Darkness at Midnight: Violence and Inequality in Guatemala

It is fair to say that the affairs of the Republic of Guatemala don’t register all that much in the minds, nor in the media, of Americans. This probably shouldn’t be taken as surprising. The same can be said for most, if not all, small impoverished countries. Still in recent weeks very astute readers of newspapers would have come across a small smattering of stories, all of which it goes without saying would have received sprawling headlines if they involved a larger, non-impoverished country:

  • Months of mass demonstrations leading to the resignation and arrest of president Otto Perez Molina for his alleged role in a wide ranging scandal involving the lowering of duties in exchange for kickbacks. The scandal erupted this past spring and has already claimed the Vice President, the Vice President’s private secretary, as well the Chief of the Tax Authority (one resigned, the current one has also been implicated). Perez Molina had been defiantly rejecting calls for his resignation, calls that have even come from the business community that formerly made up a pillar of support. The Guatemalan congress has decisively voted to strip him of legal immunity.  The first round of a regularly scheduled presidential election took place on September 6th.
  • A Guatemalan court ruled that a retrial for ex-president Rios Montt, already convicted in 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity, specifically relating to a series of massacres against the Ixil population of the Quiche region during his rule between March 1982 and August 1983 that resulted in 1,771 deaths and the forced displacement of 29,000 people (the first head of state to be convicted of genocide by a court in his own country), though that ruling was suspiciously overturned by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala on procedural grounds, would be allowed despite Montt being diagnosed with dementia. In the event of another conviction Montt’s condition would allow him to avoid prison and instead serve time under house arrest. Montt’s lawyers have an option to appeal and thereby extend the process further.
  • A report released in July by a United Nations commission revealed that a quarter of the money funding Guatemalan politics comes from criminal organizations, mainly from drug traffickers. Needless to say political parties spend far more then they report, breaking laws with no consequence.

And speaking of the recently deposed president, evidence presented in Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder, suggests that Otto Perez Molina, a former army officer and head of Military Intelligence (he represented the military in the Peace Accords negotiations that officially ended the Civil War in 1996), was at least complicit, if not more so, in the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in April 1998. Bishop Geradi’s murder occurred two days after he oversaw the publication of a report, Guatemala: Never Again (produced by the Recovery of Historical Memory Project), that established, echoing a UN sponsored truth commission, that the Guatemalan military was responsible for a great majority of the deaths and disappearances of 200,000 civilians during the Civil War. Perez Molina’s name also turned up in Montt’s first trial where a witness, a former Army mechanic who was stationed in the Ixil areas during Montt’s dictatorship, testified Perez Molina was the commander in charge of the local military garrison that had burned down villages and ordered the execution of Ixils.

Perhaps all this could be met with a knowing shrug, just the inherent reality in the unchanging lawlessness of a banana republic. Indeed if there is one thing Guatemala and its neighbors (regionally speaking: the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) are known for it is violence. The focus is often on street gangs, known as Maras, and one thread of the narrative is familiar: Young Central Americans fleeing civil war and repression in the 1980s settled in the slums of East LA and formed the gangs MS 13 and the 18th Street Gang (probably in response to being targeted by established gangs). In the 1990s when many were deported back to Central America the gangs returned with them.  MS 13 and the 18th Street gang violently battle for people and territory, earning income through extortion in the form of ‘war taxes’ from residents and even the smallest businesses.

It is a fact that the three Northern Triangle countries rank near the top of the list for murder rates in the world. In 2014 Honduras topped the list and this year El Salvador is on pace to do so. Yet if Guatemala’s reputation for violence is warranted, it mustn’t be overlooked for a moment that violence long precedes the frightening specter of tattooed youths of the Maras. Like most states violence was written into the fabric of Guatemala from its inception.

Upon its independence from Spain in 1822 Guatemala, as well as the rest of Central America, was briefly part of the Mexican empire of Agustín de Iturbibe. This was short-lived and by mid-1823 Central America again declared independence, this time into a federation called the United Provinces of Central America — the main vision being that a federation would be stronger politically and better equipped to defend itself in case Spain was ever to reignite its colonial impulses. As the largest province Guatemala drew a great deal of resentment (which preceded the formation of the federation), especially since Guatemala received 18 of the 41 seats in the federation’s congress. In addition the federation was besieged by battle between centrists and autonomists and most prominently between Liberals and Conservatives.

