Fortress elite: criminal revolt and civil resistance in Guatemala

Guatemala’s elite, which has tried since 1996 to engage in politics to ensure that democracy produces conservatism and economic libertarianism, is now expressing some unorthodox ideas. The most radical will say over the dinner table that the answer to the security crisis is more violence.

“We’d better get involved in politics before the people rise up against us.”

The idea became a mantra among the old Guatemalan elite. For half a century, the political work was done for them by military or civilian employees. And it worked, or did so until now, for democracy, organised crime and the rise of violence are turning this Central American nation into one of the world’s bloodiest all over again.

Guatemala is the largest country in the isthmus, with some 15 million inhabitants in a land formerly inhabited by the Mayan civilization. Institutionalised as a coffee export republic by the elite descended from Spanish colonists and some mestizos in the late nineteenth century, Guatemala – as did much of Latin America – imported northern European capitalists in exchange for land and indigenous labour to work the fields for free. This was done with the help of systematic violence, as it was in colonial times. One of the most unequal and unfair countries in the world was the result.

Two democratic revolutions, a small one in the 1920s and a major one from 1944 to 1954, tried to modernise Guatemala, only to be liquidated by the military. In response, guerrilla movements rose up in the 1960s and expanded in the late 1970s.

The difference this time was that the leftist insurgencies were not only led by scions of the elite - so fair-skinned that were called canchitos, or blondies, by the mestizo soldiers fighting against them - but that these rebels were also supported by some mestizos and by a large number of indigenous Mayans. Some of them joined the revolutionaries, and many more sympathized with the cause. 

State vengeance 

“How dare they defy the established order, the elite that brought civilization to these lands forgotten by God?” was the question that summarised elite indignation at the time. The answer from the state was brutal – and without comparison in a brutally repressive continent. Mostly between 1978 and 1984, in a country whose population at the time was nine million, the army, police and paramilitary groups disappeared 50,000 (mostly mestizos and canchito leaders), killed 200,000 (mostly indigenous) and displaced 1,000,000 refugees to neighbouring Mexico. The UN Truth Commission concluded that official forces committed 93 per cent of the crimes against civilians.

Surprisingly, this bloody prelude led to some very coherent UN-backed Peace Agreements in 1996, which recognised the origins of the conflict and the responsibility of the state in mass human rights violations. The accords drew up an ambitious route map to transform the country into one where public goods, social justice and prosperity could be a reality, Marxist revolution a distant memory, and political tolerance an accepted part of life.

Only the last two were achieved: the left played a marginal role in general elections in September, and ideologically motivated attacks are rare exceptions. For the first two –public goods and social justice – you need sound tax and economic reforms that the elite has vetoed, while prosperity needs a lot of things Guatemala sorely lacks. The country’s tax burden is less than 11 percent of the GDP; two per cent of the population owns 75 per cent of the productive lands; five per cent of the people earns 40 per cent of what is produced.

The elite for its part, with its hardcore of around 20 prestigious families, is connected to the financial global system, has in part industrialised, and watches over the fifth largest sugar cane crop on the planet.

A blocked elevator 

Many people are furious about living in a country where a few people have by far the most, and to improve one’s life through legitimate means depends purely on luck. If you are born in one of the top 10 per cent of the families, the future is certain. In the next 30 per cent, you will have a very hard time. In the last 60 per cent, social ascent is pretty much impossible.

So the options for this last group of Guatemalans when they turn 18 have been mainly three over the last quarter of a century: go to the informal market without almost any rights or social security; migrate to the US with a suitcase of risks; or join smuggling and organised crime rings to get rich at any cost, and risk dying young.

These poorer Guatemalans will also have to be lucky not to get their throats slit, or worse, by the gangs (Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18) that boast close to 100,000 kids, teenagers and young adults under their command, and blackmail small urban businesses, kill neighbours and serve the powerful drug cartels. 

Peacetime death-squads 

The elite responded to these new threats in the only way that seemed natural. In 1997, during the government of the patrician president Álvaro Arzú, a wave of post-conflict kidnappings led to the adoption of an unorthodox response. A Venezuelan police expert, Víctor Rivera, was contracted to build a special squad with the aim of rescuing the kidnapped and killing the kidnappers – with impunity, of course.

The anti-kidnapping squad slowly transformed into a unit for social cleansing, operating with the same impunity, during the elitist government of Óscar Berger (2004-2008). The unit was effectively run by members of the elite, and calculations estimate that between 1,500 to 4,500 extra judicial killings were carried out during the period. The tactics consisted of using death-squads to kill those suspected of belonging to gangs, or people accused by neighbours anonymously in poor areas of Guatemala City.

The result of all these diverse criminal phenomena are just under 50 murders per 100,000 habitants a year. This translates into 15 murders a day in a country the size of Florida, with a population as large as the Netherlands. And this is just one aspect of a crime wave that also includes door-to-door extortion, on one side, and kidnapping of children of the elite on the other. 

This elite, which has tried since 1996 to engage in politics so as to ensure that democracy produces conservatism and economic libertarianism, is now expressing some unorthodox ideas. The most radical ones amongst them, and the least inclined to political engagement, will say over the dinner table that the answer to the security crisis is more violence - “throwing bombs on the outskirts of the city” to quote one, thereby eliminating kidnappers, robbers, gangs and all undesirables in one fell swoop.

Naturally, these groups prefer tough policing squads, bodyguards to play with their children and blonde happy faces in mall advertisements and in political campaigns, to any left-wing notion of better salaries or paying higher taxes.

Losing ground 

So it is a surprise to them that they appear to be losing some ground to the forces of democracy and civil society, which are endeavouring to build functioning security and justice institutions with a little help from their invention, the UN’s Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Other citizens are striving to do their homework through small businesses and the construction of a more tranquil sort of prosperity.

The elite is also losing ground in a deeper way against the nuevos ricos – the ones who mostly found their way through smuggling, cheating, political corruption and narco-trafficking. The new rich now have an unorganised majority in the Congress, and a strong minority in the courts and the government, though the old elite still dominates these last two through a power of veto.

If you are able to forget for a second that the next president of Guatemala in 2012 will be either a former general Otto Pérez Molina (a conservative) or congressman Manuel Baldizón (a populist parvenu), there has been evidence in the last four years of some causes for optimism. Yes, in this country you can find coherent Peace Agreements and a functional CICIG that helped the police and the attorney general try a former president on corruption and money laundering charges. Elite businessmen have been accused of murder, drug kingpins or Mexican Zetas of massacres, and former military officers of acts of genocide during the war.

There are some 1.5 million adults involved in productive cooperatives. Indigenous children go to school first in their Mayan mother tongues, and later in Spanish. At Plaza Pública, we have a bold, independent online media. Brave parts of civil society fight for human rights and transparency. But there is also, undeniably, a myopic elite that believes that engaging in politics through cast-iron conservatism and libertarian ideas will prevent the people rising against them taking away their tranquillity, their security, and soon their Republic. 

Photo: All Rights Reserved. C. Demotix/Allan Lissner. May not be reproduced without permission.

About the author

Martín Rodríguez Pellecer is editor-in-chief of Plaza Pública (www.plazapublica.com.gt), a website that investigates the relationship between politics, economics and organised crime. He was a reporter from 2001 to 2007 in the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre, and is a columnist at the newspaper elPeriódico