The Gangs of Guatemala

May 21, 2014   •   By Jeffery Webber

Adiós Niño

Deborah T. Levenson

MURDER BY GUNFIRE marks almost every hour in Guatemala City. Sergio Morales, the country’s human rights ombudsman, remarked in 2008 that there was more daily violence at the end of the first decade of the 21st century than there had been during the 36-year civil war between the Guatemalan military and revolutionary guerrillas, which formally ended in the Peace Accords of 1996. The overwhelming majority of those killed by guns today are youth in their late teens, with a surge in drug abuse fueling the violence. Crack and other hard drugs are enjoying an unprecedented boom in the capital. Almost 80 percent of cocaine moving from South America to the US market passes through Guatemala. Weapons are omnipresent and the gap between these impoverished youth and the ruling elite is ever-widening. By 2002, private security enterprises had ballooned to 35,000 ex-military men, more than twice the size of Guatemala’s police force, constituting a veritable private army of the bourgeoisie.

The proliferation of gangs, or maras, is at the center of the crisis of violence, and is fodder for right-wing populists calling for mano dura, or iron fist, approaches to crime. In post-civil war Guatemala, polls have repeatedly established that the population views maras as the nation’s greatest threat. After an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2007, ex-General Otto Pérez Molina won the presidential election in 2011 as leader of the conservative Partido Patriota (Patriotic Party, PP). He is a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas and former member of the kaibiles, the most brutal special forces unit of the early 1980s. His tough-on-crime television campaign material featured a variety of youth, from every social class and ethnic background, incanting “mano dura,” in Spanish and Maya languages, with cheerful smiles on their faces.

Global organized crime syndicates have descended on a country with an essentially inoperative legal system and an economy in permanent crisis. A reserve of young gang members constitute the cheap labor of elaborate narco-networks whose reproduction relies on unmitigated violence. Roughly 8,500 inmates populate the adult prison system — mostly poor and working-class young men, petty thieves jailed next to murderers. Seventy-five percent of the incarcerated population still await trial. Yet the powerful remain immune from prosecution. Former military General Efraín Ríos Montt, for example, was finally convicted in early May 2013 by a criminal court in Guatemala City for his role in genocide and crimes against humanity carried out in the early 1980s. Less than 10 days later, however, the Constitutional Court annulled the conviction on a technicality, and Ríos Montt is unlikely to face a new trial until January 2015. He is 87 years old.

Journalistic accounts of post-war violence in Guatemala often begin with the large-scale deportation of imprisoned gang members — of Mara-18 (M-18) and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) — from Los Angeles to Guatemala in the early to mid-1990s. A flood of such deportees reconstituted local Guatemalan gangs into clikas which became the basis for the Guatemalan MS-13 and M-18 pyramids. But, as Deborah T. Levenson shows in her extraordinary history of the gangs of Guatemala City, Adiós Niño, this familiar “snap shot” view too often misses the deeper history of Guatemala and the political, rather than merely criminal, character of contemporary gang formation.

In the first place, the MS-13 and M-18 cannot be read straightforwardly as Los Angeles gangs. Although their origins remain somewhat unknown, it is evident that they arose, in part, as expatriate blowback against US counter-insurgent military and paramilitary campaigns in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras in the 1980s. Ex-Central American soldiers eventually made their way to specific impoverished and under-serviced Latino neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, and through a complicated series of mergers and acquisitions gradually replaced what once had been smaller US gangs of Mexican origin. The new entities of MS-13 and M-18 were renowned for their commitment to higher levels of violence. “Ernesto Miranda,” Levenson notes, a

founding member of MS-13 and ex-Salvadoran military soldier explained the intensity of MS-13 brutality: “[In El Salvador] we were taught to kill our own people, no matter if they were from your own blood. If your father was the enemy, you had to kill him, so the training during the war in our country served to make us one of the most violent gangs in the United States”

Building on historical contextualization first developed in her path-breaking book Trade Unionists against Terror: Guatemala City, 1954-1985, in Adiós Niño Levenson also draws on more than a decade of interviews. She uses a variety of accounts ranging from interviews with youth in and out of gangs, social workers, and psychologists, to an impressive assemblage of investigative essays by local journalists, as well as reports by social workers and mental health professionals, and surveys of gang membership and organization carried out by herself and others. Above all the ethnographic work of an oral historian, Adiós Niño subtly weaves into its analytical fabric an eclectic array of theoretical voices, from Enrique Dussell to Michel Foucault.

