Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death

Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death

by Deborah T. Levenson

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In Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death, Deborah T. Levenson examines transformations in the Guatemalan gangs called Maras from their emergence in the 1980s to the early 2000s. A historical study, Adiós Niño describes how fragile spaces of friendship and exploration turned into rigid and violent ones in which youth, and especially young men, came to employ death as a natural way of living for the short period that they expected to survive. Levenson relates the stark changes in the Maras to global, national, and urban deterioration; transregional gangs that intersect with the drug trade; and the Guatemalan military's obliteration of radical popular movements and of social imaginaries of solidarity. Part of Guatemala City's reconfigured social, political, and cultural milieu, with their members often trapped in Guatemala's growing prison system, the gangs are used to justify remilitarization in Guatemala's contemporary postwar, post-peace era. Portraying the Maras as microcosms of broader tragedies, and pointing out the difficulties faced by those youth who seek to escape the gangs, Levenson poses important questions about the relationship between trauma, memory, and historical agency.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822353157
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/09/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 9.20(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Deborah T. Levenson is Associate Professor of History at Boston College. She is the author of Trade Unionists against Terror: Guatemala City, 1954–1985 and a coeditor of The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics, also published by Duke University Press.

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By Deborah T. Levenson

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5315-7




I feel terrible when I talk about all this. I don't want to upset [anyone].

—Excerpt from the unpublished autobiography of Rodrigo Sic Ixpancoc, ex-soldier of the Guatemalan Army, El Periódico, November 4, 2010

"To Remember Is to Feel a Knife Tear into You"

Sitting on a chair in small apartment in Guatemala City's Zone 3, Victor recounted that in 1985, when he was fifteen, he and his friends founded Mara Plaza Vivar Capitol with companionship and competing in an upcoming break dance competition in mind. But a few months later, he explained, Army Intelligence (G-2) stopped him and a few others who were hanging out in a semi-occupied shopping center on the main strip of the shabby downtown Sexta Avenida in Zone 1, shoved them in a van, and took them to a military base, where they received a few days of training. Then, in his words, "They took us up to the mountain in a truck with some nicas [Nicaraguans] to some village ... and we had on rubber boots and pretended to be egyptos [members of the guerrilla group Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (Guerrilla Army of the Poor, EGP)], the nicas called a meeting and people [the villagers] came and the soldiers came down all of a sudden and killed everyone ... [it was] a massacre." He went on to say that he was soon dumped back on to Sexta Avenida, and within days he had taken off to Mexico in fear of G-2 because, he said, "the others [the mareros with him] were killed." In Mexico, he worked with the Mexican drug ring La Eme for many years. At age twenty-eight, a full thirteen years later, he said, he returned in 1998 to a changed Guatemala City and joined Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), which had arrived in the 1990s.

The abrupt and murderous military intervention that changed Victor's life almost beyond recognition in 1985 is a small version of the experiences of millions from 1980 to 1996, when over 100,000 primarily unarmed people died violently in massacres that came at dawn like thunderbolts, and millions fled without destination. Marked by this history, Victor mentioned only fragments of it to me. We spoke in 2002, six years after the Peace Accords officially ended the war. Victor told me that he has no idea what the war was about. He said, "It just was."

The 1996 Peace Accords that formally stopped the thirty-six-year war between the Guatemalan military and revolutionary groups over Guatemala's destiny brought tremendous relief because, at last, the war had ended. Among other important agreements, the Accords mandated constitutional amendments to redefine Guatemala as a multicultural nation, limit the army's mission, resettle displaced peoples, allow civil society groups, and reform the judicial system. However, virtually none of its provisions were or have been implemented because, basically, the war concluded with a victory for the Guatemalan military, the state, and the economic status quo, and with the demise of a long revolutionary era. To begin to understand how deeply this defeat cut into and transformed Guatemala City in the last decades of the twentieth century, when the Maras evolved, it is necessary to appreciate that since the 1954 coup that overthrew a democratic government, the very existence of strong resistance to oppression and repression was as important as the oppression and repression. In the decades following the 1954 coup, many Guatemalans understood and portrayed the power of the state and of wealthy elites as temporal and historical, not absolute. Even with its ups and downs, the popular movement 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. The movement generated the knowledge that violence is the political tool of the state and of elites. From that perspective, Victor's 2002 understanding of the war indicates a loss of ideological mooring; the war was not something that "just was."

