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VIGILANTE: Violence and Security in Postwar Guatemala

  • Author(s): Sharp, Ellen Jane
  • Advisor(s): Ortner, Sherry B.
  • et al.

This monograph documents the rise and fall of a vigilante justice movement in order to understand the conditions that enable and hinder collective action in postwar Guatemala. Collective efforts to create a more equitable Guatemala were brutally repressed during its 36 year-long civil war (1960-1996). In the aftermath of this genocidal conflict, most Guatemalans seek better futures through individual projects such as education and migration. Security represents one domain where efforts at collective organizing remain strong. Guatemala City boasts one of the highest homicide rates in the region and less than 5% of crimes are prosecuted. Communities throughout the country have responded to this security crisis by organizing extralegal security patrols. These organizations resemble the civil patrols that Maya men were forced to join during the civil war. Adult men take turns patrolling the streets, apprehending wrongdoers, holding court and meting out punishment. Unlike their wartime incarnation, control is now entirely in local hands and "gangsters" have replaced "communists" as the targets of disciplinary action. This study is based on a total of two years of participant observation and interviewing in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, a predominantly Mam-Maya community in rural Huehuetenango.

While the influence of wartime paramilitarism is profoundly felt, I argue that efforts to make and contest security involve the creative recombination of a wide range of discourses, including human rights, capitalist commonsense, zero-tolerance policing, Marxism, and Maya conceptions of personhood. Delineating and historicizing these multiple strands is essential for understanding the proliferation of violence in postwar Guatemala. Chapter one looks at what makes lynching possible. Chapter two explores vigilante leaders' justifications for their actions. Chapter three recounts the experiences of accused gangsters. Chapter four uses the exile of one "gangster" to explore how exclusion creates community. Chapter five focuses on debates over the legality of alcohol to understand the ambiguous legal position of the rights of indigenous people. While Guatemala represents an extreme case, many of the trends on display here, including the privatization of security, the economic obsolescence of young men, the forging of communal identities through violent exclusions, and moral panics about mind-altering substances, reverberate elsewhere.

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