizing for political protest — and seeing almost immediately palpable results — may be injecting a new and much-needed optimism into Guatemala’s politics. It’s about time.

[Update: The attempts at damage control continued yesterday with the announcement of several additional resignations including Michelle Martinez, the “Minister of the Environment” (a position she managed to achieve without even acquiring a college degree, much less a degree in science) and Gabriela Aparicio, Guatemalan Consul for Miami, who, prior to being named head of the Miami Consulate, held the distinguished title of personal make-up artist for the (now ex-) Vice President, Roxana Baldetti.]

It's difficult to imagine Ms. Aparicio as having the right combination of skills necessary for exercising the diplomatic role of consul for a major city.

It’s difficult to imagine Ms. Aparicio as having the right combination of skills necessary for exercising the diplomatic role of consul for a major city.

Homies and Hermanos: Where are they now?

I have been meaning to write a post that provides an update on some of the ex-gang members I first interviewed in 2007-8. Yesterday, Lucas Olson, a TA for an undergraduate class taught by Daniel Esser at American University asked if I would respond to some questions posed by the class after reading my book, so the exchange offered an opportunity to speak to provide this kind of update. With permission of Prof. Esser, I’m posting here a (slightly edited) version of the questions — which are excellent — and my responses to these questions.

1) Could you update us on the trajectories of individuals with whom you worked? 
I have been able to catch up with or otherwise collect *some* information as to the whereabouts of thirty of the original sixty-three ex-gang members interviewed for this project. Of these thirty, I have formally re-interviewed seventeen, all of them in Guatemala and Honduras. Let me say first that catching up with these folks hasn’t been easy and that has as much to do with finding the money and time to travel as it does with actually tracking them down. But the lower number of interviews is also due to a very high mortality rate. Of those thirty, eight are no longer living. Of these eight, six died from violence, and two more died of health issues related to violence during their gang years. There is no simple way to “summarize” the trajectories of the men and women I have caught up with or learned about. To put it briefly, some are doing well, others are struggling, and some have died. 
A few examples: “Pancho,” whose story starts chapter three, ended up getting locked up (a year or two after I interviewed him) for a crime he committed before he left the gang. According to my source (a Honduran sociologist who knew him well) Pancho, under pressure to show that he was a “provider” for his family, got involved in selling drugs during this later stint in prison.  Shortly after he was released from prison in 2012, he was killed, probably due to the nature of the business in which he had become involved though it’s impossible to know for sure. “Ricardo” another Honduran whose story of dramatic conversion starts the fifth chapter, is no longer pastoring a Pentecostal congregation due to a separation with his wife. After his congregation was taken away from him (by the denomination), the local mayor (of the more progressive “Liberal” party) recruited him for his people/organizing skills. When I interviewed him last year, he was doing relatively well financially but noticeably affected by the fact that he was separated from his wife and daughter. Finally, I have a short piece about “Angel” (the guy who told me about being told “The only way out is in your pine-box suit”) in the video made by AU prof Bill Gentile. He now works at a bank, is married, getting a business degree, and working with his wife as youth directors at a Pentecostal church. 

2) Has the contemporary pattern of violence in these individuals at all turned inwards or been redirected towards their family (wife, children,…)

It is totally possible that in some cases the violence that was formerly directed outward, has now turned “inward” toward the family. That’s a smart intuition of risk on your part. Of course, it would follow a demographic/age pattern that goes beyond gang members or ex-gang members. Young men/boys are more likely to want their violence to be “public” whereas older men, who are subject to stronger societal norms of adulthood, might confine their violence to the private sphere. (Randall Collins has some interesting observations about the difference between mafia violence and gang violence that might be applicable here.) I just don’t really have a good way of finding out about such a sensitive issue and I’m not really in a good position to ask that kind of question flat out so I couldn’t say if it’s happening or how much.

3) Could you give us a better sense of your skepticism of other authors who argue that churches shy away from addressing structural causes of violence?

