Goodbye Childhood

By Paul N. Avakian, January 28, 2014

"Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death", by Deborah T. Levenson

“Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death”, by Deborah T. Levenson

A review of "Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death", by Deborah T. Levenson. "Guatemala has long been a country where social and political problems are resolved by death in one way or another and the morbid killing in the country’s 1960-1996 internal conflict has produced a youth shell-shocked by the bloodletting, and now inclined toward it".

Another disclosure and gradually the effects of US policy become clearer.  This time the focus is on the youth and their struggle to make sense of life in a country where the constructs of a civil society were stripped away by a savage, prolonged civil war.

Guatemala has long been a country where social and political problems are resolved by death in one way or another.  But the morbid killing in the country’s 1960-1996 internal conflict produced a youth shell-shocked by the bloodletting, and now inclined toward it.  As one young woman in the book put it, “After the war there were a lot of traumatized young people with lots of violence in their heads.”

“The war” referred to by the young woman is the 36-year period in which Guatemala’s military, trained in US anti-subversive warfare, assassinated and massacred with disciplined precision.  In the city, death squads were sent to quell intellectuals and labor leaders advocating a reformed Guatemala.  In the country’s highlands, soldiers systematically rounded up unarmed families of revolutionaries and suspected sympathizers for torture and death.  In a recent war crimes trial, eyewitness testimony recounted parents and siblings who were shot at close range, hacked to death with machetes, bludgeoned with rocks and knives, strangled to death, burned alive, raped, and played with like toys and animals.  In 1999 a UN commission called it a counterinsurgency turned genocide—all triggered by a 1954 US intervention to remove a reformist president determined to release idle land to the landless to alleviate Guatemala’s massive poverty.

“How could this war,” the author of Adiós Niño asks, “not have an effect on the evolution of urban gangs,” gangs, she says, with a mindset skewed toward killing and being killed—an attempt to control their destiny by ending their life before becoming one of the failed living adults they see around them.  With no hope for the future or any desire to see it, they kill and die because it is what is expected of them.  In the book, phrases such as “We like to kill,” “Nothing matters to us,” “If I die, so what,” “Life is evil, so it’s necessary to be evil in return” seem to sum up the world they live in and their attitude toward it.

Guatemala has always been corrupt, but the war left the country even more dysfunctional and void of law and order.  Organized crime found gaping holes and infiltrated the police and courts.  High unemployment combined with the country’s legacy social inequality and economic exclusion made it almost impossible to manage a decent living.  The 1996 peace accords that ended the war were supposed to rebuild Guatemala as a more democratic country with inclusion for the disenfranchised.  The agreement promised accountability for the massive killing and an end to government impunity as a way to heal the country.  But the initiatives have had little chance against Guatemala’s reform-resistant ruling class and its stronghold over the institutions that could bring such change.  As a result, Guatemala, according to Deborah T. Levenson, the book’s author and an Associate Professor of History at Boston College, is “a world in deep trouble.”

Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death, by Deborah T. Levenson, Duke University Press Books (April 9, 2013)

Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death, by Deborah T. Levenson, Duke University Press Books (April 9, 2013)

As in other downtrodden urban centers, Guatemala’s gangs first appeared as an outworking of social conditions that fostered waywardness in the neglected and excluded.  Feelings of alienation and rebellion, the lack of parental supervision, poor policing, and poor economic opportunities all contributed to the formation of gangs throughout the 1960s and 70s.  To compound it all, thousands of orphaned children turned up on the streets of Guatemala City during and after the war.  With no one to feed or look after them, they turned to petty crime to survive.  In 1985, still unorganized and nonviolent but seeking something to latch onto, Guatemala’s young and rebellious joined protests against bus fare increases and other common-man causes, and the country’s gang movement gained momentum.  According to Levenson, by 1987 over sixty gangs had formed in Guatemala City, made up of boys and girls aged six to late teens seeking solidarity and a sense of belonging, or escape from the dysfunction in their homes, bonded by anti-bourgeois attitudes and crimes.  A gang, or mara, was where one was “free to be what you want to be and not how others want you to be,” as well as where one could “fight for my rights, which society has denied me.”

At the same time, children of war-emigrated Guatemalans and El Salvadorians had formed gangs in major US cities in the early 1990s, most notably in Los Angeles as a response to prevalent Mexican gangs.  Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 were the primary Central American gang formations, and their operations were by necessity more aggressive and more brutal than the milder gang life in their native countries.  In 1996, under the newly formed Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, the US began deporting gang members back to their home countries and into cities and governments that were unprepared and ill-equipped to handle them.  Increased corruption, organized crime, inequality, exclusion, and weak law enforcement all served to perpetuate and sustain gang prevalence.  Now there was even more reason to be part of a gang, and now gang life was informed by the grotesque killing, and the sense of callous revenge and “fight to the death” rivalry brought back from US cities—and the ugliness of gang violence and its infiltration of community life escalated dramatically, dividing neighborhoods along lines of gang affiliation.  Like other terrorist organisms, gangers control life by having the power to take it away.  Inductees are ordered to rob, rape, extort and kill.  Female joiners must make it through a night of sex with ten to twelve gangers, and then murder a rival female gang member before they are accepted.  Those who tire of the slaying and crime life and who try to leave the gang are “green-lighted” as a kill target.

The first high-profile demonstration of the gang’s ability to disrupt life in Guatemala came when gangs began extorting protection money from transit bus drivers beginning in 2006.  A ganger would board a crowded bus, demand money, and then shoot the driver in the head when he didn’t pay.  When armed guards were put on board, gangers would ride two to a motorcycle and pull up alongside the bus, whereupon the rider on the back would shoot the driver through the window.  Often the bus would crash and passengers were killed or injured.  The protection tax, between $25 and $50 per day, represents up to half the driver’s pay, and with the city’s 8,000 buses, the operation yields hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

In its usual way, Guatemala has treated the gang issue as an enemy to be eliminated rather than as a social issue requiring analysis and solutions.  In 2003, Guatemala’s National Civil Police rolled out Plan Escoba (Plan Broom) which sought to control gangs by containing them en mass in detention centers.  But by concentrating them in spaces where their fellow and rival gangers are, they concentrated the gangs’ solidarity and power—so much so, says Levenson, that “the penitentiary system has become has become the single most important place for mareros in Guatemalan society.”

As an illustration of the “madness” that takes place inside prisons, she relates a 2009 episode of gangers upset that their cell phones and visitation rights had been taken away, where boys had taken hostage several Estapa 2 prison personnel, including 45 year-old Winter Vidaurre.  “With the words ‘we aren’t kidding,’ they shut the hostages in a room and waited to start negotiations; taking hostages had become the leverage common throughout the penal system.  The Estapa 2 administrator did not negotiate.  She called the National Civil Police, whose special elite forces encircled the prison.  The boys responded by crushing Winter Vidaurre’s skull and cutting out his heart.  In view of the police and residents of San Jose de Pinula who by then surrounded Estapa 2, the boys came out into the central patio, danced, and yelled that Winter Vidaurre ‘had lived long enough.’  The police seized the youths, who held their fingers in a gang sign, and took them out of the building to await trial in the adult Centro Preventivo, Zone 18, where they keep company with hundreds of mareros who were crammed into Section 11 of that prison.”

“Violence is the political tool of the state and of elites,” Levenson says early on in the book, and it’s a rationale she uses often to explain Guatemala’s gang phenomenon.  Gangers, she suggests, are not society anomalies but part of the continuum of Guatemala’s legacy of violence, the result, she says, of “standards set by Guatemala’s ruling elites, drug lords, military leaders, and too many other influential people.”  She contends that Guatemala’s transition to a democratic country governed by a rule of law “cannot succeed without citizen security, which, because of these tattooed young gangsters, cannot happen without ironclad prisons.  Yet the deep social changes that might root out the causes of misery and crime cannot happen because of well-dressed criminals in power who, as [an interviewed ganger] observed, do not have tattoos.  These youth seem shackled into this sequence.”

Guatemala in the early 1950s was on a road to progress—finally working through issues that had hindered it for so many years, chief among them; its land issue.  Since the days of the Spanish Conquest, 70 percent of Guatemala’s land has been concentrated in the hands of two percent of the people, with three quarters of it idle, leaving most of the country’s land-dependent population in poverty, and creating a massive disenfranchised peasantry.  Not until 1945 did Guatemala have the political wherewithal to take on the land issue, first through President Juan José Arévalo, whose Congress passed a law requiring large landowners to rent land to the landless, and then through President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, whose program required landowners to sell off a portion of their idle land.  United Fruit, Guatemala’s largest landowner, objected and petitioned the Eisenhower administration to intervene.  On June 18, 1954 the CIA staged a coup, removing Arbenz and installing a US-loyalist dictator who quickly rounded up and shot Arbenz supporters.  The overthrow kindled a reform solidarity among Guatemala’s marginalized and exploited, which, without success through peaceful means, evolved into an armed insurrection and led to the country’s brutal civil war lasting 36 years and killing 250,000.

Adiós Niño is by no means a comprehensive or scientific picture of the gang issue in Guatemala.  It lacks original statistics and survey data, and is somewhat fragmented in its discussions and interviews.  The author even notes her inability to get at some of the qualitative data that would have made the book a more important contribution to the study of gang life: “It was impossible for me to conceptualize how to interview anyone who did not want to talk.”  Nonetheless, the book provides an effective exposé of the malaise brought by a US intervention.


Paul Avakian is a 2009 scholar award recipient for the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University, and a winner of Emerald Publishing’s 2010 award for excellence.  His 2005 documentary, On The Fringes, has been adopted as a teaching resource by university Latin American Studies programs across the country.  He has studied social revolution at the University of Havana and in Guatemala’s highlands.  His essays and articles on Latin America have appeared in Foreign Policy Journal and Foreign Policy in Focus


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