Abstract and Keywords
Today in Guatemala, terror is often spoken through corpses chopped up and left in garbage bags in the street, female bodies raped and tortured and quartered, and charred gangster corpses placed in certain police-designated locations signaling no need for an official investigation. In the midst of skyrocketing homicide rates, such strategically brutal demonstrations—circulated in the media, infiltrating everyday conversation—take on starring roles in the bloody drama of Guatemala’s postwar order. Jumping off from the quadruple decapitation detailed in chapter 9, this chapter interrogates the ethical scripts, symbolic gestures, and political dialects at play in the production and consumption of spectacular acts of violence. It links such violence to the symbolic power of the marero in the public imagination, traces the postwar “making invisible” of poor youths’ murders, and discusses how myriad actors—from human rights activists to gangs to international terrorist organizations—leverage the power of innocent suffering and selective mourning to gain traction in the public sphere. Ultimately, this chapter argues that in the contemporary world, spectacular violence can make accomplices of “innocent” bystanders and witnesses both distant and near.
The apparent motive, the principal motive was, of course, single. But the crime was the effect of a whole list of motives which had blown on it in a whirlwind (like the 16 winds in the list of winds when they twist together in a tornado, in a cyclonic depression) and had ended by pressing into the vortex of the crime the enfeebled “reason of the world.”
In the crime of the four heads, members of the MS inscribed their rage into the public sphere through the mutilation and exhibition of bodies chosen at random for execution. As excessively callous as this act may appear, it draws from what has by now become a standard, even well-worn script: murdered, mutilated bodies put on public display to communicate some message to some audience. Today in Guatemala, terror is often spoken through corpses chopped up and left in garbage bags in the street; female bodies raped and tortured and quartered; and charred gangster corpses placed in certain police-designated locations signalling no need for an official investigation. In the midst of skyrocketing homicide rates, such strategically brutal demonstrations—circulated in the media, infiltrating everyday conversation—take on a starring role in the bloody drama of Guatemala’s peacetime order. Time and again in my conversations with friends and informants, gang members and government ministers, taxi drivers and waitresses, they would turn to a computer or take out a cell phone to show me yet another body undone and rearranged for public viewing. It was as if, as words failed them, the images might convey what they could not say.
In a sense, acts like the crime of the four heads are terribly simple. The perpetrators employ a brutal, efficient logic to give their violence maximum circulation before the public eye. More often than not, the message they wish to convey is nothing more than blunt, unvarnished intimidation and terror. This kind of violence is not simply a matter of killing and mutilating bodies. It is violence “employed to create political acquiescence. It is intended to make (p.178) terror, and thus political inertia. It is intended to create hierarchies of domination and submission based on control of force.”2 But mere motives are not nearly the whole story. Acts like the crime of the four heads must be recognized as part of a conversation, a cacophonous, often incomprehensible exchange and struggle waged for power and survival between interlocutors who, more often than not, remain mysterious to the public. This conversation manifests as a confused discourse of suffering bodies: mutilated corpses offered up to the public eye—in the flesh and in staged images—transform into surfaces bearing some message for some audience.3 Such messages do not transcribe neatly into collective comprehension. While violent perpetrators may intend their actions to have a specific political effect, that intention is not always realized, and the repercussions will always range far beyond what they may have conceived.
Complicating the matter further is the fact that the loops and feedback effects between such acts of violence and their symbolic representations before the public eye revolve endlessly. This muddies any easy distinctions between structure and agency, robbing stark labels like “innocent” and “guilty” of the certainties they are meant to convey. It is true that maras are often active agents of such violence, engaging in this discourse to spectacular effect. The savviest and most powerful among them—men like El Diabólico—capitalize on their underlings’ aspirations and capacities for violence to initiate the spectacle. Spectacles, however, are not mere images or collections of images. They are produced through social interactions and relationships.4 Therefore, rooting this public brutality in the maras elides how the crucible of postwar Guatemala—alongside global media hungry for violent sensation—has forged maras into the “limit-point” of criminal violence.5 As mareros continue to kill and die in breathtaking numbers, they have become a kind of shorthand in the vernacular of peacetime brutality, and this has consequences. Their will to excessive violence cannot be disentangled from how the maras—as both the source and target of murder—have come to moor the floating sense of fear and uncertainty haunting postwar life.
From gang leaders’ sociopathic disregard for human life, to rank-and-file mareros’ eagerness to become the killers they are told they are supposed to be, to the public’s horror at and hungry fascination with such deeds, such violence has ways of ensnaring us all. The Guatemalan (as well as the global) public keep coming to the coliseum, so to speak. In so doing, they (and we) are drawn into this discourse of suffering bodies and participate in both its circulation and savage erasure. Whether intended as performance or not, (p.179) murder, once drawn into the public sphere, becomes a grotesque act of theater. Like all performances, meaning and significance are determined as much by the audience as by the actors staging the spectacle.6
The crime of the four heads and other acts of violence that become spectacle, then, are central to the never-ending struggle to create and prop up a sense of order, even as peacetime terror blurs commonsense distinctions between innocence and guilt, witness and perpetrator. From the Cold War conflict into the present, violent death has been an intimate companion of everyday life in Guatemala City.7 But today the meaning of violent death—and thus the meaning and value of human life—has been thrown into a new kind of cacophonous confusion. Certain deaths can count and others do not, and the maras expose the brutal calculations of this economy of suffering as they strive to make murder matter to a public strung out on criminal brutality, pulled into hysterical excitement and numbing shock with every new act of spectacular violence.8 The maras are not alone. Such violent and confused meaning making emerges in the public sphere as a babel of blame, prejudice, and fear. This chapter wades into the maelstrom to interrogate the ethical scripts and political dialects at play in the production and consumption of all this death. I dig beneath the bloody spectacle to probe how its stage was set. From indifference to horror, fascination to fatigue, made-for-media murder, like T. S. Eliot’s magic lantern, “throws the nerves in patterns on a screen,” exposing, in gory detail, collective conceptions of unjust suffering and deserved death circulating through Guatemalan society and beyond.9
Making Sense of Senseless Suffering
The maras fit too perfectly into all sorts of pre-existing fears and prejudices. The history of extreme racism towards the dark Indian, the class fears still clung to by the rich and the ambitious middle classes. Everyone finds their answers in the maras: business interests and their fear for continuing profits, the middle class fear of the raging poor, politicians searching for a topic that will mobilize their populace.
—Francisco Jimenez Irungaray, former public security minister10
In Guatemala City, violent terror is not new, and brutal histories have left painful scars upon the social body. The state-perpetrated, US-funded massacres and disappearance campaigns of Guatemala’s civil war have become the subject of countless books, war crimes cases, and NGO fund-raising pamphlets. This history of violence manifests in myriad ways; witness the continued impunity of the rich, the widespread acceptance of violence as a means of (p.180) resolving conflict, and ongoing war crimes prosecutions and public protests to break the silence and suffering of the survivors.11
This history is essential to understanding the present scene, but it is certainly not enough. Memories fade and contort collective understandings of history, especially when those in power have little interest in dredging up a past that incriminates them.12 Today, public concern over past atrocities must compete for media attention and psychic space with contemporary horrors. For many residents of Guatemala City, everyday worries leave little time or energy to devote to the ghosts of historical injustice.13 As Elena, my colleague in the gang rehabilitation program, wondered aloud, “Why should I care about someone who was killed thirty years ago, when I have to worry about my daughters getting raped and killed on their way home at night?” Or as Calavera commented a few months after he got out of prison: “Look at how the people live, rushing from home to work, work to home, hiding in concrete boxes and scared of their own shadows. The city feels like just another prison!”