I’m not skeptical that churches — Evangelical churches anyway — tend to shy away from addressing structural causes of violence. They do. In fact, I have tried to use the opportunities I’ve had when speaking to religious audiences in order to encourage them to “notice” the structural underpinnings of violence and attraction to the gangs (economic inequality for example). At the same time, I also realize that most barrio evangelicals don’t really have access to the levers of power that could effectively address long term structural injustice and violence. 
One of the points I try to make in the conclusion is that there is at least a possibility that a movement for social justice *could* emerge from within Pentecostal community. We shouldn’t confuse personal morality and religious enthusiasm with support for the political status quo even if those things have often gone hand-in-hand here in the U.S. They certainly have not gone together in Black churches in the U.S. In any case, while I think it’s important to be able to see and critique structures, I would hate to see these churches losing their resolve to make an impact on individual lives, “blooming where they’re planted” so to speak. 
4) Could you recommend one or two readings that highlight the role of women in these communities?
Ouch! You’re exposing my patriarchal perspective! The UCA university in El Salvador has published a book (in Spanish) about women gang members and women in prison. You can see a pdf here. Now that you mention it, there seems to be a dichotomy in Guatemala at least, maybe even the region as a whole, that research done on women is almost always done on rural (typically indigenous) women while research on men, at least recently, tends to address urban contexts/problems. If anyone ever feels so inclined, dissertation/books on the experience of urban ladina (mestiza) women would make a great topic. I’m sure there’s stuff out there but I’m blanking at the moment. And I have certainly discussed this lacuna before with my wife (who is an urban Guatemalan).

Analyzing CARSI and Its Impact (on gangs)

Nick Phillips, whose articles about Central American violence have appeared in places like the New York Times (see my post Religious NGO’s and Justice) and Global Post, has written a lengthy appraisal of the impact of Central American Regional Security Initiative on Guatemala called “CARSI in Guatemala: Progress, Failure, and Uncertainty.” What Phillips has to say about gangs in Guatemala is not really a surprise but it was nice to see someone else saying what a few of us have been arguing for some time now, namely:

1) Gang membership in Guatemala is probably much lower than most of the press has been citing.

2) That much of the criminality attributed to the gangs arises from non-gang groups who have adopted some of the strategies and techniques of the gang.

For example, in the two excerpt paragraphs below, Phillips notes that:

[A] 2011 United Nations report estimated Gua­temala’s gang population at 22,000 strong. [But] Edwin Ortega, director of the PNC’s anti-gang unit (called PANDA), believes it is much smaller than that, around 5,000. He said PANDA is currently conducting a national gang census to get a clearer pic­ture. It will not be easy: the gangs conceal their tattoos, tie their shoes in secret ways to show their allegiance, speak backwards on the phone to foil wiretaps, and smuggle notes written in coded handwriting in and out of prisons. The govern­ment reported in May 2014 that Guatemala was home to 40 clicas of Dieciocho and 30 of MS, with hundreds of their members already in prison. The MS is more selective in its recruitment, Ortega said, but press reports suggest that both maras recruit children as young as six years old to do their dirty work.

. . .

All of these gangs extort, but not all extortionists are gangsters. In fact, Ortega says that some 70 percent of extortionists are civilians who only pretend to be members of MS or Dieciocho in order to frighten victims into forking over cash. In some cases, these civilians have no connection to the maras and are making idle threats. But last January, a judge convicted ten people who had been extort­ing bus drivers while also paying quotas to three different gangs, suggesting that the gangs may have been charging for use of their “brand” in a sort of franchise arrangement.

I know personally of at least one concrete example in which family friends of mine from Mixco were being extorted by supposed gang members who used telephone calls through a cell phone in order to intimidate the family to the point that the family decided to pick up everything and abandon the family compound (the family is an extended family with about 15 adults and children) having scraped together enough resources to buy a smaller home in a gated community. The family learned later, from a very reliable source, that they had been extorted by adult (non-gang) members of a household on the same block as their old house. I tell this story not to argue that the gangs are not truly violent — of course they are. But their violence has been co-opted by a variety of individuals and groups who have found that the gang model provides both a “portable” technique as well as a smokescreen for throwing off investigators. Even when the gangs are involved, they are often receiving only a small portion of the profits, since their low social status requires them to pay most of the profits to individuals at higher rungs in the organizational ladder.

Phillips also spends some time trying to get the bottom of why the homicide rate has been falling in Guatemala for roughly a decade. He has interviewed some thoughtful, experienced Guatemalans (including my friend Carlos Mendoza) and offers an informed perspective that makes sense to my ear. If you are interested in Guatemala’s violence or in the violence of Northern Central America, reading this report is worth the time investment.

Watching (and loving) La Camioneta

Last night I finally watched La Camioneta, a 2012 documentary film about a school bus that travels from Pennsylvania to Guatemala, where it is transformed and outfitted for its second life as a brightly-colored extra-urban bus ferrying mostly indigenous passengers to and from the satellite town of Ciudad Quetzal. Although multiple people had recommended this film to me, it wasn’t until my wife discovered that the film was available for streaming on Netflix that we finally sat down to watch it. Although the film starts a bit slowly, patient viewers will be rewarded with an emotionally moving visual and aural experience that “transports” the audience across two borders and (briefly) back again.

I was prepared for the story of the transformation of a bus. Last year I had a long conversation with a bus driver (during a 3-hour bus ride across the Altiplano) who described to me in great detail the physical transformation undergone by the hundreds of buses brought done to Guatemala every year. Most of them, he said, are overhauled at one of several body shops in Chimaltenango, that armpit of the Panamerican Highway. The bus company owners typically purchase a school bus for about $10,000 at a U.S. auction, put a few thousand dollars into transporting and licensing the bus, and then pump another $25,000 into the physical and mechanical transformation of the unit before putting it to work (typically under the care of the driver who has shown himself the most deserving of a “new” set of wheels). Among the most costly factors involved in such transformations are the elimination of about 10 feet of length — making the bus more amenable to getting around in the narrow streets of Santa Cruz or Chichicastenango — and the replacement of the front hood/cap with a Blue Bird or Harley Davidson hood/cap. This last, very expensive detail, I was told, is simply “pura vanidad” and has no practical payoff other than to make the driver and his ayudante beam the more proudly.

Interestingly however, La Camioneta follows a bus that is transformed by a much smaller outfit than the body shops of Chimaltenango. The film follows a bus that appears to have been purchased by a small-time entrepreneur who immediately sells it (on credit and with only a verbal contract by all appearances) to a young indigenous father from a neighboring rural village who is looking to improve his economic prospects with this very serious investment. Thus, this transformation will not be nearly as substantial nor expensive as that of the typical bus purchased by one of the major bus lines of the Western highlands. In this case the body shop does not slice off the last 20% of the bus, nor do they replace the hood with an expense chromed-out Harley hood. But the pay-off for following this bus rather than a “typical” bus is that we get to see a self-taught artist at work in his make-shift “studio.” The body shop is an open-air outfit on the edge of a corn field and everyone — from the importer, to the painter, to the the buyer are indigenous Mayan young men who have found a way to thrive in a very difficult labor market.

I was surprised and delighted to find that, although the film is ostensibly about buses and the lives of those whose living is tied up with them, the film treats the two major themes of my book with deft and sensitivity. The gangs are a constant concern of bus drivers. We see news footage of the awful bombing of a bus on the San Juan in 2009, and we hear bus drivers speaking worriedly about the dilemmas of their newly dangerous occupation. But we also hear them discussing with an air of matter-of-factness the extortion fees levied by the local gangs. Such matter-of-fact discussions do not diminish the dangers of not paying the gangs — although recently the gangs have reportedly renounced the tactic of killing bus drivers in order to ensure extortion payment — but they do provide hints that in some cases, inhabitants have come to regard the gangs as adolescent neighbors who are more of an annoyance than an insurmountable barrier to conducting business. (I conducted several of my interviews with former gang members in Ciudad Quetzal, the dusty satellite town where much of this documentary is filmed.)

The film also reveals the religious aspect of life in Guatemala and it treats this theme with an equally deft (and ecumenical) touch. In one scene, the purchaser of the bus invites his Pentecostal pastor — accompanied by the pastorawhose Bible and simultaneous prayers exhibit her own spiritual authority — to board the bus and prayerfully invoke God’s blessing on it’s future. In another scene, we see a Catholic priest blessing a parking lot full of decorated buses. And along the way, we see San Cristobal, patron saint of the bus drivers carrying a child on his shoulders. Dodging the opportunity to engage in another round of tired jokes about the irony of the many buses that carry religious symbols and sex symbols side-by-side, the film tries to see the lives of the bus drivers, importers, and body shop artists through the eyes of a curious, but humble outsider.

