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Guatemala: a good place to kill

About the author

Ivan Briscoe is a fellow of the Conflict Research Unit, which is part of the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in The Hague. After working as a journalist and newspaper editor in Argentina, France and Spain for over a decade, he now specializes in the study of fragile states, the effects of inequality and the emergence of organized crime.

These are times of despair for Guatemala's few good cops. Each day brings an average of fifteen fresh corpses, scooped up from roadways and ditches after the work of death-squads and criminals has been done. And each day, or so it seems, the police force loses some more men, as the latest counter-narcotic cleansing shears through its dwindling ranks, and a fresh batch of guns goes underground.

Life without law and order makes for a restless public. The decisive round of voting approaches in the country's presidential elections on 4 November 2007, and many of the 13 million Guatemalans are darkly unexcited, sullenly vengeful. "What people want is protection", says Estuardo Zapeta, host of the popular radio talk-show Contravía in the capital, Guatemala City. "They no longer want the authorities to bother - they don't believe in the police. What you hear now is a cry of despair. Out of 100 callers, ninety agree with social cleansing."

Zapeta is indigenous, an anthropologist and a devout Protestant. In almost any other part of modern-day Latin America, he would have become a progressive political leader. But Guatemala is different. Guatemala has death-squads, polo matches, mega-churches and four television channels, all belonging to one foreigner. Only Russia has a higher murder-rate for women, only China exports more children for adoption to the United States. And Zapeta's favourite subject is that of his listeners: how to survive in a state of nature.

Ivan Briscoe is senior researcher at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride), Madrid. He was previously editor of the English edition of El País newspaper in Madrid and also worked for the Buenos Aires Herald, the UNESCO Courier and in the field of development research

His nineteen previous articles for openDemocracy include these analyses of Latin American political trends:

"Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve" (April 2003)

"Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula" (July 2003)

"Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell" (May 2005)

"The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America" (October 2005)

"Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow"(10 February 2006)

"Latin America's new left: dictators or democrats?"(28 September 2006)

"Never let me go: can Ortega reclaim Nicaragua?" (2 November 2006)

"Evo Morales: the unauthorised version"(16 January 2007)

"A ship with no anchor: Bush in Latin America" (22 March 2007)

"Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on" (2 April 2007)
Retired army general Otto Pérez Molina stalks the campaign trail in luminous orange t-shirts, his smile frozen, roundly denying any involvement in the country's genocides of the 1980s while proffering a mano dura (firm hand) against crime. His rival Álvaro Colom, the leader in the first round of voting, promises a rational, moderate government, yet no one can deny that his National Unity of Hope party is penetrated, as all major parties are, by torrents of drug money. For the moment, Pérez Molina narrowly leads in the polls.

On 9 September, in the first round of the poll, these two came out top of a scattered field of fourteen candidates riding diverse parties, cobbled together by friends and financiers, in which representatives of the left - including Nobel peace prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú - scraped together under 6%. Without a doubt, this was the most miserable showing for radical change in the whole of Latin America.

The public mood is fear, but this result is still a great mystery. A democracy with 51% poverty, wracked by the worst inequality in the continent, afflicted by crime and judicial decay, feels compelled to cure its wounds by scratching them harder and harder. Meanwhile, the killings and crimes are still faced with a monumental indifference from state institutions, or incompetence, or, worst of all, are the work of dark forces that watch jealously over Guatemala from some cold-war bunker.

"It's widely known who the drug traffickers are. The names of politicians, judges, deputies and officials are known. The US embassy has a register of these people. So why aren't they captured?" asks Edelberto Torres Rivas, the Guatemalan doyen of Latin American sociologists and author of dozens of books. "I have no reply."

Back to the colony

Guatemala, like much of central America in the era of globalisation, is in the thrall of political irrationality. For an outsider, its cultural riches and starved collective wisdom seem an impossible combination - as if a millenarian civilization were constantly imploding, which was indeed the condition of the ancient Mayan empire according to environmental historian Jared Diamond. Yet the place where explanations usually begin is the colony, formed by one of Spain's most bloodthirsty conquistadors, Pedro de Alvarado, and perpetuated by a tiny elite that robbed land and lived off its Indian serfs with great self-satisfaction.

During the wanderings of his exile, the deposed Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz was often accused by the left, and Che Guevara in particular, of cowardice in face of the United Fruit Company coup that overthrew him in 1954. Arbenz's defence was that he could not mount any decent riposte to Washington's intervention when it was his own military and economic elite that willingly took the US bait, uprooting the country's sole attempt to create an equitable capitalist society.

