Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Securing the City: Neoliberalism, Space, and Insecurity in Postwar Guatemala

Securing the City: Neoliberalism, Space, and Insecurity in Postwar Guatemala

by Kevin Lewis O'Neill (Editor), Kedron Thomas (Editor), Thomas Offit (Contribution by), Deborah Levenson (Contribution by)

See All Formats & Editions

Unprecedented crime rates have made Guatemala City one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Following a peace process that ended Central America’s longest and bloodiest civil war and impelled the transition from a state-centric economy to the global free market, Guatemala’s neoliberal moment is now strikingly evident in the practices and politics


Unprecedented crime rates have made Guatemala City one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Following a peace process that ended Central America’s longest and bloodiest civil war and impelled the transition from a state-centric economy to the global free market, Guatemala’s neoliberal moment is now strikingly evident in the practices and politics of security. Postwar violence has not prompted public debates about the conditions that permit transnational gangs, drug cartels, and organized crime to thrive. Instead, the dominant reaction to crime has been the cultural promulgation of fear and the privatization of what would otherwise be the state’s responsibility to secure the city. This collection of essays, the first comparative study of urban Guatemala, explores these neoliberal efforts at security. Contributing to the anthropology of space and urban studies, this book brings together anthropologists and historians to examine how postwar violence and responses to it are reconfiguring urban space, transforming the relationship between city and country, and exacerbating deeply rooted structures of inequality and ethnic discrimination.

Contributors. Peter Benson, Manuela Camus, Avery Dickins de Girón, Edward F. Fischer, Deborah Levenson, Thomas Offit, Kevin Lewis O’Neill, Kedron Thomas, Rodrigo José Véliz

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This book makes a valuable contribution to the emerging anthropological literature on the social and cultural dimensions of neoliberal restructuring. Its vivid chapters both show us what neoliberalism ‘looks like’ in Guatemala and invite us to think about how we might pursue a broader discussion about topics (violence, crime, security, urban space) that cut across regions and demand a global and relational analysis. An impressive collection.”—James Ferguson, author of Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order

“Together these chapters unsettle easy binaries and simplified notions of victimhood. The city and countryside shape each other far more than is often stated. And vulnerable city residents act on urban space to make it theirs again. The editors’ introduction is a forceful theoretical and empirical reframing of the usual representations of the miseries of the poor in the city. They succeed in making the study of Guatemala City a lens into a broader Latin American history.”—Saskia Sassen, author of Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages

ReVista - Kirsten Weld

“The editors of Securing the City are to be applauded for working to shatter common narratives that pin the blame for Guatemala’s urban violence on ‘delinquents,’ urban gangs, rural lynch mobs, or other such bogeymen. The work also dismantles the imagined boundaries between city and country, and for this it merits praise.”
Ethnohistory - James H. McDonald

"[A] unique piece of work that provides an interesting corrective to the majority of literature on Guatemala that focuses on rural, indigenous issues…. These essays are drawn together by, and provide an important contribution to, the ethnographic exploration of space, identity, and the economic opportunity structure (or lack thereof) as shaped by contemporary neoliberal policy, discourse, and practice."
Journal of Latin American Studies - Cathy McIlwaine

“As a whole and as individual chapters, this book delivers what many others promise but never do; that is, to describe, analyse and explain the grassroots and everyday experiences and practices of neoliberalism, violence and security. In some ways, the Guatemalan context is irrelevant as the wider processes that affect many countries of the world today come to the fore. Yet in other ways, this is one of the most interesting books about Guatemala available today; it challenges many preconceived ideas about the country, about its indigenous population, about the nature and causes of violence and insecurity, and about the formation of porous and contested urban space.”
Ethnos - Regnar Kristensen

“An important contribution to the growing field of urban studies and in/security and would work well on the curriculum of a class on urban studies...it provides a refreshing addition to the literature on the segregation of social lives in so-called postmodern cities.” 
EIAL - Abigail Adam

Securing the City addresses both a timely topic (Guatemala's spectacular levels of personal and community insecurity) and a highly under-ethnographed region (in anthropologist-saturated Guatemala!), Guatemala City…. The editors have done us a great service in making more of Spanish anthropologist Manuela Camus's groundbreaking research on urban Maya available in English.”