In other words, what ended with the Peace Accords was more than the civil war. A way of knowing the world and acting within it had been shattered. The 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, was no longer there. To put this into the subjective and emotional framework in which life is lived: the ability to give voice, the "euphoria of ethical activism," the existence of a sense of historical purpose on a grand scale, and the vivacity and hope that animated the popular movement had prevented people from succumbing to fear for generations; then, abruptly, all that life was lost and death emerged exultant. After decades of struggle against what was widely perceived as an immoral political economy, the chance for an immediate alternative was vanquished. Grinding into dust the project of progressive social change cut down collective understandings of life as humanly malleable for humanistic aims. By the twenty-first century these visions seem to have become charred remains of plans for a future that required a revolutionary human praxis. What could have been memories of deaths that served to secure revolutionary victory now elicit despair and anger because so many died in vain. In 2010 an artist from the generation of the 1970s said with infinite sadness: "To remember is to feel a knife tear into you."

Political violence in the second half of twentieth-century Guatemala was spectacular. It exceeded that of other countries in the Americas: Guatemala had the highest per capita number of "disappeared," it was one of two countries where acts of genocide took place, and it was there that the worst military massacres on the continent happened. Guatemala was also distinguished in this period by the force of its popular and revolutionary movements. The depth of the state violence that did not stop them is one measure of their profundity, and so are the even greater horrors that it took to finally destroy them.

Violence takes many forms, has varied consequences, and conjures up different images. The extreme forms of political violence that overtook Guatemalan history and came to have a cultural weight and political role in it, held together and overlapped with structural, symbolic, and everyday forms of violence. Yet these are not all equivalent. Given that violence is varied and embedded in daily life, we need to distinguish a limited sense of this term and concept to capture the violence that "consciously or purposely breaks into the inner existential shell of a person i.e. into that room in which there is no other hiding place. A room from which there is no escape, the body of the human being." To make explicit the varied worlds of power, hope, pain, and conflict in which the youth who joined gangs grew up, this chapter continues by contrasting two periods, 1954–80 and 1980–2000s, decades during which the kind of violence that converted life into a "space of death" emerged as a historical protagonist, as if on its own.

Normal Guatemalan State Violence: 1954–1980

Guatemala was politically globalized on a grand scale in June 1954, when, in full anticommunist armor, the United States allied with Guatemalan elites to violently end the country's singular attempt at a democratic reformist government, one based on electoral politics, civil liberties, and national capitalism. In the years that followed the famous 1954 coup, a symbol of Cold War politics everywhere, the United States and the Guatemalan military and political and economic elite developed a system of rule consisting of electoral politics supported by a liberal constitution that guaranteed civil liberties and of constant state terrorism. These forms of sovereignty went hand in hand. The United States showcased Guatemala as a model of its foreign policy of promoting democracy, poured in investments that furthered manufacturing and large-scale capitalist agriculture, and collaborated with the Guatemalan state to build an extensive system of terror based on thousands of informants and on death squads that brought so-called subversives into secret centers and slowly tortured them to death in the tens of thousands. During the apogee of electoral democracy, modernization, and economic growth under the reformist government of Julio César Méndez Montenegro (1966–70), death squads disappeared an average of forty-three persons every five days. This durable arrangement lasting decades distinguishes the Guatemalan experience from those of countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, where the suspension of constitutional rule signaled comparatively shorter periods of outright military rule and terror.

This mix of terror and constitutional rule started in the wake of the 1954 coup. In the months following it, many 1944–54 government officials and supporters were charged and often shot or imprisoned for "subversion" under anticommunist legislation. But soon thereafter and especially after armed opposition emerged in 1960, activists and their friends and families rarely went to jail. For the most part, punishment meant death, and it happened without accusations, trials, bullets, electric chairs, firing squads, or gallows and trap doors. Death arrived slowly via ropes, bites, sticks, matches, knives, machetes, fingernails, rocks, and blowtorches, by means that were, to quote Michel Foucault on the ancien régime, "inexplicable phenomena that the extension of man's imagination creates out of the barbarous and the cruel."

Foucault's discussion of the creation and reproduction of the body politic through mechanisms of discipline and punishment offers insight into modern Guatemala, although with a twist. The types of violence and physical torture of bodies that Foucault argued were foundational to an archetypal ancien régime underwrote capitalist modernization and constitutional rule in Guatemala. In the case of Guatemala, in Foucault's formulation of the biopolitics that manufacture the life of members of modern nations as "a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit or destroying them," the words "in addition to" need to replace "rather than." Foucault recognized the rule over life through death. He conceptualized sovereignty as the ultimate power over life and death, but he wrote that a shift occurred in the modern age: "One might say that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life.... Now [in the modern period] it is over life, through its unfolding, that power establishes its domain; death is power's limit, the moment that escapes it; death becomes the most secret aspect of existence, the most 'private.'" In post-1954 Guatemala, death was not "power's limit." The death-squad tortures produced death that was not "simply the withdrawal of the right to live." These tortures rested on the "whole quantitative art of pain," calculated to "carry pain almost to infinity." The death squads' vocation was that "art of maintaining life in pain" in ways not unlike those that Foucault describes in great detail as "the spectacular of torture."