Imperial power, first Spanish and then north American, has consistently operated on Guatemala, that potential "communist beachhead in our hemisphere" whose spectre President Eisenhower raised. But the extent of its influence has hinged on the cooperation of a domestic elite whose application of colonial rule - from vagrancy laws to genocide - has made it an ideal agent of foreign strategy, powerful enough to repress but too illegitimate to live without help from abroad. This nexus has undoubtedly been the most stable feature of Guatemalan political history. "The greatest fundamental problems of contemporary Guatemala.... are colonial realities," wrote historian Severo Martínez Peláez in 1970.

This was clearly visible by the time the Guatemalan state, the army and the last guerrilla ranks signed the 1996 peace accords. Amongst its many provisions, the treaty had one ambition at its heart: draining the state of its military ethos, and giving it sufficient funds to provide basic social welfare. In a country where the progressive wing of the armed forces in the early 1980s planned only to kill 30% of inhabitants of rebel areas rather than all of them (President Carlos Arana infamously declared in 1971 that "if it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so"), this marked an extraordinary change.

The decade since then has dispelled hopes of an orderly transition. Every step back from official power by traditional elites has been mirrored by a new presence in the shadows, reinforcing all the old vices: taxes are frozen at just over 10% of GDP, the military keeps its intelligence under wraps, and death- squads once again tour the Indian villages alongside Lake Atitlán, as if trapped in a Reaganite time-warp. The public, meanwhile, has proved strangely supportive of this inertia, failing to turn out for a referendum in 1999 on constitutional reform, and then voting repeatedly for the right. All that remains are the words of the accords, and the hollow promises of rulers.

"Everyone lives in their own world", argues Pedro Trujillo, professor of politics at Francisco Marroquín University, intellectual bastion of the economic elite. "The government favours and protects business, and they're happy. The leftwing groups live off international aid, generating projects which say this country is a disaster. No one wants to make space for anyone else."

In a time of sharply decreasing US interest, the blockage of reform points to a process more dynamic and obscure than brute colonial practice. If we want to understand the mystery of how nothing of significance has happened in a democracy of the oppressed, ripe for its own Evo Morales, then three key issues unavoidably come to the fore: the panic over insecurity; the entrenchment of the elite; and the singular failure of the mass indigenous movement.

The enigmas of the crime wave

On many evenings, Guatemala's main news broadcast, Noti7, opens with the snarling faces of tattooed gang members seized by the police with some small bags of drugs. A few instants later, an advertising break reveals a very similarly dressed hip-hop homeboy drinking a desirable beverage, and adored for it by surrounding women.

There is little more schizophrenic that gangland in central America. Borrowed straight from US culture, or rather deported from the suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1990s, the mara gangs are now said by Washington to represent one of the gravest threats to peace in the region. "Homies", as they call themselves, have a different set of concerns. Many would like to retire from the crime game, but the problem is that they can't: "Five years ago we started a programme that tried to get the gang members into jobs", explains one official in a major international development agency. "But the narco-traffickers came to tell them that they had to sell drugs. The police insisted on a certain amount of robberies, so they could take their share. In one month, nineteen young kids were killed, and that was that."

While the murder tally has soared to around 6,000 a year, no rigorous effort has been made to categorise the deaths, be they criminal, narcotic, political, or the work of a parallel state structure. Common crime and gang violence are assumed to represent the lion's share, but those who know the poor barrios of Guatemala City are not convinced: "there have been very few killings recently between gang members", observes the aid worker. "Most are now extra-judicial assassinations, and this year has been very violent."

The question of why so many people are being killed is rarely addressed in Guatemala. For a start, each homicide investigator has only seventy-two hours on average to wrap up a murder case; the result is that most are shuffled immediately into files, with only 2% ending in a court sentence. Politically sensitive cases, meanwhile, are subject to layers of pressure and manhandling. "I do the work, I hand the file over", explains one police investigator. "Then the bosses decide amongst themselves."

Yet the suspicion, voiced in numerous quarters and echoed in an outstanding United Nations report by legal professor Philip Alston in February 2007, is that death-squads are prowling freely once again. Alston abstains from branding this official policy, even if Guatemala's decrepit institutions certainly make it, in his words, a "good place to kill". But the direct participation of police officers points to at least tacit support from authorities: two bodyguards of the police chief were arrested in recent days for picking up five young men playing football in the capital and shooting then dead, all at midday on a Saturday. The obscure roles played by security advisers, retired military officers and off-duty police suggest the policy of "social cleansing" could even have been sanctioned by the highest levels of state.