From a strictly modern perspective the latter conflict can be seen as something of a mixed bag. In that context Liberals were secular (at least for the time) in that they fought to eliminate the privileges and position of the Catholic Church while Conservatives obviously sided with the church’s stated role as the bulwark of civilization and ethics. On the other hand Liberals, mostly white and urban, tended to see the indigenous and their communal lands as an obstacle to modernity, a fact that would be particularly pertinent to Guatemala, with the largest indigenous population in Central America, a few decades later.

Civil War broke out in 1825. Liberals were triumphant in 1829 under Francisco Morazán (elected in 1830, Liberal Mariano Gálvez was installed as ruler of Guatemala) and went about limiting the Catholic Church’s hegemony, establishing freedom of religion, marriage as a civil contract with divorce permitted, secular education and doing away with government sponsored tithing. It was in Guatemala where Conservative reaction took hold, helped along by propaganda, led by local priests, about a harsh cholera epidemic in 1837 being the result of the government having deliberately poisoned the local water supply but mainly fueled by indigenous uprisings protesting taxation. The Gálvez government, desperate for funds with the loss of colonial subsidies from the Spanish empire and the decline of indigo exports (then the region’s biggest export), and anxious for increased agricultural production and diversification, imposed a series of taxes, the weight of which fell on the peasantry: a land tax that replaced the tithe, taxes on slaughtered meat and certain crops, and most ominous taxes against community funds that had long provided security to villages. The final straw was legislation that mandated the eventual transfer of common land to private hands — wealthy landowners with influence over the courts and thus able to overcome indigenous protest.

The rebellion would coalesce around pig farmer Rafael Carrera, who would go on to rule Guatemala from 1844-1865 (effectively though from 1839). Carrera overthrew Gálvez with a triumphal into Guatemala City on February 1st, 1838 as part of a bizarre alliance with radical Liberals. That alliance would quickly sour and he reentered in 1839 allowing a conservative, Rivera Paz, to take the presidency but by then the main power was Carrera. In 1838 Nicaragua was the first state to secede, followed by Costa Rica and Honduras. Carrera would defeat Morazán in 1840 officially ending the beleaguered federation. In 1844 Carrera would dissolve the constituent assembly and assumed the presidency until his death. One of the first acts of the Carrera regime was the restoration of community lands taken by Gálvez’s government as well as some church properties and privileges. Though still under some pressure, peasant land remained more secure throughout Carrera’s reign.

Meanwhile, simultaneous with Carrera’s greater protection of the peasantry, was the emergence of the crop that would go on to dominate the social structure of nearly the entire region for generations.  The first stirrings of commercial coffee growing in Guatemala appear to have taken place in the 1840s, on the heels of prosperous growing in Costa Rica. Growing spread rapidly in the Pacific regions particularly after the market for cochineal became depressed (cochineal had replaced indigo as the largest export and it was largely grown on small holdings where it was most suited).  By the 1860s coffee growers would grow to be a powerful force but their rage for expansion was tempered by two factors: poor transport infrastructure and, mainly, by the reality that in the 1860s more than two-thirds of the lands suitable for coffee growing were public or community lands, and to a lesser extent church properties. As long as the Carrera government was in power coffee growers would not get the reforms or sources of labor they sought.

It was in the aftermath of Carrera’s death and the weakness of his successor, former military commander Vincente Cerna (reelected in 1869) when Liberal coffee growers saw their opening. In 1871 a cadre of liberals led by Miguel García Granados and Justo Rufino Barrios, and linked to increasingly wealthy coffee growers, easily overthrew Cerna. Thus the Liberal Era was ushered in though initially with caution. Grenados became president and immediately issued a decree that moved to improve port facilities that would serve coffee exporting. However, Grenados was deemed too slow for radicals such as Barrios who led an army into Guatemala City. Grenados would resign and call for new elections in 1873 which Barrios would win. Coffee growers now had their own state.

Once again measures towards secularization were taken but unlike the Liberals of the 1830s, the Liberals of the Barrio’s regime were more inclined towards order and even more aggressive toward land reform. Plus they had absorbed what measures it would take to enforce. In August 1873 the government issued Decree 104 calling for the confiscation of all church property. The following December it issued Decree 109 which taxed land at two pesos per 100 acres  using the revenue to build ports, roads, and bridges. As for labor the first instinct of the Liberal government was to attract a share of the wave of European immigration then flowing to the Americas. Despite attracting some German planters, and these planters would go on to dominate Guatemala’s coffee production (by 1913 they would control two thirds of the crop), the effort to bring in foreign labor was unsuccessful. Growers would need the vast reservoir of indigenous labor.