One difference is that these slow tortures were not part of the sort of public spectacular to which Foucault refers. Instead, a phenomenon perhaps more insidious and even more terrifying replaced this or added a new dimension to it. Within the death-squad system, grotesque torture to create the most painful death occurred in secret, but the catch is that almost everyone in the city knew about it. It was on view within the imagination because the bodies turned up, and their gashes and mutilations told stories. Foucault wrote that in ceremonies of public execution, "the main character was the people, whose real and immediate presence was required for the performance." He thought that if execution took place in secret, it "would scarcely have any meaning."

But what if "real and immediate presence" is in the imagination, a sort of modern individual private theater that everyone had? The scarred bodies provided the public performances in which the mind's eye had to do a horrible double work of staging the scene and being its impotent spectator at the same time. Where does the mind go when the newspapers report in detail about a man who turns up dead in a ravine, burned with a blowtorch on the stomach and elsewhere, his tongue cut out and his face beaten in so severely that his lips were swollen and his teeth broken, or about a woman and her baby found tortured and murdered? Her breasts had bite marks and her underclothing was bloody. Her two-year-old son had had his fingernails pulled out. What the bodies told of their deaths became the public spectacle. That bodies appeared with their proverbial "signs of torture" "reactivated" state power because the agony of an excruciating death was on full display, a spectacle of what happens and can happen to anyone, one that takes place first somewhere unknown, and a second time in the imagination. This death-in-life state barbarism was already part of politics before the massacres of the 1980s, the period many call "the war."

What the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben delineates as the "camp," in reference to concentration camps established at various points in modern history and most notoriously by the Nazi Party, in which "the most absolute condition inhumana ever to appear on Earth was realized," belonged to Guatemalan death-squad victims over and over for decades in concealed locations and to the imagination of those who were not there, except that they arrived in their mind's eye, without presence or power, again and again. Tortures seemingly beyond the power of conceptualization, much less execution, went on, conceived and executed. This was national political rule, not a concentration camp, not a strategy to exterminate a group from the body politic, but a strategy to control the entire body politic. Those who were not tortured—the witnesses who had no access to the event that they had to actualize in their heads—were not called upon to coproduce this system of terror, as Germans were in their acquisition of and complicity with anti-Semitism in what the historian Claudia Koonz calls a "Nazi conscience." Racism against Mayas saturated and saturates national life, but the Guatemalan state organized fear and sadism, not Ladinos (the common term for non-Maya), against an urban popular political movement that included both city Ladinos and Mayas.

In the late 1970s, Gabriel Aguilera Peralta, Jorge Romero Imery, Enrique Torres-Lezama, and Ricardo Galindo Gallardo did quantitative research on Guatemalan state violence in the post-1954 period. Their findings were published in Costa Rica in 1981 under the title Dialéctica del terror en Guatemala. Many have repeated and none have improved on the book's principal argument for the years 1963–79. Dialéctica del terror details how the counterrevolutionary state renewed its power through waves of terror. When popular discontent and mass struggle advanced, so did state brutality, which in turn caused social conflict to decrease, and with that so did state violence. Made even more determined by the repression, the popular organizations then took advantage of the diminished repression to emerge with even greater force and so forth until, so the authors optimistically believed, the movement would inevitably triumph. Tragically, even before the book's publication, Romero Imery and Galindo Gallardo were kidnapped. Imery's mangled body turned up months afterward, and Galindo Gallardo was never seen again. By then the state had started to turn its "normal" terrorism into a massive terrorist onslaught that upended predictions about an ultimate backfiring of violence.

Excerpted from ADIÃ"S NIÃ'O by Deborah T. Levenson. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS....................     ix     

INTRODUCTION The Rise and Fall of Tomorrow....................     1     

1. Death and Politics, 1950s–2000s....................     21     

2. 1980s: The Gangs to Live For....................     53     

3. 1990s and Beyond: The Gangs to Die For....................     77     

4. Democracy and Lock-Up....................     105     

5. Open Ending....................     129     

NOTES....................     145     

BIBLIOGRAPHY....................     161     

INDEX....................     177     

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