A litany of macabre questions without easy answers haunts city life: What does it mean when a baby’s severed head is discovered on the outskirts of the city? Is the precipitous rise in bus driver murders linked to gang extortion rackets, or is it a matter of right-wing political maneuvering to convince people to vote for hard-line, mano dura candidates? Why was the dismembered corpse of a seventeen-year-old girl left on a brand new commuter bus platform? Such questions inspire a profusion of contradictory answers. “What really arouses indignation against suffering,” Friedrich Nietszche long ago observed, “is not suffering as such but the senselessness of suffering.”14 Faced with so much suffering that appears so deeply senseless, we are left, more often than not, to contemplate these signs written in blood and viscera like fraudulent seers muttering over tea leaves. The ruined corpses on parade each day become a set of unsettling referents, public wounds inviting any Doubting Thomas to probe them.15 For many, they reveal how deeply insecure and violent the present has become and how apocalyptic the future appears. Public reactions tend to make the bloodshed more palatable, as those who must live with this violence day in and day out fall back on blanket assumptions. The perpetrators are “beasts.” The victims “must have been involved in something.” The maras, of course, have become essential to anchoring this otherwise vague and overwhelming sense of despair, fear, and horror by providing an easy target for reactive rage.
(p.181) Guatemala City, November 2013. I caught a taxi outside a mall in the zona viva and asked the driver—an affable, quick-witted fellow named Juventino—to take me across town to Calavera’s family’s home near the general cemetery. I was fighting a fever. After navigating typically horrendous traffic, we made it to the historic zone, passing rust-red buses idling in their own smog as young men called out destinations in cartoon falsetto. I looked for smiley faces sketched in soap on the windshields, which, I had been told, signal that the owner has paid the required extortion tithes to whichever gang is owed. I asked Juventino what he knew about such things. He shrugged. “I don’t know about that, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The gangs will do anything to anyone!” In zone 3, approaching the cemetery, we passed cinderblock residences crouched behind wrought-iron-barred windows, heavy metal doors, and barbed wire festooned along the second- and third-floor terraces. A private security guard, silver epaulettes shining, stood stiffly beneath a cement awning, holding a 12-gauge shotgun across his chest, index finger resting on the trigger. My brother at arms, I thought, and giggled. Juventino looked over at me askance and said something I didn’t catch.
“The cross streets, friend! Where am I taking you exactly?”
“5th Avenue and 38th Street,” I replied, “a few blocks down from the cemetery, on the way to Verbena.”
He glanced at me sharply. “That’s a … well, a complicated neighborhood. Full of mareros. You should be careful.”
“Yes sir,” I struggled to rouse myself from my stupor. “Full of mareros, you say. Which mara? Letters? Numbers?”
He shrugged. “Who knows? Who can tell them apart these days?”
At the next intersection, Juventino hit the breaks as a police truck careened across our path with lights flashing, but no siren, and disappeared.
As we drove on, Juventino grinned at me. “You know, I have trouble sleeping sometimes. I suffer from insomnia. Often it happens that I watch too much television, and afterward I can’t sleep. So to relax, instead of counting sheep, I shoot mareros.” His grin widened. “Just line them up, take aim, and shoot them. And you know what? It works, I suppose, because there are always more,” he laughed, shaking his head, “always more. I must have killed thousands and thousands of them. But only in my thoughts.” Then he was suddenly earnest. “But really, it would be okay to really kill them because the Bible says, well, ‘He that does not listen to me shall be pulled out by the roots and thrown into the fire.’”
(p.182) Juventino’s observations mirror sentiments prevalent across the Northern Triangle of Central America. Regional governments’ spectacular failures to stamp out the maras have helped inspire widespread support for vigilante groups that target youth suspected of gang involvement for extermination.16 They are typically made up of off -duty policemen and military, once again blurring any hard and fast distinction between the state and its underworld, and tend to employ techniques and tactics of terror perfected by Cold War– era security forces. No policeman I interviewed admitted to involvement in such groups, though some made oblique references to carrying out clandestine killings. When I asked a police chief about mareros’ famed fearlessness before death, for example, he chuckled and shook his head. “I have been with them when they are about to die,” he said, “and believe me, they were afraid.”
Even so, the collective sense that mareros are fit only for extermination seems to pivot on the fact that they are categorically different from other humans, a notion that the maras themselves have proudly taken on.17 In a society in which violent death has become a defining feature of everyday life, maras are the inhuman killers who have lost the oh-so-human fear of death. Speaking in utter seriousness, an antiviolence adviser for the US Agency for International Development in Guatemala told me that “the gangs’ biggest advantage, the reason they create such horror in the population and they are so difficult to combat is that their soldiers have reached a point where they no longer fear death. Death has no power over them.” But as deviant as they may appear in the eyes of some analysts and the viewing public, mareros’ apparent bravado regarding death and killing cannot be reduced to some pathological root. Or so said Rodolfo Kepfer, a psychoanalyst and researcher who worked for several years in juvenile detention centers with young killers of all stripes, marero and otherwise. He found that the gang members under his care managed themselves with far more discipline and less erratic behavior than other minors incarcerated for homicide. We spoke in his office at the University of Landívar, tucked away in the steep green hills above Guatemala City where the rich keep their homes.
“Most of the young men who had a higher degree of psychopathology were not mareros,” he told me over cups of watered down Nescafé. Kepfer always seemed to have a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips, evincing an impish good humor even when discussing the most macabre subjects. “‘The marero’, so to speak, was quite socialized,” he continued. “It was difficult to give a marero the diagnosis of, for example, a social disorder. Difficult because he (p.183) did not fulfill the criteria, nor was his conduct so antisocial. Interestingly, there were groups of paisas [non-gang-affiliated prisoners] who were really violent and dangerous.”
Gang violence is not the work of pathological deviants. One might even call them “structured psychopaths” if the term psychopath weren’t so heavily laden with images of serial killers muzzled and straitjacketed and mad. Kepfer offered an alternative psychological analysis, one that takes into account the conditions of violation and insecurity in which gang members find themselves immersed every day of their short lives. Surviving day in and day out under the constant threat of death, mareros become “thanatophobes.” “These are young men who fear death so deeply that they seek it,” Kepfer concluded, and for once his smile sagged. “They try to beat death to the punch.”
Though gang violence is no longer defined by the SUR’s strict edicts, it still seems to follow a set of rules, relationships, and hierarchies that dictate who can be killed and why. Echoing my police and gang informants, Kepfer claimed that the MS’s structure imposes an ironclad discipline on its rank-and-file members, and to step outside these rules is to invite brutal punishment. “Something that one noted a lot in mareros, especially in the MS members, was how dominated they were by the rules,” Kepfer said. “The rules for them are everything. The ‘marero rules.’” He shrugged and shook his head. “You sit with them for an hour and they would talk to you about all kinds of things, but then you ask about something specific and it’s, ‘No, no I can’t say because of the rule.’ In this sense they have rules that are as strict as the military. Like kaibiles.”