Although it was used only sparingly, it was actually the Carrera regime that reintroduced a system of forced labor that stemmed from colonial times and had been abolished during the federation years.  The system could require each indigenous village to provide the state a certain amount of workers for a period of time. Under Barrios the system would be applied at full vigor. Requiring “strong and energetic aid” to planters “else all their efforts will be doomed to failure due to the deceit of the Indian” up to a quarter of all males from a village could be distributed to landowners for a period up to a month.

Debt bondage also became a factor. This took the form of labor contractors issuing usurious loans in exchange for a contract to work during the harvest. Once in this snare workers would have great difficulty escaping and would have to work the harvest yearly thereafter, extending even to the lifelong labor of workers’ children.  By 1920 it is probable that a majority of male workers were caught in such bondage.

When this still proved to be insufficient for the amount of labor the growers demanded it led to the predictable culmination of an 1877 law requiring all village communal land to be sold at public auction- with most of the funds going to the government.  Peasants using village land were given six months to pay for their plot or have it forfeited. An estimated 23,000 lots were registered and sold. Ten of thousands lost their lands.

The requisite uprisings would emerge, notably in the Western Highland town of Momostenango in 1875-77; however, there would be no repeat of the success of 1839. By now the Barrios regime had increased the military budget to 60 percent of its total outlays. This included the establishing of the military academy Escuela Politecnica, designed to create a professional and loyal military, which by the end of the century was a model for similar schools throughout Central America. Local militias were reformed to weed out indigenous members who became the main target.

The reforms had the desired effect. At the time of the Liberal revolt coffee was 50 percent of Guatemala’s exports. By 1884 the amount had quintupled. Between the years 1870-1900 the volume of Guatemala’s international trade increased 20 times.  According to an 1890 coffee census more than half of the coffee trees registered in the country were on large plantations with one hundred thousand or more trees, the highest such concentration of any country in Central America. The vastly unequal structure of landholding that would dominate Guatemala’s future had been established.

For just about the entire first half of the twentieth century the status quo continued unabated. Upon the death of Barrios in April 1885 (he was killed at the Battle of Chalchuapa in El Salvador in an attempt to reestablish a Central American union — his plan fell through when El Salvador president Rafael Zaldivar withdrew and made alliance with Mexican president Porfino Diaz to overthrow Barrios), Guatemalan politics would go on to be dominated by two dictatorships with a few coups and quasi-democratic flashes in between.

Manuel Estrada Cabrera assumed power in 1898 (after Barrio’s nephew was president for six years) and maintained it for than two decades through a few rigged elections. He would continue the Liberal policy of Barrios and he certainly had a brutal side. Freedom of the press was abolished, enemies executed. While coffee would remain king Cabrera’s reign would see the introduction of bananas — and most ominously the appearance and viral spread of the United Fruit Company. United Fruit purchased its first land in 1901 and, in a pattern that would play out elsewhere, gained a true foothold through its construction and ownership of railroads (through its affiliate, the International Railways of Central America). United Fruit would come to rule Guatemala’s economy.

Estrada would be overthrown in a coup, in at least some measure due to his losing support of his American patrons by his unwillingness to move hard against German coffee interests. His successor, Carlos Herrera, also would suffer the same fate at the hands of General José María Orellano in December 1921. Herrera, in his brief stay, was more democratic, placing some restrictions on foreign capital and refusing some concessions to United Fruit. Orellano would reverse these policies. He would die suddenly in 1926. A few years later his Minister of War, General Jorge Ubico, came to power, technically in an election but one that was basically uncontested.

Ubico proved to be one of the cruelest, if colorfully eccentric, dictators in Latin American history. A believer in numerology (a star with the number five at its center was displayed above the presidential palace on holidays) and seemingly obsessed with Napoleon and his own alleged resemblance to him (he surrounded himself with Napoleon portraits and busts) Ubico was a most enthusiastic American client. Despite his admiration for the fascist regimes of Europe, Ubico would move against the German coffee interests that long dominated coffee exports. Their property was confiscated in 1941 and some of the planters were sent to internment camps in the U.S. Another obsession, again one often shared by his American backers, was the specter of communism, even the vaguest appearance of which brought repression throughout Ubico’s reign.