Levenson insists that in order to understand the contemporary gangs of Guatemala City and the proliferating bloodshed associated with them, it is necessary to bring back into focus the historical specificity of the failure of the capitalist promise of modernity in the country over the course of the 20th century. In attempting to modernize Guatemala’s economy, the ruling elite simultaneously marginalized the working class. Capitalist development could not exist alongside the socialist tendencies of many working class organizations and its implementation, therefore, birthed spectacular levels of state violence meted out during decades of civil war. Plebeian urban cultures and leftist opposition were thrashed, subsequently extinguishing related beliefs in revolutionary possibility, inherent in those populist organizations. These processes, in turn, proved to be the prerequisites for an unleashing of neoliberal economics over the decades that followed. Now, Guatemala’s economy is almost entirely fuelled by private enterprises, many of which profit from the exploitation of a poorly educated, and geographically isolated, working class. Free trade, a cornerstone of capitalism, opened a price war in which only the cheapest goods win. In valuing price over quality or origin, policies such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement incentivize countries like Guatemala to sacrifice the conditions and treatment of their workers to the bottom line. Historicization and politicization of the phenomenon of Guatemalan gangs, in other words, can relieve us from the commonly sensational and depoliticized accounts in the media, as well as from the tendency to criminalize poor youth, while absolving the overlapping roles of the military, state, and ruling classes from any condemnation.

As historian Greg Grandin points out in his magisterial The Last Colonial Massacre, Guatemala provides the quintessential backdrop to the wider Cold War narrative in Latin America: the October Revolution of 1944 inspired hope for a socialized democracy through agrarian reform and other initiatives; the 1954 US-backed coup cut short that dream and instituted the start of a reign of terror and the concretization of a counter-insurgent state; the Left was forced eventually to take up guerrilla insurgency after all other means of political action were thwarted; and the scourge of death squads, rapes, torture, disappearances, kidnappings, and massacres, fortified by US-trained and equipped central intelligence agencies, reached its apogee in the racialized genocide of 1981-’82.

In 1996, with over 200,000 murdered by the Guatemalan state, the nearly four-decade-long civil war ended with the Left vanquished, and the ideal of democratic socialism effectively crushed. “To write about Guatemala,” the anthropologist Carlota Mcallister has pointed out,

is to write about twentieth-century Latin America’s bloodiest armed conflict. Rapacious agrarian capitalism, combined with systemic Ladino (nonindigenous) oppression of the Mayan majority, made Guatemala fertile terrain for struggles for radical change, but also made those struggles exceptionally punishing to fight.

Levenson first arrived in Guatemala City in 1978, and has lived there for extended periods over the following decades. Shortly after first setting her feet on the ground, “shantytown dwellers, bus drivers, factory and state workers, students, and almost everyone else in Guatemala City brought it to a halt to raise wages and stop an increase in bus fares.” By the next year, according to Levenson,

the call for a democratic and revolutionary Guatemala was pervasive, and many people sat by their radios listening to the Sandinistas take Managua [...] It did not seem unrealistic to think revolution was on the horizon. Not only did tens of thousands join the revolutionary fronts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in some areas of Guatemala these new recruits pushed the guerrilla leadership to take stronger military initiatives.

In the decades following the 1954 coup, the infrastructure of urban working class culture in Guatemala City meant that young people were likely to join labor unions and popular neighborhood associations. Their everyday lives were deeply politicized, and street protests inflected with ideologies of revolutionary socialism and anti-imperialism were commonplace. The configuration of political power established after 1954 was built on systematic forms of oppression and escalating waves of repression against all forms of resistance. Nevertheless, for decades “many Guatemalans understood and portrayed the power of the state and of wealthy elites as temporal and historical, not absolute.” The popular movement, as Levenson stresses, “made exploitation and state violence in some way or another provisional because these could be assaulted by demonstrations, strikes, occupations, and citywide uprisings, as well as by a social imaginary that made challenging domination possible.”

An extraordinary violence was necessary to extinguish these plebeian flames. In a region deeply scarred by atrocious levels of Cold War brutality, Guatemala exceeded all other countries in Latin America in per capita numbers of “disappeared.” Guatemala was one of only two countries where genocide was perpetrated, and was the site of some of the worst military and paramilitary massacres on the continent. The proclivity of marginalized youth to join gangs today can only be understood against the backdrop of the defeat “of a decades-old urban subculture in working-class barrios that emanated from the popular movements of 1954-80.” These gangs become necessities for youth living in a culture dominated by a defeat of the underclass. Gangs are a survival tactic in a city where the

inextricably related means and effects of that defeat, which include a military victory through genocidal war, neoliberal polices that have diminished social services for the urban poor, unemployment in a city where employment refers to a physically exhausting job at not even survival wages, and a legal system that is currently in complete collapse.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century the new capitalist economic model had proved resolutely incapable of even providing regular water to impoverished Zones 1-8, 11, 12, 17-21 of Guatemala City, much less generating and distributing wealth for the nation at large. “More frustrating,” writes Levenson,

is the reality that gains fought for and won at some point in the twentieth century — such as the right to unionize, social security, land reform, a legal system, a living wage, the extension of public education and medical care, paved roads, and adequate bus service — have either been destroyed (unions, a living wage, land reform), stand in permanent disrepair (roads, bus service, railroads, public education), are continually falling apart (medical care, social security), or exist in name only (the legal system).

