Guatemala: Mortal Doubt and Transnational Gangs

By Anthony W. Fontes*

Family members of slain gang member at his gravesite

Family members of slain gang member at his gravesite (Guatemala, 2005) / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Central America’s maras, or transnational gangs, are symptoms of societies suffering from legacies of Cold War-fueled atrocities and authoritarian rule, misguided law enforcement policies, and long-term entanglement with U.S. culture and foreign policy. Feuds between Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio18, the region’s most powerful gangs, have helped make the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) the deadliest non-combat zone in the world. My fieldwork in prisons, police precincts, and urban slums in Guatemala City and other cities since 2010 for Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City has mapped their dystopian evolution. The gangs are not the problem, and the problem does not begin or end with them. But they are important symbolic figures for societies struggling with out-of-control insecurity that have obscured the complex structural factors driving the countries’ extreme peacetime violence.

When they first took root in Central America in the 1990s, the maras were little more than disorganized groups of kids imitating Latino gangs in Los Angeles, vying for turf in cities struggling to recover from decades of authoritarian rule and extreme inequality. Over the years, they became brutal organizations engaged in extortion, contract killings, and the drug trade.

  • The gangs’ evolution was driven by histories of mass incarceration in both the United States and Central America, making them a symptom of these societies’ predilection to punish. In Guatemala, through the early 2000s, the gangs fought to survive behind bars against cadres of ex-military officers, the most powerful of which was led by Byron Lima, a U.S.-trained special forces Army captain convicted of a 1998 assassination of a Catholic bishop who had catalogued military human rights abuses in the Guatemalan armed conflict. The violence and deprivations of prison life, alongside the unprecedented coordination between gang leaders that being locked up together made possible, drove the gangs to become far more brutal and organized in their street operations.
  • Mara extortion rackets, among the most feared and despised criminal enterprises, are also emblematic of the symbiotic relationships between the state, law-abiding society, and the underworld in Guatemala. While maras are responsible for much of the extortion, they have in fact become a mask and a model for others profiting from it. Bus companies, private security corporations, corrupt police, and even Guatemala’s biggest banks play key roles in the extortion commodity chain.

Perhaps the most painful truth about the maras is that their rank and file are very young – primarily 10-18 years old – and the average age of recruitment is dropping. Youths are killing each other. A young man named Andy had killed and tortured for MS-13 since he was eight, when the gang adopted him after liquidating his family, who were members of a rival gang. In interviews, Andy struggled to make sense of the violence of which he was both victim and perpetrator by seamlessly folding fantasy and reality – swinging between made-in-Hollywood montages, mara myths circulated in newspapers, and actual acts of murder and torture. MS-13 found and executed Andy, who was in a witness protection program, less than six weeks after his last interview. Very real suffering is powerfully intertwined with bloody fantasy, and the dichotomies dividing innocent from guilty, good from evil, are often false. These are key lessons for understanding the maras and for effectively confronting the crisis of criminal violence in Central America that they have come to represent in such spectacular fashion.

May 23, 2019

* Anthony W. Fontes teaches international studies at American University. Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City was published by University of California Press. The book was winner of the William M. LeoGrande Award for the best scholarly book or article on Latin American or Latino Studies published by a member of the American University community in 2017–2018.

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