Though Ubico is credited with using his iron hand against corruption he literally banned the use of the words ‘trade union’, ‘strike’, and ‘petition’.  And while he would ban the labor debt bondage system, which had inherent inefficiencies anyway, Ubico issued a vagrancy law requiring landless indigenous peasants to work for landowners for 150 days a year. Those peasants with limited land had to contribute labor for 100 days. A worker deemed to be insubordinate risked being legally murdered. Any worker with days left over was often commandeered by the government to labor with no pay on road building and other public works.

The common thread that ran through the entire epoch was the growing power of United Fruit Company.  Thanks to increasingly favorable contracts and extensions in 1924, 1930, and 1936 the company would control an estimated 40 percent of Guatemala’s economy by the 1930s. By 1934 it owned 3.5 million acres of land (much of it uncultivated. The company’s stated purpose for holding it in reserve was the Panama disease then spreading through the banana industry throughout the region). By then bananas made up 27 percent of Guatemalan exports. Of course, conditions and wages on United Fruit property were infamously frugal and the company could count on host country militaries, even the American military, to stamp out any dissent.

Yet suddenly in the weeks after VE day opposition rose against Ubico. It began with school teachers organizing for higher pay. The teachers, in the first overt act of dissent, announced they would refuse to march, as was always rigidly expected, in an annual Teachers’ Day parade that was scheduled on June 30, 1944. The fuse was lit and teachers were joined by students and shopkeepers, probably inspired by the rhetoric of Roosevelt and the reforms of then Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas, in a series of nonviolent protests. The movement came together for their largest protest in the capital’s central square on June 29th, calling for Ubico’s ouster. Ubico responded by ordering his cavalry to charge the crowd killing or injuring up to 200 people.  On July 1st, after a brief declared state of emergency, Ubico resigned in the face of growing opposition.

After a series of events, including a coup led by two younger officers against Ubico’s designated successor, a new constitution was written that enshrined term limits, elected majors for the first time, banned censorship of the press, and sanctified the right to organize. December 1945 saw the election (with a resounding 85 percent of votes) of Juan José Arévalo and with it the emergence of the first genuine period of democracy in Guatemala’s history.

Arévalo permitted and encouraged the formation of political parties, and along with the first Congress he passed a number of New Deal type laws including a Social Security law guaranteeing workers’ rights to safe conditions, compensation for injury, and healthcare, a Labor Code, and a National Production Institute to distribute credit and supplies to small farmers. In the educational realm, more books were printed and imported and more libraries built than in the entire previous half century. Perhaps most prominently in December 1949 Congress passed a Law of Forced Rental allowing any peasant who owned less than one hectare to petition for the right to rent unused land from nearby plantation owners.

Indeed by the time Arévalo’s successor, Jacobo Arbenz, was elected in 1951, it was clear that the land question would have to be addressed. Though the reforms advanced by the Arevalo government uplifted the small urban working class (wages were up 80 percent from the Ubico years) the great bulk of the population was the rural poor. At the time of Arevalo’s election two percent of landowners held 72 percent of the land. Indigenous peasants were still bound to provide 100 to 150 days of year to plantations. It was also clear that any serious land reform would necessitate a confrontation with the United Fruit Company.

Arbenz worked to deepen the reforms and on June 27, 1952 Congress passed Decree 900 empowering the government to expropriate uncultivated portions of large plantations (as noted earlier very large amounts of land on large plantations were uncultivated). Lands were to be compensated with 25 year government bonds with three percent interest based on values of its declared taxable value, something United Fruit obviously under-reported to reduce its tax liability.

Between the newly confiscated lands and those seized earlier from the German coffee growers some 100,000 families received a total of 1.5 million acres of land during the eighteen months the program was in operation (about 16 percent of privately fallow land). While moderate in scope the program stirred the grassroots to expect and demand more. Land invasions increased and tensions soared. United Fruit had no shortage of connections and influence in Washington. By the summer of 1953 President Eisenhower and CIA head Allen Dulles, flush with Cold War furor and prodded by United Fruit, decided on a plan to overthrow Arbenz. Considering everything that unfolded after the CIA organized coup that was completed on June 27, 1954: the resumption of dictatorship, the undoing of land reform and reinforcement of the vastly unequal social structure, the decades of violence culminating in the outright genocide of the Montt genocide, the 200,000 dead, all of which reverberate to the present day, it can be said this was the most destructive of all such American interventions in the twentieth century, an intervention that continued for decades with both direct and indirect support for the military government’s brutal campaign, a campaign that featured over 600 massacres and plenty of other gruesome violence like mass rape, even of children whom were rarely if ever spared the worst of it, and the worst of it was simply unspeakable.

Though there was conflict between the military and its death squads and leftist guerillas the true reality was captured by the two authoritarian studies of the period: Guatemala: Never Again, conducted by the Guatemalan Archdiocese’s Office of Human Rights (whose founder Bishop Juan Gerardi was murdered in the church rectory only days after the report was released) concluded that the Guatemalan military and its associate death squads were responsible for 80 percent of the killings of civilians, the guerillas less than five percent; Echoing that the United Nations Truth Commission reported: “State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93 percent of the violations documented.” It was more like slaughter than war.

The corollary to such violence is resistance and the record of violence inherently acknowledges the bravery that was often displayed. As Deborah Levenson describes it in her profound Adios Nino: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death:

Guatemala was also distinguished in this period by the force of its popular and revolutionary moments. The depth of the State that did not stop them is one measure of their profundity, and so are the even greater horrors that it took to finally destroy them.

It is due to that destruction of resistance that, despite having the largest economy in Central America, today almost half of Guatemalan children suffer chronic malnutrition. 60 percent of the population is impoverished. According to the World Bank, Guatemala collects the lowest taxes in the world and spends the least on health, education, and infrastructure as a proportion of its economy. Corruption is beyond endemic. Guatemala City’s metro population has skyrocketed from less than 1 million people in 1975 to 3 million by 1996 to 4 million today. Of the 161 poorest areas, 111 formed after 1991, slums full of traumatized war refugees and their children.  Therein is where the Maras lay.

Another important point made by Levenson is that the Maras made their first public appearance in the mid-1980s. Specifically she cites an appearance joining students from the Instituto Rafael Aqueche to protest a bus fare increase. Despite typical media sensationalism back then studies reveal the Maras, although some were engaged in petty crimes, concerned themselves with their communities and even displayed a class consciousness that was in keeping with the spirit of the times. They didn’t turn violent until that revolutionary spirit was finally destroyed by the war. Added to that combustible mix of neoliberalism, Central America becoming the main transit lane for drugs shipped from Colombia (replacing the Caribbean) and a corrupt, violent, incompetent state, and it is easy to see why Guatemala remains one of the world’s most violent countries.

Still for all the hysteria about the Maras there are reasons to believe their impact is exaggerated. Outside of Guatemala City homicide rates are higher in regions not known for gang activity, particularly high in the eastern part of the country traditionally characterized by drug trafficking and organized crime. A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime refers to a police study that attributed just 14 percent of all homicides taking place in January 2006 to gang activity1. In other words there is a very large body count that can be attributed to drug traffickers, paramilitary types, private security forces, and the police and other state actors all of whom probably exploit the Maras for their own purposes as another form of cheap labor.

Perhaps it is a grand irony that the winner of the final round of the election that took place on October 25th, Jimmy Morales, is a lewd comedian with no political experience running a standard anti-corruption campaign. Morales is a right wing evangelical, as was Montt himself, and it’s eerie that Morales has support from a veterans group dedicated to preventing further human rights trials for crimes committed during the war. Until Morales’ rise the presumptive frontrunner was right-wing businessman Manuel Baldizon but his political fortunes sunk due to alleged ties with a money laundering ring. Instead Morales defeated Sandra Torres, the ex-wife of former president Alvaro Colum who served as president from 2008-2012. Torres had some progressive credentials involving rural social programs during her ex-husband’s term but did choose a well-connected businessman as a running mate. There is hope that the wide ranging civil society that forced out Perez Molina can continue after the election. Only the reigniting of such collective action can reform the structural inequality that has been built into Guatemala for over a century. Until such an order is rebuilt the tragic cycle of violence will not be broken.

  1. See Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America ed. by Thomas Bruneau, Lucia Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner []
Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Read other articles by Joseph.