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.32(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

Securing the City

Neoliberalism, Space, and Insecurity in Postwar Guatemala

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4958-7

Chapter One

Living Guatemala City, 1930s–2000s

Deborah T. Levenson

Today Guatemala City is infamous as one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in Latin America. Older residents remember lovely neighborhoods and better times under clear skies, but today few would deny that the city edges on uninhabitable. Infrastructure deteriorates, the city has deindustrialized, and crime is everywhere, every day. The working poor are Guatemala City's majority, and the family wage economy that constitutes their time-honored strategy currently depends on the emigration of relatives who send money (now in rapidly decreasing amounts); the "informal economy" of goods and services; and the illegal economy of drugs and black-market clothing, cars, appliances, and other commodities. The last of these sources, however risky, appears to be the most reliable urban employer of youth, an age group that represents the city's future, the greater part of its population, and one half of those designated as poor (see Offit, this volume, for discussion of youth in the informal economy). Unlike Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro, there are few myths or colorful narratives about this capital city; it is a literary subject only in Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias's chilling 1930s novel El señor Presidente, where it makes an appearance as the setting for a police state replete with beggars, night prowlers, dark alleys, traps, lies, cells, spies, and corrupt politicians. It is easy to envision Guatemala City as a complete disaster, another rapidly decaying slum on the "planet of slums" (Davis 2006).

My point of departure in this essay, however, is that the city is not dead. Popular culture and the intersections, relationships, and varied activities of the over 2.5 million people who live in the capital make Guatemala City more than a static embodiment of inequalities wherein the rich live in gated communities and the poor in shantytowns of misery. Politics and economics have informed the possibilities available to people as they have moved in and given shape to their surroundings; people are part of the city's infrastructure (Simone 2004). In the 1970s, a large urban movement gave qualities of democracy and popular power to neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and the streets—despite, because of, and in the face of state terrorism. In the 2000s, however, "peace" time, neoliberalism, global financial disaster, unemployment, corruption, and violence frame how people live, with perhaps greater difficulties for viable national life than they have ever experienced.

This essay looks at city life from the late 1930s to the 2000s through the coming-of-age narratives of four people from three generations of the Cruz-López family: its founder, María Cruz, an indigenous woman who arrived in Guatemala City alone at age twelve in 1938; her daughter Isabel; and Isabel's two sons, René and Andrés. All four have been modern protagonists, making their lives in the manners they thought best while still being aware of other options. When they told me their stories, each drew on different yet overlapping aspects of the rich urban repertoire offered by, among other things, Mexican movies and "world" youth culture, progressive movements of workers and women, liberal discourses of success and failure, and Christianity.

This family and the city are both studies in diversity and connections. I once sat in María's small apartment with kin that included a college graduate who works in finance for a multinational company, an unemployed truck driver with a certificate in computer skills, an organizer for a peasant organization, an unschooled vendor whose son works in the Sudan for the United Nations, a domestic worker, and a former guerrilla struggling to start a motorcycle repair shop. Most are Catholics or Evangelicals and one is a nonbeliever. The family is presumably ladino (nonindigenous), as are the majority of the city's residents; however, María is of indigenous descent. In kind with many others in the city, their zone, Zone 7, is heterogeneous. Most of its residents are poor (as are the majority in the López-Cruz family), but middle-class families also live there, and so do the absolutely impoverished who make their homes in and their living from an enormous garbage dump. Although the upper class resides in guarded compounds in Zones 10 and 14–16 of the city's twenty-two zones, there are few demarcated spaces that belong solely to the middle class, lower classes, or extremely poor. More often, they commingle throughout the rest of the city. Zone 12 offers an extreme case in which one of the city's wealthiest private schools borders one of its largest shantytowns. Hardly the result of planning, this variety, like that within the López-Cruz family, speaks to the broader histories of modern change and conflict in and beyond Guatemala City.


María's early years unfolded under a liberal dictatorship that maintained a low-wage rural export-oriented economy and used forced Maya labor to build national infrastructure. The Liberal Party dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920) had brought his version of modern times to María's hometown of Salamá in Baja Verapaz by financing a bridge over the Río Salamá, a prison, and public schools. By the mid-1930s, under the liberal dictator Jorge Ubico (1931–44), Salamá had telegraph service; a middle class; a hospital; and, in 1934, a paved road connecting it to the capital (Conde Prera 1989). María's mother was of Maya descent, but she knows little else of her history. Her father's relatives, whom she has met here and there, were ladino. However, "mixed" people like María went unrecognized as such, and she learned to use the pejoratives inditos/inditas to refer to indigenous people, without claiming to be ladina or indigenous herself. María's family was poor, Catholic, and kept small by high infant morality rates; only María and her older sister survived her mother's many pregnancies. Her father worked breaking horses, and her mother made tamales to sell. From an early age, María helped her mother with this; she did not attend school, which was not available in any case. When María was six, someone—she suspects her father's ladina lover—murdered her mother. Deeply saddened, María recollects only that she sold the bread that her sister baked in order to support both of them over the next six years.