There is more to say about this gorgeous film. I am tempted to gush about the wisdom of the filmmakers in avoiding the rural versus urban, or the ladino versus indigenous tropes engaged in by too many ideological academics. But instead I can only beseech readers who have not yet seen the film to treat themselves to this film, which is both an outstanding piece of art, and an exceptionally faithful rendering of life in the Guatemala of the 2010s.

New Three-part (Short) Video Documentary Series


Part I: The Gangs

Part II: The Researcher

Part III: The Pastor

Bill Gentile, former Newsweek correspondent and current professor of communications at American University, accompanied me for a couple of weeks in January of 2013. He worked together with Esther Gentile to edit and produce a short documentary series called “God and Gangs: Criminal Violence and Religion in Guatemala.” Here is his description of the videos:

In Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America, a wave of criminal violence has replaced the politically-motivated violence of the 1980s and early 90s. With thousands of members, transnational youth gangs such as MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang now pose a significant threat to citizen security and the country’s weak and corrupt institutions. For many of Guatemala’s youth, there seems to be no way out of this vicious cycle of violence. Recent research, however, shows that Evangelical churches, particularly Pentecostals, are engaging in ministries aimed at rescuing and rehabilitating gang members and providing them with a community of support as they reintegrate into Guatemalan society.
This series of three short videos (1. “The Gangs”; 2. “The Researcher”; and 3. “The Pastor”) sketches the context of gang violence in Guatemala and highlights the role of religion as a potential source for both individual and social transformation. The series profiles the work of sociologist Robert Brenneman as he interviews former gang members who have exited the criminal world by converting to Pentecostalism. These videos were produced and directed by American University School of Communication Professor Bill Gentile as part of a project on religious responses to violence carried out by the AU Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS). For ongoing project developments, see:

A Truce in Guatemala?

On Friday, elPeriódico ran a cover story announcing that the Organization of American States has been pressing for a truce between rival gangs in Guatemala. The news is not too surprising since the OAS has been an outspoken supportor of the gang truce in El Salvador from the beginning–even going so far as to formally visit imprisoned gang leaders in that country. Today, several Guatemalan experts and/or important folks (like the president of the chamber of commerce) weighed in on the proposal, most of them expressing caution but some, like Emilio Goubaud, proposing optimism. The trouble is that even in El Salvador, the truce has been enormously controversial, oddly enough, even though police and health ministry officials report that homicides have fallen by 50-60% since the truce went into effect.

Although I have expressed some support for the Salvadoran truce, especially in the beginning, thoughtful people have raised some important questions about that process and the outcomes it has generated. (For example, Jeannette Aguilar has pointed out that in 2011, the year immediately prior to the truce, the Salvadoran police’s own crime statistics office estimated that no more than 26% of the homicides in the country were gang-driven. How a gang truce could cut the homicide rate in half is still an open question.) In addition, a very recent spike in homicides have raised even more doubts in the public.

Personally, I don’t think such issues are reason enough to dismiss the truce or the drop in violence (even if the lasting impact is a homicide reduction closer to 30%). But Guatemalan’s should keep in mind that the gang scene in that country is less organized than in El Salvador. My research in 2007 and 2008 led me to conclude that Guatemalan gangs were only loosely organized. It would surprise me to see a gang truce among Guatemalan gang leaders that could result in a measurable reduction of violence among gang youth at the level of the neighborhood clica. Thus, my advice to political and civil society leaders interested in pursuing a gang truce would be to aim their efforts at the local level and, as always, to provide individual gang members with realistic options for an honorable exit from a violent lifestyle. It may be necessary to have contact with the palabreros (higher-ups) in the gang in order to give local gang leaders and members the courage to move ahead, but the focus should generally be with local cells/clicas and those involved in the process should be individuals who are known in the community.

Finally, the only way a truce–be it local or national–can work is if individual gang leaders and members can have some level of assurance that leaving the gang or its violent lifestyle will not make them easy targets for enemy gangs or for social cleansing. Thus, if the government wants to encourage gang members to leave the gang it must provide some assurance that the killing of gang members will be investigated and that the public ministry will put forth real effort to bring  cases of murdered gang youth to trial. For as long as it continues to be “open season” on gang members or “suspected” gang members (i.e. anyone with a tattoo), and gang deaths continue to go uninvestigated, it will remain difficult to convince gang youth to renounce violence and turn over their weapons. After all, even the most “worn out” gang member knows that leaving the gang and/or its violence involves exposing himself to an angry society. In short, if we want them to stop killing each other, and stop extorting their neighbors, we need to provide them with at least a minimal guarantee of safety and the possibility of legitimate employment.