Evidence here is thin on the ground, which is understandable. Figures such as Víctor Rivera, a former CIA operative in 1980s El Salvador, and now adviser to the interior ministry and proprietor of a twenty-four-hour drop-in centre for wealthy families of kidnapping victims, are shrouded in mystery, even when they deign to give newspaper interviews; he recently affirmed that "the families I advised knew that I wasn't going to pay." The former police chief Erwin Sperisen, meanwhile, was an intimate colleague of Rivera, and has also been linked to death-squad activity. He resigned in March 2007 in the wake of the gruesome murder of three El Salvadorian politicians, a narco-trafficking turf crime in which Rivera played a thoroughly obscure role, apprehending the culprits before they were taken to jail and liquidated. In his last official gesture, Sperisen declared on an evangelical television station that "we carried out illegal acts, but we did what was right."

The ties between retired military officers and Pérez Molina's campaign team are likewise murky, and journalists prefer not to pry. Six former chiefs of military intelligence are nevertheless reported to be involved in the retired general's campaign, and few doubt that they are themselves connected with the cliques of economic power and organised crime formed by veterans of the civil war. It should be noted that around 120 private-security firms operate in the country, almost all belonging to former army officers.

Grand conspiracy theories are not needed to observe a certain primitive logic here. Organised crime and corrupted police institutions appear to have substantial control over the country's homicide rate and its levels of petty crime. An increase in the murder rate serves the economic interests of private security and racketeers, and is useful in dampening down crimes against the rich, particularly bank heists and kidnappings - the two types of crime that have fallen most sharply in the past four years. Lastly, and most speculatively, the murder rate fuels the political demand for tougher retribution, and an "iron fist."

For the general public, these causal connections are far removed from the visceral sensations of everyday insecurity. In rural areas, lynchings are commonplace solutions. But in urban centres, demands focus on the return of the one institution that has shown itself throughout Guatemalan history to be exceptionally brutal, but also effective and victorious - "the spinal column of the state, in comparison to the infantile and shameless political class", in the words of the country's top political analyst and former guerrilla fighter, Gustavo Porras.

Since 2006, 3,000 soldiers have been deployed in joint street-patrols with the police. Pérez Molina's plan is clear: "we need to use the army until we have a police force that is ready, and its use must not be limited to working alongside officers, it must have its own ability to act." His rival Colom's plan, on the other hand, would see a merit-based professionalisation of the police force.

There are no prizes for guessing which plan strikes the popular chord. "People want a militarised police, a civil police with a military culture", declares Zapeta.

The eternal elite

Occasionally, the visitor to Guatemala can sight a member of a rare species. Sandwiched between bodyguards, darkened behind tinted glass, shuttered in villa ghettos, the economic elite is reclusive as never before. "They send their children to Houston for medical check-ups, they send them to university abroad, they have their bodyguards", explains Juan Alberto Fuentes, a leading economist. "They don't actually need the state."

It is curious, then, these reclusive oligarchs - experts estimate these may involve around 150 families, clustered into five major holding groups - exert a political and material dominance greater than central America has ever seen before. Every vice-presidential candidate on the tickets of the five main parties in September's poll was a member of these wealthy clans. Unprecedented amounts of money are sprayed at far too many candidates, while the television tycoon from Mexico, Ángel González, favours the business-friendly with flattering news spots. Naturally, none of the leading hopefuls - not even Menchú - proposed any rise in taxes, or any increase in government spending beyond that made possible by cuts in telephone calls and other minor wastage.

"Saying you'll raise taxes is political suicide", observes Manfredo Marroquín from the election monitoring group Acción Ciudadana.

An essential reason for the mire of Guatemala is the elite's fanatical conservatism. In many ways, this sits oddly with the radical transformation of business life since the region's civil wars ended: interests have shifted from coffee and cotton to banks, assembly plants, transnational expansion and, inevitably, money-laundering. Intra-regional trade quintupled from 1990 to 2004. Pollo Campero, Guatemala's flagship fast-food giant, has lit the beacon for others to follow. Inside its innumerable drive-in foodcourts, nervy waiters with hi-tech headpieces instantaneously transmit the customer's chicken predilections; one of the bosses, Dionisio Gutiérrez, has his own television show on Sunday night, in which he propagates the purest form of neo-liberalism.

The anomalies here are again extraordinary. At Guatemala's stage of development - just over $2,000 per capita - it would surely make excellent economic sense to roll out better health and education, generating hardier workers, busier consumers and peaceful civil coexistence. But the logic simply does not hold. In a fundamental sense, the economic elite has lost interest in Guatemala, and scorns both the state and its military backbone. The opinion of one corporate executive, quoted by the researcher Alexander Segovia in his work on new central American elites, is illuminating: "In my daily timetable, I can only dedicate thirty-five minutes to Guatemala."