Her memories of leaving Salamá are vivid. When María turned twelve, her sister sent her to work in a middle-class household. Soon after she arrived, she was blamed when the child she tended was injured in a fall. María recalls:

The mother beat me, the father beat me, and then my sister beat me until I was black and blue ... I ran to the cemetery. I screamed to my mother, "Why did you abandon me!?" and wept and wept; ... the bus owner saw me all black and blue and asked what happened. I explained. I said I wanted to run away to the capital. He said he would pass at three in the morning driving the Salamá-Guate bus and honk three times and I should run out [and] get on and he would take me. I put on my dress, shawl, and slip but I had no shoes. I watched the clock. I was proud that I knew how to read the clock: 1—2—3! He honked! I went out barefoot with my hair so long and the ayudante [driver's assistant] swooped me up and off I went into the night.

A new road, bus, and friend—not ethnic, religious, or kin community—offered a way for María to move on, and she eagerly took it. Fortunately the driver took good care of young María while the bus wound down the road. He bought her refreshments, and when the bus arrived in Guatemala City, she recollects: "He took me to his aunt who ran a comedor [small restaurant or lunch counter], 'look, this is a good girl, she can work.' So I went to work for her; ... she gave me a place to sleep in the back with some boarders and the bus driver; ... she brushed my hair. She was affectionate; ... she loved me, she brought me sandals and an apron. The family took me out on Sundays, we went everywhere, La Sexta, Cerro de Carmen." Thus, twelve-year-old María stepped off a bus into a city of 166,456 people in order to immediately become a servant. Never to be homeless, she recalled the street people, "los indios and other poor people," rounded up to do forced labor. Controlled by laws that prohibited whatever threatened Ubico's rule, the city was subdued, and for María, safe. She had no knowledge of the clandestine activities of those who would overthrow the liberal dictatorship, and they said nothing about the plight of domestic servants. A major event in Guatemalan history, the revolution of 1944 is not part of her memory.

The city delighted María. El Centro housed nearly half of the city's population—wealthy, middle class, and poor, including thousands of domestics. For years she never went into the barrios where the other half lived in constructions of adobe, leaves, and, as she puts it, cualquiera (whatever) without water or sewage (Gellert 1995; A. Solow 1950). With a lovely acoustic shell in the gardened Parque Central, electricity, trolleys, traffic lights, paved streets and new government buildings, El Centro was the city at its most citified. The city's glamour, the "sparkling modernity" noted by period writers and by María, was located on several blocks of El Centro, where María walked with her employers on Sundays (Caplow 1949; see Véliz and O'Neill, this volume). There were pharmacies; well-to-do dress, shoe, and paper goods stores; banks; restaurants; the Hotel Palace; and the electric company. Guatemala's new department stores, such as La Perla on Sexta Avenida, known as the "Tiffany's of Guatemala City," offered stunning imports such as cashmere sweaters and Max Factor cosmetics. Nearby on La Sexta stood the Art Deco palacio del cine, Teatro Lux, which advertised parquet floors and the era's famed Hollywood and Mexican movies.

In kind with many domestics, María lived in El Centro with different employers. The streets were safer than some of their households. After the aunt died, María explains:

Her son sold the restaurant and a compa [coworker] told me about a family on the street that needed a servant; ... turned out they were from Salamá and godparents of one of my father's children ... My father turns up one day with a woman and children. "¡Mi hija! What are you doing here?" He offered to take me to Tiquisate, where he was going to work. I got mad. I knew he only wanted me to watch his kids. I was very rebellious. Listen, one house where I was had boarders, military men and one was the owner's son and one night he slipped nude into the corner where I slept ... I had never seen a nude man and he threw himself on top of me and I grabbed a stick ... and hit him hard and screamed for help, loudly! His parents came and grabbed him and there was a lot of yelling ... and I left. I went around the corner to the Jefe de Policía's house. I knocked. I explained. They took me in and I stayed there for a while.

Barely an adolescent, María defended herself alone. Savvy about her father's notion of incorporating her into the family, she refused to go with him. Later, she fled to the streets in order to escape rape and found comfort from the chief of police, who sent her to work as a domestic for a German couple. After they left the city, she made her way to a Chinese restaurant, where she worked for its owners, the Lee family, and there she met Miguel, a sixteen-year-old tailor. María remembers: "That's where [at the Lees'] I bought my first possessions ... shoes and a Victrola. We [she and other young female employees] had our room and we'd practice dance steps! I was always happy listening to the radio in the kitchen. I liked Guatemalan music, no Mexican music, only marimba—12 Calle, Los Altos! I loved marimba! That's where I met my first boyfriend, Miguel. We'd go dancing at the Porvenir de los Obreros. I sent to get a dress made. I bought a matching handbag, shoes and a pair of imported stockings."