Review of Adiós Niño

In May of this year, Duke University Press finally released Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death. The book is written well–a quick read at just under 150 pages of text–and the author, Deborah Levenson, has plenty of experience with the topic. In fact, Levenson helped author one of the earliest empirical studies of the gangs of Guatemala City in 1988 when she worked at the AVANCSO center for the social sciences. One of the most important strengths of the book is its historical perspective. Levenson compares the gangs of the 1980s with the gangs of the 90s onward and concludes that the gangs she studied in the 1980s were vastly different from the far more violent gangs that affiliated with the transnational/Latino gangs of the M-18 and the MS-13. In the 1980s, Levenson argues, the gang members she intereviewed had found a sense of liberation in their gang identity and many attached a political edge to their gang activity. Not so with the gang youth of today, few of whom were willing to talk with the author as did the earlier gang youth. She calls these new “maras” the “gangs to die for”–a sharp contrast with the more locally-based maras from an earlier time–and she works hard to make the case that the civil war, which reached its peak in the early 1980s, was the key contributor to this metamorphasis.

It is certainly true that the gangs underwent a transformation in Guatemala during the early 1990s. Many of the ex-gang members I interviewed in 2007 and 2008 spoke of a gang “evolution” that brought an escalation of violence, the introduction of “la renta” security taxes, and, importantly, a narrowing of the possibility for leaving or “retiring” from the gang. It’s also hard to contradict the notion that the war contributed to the evolution of the gangs. Indeed, there is little in Guatemalan society that was unaffected by 36 years of dirty warfare. But Levenson seems, in my view, a little overcommitted to drawing a straight line from the war to the transformation of the gangs. After all, if the war–which had essentially been “won” by the military by the mid-1980s–were the most important factor in creating the hyper-violent maras of today, it is difficult to understand why Honduras should have what is by most estimates, a greater problem with gang violence. Sure the war made a difference–thousands of children were orphaned by the war and some of these orphans ended up in a gang. But I am convinced that other socio-historical factors were just as, if not more important to creating a situation in which nominally delinquent youth gangs gave way to seriously violent ones. Chief among these factors are the rise of narco-traffic (which occasionally employed gang members, paying them in product and obliging them to monetize such payment by creating a local market for crack cocaine) and the colonization of the local street gangs by MS-13 and M-18 members, including some deportees, but mostly among those coming across the border from El Salvador. Both the narcotraffickers and the transnational gang missionaries greatly enhanced access to small arms, which were pouring into the Central American market through legal and non-legal channels. True, some of the military’s weapons have made it into the hands of the gang members but I don’t believe this channel was nearly as important as simple proximity to the largest small arms producer in the world (the U.S.). 

Levenson also likes to critique Pentecostalism as a key culprit in keeping the Guatemalan government from addressing gang violence in ways that could be effective in the long run. She argues that after the Christian Democratic party tried half-heartedly and failed to address the nascent gang violence in the country, “the care of needy and troubled youth was turned over to Pentecostals” who then “assumed a role as social engineer” (107). This sentence, I’m afraid, greatly overstates the power and influence–not to mention the unity–of “the Pentecostals.” To her credit, the author does briefly acknowledge in the last chapter that some Pentecostal gang ministries appear to have improved upon their fire-and-brimstone harangues of the past–a caveat that makes room for the possibility that Pentecostals  may not be all alike, nor all completely in the thrall of former dictator and Neopentecostal Christian Rios Montt.

Despite my disagreements with the author on some of these issues, I think Adiós Niño is a worthwhile read and I will assign it in my course on Central America. One of my favorite features of the book is its use of photographs featuring youth both during and after their sojourn in the gang. Unfortunately, we learn that some of these youth have become victims of the violence. And as is typical, we will never know by whom they were killed or why. Such is the life–and death– of the “killable people.” In a country with a “justice” system that investigates precious few murders, and brings to trial even fewer, the death of a former gang member is very, very low on the public ministry’s priority list.