Yet this exuberant pan-American expansionism is something of a smokescreen. Elites are richer and more diversified than ever before, yet their inflated status sits uneasily with the inequality, mass democracy and criminal peril that has dropped anchor at home. This homeland may certainly not matter to them or their children, but even so it remains a platform, full of pliable subalterns and dirt-cheap labour. It serves the rich materially, but its ever increasing distance has come to constitute a direct existential threat.

More than anything, it is this complex bind of financial strength and numerical fragility than accounts for an elite which steers political and media life, yet cannot bring itself to entertain any modest change to distribution or development. One disaffected member of the coffee-growing oligarchy summed it up: "This is a system that requires massive repression. The elite simply cannot see a way out of its own domination."

The manifest destiny?

Yet the numerical logic seems irrefutable. Guatemala's twenty-two long-suffering indigenous peoples, who constitute around 50% of the population - the precise proportion is a matter of great historical controversy - should long ago have seized power. Indeed such is the force of the numbers that, according to the Mayan intellectual and activist Álvaro Pop, many indigenous people content themselves with their "manifest destiny" of eventual power, even as they continue live under the thumb of white, Spanish-speaking sons of Alvarado.

Also in openDemocracy on central American politics:

Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long walk to democracy" (26 May 2006)

Mark Joyce, "The wager of Panama" (31 May 2006)

Sergio Ramirez, "Daniel Ortega's second coming" (7 November 2006)

Sergio Ramirez, "Nicaragua: through the abyss" (3 September 2007
It was Bolivia's Evo Morales who proved instrumental in Menchú's candidacy, reportedly commanding her to stand during his visit to the country in late 2006. Yet the eternal obstacles to indigenous empowerment had not receded. The recurrent indigenous political shipwreck, seen first under Arbenz, and repeated in the guerrilla disaster of the 1980s and the fragmentation of the late 1990s, played itself out all over again, with a paltry 3.09% for the Nobel laureate.

A strong indigenous political party would seem the ideal solution to many of Guatemala's chronic problems, sweeping away the absurd fragmentation of the party system - the average lifetime of a party is 7.6 years - connecting people back to state power, and forcing the elite into acknowledgment of the need to reform. Intellectuals scratch their heads in wonderment at this absence of what should necessarily have occurred, and diverse reasons are provided: inter-ethnic rivalries, a fixation with community life, and an unbridgeable gap between Mayan intellectuals and the popular base.

Most pertinently, the ideological dispersion of the Mayans has blocked mobilisation. In the indigenous highlands of the Quiché, the indelibly corrupt party of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt still holds a strange attraction, based in large part on the networks of local militia patrols recruited to join the military's murder spree of 1982-83. Ríos Montt killed many, but not everybody; for those he did not kill, there was food and security and presidential sermons on a Sunday night. It is the Stockholm syndrome on a massive scale.

Guatemala's rulers, having doctored the political threat, have seen fit to induct the Indians into power. The largesse of the outgoing president, Oscar Berger, ensured the incorporation of 300 indigenous officials into government posts. Over 38% of the country's mayors are now indigenous, although one leading government official dismissively told me that "these mayors are so bad no voter trusts in them." For now, this is where the racial settlement stands: tiny shares of power in a state that doesn't work.

"There are two fears in this country", argues Pop. "One is that of the whites, and their ancestral fear of us. The other is that of the indigenous community, which has internalised its marginal status and assumes that certain things cannot be done."

A last stand

A Guatemala paralysed into inertia runs the distinct risk of watching the state fold up and collapse, whoever wins the 4 November poll. Far from lifting the country's fortunes, global integration has only bolstered Guatemala's economy of short-term, lesser evils, of practical reason in a social and institutional vacuum. Already the profits from drug-running - some 75% of cocaine consumed in the United States is estimated to pass through Guatemala - have turned huge chunks of territory into lawless zones. In turn, the trade aggravates the crime wave, reinforces the elite's isolation, and corrupts new indigenous leaders; in simple words, it is poison for a sick country.

For the moment, the United States and Europe are giving their commitment to a new United Nations investigative body, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Cicig). The task is to find and prosecute the dark powers that people all the state's institutions. It is, quite possibly, a last-gasp effort, and few would dare speculate as to how it might fare against a revitalised military seizing control of the nation's police force.

But let there be no doubt: as the world forgets central America, a tragedy is forming, born out of cold-war beachheads and powdering northern noses.


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