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.

CICIG: Model for Northern Triangle

By Fulton Armstrong and Héctor Silva

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Pérez Molina’s announcement two weeks ago that he would seek another two-year renewal of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) has been well received everywhere except in neighboring countries, which would benefit greatly from similar outside assistance.  A broad array of leading Guatemalans have welcomed the move, as have the UN and the United States.  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said it “is a major step forward in the fight against organized crime … and will advance the goals of Guatemala and the United States as articulated in the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.”  First created in 2007 to support prosecutions of cases involving corruption and impunity and to strengthen the country’s judicial sector through legal reforms and training, CICIG has been renewed every two years since.  Its commissioner, Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, said CICIG “commits to the government and society to make every effort in support of Guatemala’s aspirations to consolidate institutions, to offer more analyses, to formulate proposals to strengthen institutions, to continue criminal investigations that we carry out shoulder to shoulder with the Public Ministry, and to continue building the capacity of judicial institutions.”

CICIG’s record shows that, on balance, it has made unique, positive progress to meeting Guatemala’s need for prosecution of impunity and for reform.  The Washington Office on Latin America and other key observers have given CICIG high grades because, as WOLA said in a recent report, it has provided “important investigative tools for the prosecution of organized crime … [and] helped to resolve emblematic cases of corruption and it has dismantled powerful criminal networks deeply embedded in the state.”  Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told the Guatemalan El Periódico that CICIG has “almost been a miracle.”  While it’s made some mistakes, he said, “The surprising thing is everything that CICIG has achieved in these years” in high-profile cases.  InSight Crime notes that the recent case against extortionist Byron Lima, who had suborned the head of the prison system, was impressive.  InSight Crime and others also say, however, that CICIG “has proved unable to sufficiently reform the country’s judicial system.”  InSight Crime reported that, despite its $12 million a year budget, the body is still struggling to train and foster an independent judiciary – that is, encouraging Guatemalan justice to work on its own.

Velásquez and his team will face tough challenges in the new mandate.  There are rumors that President Pérez Molina – who previously said he wouldn’t extend CICIG under the “threat of blackmail” – intends to rein the body in, and the retrial of former dictator Ríos Montt, currently projected to be in 2017, looms on the horizon as a further test of Guatemalan resolve to deal with impunity.  Nonetheless, CICIG is nearly universally seen as providing assistance that all three countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America need – to foment rule of law, build confidence in justice, and clean up state institutions – and it has achieved reforms when the political will was sustained.  CICIG’s status as an advisory body in support of the government has enabled it to finesse the legal and political need to fully respect sovereignty.  Honduran and Salvadoran leaders have made statements suggesting openness to the idea but, apparently for different reasons, don’t want independent investigators upsetting the applecart.  Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén has less to fear from examination of his administration and his predecessor’s record on impunity and organized crime, but he may be concerned that a CICIG-style unit would dangerously aggravate his opponents, who retain intimidating power through many sectors.  The failure to push for CICIG to realize its full potential in Guatemala and for similar mechanisms in El Salvador and Honduras will only slow the sort of reforms the Northern Triangle needs to overcome its political, social, and economic challenges crises.

May 4, 2015