A willingness to perform extreme violence within an organization that exacts extreme discipline; it is a military model. Kepfer’s reference to kaibiles—the US-trained and -funded special-forces responsible for many of the Guatemalan civil war’s worst atrocities—is apt.18 Their brutal training regime and thirst for violence are the stuff of legends. It is said that in the 1980s, their training program included raising a puppy during boot camp. At the end of training, their final test was to drown the dog and eat its heart.19 Even so, in peacetime Guatemala the military has remained the most widely respected and trusted public institution, and many of the top leaders in the country, including former president Perez Molina and his security minister, are former kaibiles. So was the leader of the Zetas in Guatemala when the narco-cartel went to war with Guatemalan drug transporters associated with their rival, the Sinaloa Cartel, in the early 2010s.20 Mareros also claim that those who (p.184) become gang leaders often have received military training. The marero, the personification of criminal chaos in the popular imagination, in fact emulates the rigid, authoritarian models that have become the paradigms of order in post–civil war society.
At times, mara violence bears the mark of militarized conflict. Clearly defined goals and ruthless strategy drive some of the maras’ most gruesome and spectacular acts. In late 2011, for example, the Guatemala City government opened a new TransUrbano bus station in El Limon, zone 18 of Guatemala City. The neighborhood had long been bypassed by public transportation because of gang extortion rackets and lack of security. The new commuter line displeased the local gang, Los Solo Raperos, one of Guatemala’s most infamous Barrio18 cliques. The TransUrbano route would displace the tuk-tuk drivers who provided local transport for commuters, as well as extortion tithes and valuable information for the gang. To express their anger, Barrio18 members kidnapped, tortured, raped, murdered, and dismembered a seventeen-year-old girl chosen at random. They put her undone body in a garbage bag and placed the garbage bag in the newly minted TransUrbano bus station on the day the route opened.21
With some maras and mareros hewing so eagerly to the role that has been written for them, maras as social symbols become ever more tightly sutured to the death and violence they have come to represent.22 Mareros are “psychopaths” addicted to killing, and they are “thanatophobes,” so afraid of death they try to beat it to the punch. They are demon worshipers deaf to God’s edicts. They are organized and intensely disciplined “like kaibiles.” They are the perpetrators of senseless suffering and the targets of desperate rage. Clearly, maras have come to symbolize the worst excesses of peacetime society. But the horrors that haunt everyday life are too numerous and too ambiguous to know or name with such specificity. In the figure of the marero, brutal agency and overwhelming structural violence are hopelessly layered. And so maras have become a kind of floating signifier embodying the messy collection of rumors, fantasies, and nightmares about violence and its consequences in postwar life.23 But the sense of order the marero helps edify is always fleeting. Today, having become the answer when no answer suffices, the marero’s utility in mooring collective confusion is already waning.
As we turned onto Calavera’s street, I asked Juventino how the mareros appeared in his fantasies of execution. He shrugged, laughed, and said they always had tattooed faces, they threw up gang signs with their hands, and they wore (p.185) baggy clothes. But then he sighed. “Anyway it’s just a fantasy. In real life, it’s impossible to tell if someone’s a marero or not. Today … even someone dressed like you, a white guy (guero) in a nice coat, can be a marero. You just don’t know, so you are always risking yourself.” I thanked him, paid him, and got out of the taxi. “Be careful,” he called out as I walked away. “This is a bad neighborhood.”
And so the plot thickens. Even as the press, the police, and civilians look for the tattoos, clothing style, and other telltale signs to link daily death to gang involvement, the maras have largely exchanged these symbols for more subtle codes of belonging. Today bone fide members maintain a much lower profile. They stick to more formal clothes, and many cliques—especially MS cliques—have discontinued altogether the use of body tattoos for their members. This blending appears to make the already incalculable fear and insecurity more pervasive. Police chiefs and prosecutors claim the maras have begun to infiltrate government positions, becoming clerks in offices in charge of making national identification cards and cadets in the national police academy. Since the marero is both the paradigmatic killer and the most easily excused target of violence, the category of the “innocent” victim has shrunk as collective fear expands. A homicide victim must be presumed innocent in order to be publicly mourned, to invoke outrage, as well as to garner the publicity necessary to make the killer’s message register before a wider audience. But who, in this age of assured blame and collective fear, can be innocent?
The Violence of Images
Images—digital and print—have become a primary vector through which violent death circulates in the public sphere. “Narratives can make us understand,” wrote Susan Sontag. “Photographs do something else. They haunt us.”24 Certain images have a way of etching themselves into consciousness with more precision and power than perhaps we would like to give them. Today, global media culture saturates everyday life with endless images defining collective aspirations, fears, and desires, and sensational violence has long been an essential ingredient of this culture.25 A raw, flamboyant species of “death porn,” increasingly prevalent across the Americas and in other parts of the world, has become standard fare served up to the Guatemalan public.26 Images of such suffering do more than haunt. Death porn, whether “real,” for “entertainment,” or both, so shocks and titillates that finding a measured, ethical response sometimes seems impossible.
(p.186) By its very nature, photographic imagery offers only fleeting glimpses of the world as it is. “Photographs don’t explain the way the world works,” writes the critic Susie Linfield. “They don’t offer reasons or causes. They don’t tell us stories with a coherent, or even discernible, beginning, middle or end.”27 This makes the photograph a volatile means of communication, appealing first and foremost to our emotional selves. And when a desperate awareness of insecurity and violence dominates everyday life, images of murder, torture, and massacre become totemic symbols of the status quo. Such images circulate so widely that they seem to be everywhere, intruding upon one’s field of vision even when one is trying to look away.
For example, in November 2011 I was on a trip to the Pacific coast of Guatemala with Gwendolyn, my fiancée. As the bus pulled up to the southernmost village along the coastal road, I could hear the waves lapping on the shore. It had been a long, hot journey, and I was looking forward to an ice-cold beer. As I reached up to pull down a bag from the overhead compartment, a crumpled newspaper fluttered down to rest among our things. Gwendolyn picked it up. She smoothed it out and looked at it, shook her head, and handed it to me. The headline announced, “They find the decapitated head of a baby.” And there it was, a baby’s head cradled in two yellow gloves, the eyes swollen shut, the lips parted slightly, the skin mottled and discolored. The head was tiny in the gloved hands, about the size of an apple, and horribly misshapen except for a perfectly articulated ear no larger than my fingernail.