The 1996 accords ended the war on the terms dictated by the Guatemalan military and the wealthy they protect. It signaled the defeat of a revolutionary era. For the subaltern layers of the densely populated capital, the terms expressed in the accords, i.e., the terms of military, political, and economic conquest for domestic rulers and US foreign policy makers, represented the shattering of a “way of knowing the world and acting within it.” The accords signaled the disappearing of a “dynamism of an urban subculture of class solidarity wherein jokes get made, songs created and heard, leaflets written, small newspapers mimeographed, banners painted and seen, and political conversations held.”

By the mid-1980s, a range of Guatemalan gangs had already emerged on the scene, but gang violence was low, and, in any case, virtually invisible next to the wider milieu of state and paramilitary horrors unfolding in the countryside at the time. Gangs in the 1980s offered disenfranchised youth “friendship, love, music, dance, sex, money, and excitement.” For these youth, gangs forged

a sense of life-affirming identity and community in the face of social decomposition and the transformation of old communities, yet without disconnecting them from their families and their old communities and without destroying their identities as sons and daughters, friends, and neighbours.

The gangs of the1980s were still connected to the culture of an urban Left in poor and working class neighbourhoods of the capital, and an abiding morality of class solidarity was wedded to their everyday relations with the communities out of which they sprang.

But the sociology of Guatemala City was transformed over the next 20 years in ways that eroded the extant infrastructures of lower class unity. Tens of thousands of displaced Maya peasants, traumatized by the scorched earth campaigns in the countryside, settled in the most precarious neighbourhoods of a rapidly expanding urban zone. Heavily armed ex-military and paramilitary men joined the ranks of the unemployed, or found work in private security or the lowest echelons of the intensifying drug trade. The historically radical unions of the city — the public school teachers, Coca-Cola bottle factory workers, and bus drivers — suffered crippling defeats. The pyramidal structures of MS-13 and M-18 were raised out of these particular environs.

New ideals and social structures replaced those of radical democracy and social justice. The free marketeers that took the reins of government in post-war Guatemala could not have performed their tasks as fully as they did without the ideological cover of authoritarian, evangelical Pentacostalism. The religion of military hardliners like Ríos Montt, Pentacostalism made extraordinary headway in these decades, filling a vacuum opened up by the precipitate decline of popular Catholicism and Liberation Theology. As structural adjustment policies were rolled out, public services for urban youth receded. Under the born-again Christian presidency of Jorge Serrano Elían in the early 1990s, management of the debilitated public service for sheltering homeless youth was contracted out to a Pentecostal organization from Spain named Rehabilitation of the Marginalized (REMAR).

“In charge of the daily schedule and discipline,” Levenson notes, “REMAR staff beat the interned boys with baseball bats, brooms, and firewood in special isolation rooms; held mandatory Bible classes; and ripped crosses off the boys’ necks.” One is reminded of E.P. Thompson’s powerful censure in The Making of the English Working Class of the unchained psychic terror of Methodism inflicted on the poor in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Pentacostal pastors in late 20th century Guatemala preached an “earthly impotence” that resonated widely in an urban environment of accelerated social decomposition and violence. The message from the pulpit was “the constancy of crisis and the absence of human control outside of individual willpower about the individual self. Nothing could have seemed truer. These churches grew like wildfire.”

Reflecting on the changes she witnessed while talking to gang members in the city in the late 1990s and 2000s, compared to the ethnographic work she carried out in the mid-1980s, Levenson remarks that the “internal life of the Maras had shifted away from dancing or the possession of expensive consumer goods to a focus on drugs, painful rites of loyalty, and annihilating the other gang.” A once many-sided masculinity had “narrowed to one, and all others have atrophied. Masculinity has come to hinge on the capacity to give violence and to take it, without limits, including the cap of mortality.”

The dominant discourse in contemporary Guatemala — a moralizing melange of evangelism and the market — satanizes the unruly youth of urban gangs and attributes them an extraordinary power. Despite the increasingly brutal culture of Guatemala’s gangs, this exaggeration allows the larger causes and culprits to continue, unexamined and undeterred. Unlike the military, the ruling economic elite, and the drug lords, ordinary gang members have no power or wealth. Their violence is the “tragic legacy of Guatemala’s late twentieth-century,” and their subjectivities the product of “the absence of positive means of power over life and by fear, terror, and the difficult material conditions that have been part of Guatemalan history.”


Jeffery R. Webber is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. His latest book is Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia.