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Human Rights Quarterly 24.3 (2002) 640-661

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Lynchings and the Democratization of Terror in Postwar Guatemala:
Implications for Human Rights

Angelina Snodgrass Godoy

I. Introduction

On 24 January 1999, an estimated three thousand people gathered in the remote rural community of El Afán, Quiché, in the highlands of Guatemala, to witness the execution of four men. Outraged by the robbery of a local merchant, a group of area residents had apprehended the suspects and conducted an impromptu investigation, discovering weapons and cash. They then summoned the population to participate in a hastily convened "Popular Tribunal" to decide the accused men's fate. Holding police and human rights authorities at bay, the crowd voted to execute the men by stoning. The sentence was carried out at once, and the victims' corpses were cast into the nearby Chixoy River—after being sliced open and stuffed with rocks, to prevent them from floating to the surface for easy recovery by the authorities.

Grisly incidents such as this one are not uncommon in contemporary Guatemala, where from 1996 to 2001, the United Nations Mission to Guatemala (MINUGUA) documented 421 linchamientos, or lynchings, 1 for [End Page 640] an average of more than seven per month; many more have likely gone undetected. Unprecedented during the country's thirty-six-year civil war, these acts of collective vigilantism began during the first democratically-elected administrations of the early 1990s and accelerated after the peace accords were signed in 1996. By involving mass civilian participation, often in broad daylight, and at times including attacks against the state itself, lynchings constitute a new form of vigilante "justice" and a new type of human rights abuse. These practices blur the distinctions between victim and victimizer, popular mobilization and mob rule; and in so doing, they challenge many of the implicit assumptions that underlie contemporary thinking on violence, democracy, and human rights.

Without a doubt, the Guatemalan lynchings are a legacy of state terror. Yet to understand their complex origins, and the ways in which they depart from previous patterns of violence, we need to think about violence in new ways. While most studies of state violence focus on its effects upon individual victims, in the first part of this article, the author argues that certain forms of massive violence cause a type of social trauma that is more than the sum of the individual traumas suffered. In other words, there are uniquely sociological effects of state terror, which affect not only individuals but the social spaces they inhabit: their institutions, their customs, their ways of interacting with one another. In this article, the author suggests that the Guatemalan lynchings are a manifestation of precisely this kind of sociological trauma. Drawing on my own ethnographic research in Guatemala, 2 the author examines the process by which state violence ruptured and replaced the preexisting institutions of civil society in Guatemalan communities, and the ways in which this process has led to lynchings in the postwar period. The author shows that terror not only traumatizes individuals, but in some cases may transform the social fabric of entire communities, thus explaining the persistence of its effects even in settings where all those who survived the initial violence have departed or died, or where new, non-state forces predominate in decision-making processes. [End Page 641]

In the second part of this article, the author argues that the contemporary rise in lynchings points to a need to reassess some of the assumptions underlying contemporary human rights in theory and practice. Specifically, the author suggests that these new forms of human rights abuse challenge three central tenets: first, the centrality of the state as the primary force behind human rights abuses; second, the notion that rights expand from a fundamental core; and third, the adversarial approach to human rights work that currently characterizes the movement. While the author draws on research conducted in a relatively remote setting—the rain forests of Central America—she argues that lynchings contain lessons the broader human rights community cannot afford to ignore...


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