Although the terms of her occupation separated her somewhat from the cash nexus, she cheerfully used her small earnings for the material culture of the middle-class "New Look" female style—matching clothes and accessories—and a Victrola record player. María also loved the king of urban culture: radio. Aired were Eng lish, German, and hygiene lessons; BBC news; and the music of swing, opera, and marimba doble, the national favorite. Marimbistas played at the Teatro Lux, at state events, and at places such as El Porvenir, where María and Miguel danced to smart, lively waltzes (Taracena 1983). Despite her problems, the city became her anchor and pleasure, a place where she generally felt loved until Miguel betrayed her:

Miguel and I were in love, he took me to Lake Amatitlán, to his mother's, but one day I saw him kissing another girl ... I told him if he wanted respect, he had to respect me. I grabbed the other girl ... by the hair and pulled; ... I pushed her to the floor ... that's how mad I was ... It was terrible;.... his mother had already told me it was all right to marry Miguel even if I didn't have family because she loved me and would make me my wedding dress, a white dress not with very expensive cloth, a nice white cotton cloth. I couldn't love him so I went to Coatepeque with a lawyer's family that moved there.

By the 1940s, success had fattened Coatepeque, a southern coastal town. Mechanized export agriculture made it a prosperous ladino commercial center of three thousand inhabitants. Coatepeque had a hotel named La Europa, a movie theater, restaurants, schools, an electric company, and the Boy Scouts. There, however, María had more problems with sexual harassment, and she finally left domestic work and found another job and a social life with young Salvadoran women workers, whom she found "lively and independent." It was in their company that she met her future husband. She explains:

The lawyer wanted to, you know, have ... sex with me and I said no; I fled the house in the night. I ran to the Hotel Europa! I told the doorman Mingo what happened and asked to sleep in the doorway; ... [The next day] he got me work there. Everyone [in Coatepeque] knew I was a good worker and a cook. One day the wife of Teófilo says, "I need a cook." So I went with her; ... she liked me, but I got a better job cooking at the electric company. That was when I met Tono [Antonio López, who became her common law husband]. We [she and the Salvadorans] went to the movies on Sundays. I loved, love, Pedro Infante [Mexico's beloved twentieth-century movie idol]. We saw all his movies. He was the man of my dreams ... handsome, sweet-blooded. One day I saw this man there, a cop, but good looking. He looked exactly like Pedro. To look at my husband was to look at Pedro. He wanted to talk to me; ... he had fallen in love with me ... He swore I had to be his; he sent flowers and one Sunday he caught up with me. I was walking ... as always accompanied by friends.

Tono walked up to María and introduced himself. She replied: "Policemen have a bad reputation, just like soldiers they make fun of women, abuse them and leave them. I don't want to hurt you or be hurt, so I am not interested in you. Don't bother me ... I don't want to be unhappy. I just want to work in peace, so don't cross my path." He persisted, of course, and María concluded the story of her youth, the end of which she judged to be her unity with Tono and the start of "troubles."

Young María epitomized much about Guatemala City—child labor, sexual abuse of servants, lineages of mixed indigenous and ladino descent—but nowhere in the urban cultural and social configuration were she and her counterparts represented or legitimized. Girls labored without recognition as members of the urban working class and without acknowledgment as child workers or as children. The only modern culture that reflected her life was in Mexican cinema. She especially recalls Nosotros, los pobres, the tale of a humble carpenter, played by the handsome Pedro Infante, who honors and defends poor mestizos by challenging wealth, power, and the sexual abuse of women. In the movie, justice is served in an urban space defined by rural-to-urban migration, the poor are noble and resourceful individuals, poverty is dignified, and the rich are predators. She embraced this world on film. It is not hard to see María's shifting and sexually dangerous adolescent life in a film in which disorder is given form by modest people who resembled her physically. Like them, she could escape catastrophe and persist. The movie version was superb: a girl finds romance with a handsome, caring Infante, the sort of man María would have loved to marry.

From the time that María came to the city, unfamiliar people became the friends and allies who composed her world. A resilient and daring child with a gift for being found and finding, she met the bus driver, his aunt, the Lee family, Miguel, the police chief, and Mingo, among others. María turned strangers into friends who helped her achieve a kind of personal autonomy. María surely kept her strength and independence within certain bounds of customary female behavior and deferred to males, but only if that met her needs. Feathers might have stuck to her, but she lived a modern life in a modern city, the capital, and a modern town, Coatepeque. Instead of staying put, she fought for joy for herself and safety from male abuse, without certainty about the results.


Excerpted from Securing the City Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kevin Lewis O’Neill is Assistant Professor in the Department and Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. He is the author of City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala and a co-editor of Genocide: Truth, Memory, and Representation, also published by Duke University Press.

Kedron Thomas is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews