- Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death by Deborah T. Levenson
This is a powerful book. This is an angry book. This is the kind of book that needed to be written now, and by a historian with the skills and the experience to locate the picture of Central American gangs in the historical frame it so desperately deserves. You need to read this book, and by “you” I mean anyone savvy enough to read The Americas. Adiós Niño is just that far-reaching and just that important.
Guatemala City has become one of the most violent cities in the world. The extremely high homicide rate has lingered long beyond the end of the country’s genocidal civil war (1960-1996). Much of the murder has to do with the rise of gangs in Guatemala, but also those in El Salvador and Honduras. The two most notorious are Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. The story, still rather credible but very well-worn, to date is that Central American civil wars pushed refugees to Los Angeles. There, these men and women, as well as their children, created gangs of their own. Following the Los Angeles riots and an unprecedented shift in U.S. deportation policy, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans were returned based on criminal charges, dramatically changing networks of already at-risk youth at home.
Levenson productively pushes against this dominant narrative. “A murder in Pico-Union [in Los Angeles] does not spell a killing in Guatemala City at dusk,” she writes (p. 9). With decades of experience, including archival work, open-ended interviews, and some refreshing participant-observation, Levenson builds a history of these gangs that begins well before mass deportations. This history includes the U.S.-led 1954 coup of a democratically elected Guatemalan government, low-level civil war in Guatemala City, outright genocide in the highlands, and the 1996 peace accords. Central to this history is the formation of a distinctive kind of youth, one that came to understand death as a central part of living.
In this sense, Adiós Niño reads well alongside notions of necropolitics and thanatopolitics and maybe even notions of the gray zone or the banality of evil. Important here is Levenson’s methodological approach. A historian by training, her work draws importantly from her interactions and observations over the years. These observations bend this book closer to ethnography than historiography, which may be one of its most [End Page 343] important contributions to the study of Guatemala City. By foregrounding her seemingly routine but poignant meetings with young men over the years, she writes in a way that adds important depth to discussions of postwar violence and gangs. Her longrange perspective is, in the end, one of this book’s greatest gifts.
Any quibbles here are few. If pressed, one might call out Levenson’s use of images. She draws on some of the most daring photographers, including the groundbreaking Donna DeCesare and Andrea Aragón, to animate her work. Yet working with so many talented artists, each with a signature style, yields a somewhat muddled composition that at times mirrors the writing’s own somewhat patchwork-like feel. Much of this, of course, has to do with the impossibility of maintaining any continuity with a setting like the one she has chosen. Too many young men die and too many ethnographic leads become far too dangerous to follow. But this patchwork evokes an unsettled feeling, as if the author herself might not yet know—may never be able to know—what is really going on. But many would not quibble over this point. They would instead call it epistemological honesty.