By way of such imagery, sensationalist journalism has fed upon daily violence to become the most popular and powerful venue for informing the public of its daily dangers. A prime example is the enormous success of Nuestro Diario, the country’s leading newspaper.28 Nuestro Diario is a “blue collar” paper with extensive circulation chockfull of bright and often bloody images and short on text.29 It often dedicates a full third of its pages—more than any other newspaper—to the nota roja (red note), a subsection focused entirely on crime and violent death. Nuestro Diario’s consistent attention to violent death and catastrophe has earned it the nickname “Nuestro Muerto Diario,” or “Our Daily Death.” Many who peruse this paper are barely literate. Along with several pages dedicated to Latin American and European professional soccer and the requisite scantily clad models, the nota roja is Nuestro Diario’s bread and butter. There is an implicit politics in this kind of sensationalized reporting of violence. With echoes of Baudelaire, pitched to resonate with the bloody present of Guatemala City, Colussi observes:
(p.187) Nuestro Diario transmits violence wherever one looks, in general terms associating violence with criminality. There is no critical analysis of the delinquent acts presented daily; only report and the image (macabre in every case) of the situation in isolation and without contextualization. The first few pages are impactful; a victim killed in an assault, a marero dead in a coup de grace, a woman raped and dismembered, a lynched delinquent… all of which is nothing but the regurgitation of the facts—without doubt real, since there is an efficient journalism at work here—but that, repeated day after day, nourishes a collective imaginary in which the violence is identified with an abundant delinquency that is master and mistress of these lands, without presenting causes of these processes, and much less, alternatives.30
The effects of this kind of reporting, sharpened so poignantly with images of death and massacre, can be deeply confusing. The urge to look contends with the urge to look away, numbing shock shot through with mystified fascination. Over time, public reaction to daily murder circulated in this way cycles through horror to titillation, from titillation to indifference, and from indifference to exhaustion, until some new atrocity breaches the defenses to start the process all over again. This violence becomes woven into the fabric of everyday expectations.
The image of the dead gangster is conscripted into collective efforts to deal with all this death. Photographs of marero bodies—or bodies labeled as such—have become central nodes through which a frightened public metabolizes a creeping sense of helplessness, confusion, and despair. Such images and reactions colonize and contort the politics of mourning.31 Mareros’ suffering is easily justified, and murdered mareros are not, on a public level, “grievable.”32 The urge to blame trumps any presumption of innocence in the public sphere, and the messy play of images helps push the refusal to grieve beyond “real” mareros to encompass considerable portions of the daily dead. Any sign of “gang association”—determined by myriad factors relating to age, dress, geography, and so on—can make a victim unmournable.
Field Notes, September 19, 2011
Today, like every other day, the first four pages of Nuestro Diario are dedicated to reporting murder and violence of every kind—dismembered bodies dredged up outside of Mixco, “MARERO KILLED” (ASESINAN A MARERO) spelled out in huge capitals, and a close-up of the cadaver’s tattoos. … The faces of a woman and a girl child and boy child on his bicep, “Gaby” drawn in gothic calligraphy, a gun on his belly. Somewhere else, the Santa Muerte. The headline claims he was the head of a gang that conducted extortion rackets, though the 100-word article contains nothing to back this up. (p.188)
(p.189) The next page shows two separate “massacres.” Two women were killed with multiple gunshot wounds in zone 21 of the capital. There is a quote from a local business owner. “Sadly, some girls get involved with the gangs, and this kills them.” (Lamentablemente, algunas patojas se meten con las maras, esta las matan.)33
A tortured, tattooed corpse immediately becomes a gangster’s body, an extortionist’s body. The body is intact, but the selective use of imagery robs the corpse of its human wholeness by showing only his tattoos, focusing in on these symbols of social subversion that for many Guatemalans are prima facie evidence of his guilt. The other stories relate without detail the murders of two women, with only a glib quote linking the girls’ deaths to association with gangs. It is the association that kills, whoever the perpetrator might be.
A history of violence, exclusion, and erasure is written into—or rather, out of—this skin-deep rendition of death. Bodies stained with mara markings, so intensely visible as killers and signs of social subversion, make the violence they have come to represent more easily metabolized. As murder rates have risen exponentially, the collective struggle to create distance from so much death has pushed many victims into the same category as the killers. These people, as the saying goes, “must have been involved in something.” The overwhelming urge to “differentiate the image of the criminal as far as possible from oneself” extends not only to violent perpetrators but also their victims.34
Images of Innocent Suffering and the Politics of Memory
Contemporary killers are not the only actors deploying dead innocents for political gain. While one species of death porn dominates the daily news, activists and left-wing politicians use another in campaigns to reshape collective memory of unresolved and unpunished civil war atrocities. War crimes trials are perhaps the most public venue for these struggles. Court cases prosecuting the military’s worst human rights abuses have become public stages upon which a cast of actors—lawyers and human rights organizations, the media and politicians, survivors and perpetrators—debates and refigures civil war violence before a public that, like most publics, is largely ignorant of its own history.35
The lines of opposition in this struggle fall messily along those of the civil war: the fragmented, progressive “Left” arrayed against military watchdogs defending the interests of the oligarchs who still rule this country. Typical of human rights–based demands for justice, these cases follow a framework made (p.190) from three interwoven discourses: the primacy of innocent victims over any other subject, making justice claims visible by strategically deploying innocent suffering, and the importance of punitive justice against certain perpetrators chosen as much for their symbolic value as for their deeds.36
Zone 1, Guatemala City, March 2012
On a quiet, shady side street in Guatemala City’s historic quarter, I discovered a tiny war museum. Inside, a tall man with braces on his teeth and an awkward smile introduced himself as Samuel Villatoro. This provoked something of a Twilight Zone moment for me. Samuel Villatoro was a union activist disappeared during the civil war and recently identified by forensic anthropologists. A month earlier, I walked with mourners in the man’s wake, staged outside an NGO office in zone 2. I stared at the man, dumbfounded, before I realized he was the son of the deceased.
Black-and-white portraits hung on a wall in a tiny room. They showed the faces of the forty-two disappeared “subversives” identified in military diaries recently unearthed by human rights investigators. Many looked scared and exhausted. Alongside their faces were their capture dates, and the date they “went with Pancho” (se fue con Pancho), the military’s euphemism for execution. And there among the doomed was Samuel Villatoro the father. He wore dark glasses, and his hair was swept back like his son’s. The resemblance was striking.
Samuel Jr. launched into a rehearsed speech. His father became the head of the rubber farmer’s union after the military disappeared twenty-seven leading members from a union meeting. On January 30, 1984, he left his home in Guatemala City to attend classes at the Universidad de San Carlos. A few blocks from his home, a specially trained police unit kidnapped him and immediately turned him over to military intelligence. He spent fifty-seven days in military custody undergoing torture, until his captors executed him by garroting. Decades later, forensic anthropologists found his skeleton in the same Levi’s jeans he was wearing when he was captured, the jeans Samuel Jr.’s mother remembered him wearing when he left the house thirty-one years before. Today, Samuel Sr. is one of thousands of victims featured in cases against military and police officials allegedly involved in their disappearance, torture, and execution.
After finishing his speech, Samuel Jr. led me into another cubbyhole of a room. An enormous glass box, polished and immaculate, dominated the space. Inside, his father’s skeleton lay in repose. With the bones spread out the man looked to have been a giant. Placing his hand delicately on the glass, Samuel Jr. said, “I know it’s strange for a body to be left out like this … but it’s just that we lost him so long ago and now we want [to] always have him near. And we want to send a message to Guatemala and the world about what happened here. We want to make sure that such violations of human rights never happen again.” He paused and looked down at the bones. “This is only the beginning. We are getting funds for a full-fledged museum, full of information about the disappeared.”
I wonder how full of bodies it will be.
(p.191) Such efforts to expose the injustices of the past are geared to redirecting the moral compass of the present, and they depend on making the suffering of innocents intensely visible, often on the national stage. International and Guatemalan NGOs have spent millions digging up, identifying, and presenting the bones of the massacred dead to the public eye. Paired with survivors’ narratives, these efforts have been absolutely essential in the pursuit of justice.37 In the 2013 genocide trial of General Efrain Rios Montt, for example, Guatemalan and international human rights advocates lauded the prosecution for giving the innocent victims of civil war atrocity a stage upon which to present their suffering to the world.38 They did so in graphic detail. More than one hundred survivors of military massacre took the stand against Rios Montt and described the litany of abuses they had witnessed and suffered. Human rights advocates have hailed this as a victory in and of itself, despite the fact that the testimonies did not result in any kind of punishment for the former general.39 A three-judge panel found Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, but under severe pressure from ruling elites, the Constitutional Court nullified the proceedings on a technicality.
Guatemalan society is today suffused with images of suffering bodies. Corpses and photographs of the civil war’s massacred and disappeared contend for a place in the public imagination with today’s murdered and dismembered. The former’s haunting portraits and unearthed bones have become key instruments with which human rights organizations and their supporters attempt to make the bloody past matter. These innocents are mourned, their suffering fetishized and mobilized, while the possibility of even being considered an innocent victim of contemporary violence seems to diminish a little more each day.
Such ethical contradictions have helped make human rights a target for considerable misuse and abuse. In the crime of the four heads, the MS played off the power of innocent suffering by deploying human rights discourse in perverse fashion. The demand for “no more impunity,” spoken through an act of awe-inspiring impunity, smacks of grim satire. Whether the MS evinced a dark sense of humor here or just clumsy misapprehension is an open question. Either way, it played nicely into the hands of those who portray the inflammatory power of human rights speech and justice claims as a key factor in the explosion of violent crime. Right-wing politicians and frustrated civilians claim that international human rights groups have defenestrated the Guatemalan security forces. A bereaved father of a murder victim in zone 18 said, (p.192) “All this talk of human rights has made it impossible for parents and police to keep the young people in line.” A middle-aged taxi driver lamented, “Human rights only help criminals escape justice.” Even those who work to make peace in neighborhoods struggling with gang violence blame the discourse of human rights for hamstringing local responses against wrongdoers. “Everything started with the human rights,” raged a former gang member who became an evangelical pastor. “We confuse liberty with libertinism! The [human rights ombudsman] looks out for the rights of people who kill and dismember others, and so the parents and the police have lost their authority.”
Blaming human rights for criminal violence is a common refrain across Latin America and other parts of the world. The political Right in Central America, Brazil, and other Southern Cone nations, as well as postapartheid South Africa, elides human rights struggles with criminal chaos as a means of undermining a discourse that has become the global language of resistance to elite impunity. It is a simple but shrewd strategy: mobilize the specter of extreme peacetime violence to snuff out struggles against environmental degradation, land grabs by multinational companies, government corruption, and so on. In societies where collective desperation for a sense of order has reached a fever pitch, such strategies have been highly effective.40
Making Murder Matter
We want to know the reasons a person died violently, because, we think, such knowledge will help us to place that murder in its appropriate category; just or unjust, deserved or tragic. This is not simply a matter of satisfying curiosity. These reasons, we might secretly hope, will explain the murder as a matter of the victim’s personal history, making him in some way an agent of his own destruction. Making sense of a stranger’s violent death in this way creates a buffer between his suffering and our own existence. All the well-worn categories of human difference—race, class, gender, faith, age, geography—come into play, harnessed to distance ourselves from the specter of violence and to diminish its terrifying reality. When so many murders can be made to fit so easily with preconceived notions of deserved death, how do maras and others seeking to speak through violence ensure their message won’t simply be ignored, shunted away, and made invisible?
Discounting the suffering and death of certain social types has been integral to the rise of made-for-media murders like the crime of the four heads.41 (p.193) The “making invisible” of certain victims of violence has a hidden history, a history of which I have only been able to collect disjointed fragments. Francisco Jimenez Irungaray, a former government adviser for public security, emphasized the role of police profiling. “I spent years reviewing the daily police reports made on a twenty-four-hour basis,” he said as we ate crepes and sipped cappuccinos. “There were two categories that came out as falling under direct suspicion with little or no additional provocation. These were ‘young’ and ‘tattooed.’ If the victim of robbery, homicide, shooting, or what have you, either was young or had tattoos or both the case would be immediately archived and forgotten.” He shook his head. “These were not cases worth pursuing because clearly it was an issue of gangs, and therefore did not bear police intervention. Here we see prejudice rising to the level of repression.”
This “prejudice rising to the level of repression” effectively erased the murders of poor young men from the public record, allowing the public to turn away, and signaled to the killers that they could do what they wanted. “I’ve killed for respect, for money,” mused Mo, an MS member incarcerated for multiple murders. “But also just to keep up the practice, to not lose my touch. Once I learned that I could kill without anything happening, well then …”
The government’s intentional ignorance about the deaths of poor urban youth was paired with heavy-handed policing efforts that took on extrajudicial savagery. Vigilante groups, staffed by off-duty military and police officials, took matters into their own hands, targeting suspected mareros for torture and execution.
Shortly before his release, I sat with Triste in Canada prison. He had his homemade tattoo rig set up, but no clients to work on. As we idled away the afternoon, he told me the story of two friends of his who had been executed by vigilantes. “Two guys I knew, deportees like me, used to hang with Barrio18 guys named Travieso and Spider,” he recalled, speaking in a mix of English and Spanish. This was in 2000, shortly after Triste was deported from the United States. “They weren’t in the game, you understand, just friends. One day two cars from SIC [a police division] picked up my buddies outside my house.” Triste flashed a rueful grin. “Lucky for me, I had just been arrested for receiving stolen property, or else they would have gotten me too. My buddies had come around the house looking for me, but since I never came back, they left. The police got them just around the block. They were both tattooed dudes, one 18th Street, the other Kansas Street.” Triste traced his friends’ tattoos across his chest and down his right shoulder. “The police put them (p.194) against the wall, and then two or three days later they showed up real crispy a few blocks from my house.”
“What do you mean ‘real crispy’?”
Triste raised an eyebrow. “I mean crispy. Like Kentucky Fried. They burned those dudes to death.”
By officially ignoring murder victims who appeared to be mareros and unofficially taking part in murdering and terrorizing suspected gang members, the Guatemalan state has helped make mareros into easily excused, even celebrated victims of violence. When mareros die, no public mourning is necessary, and the tragedy of youth killing and dying in such breathtaking numbers transforms into unfortunate but necessary violence to heal the diseased social body. This goes some way in explaining why maras will go to such great lengths to inscribe their messages into the public sphere. In the crime of the four heads, for example, the MS’s victims were poor young men living or working in urban slums. The neighborhoods through which the killers drove in search of their victims are poor urban settlements that have been left largely abandoned by both the state security services and the formal capitalist economy. These are spaces that are, for the most part, “invisible” to the public eye. Imminent violence—connected to gang warfare or extortion rackets—is a virtual constant. The victims were poor young males living and working in poor urban neighborhoods: a cook, a day laborer, and a corner store clerk (tellingly, authorities never identified the fourth victim). Their sex, class, and geography made them more or less typical targets and perpetrators of violence, and thus nothing special.42 Since these murders were geared toward making the mara demands as intensely visible as possible, the bodies, so easily culled from the ghetto, could not remain there. In the political economy of daily murder, poor male corpses appearing in poor urban space create no more than minor blips on the public consciousness. The MS acted on these unwritten rules of visibility and value, to stunning effect.
While young men are by far the most common victims of murder, female bodies have become the favored means of transmitting messages to a rival, a community, the state, the nation, and even the world. Maras have taken the blame for the rising tide of “femicides”: murders targeting females that show evidence of sexual abuse, torture, dismemberment, and other signs of excessive brutality.43 The increasing frequency of this kind of crime has garnered national and international attention. Signs seem to indicate that maras and others target women precisely for this reason; in 85 percent of femicides, no (p.195) effort has been made to hide the body.44 A disproportionate number of murdered female bodies also show signs of torture.45 Maras are said to target women in the game of competitive cruelty between rivals or as part of their initiation rituals.46 Tortured and undone, female corpses sometimes function as “internal memos” meant to circulate within the gang. Sometimes they are messages meant to reach a broader audience: a community, the government, or even the nation as a whole. Again, this is a recent page in an old story. During the civil war, when the military targeted men, the men were more likely to be disappeared.47 When they massacred women—most often in rural villages—the corpses were often left in public view. In Guatemalan culture, as in much of the world, the female is symbolically linked to the home, a space of intimacy, and she is the primary bearer of cultural reproduction.48 To violate a community and make sure that violation lasts, to make a message indelible in the public sphere, female corpses have proven a most effective means of communication in war as well as in so-called peace.
The MS leveraged its otherwise unremarkable victims into spectacle by strategically placing the severed heads in locations associated with political, economic, or mediatic importance. Thus three of the four heads ended up before the congressional building, at the entrance to the Tikal Futura shopping mall, and near a congregation point for journalists. To pull it off, the mareros masqueraded as police and mimicked a military execution. They attached to these bodies messages echoing the language of resistance expressed in human rights vernacular. By playing at police cum death squad, mouthing the refrain of rights, and speaking their grievances through innocent corpses, the MS took on multiple and schizophrenic roles in this postwar pageantry. All this to make its demands heard amid the cacophony of everyday violence, if only for an ephemeral media moment. It turned out to be enough for the murders to become a nationally circulated event. The MS failed, however, to perform a “global,” to break through into the international media. A stringer for Reuters in Guatemala tried to run this story, but his editors in the Mexico City office required at least ten undone bodies for a Guatemalan massacre to become newsworthy. Fewer than that, he said, and it was not a story worth telling.
Clearly the global marketplace for spectacular violence is cutthroat competitive. The capacity of twenty-first-century violent actors like the maras—operating within the confines of local social orders and with limited territorial reach—to stage spectacles that gain instant worldwide circulation has (p.196) undergone a marked evolution. Maras are decidedly less adept at garnering global attention than other more powerful, more media-savvy groups. To the north, for example, Mexican narco-cartels have staged massacres, multiple beheadings, and online torture videos in their struggles with each other and with the Mexican state.49 Images of their victims’ bodies hung from city bridges or coiled together in rural farmhouses have become iconic of the ill-fated War on Drugs, incessantly reproduced online and appropriated in Hollywood films.50
Both maras’ and Mexican cartels’ efforts at global exposure pale in comparison to the attention Islamic State (ISIS) has garnered. ISIS has demonstrated consummate skill in staging and editing slick, made-for-media online beheading videos, which have been useful for international recruitment to its cause. But more to the point, ISIS has maximized its media exposure (and leveraged its political import) by playing to the global moral economy of suffering. The handful of US and European citizens ISIS has so far beheaded on video have provoked more media outrage and geopolitical maneuvering than tens and hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of war lacking the proper citizenship (or faith, skin color, ethnicity, etc.) for more globalized grief.51 Far more than the maras, ISIS self-consciously capitalizes on massive differentials in our capacity to grieve, counting on our quickness to mourn and rage at the suffering of those in whom we recognize ourselves. If we were capable of collectively mourning the pain of alien others, a more peaceful world might be possible.52 For now, our role as distant witnesses to such atrocities will remain alloyed with a vague and maddening sense of complicity.53
La Descuartizada (Anonymous)
I have tried to interpret the crime of the four heads—and hypervisual violence more generally—through various lenses to understand how such events map onto and shape perceptions of unjust suffering and deserved death embedded in personal, communal, and national anxieties circulating throughout the postwar order. By peeling back the layered dialectics—between the past and the present, material acts and symbolic representation, actor and audience—haphazardly exposed in acts of public brutality, I hoped to reveal how the maras are throwing back distorted reflections of the social and ethical order of our world.
And yet, by assuming the privileged role of interpreter, the speaker for the dismembered dead drawing on all manner of epistemological tools, have I not (p.197) also constructed an intellectual bulwark against such crimes?54 It allows me to duck their nightmarish force and visceral impact, the way they can become lodged in the nether regions of consciousness. I have conveyed the brutal language and economy of suffering that inspires made-for-media murder while sidestepping my own complicity in such horrors. I have masked the confusion and shame that arise with the urge to look upon such suffering and then to look away because it is beyond my powers of comprehension and troubles my empathy.
How do I navigate the ethical and existential quandaries of witnessing, and asking you to witness, this kind of violence and suffering? I have refused to shield myself (and you) from images of violence in order to explore the confused struggle over representation they provoke. However, by circulating such images and trying to make sense of them, do I not also participate in the perpetrators’ dreams of recognition? Am I not helping the MS perform the “global” it initially failed to achieve? But giving in to the desire to turn away and remain silent is itself a savage erasure of cruelty and suffering that cannot and should not be ignored. In the end, both the histrionic circulation of such images and the urge to suppress and ignore the reality they expose are part and parcel of what gives acts of spectacular violence their inimitable power.
The crisis of bearing witness to extreme violence and cruelty that ought not to exist but does—and in massive proportions—should not be dismissed. Such ethical and existential quandaries are integral to how violence circulates in the social body and key to the struggle to carve a sense of security and order back into a chaotic world. As I have shown, however, the search for certainty can accelerate cycles of violence that refuse to be fixed in time and place. Another means of confronting the questions without answers that arise from such overwhelming pain and suffering must be found. This, to me, means sitting with acts and images that I would rather suppress, accepting the shock and horror that are their due, and seeking a way of understanding this violence that gives in to neither silence nor hysteria, nor to the urge to blame and explain.
Villa Nueva, Guatemala, August 2012
I have just finished an interview with the police chief of Villa Nueva. Late for another appointment, I’m trying to make my exit as politely as possible when he turns abruptly to his computer—a huge flat screen mounted behind him—and pulls up an image of a man’s half-charred body lying face down in a wheelbarrow in the blazing sun, a broken length of pipe protruding from the anus. A half dozen police are gathered in the background, with only their black uniform pants and boots visible, and one man’s latex-gloved hands. Then the police chief commences (p.198) flipping images rapid fire across that giant screen, images from his personal database. There are smashed heads and headless bodies in San Jose Pinula minors’ prison from when MS broke the SUR, and in Pavoncito prison when the paisas rioted and killed a bunch of mareros; a pile of half-clothed male bodies, some of them headless, piled promiscuously on top of one another; and a severed head caught in a shaft of light in an otherwise pitch-black room. Many, many others flicker across the screen in a horrible blur. He shows me pictures taken from Zeta200 cell phones of a man posing with a human heart in his hand, a dead nine-year-old boy, and ghoulish grins on decapitated heads lined up one next to the other. He flips through them quickly, occasionally turning to me with a grave expression as if I should understand, until he stops on the last image: a teenage girl, the photo labeled La Descuartizada (the Dismembered Girl). Her legs have been severed at the hips, her arms at the elbows. The stumps are layered with fat and muscle like meat in a butcher’s shop, laid out on a blanket. The remains of her body seem to be glistening. For a moment I imagine she is covered in tears. But then on closer inspection it turns out to be only rain or dew. I ask the police chief if he can give me the photos. He responds with an appraising glance and a grin. “Why not?”55
I still have many of these photos, hidden away on a hard drive. The last image, La Descuartizada, haunts me the most, and it is the one I know least about. The image’s atrocious intimacy and the total lack of information provoke endless questions. Who did this, and why? Was it personal? Did she suffer long before she died? Her hair has been clumsily shorn away, suggesting defilement before death. There are no visible wounds besides her missing limbs. There is hardly any blood. Did the killer or killers do this to her as a means of making someone who loved her suffer? Or was she chosen at random to become the bearer of some message to some third party in a contest of wills that had nothing to do with her? Or was she involved in some bad business, did she cross the wrong ally or enemy, and was in some sense an agent of her own disaster?
My questions and my curiosity are accompanied by a surge of fascinated horror and a quickening of the pulse. The image of La Descuartizada, this anonymous unfortunate, has made me an erstwhile witness to a crime the details of which I will never know, and now she is victim to my unkempt imagination. I am, like all witnesses distant and near, sucked into the vortex of the crime. Her image draws me in, and I cannot help but become party to her violation.
This is where I had once thought to place the image of La Descuartizada, but for better or for worse, the book’s publishers will not allow it. Such images are, however, found easily enough on the internet, accessible to all at the click (p.199) of a button. And like La Descuartizada, their immediate impact is to paralyze, to undermine the capacity for language and even thought. The visceral and psychological shock of witnessing such an image is beneath and beyond words, and saying anything risks saying the “wrong thing” and deepening the subject’s denigration and one’s own complicity. But letting La Descuartizada’s victimizers simply speak for themselves is also a form of complicity and would make me no better than a voyeur. Worse, it would be giving in to the power of violence and pain to silence and steal our voices. Through voice we have language, and through language, the power to describe and gain some control over what counts as reality.56 Like legions of others whose violated bodies are forced before the public eye, La Descuartizada is a window into a world in which mere words spoken by mere people have lost their meaning. I have to make her mean something or forfeit meaning making altogether. But is it possible to do this without foisting upon her my own need for a sense of safety and certainty, participating once again in the alienating violence of our constant ordering of the world?
Her absolute anonymity layers her image into the endless mosaic of nameless dead floating about the internet and infesting collective consciousness. Her violation represents an endgame of human callousness; the image of her ruined body captures hell incarnate, but the details of her story remain out of reach. This photograph flattens the particularities of her life and her death into the vague and overwhelming horror of the world. Like so many others, she emerges before our eyes shorn of history and of place.
In the erasure of her stories, dreams, hopes, and fears, perhaps she can be translated into a means of connection beyond the intellect and beneath the categories of difference that so deeply divide humans from one another. Can she remind us that no matter how diverse the human species may be, no matter how distinct and untranslatable our experiences on this earth may seem from those of distant others, we remain irrevocably linked through the undeniable fact of our bodies? This would be kinship through awareness of carnality. As Kanan Makiya wrote of other crimes in other places, “The violation of the human body … has a visceral, irrational, and irrevocable quality about it. It is the bedrock under all the layers of horrible things that human beings do to one another.”57
But in the end, I do not know how to bridge the yawning abyss that La Descuartizada exposes, that undermines any attempt to draw some kind of universal truth out of such horror. Even my own attempt to do so ends up (p.200) signaling my remarkable privilege, reifying an irrevocable distance and dis-juncture. I am a white, educated, comfortably middle-class male citizen of the United States whose power and freedom emerge out of the self-same histories that make La Descuartizada’s suffering possible in the first place. Her image makes me face myself. To honestly face La Descuartizada means to come up against the very limits of our fears and desires about our own vulnerability, personal and bodily dignity, and mortality.58 The degrees of separation between her and me are vast and innumerable, and yet I can find no reason or argument that justifies her infinite violation and my safe, secure well-being. It is by pure chance that I was born into a place from which I may witness her destruction and not the other way around, and it is precisely this irrevocable distance that makes my speech possible and her violation so absolute. She cannot speak. They have stolen what words she might have spoken. Who can give them back? Across an arbitrary and absolute divide, her image screams. It is deafening and encased in silence.
(3.) In Formations of Violence, Feldman analyzes how IRA political prisoners made their bodies into sites and surfaces for the transcription of political discourses of protest. Here, I follow his analysis and extend it to the confused modes of meaning making that take place upon and through the bodies of both victims and perpetrators of criminal violence.
(6.) See Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy for a seminal discussion of how discursive meaning is made and becomes hegemonic (or not) in the public sphere.
(8.) Cf Taussig, “Terror as Usual.” Taussig writes how the “talk of terror” has a way of “undermining meaning while dependent on it, stringing out the nervous system one (p.285) way towards hysteria, the other way towards numbing and apparent acceptance, both ways flip-sides of terror, the political Art of the Arbitrary, as usual.”
(9.) Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in Waste Land and Other Poems, 7.
(10.) Francisco Jimenez Irungaray (former public security minister), interview with author, Guatemala City, November 12, 2011.
(11.) See, for example, Moser and Winton, “Violence in the Central American Region.” One often-cited example of such ingrown violence is lynchings in rural Guatemala. These are often misunderstood and misrepresented in the mainstream press, but nevertheless speak of a deep distrust in official institutions of justice. See Godoy, “Lynchings and the Democratization of Terror in Postwar Guatemala” and “When ‘Justice’ Is Criminal.”
(12.) Struggles over collective memories of atrocities take place in every society. For discussions of the politics, ethics, and poetics of these struggles in postcolonial societies, see Soyinka, Burden of Memory.
(14.) Nietzsche, Geneaology of Morals, 68. For more in-depth discussion of who decides which pain makes sense and which is senseless in Guatemala, which pain is legitimate and which unjust, see, for example, Sanford, “From Genocide to Feminicide”; and Nelson, Reckoning.
(16.) For analysis of the rise of peacetime death squads in El Salvador, see Hume, Politics of Violence; for Honduras, see Gutierrez Rivera, Territories of Violence. For comparable dynamics in other Latin American countries, see, for example, Jütersonke, Muggah, and Rodgers, “Gangs, Urban Violence, and Security Interventions in Central America.”
(17.) In In Search of Respect, Bourgois captures a comparable dynamic among Puerto Rican men involved in the drug trade who self-consciously take on the identities thrust upon them by their interactions with mainstream society.
(18.) For accounts of kaibil violence during the civil war, see Manz, Paradise in Ashes. For the links between kaibiles and other Latin American counterinsurgencies and the US School of the Americas, see GHRC, “Guatemala’s Elite Special Forces Unit”; Doyle, “Atrocity Files”; and Rabe, Killing Zone.
(19.) It is an open question whether this puppy-killing business has actually taken place or is an urban legend. Accusations of such training methods have previously been leveled at the Third Reich’s SS, Israel’s Mossad, and Saddam Hussein’s private guard force, among others.
(22.) Notice the very extreme extent to which this rigid form of governmentality (not on behalf of the state in this case, but on behalf of the authority structure of the gang) is played out at the individual level. It becomes so central to the (re)making of self that individuals become integrated into the structure of governance; they perform it, make it their own, and try to outdo each other in proving that they have wholly become the beast.
(p.286) (23.) See Levi-Strauss, “Introduction à l’oeuvre de Marcel Mauss.” A floating signifier “represents an undetermined quantity of signification, in itself void of meaning and thus apt to receive any meaning.”
(25.) See Debord’s Society of the Spectacle for a deeper assessment of the role of spectacle in modern life. For the role of global media in forming perceptions about distant terror, see Lewis, Language Wars. For deconstruction of the use of violent spectacle in power struggles between the state and criminal actors in Mexico, see Carlin, “Guns, Gold and Corporeal Inscriptions.”
(28.) Today, with an average print run of 230,000 copies, the paper has 75 percent of the market of newspaper readership at the national level, with two million Guatemalans reading it daily. In the capital these readers account for 55 percent of the reading population, while in the interior of the country 82 percent of people who see a newspaper every morning read Nuestro Diario. Collussi, “Análisis del recorrido hemerográfico.”
(30.) In 1860s Europe, Charles Baudelaire observed, “It is impossible to glance through any newspaper, no matter what the day, the month, or the year, without finding on every page the most frightful traces of human perversity, together with the most astonishing boasts of probity, charity, and benevolence, and the most brazen statements regarding the progress of civilization. … And it is with this loathsome appetizer that civilized man washes down his morning repast. … I am unable to comprehend how a man of honor could take a newspaper in his hands without a shudder of disgust” (Baudelaire, Intimate Journals, 91). Collussi, “Análisis del recorrido hemerográfico,” 4.
(34.) Caldeira, City of Walls, 38. Caldeira calls this work to distance oneself from the image of the criminal a form of “symbolic labor.” For comparable discursive efforts to put distance between the spectacle of suicide bombing and oneself, see Asad, On Suicide Bombing.
(35.) The Guatemalan government has purposefully misconstrued the civil war’s lines of opposition in state-issued history books as a tale of “two demons”: the Guatemalan military facing off against leftist guerrillas, with the civilian population caught up in the cross fire. The result has been that even the small percentage of the Guatemalan populace who possess a high school education have little knowledge of the military’s targeting innocent civilians for massacre and genocide. See Oglesby, “Educating Citizens in Postwar Guatemala.”
(36.) Though beyond the scope of this chapter, human rights discourse has become the language of resistance and protest for the fragmented remains of the political Left. War crimes cases against Guatemalan military officials; protests against rural land (p.287) displacements; and everyday struggles over property rights, employee salaries, and taxation are fought out using human rights frameworks. For the multiple uses and abuses of human rights discourses in Guatemala, see, for example, Sieder, “Contested Sovereignties” and “Building Mayan Authority and Autonomy.”
(37.) The version of justice at stake in human rights struggles is quite thin, however. Because the discourse and legal structures through which human rights claims gain traction have no space for redistributive justice (and often only work to establish symbolic methods of reconciliation), some scholars argue that the human rights framework is in fact the inheritance of Cold War counterinsurgencies through less violent means. See Meister, After Evil.
(40.) For abuse of human rights discourse in South Africa, see Wilson, Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa. For parallel trends in Brazil, see Caldeira, City of Walls.
(42.) Their appearance, too, would have counted against their murders mattering. The victim shown here had a patterned buzz cut, evidence that for many Guatemalans could be a sign of his potential guilt.
(43.) The literature on femicide is growing. For a review see Carey and Torres, “Precursors to Femicide.” For legal discussions of this category, see Musalo, Pellegrin, and Roberts, “Crimes without Punishment.” For Latin American–wide trends, see Fregoso and Berajano, Terrorizing Women.
(50.) For example, the 2015 film Sicario, starring Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro, utilized macabre images drawn directly from ongoing Mexican drug war violence.
(51.) See Friis, “‘Beyond Anything We Have Ever Seen’.” Analyzing an ISIS video of a decapitation of an American journalist, she writes, “the videos have played an important role in the reframing of ISIS from a ‘regional’, ‘humanitarian’ problem to a ‘direct’, ‘imminent threat’, and a ‘cancer’ that ‘risks spreading to other parts of the international community and affecting us all directly’. In the words of the Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, ‘in this cowardly and gruesome murder of an innocent man, we see the true nature of the evil that confronts us. … It is an enemy of humanity, a darkness that will spread as far as it can, unless it is stopped’” (736).
(52.) Concern over whose lives and deaths can “count” and whose cannot is a theme taken up by legions of scholars. Judith Butler captures the central conundrum when (p.288) she writes, “[W]hose life, if extinguished, would be publicly grievable and whose life would leave either no public trace to grieve, or only a partial, mangled, and enigmatic trace[?]” (Frames of War, 73).
(54.) The buffers and bulwarks we construct to keep terror at bay are multifarious, called upon constantly to establish the appropriate “distance” between oneself and inscrutable fear. Ultimately, establishing the appropriate distance between oneself and, to quote Taussig, “An-Other Place” where the world’s order always breaks down, becomes another means of holding the reality they signal at bay. “But perhaps such an elsewhere should make us suspicious about the deeply rooted sense of order here,” Taussig writes, “as if their dark wildness exists so as to silhouette our light” (“Terror as Usual,” 3).
(55.) Most of these were images he and his staff had captured at Guatemalan crime scenes. Others he received from fellow police commanders in Central America and Mexico with whom he coordinated via FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency security workshops.
(56.) See Scarry, Body in Pain. Power is found in the voice, while the body is the locus of pain. Thus, the greater distance from the body, the more power is to be had. The less voice one has, the less power. Pain destroys language, as language makes the building blocks of consciousness. In Scarry’s account, she shows how seasoned torturers increase the destruction of language by giving the victim, the torture chamber, everything, absurd names—nullifying the victim’s reality and distancing themselves from the pain they inflict. For this reason, Scarry argues that objectifying pain, giving voice to it, letting victims speak their experiences, name what happened to them, can in some way diminish both their pain and the torturer’s power.