- Adios Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death by Deborah T. Levenson, and: War by Other Means: Aftermath in Post-Genocide Guatemala ed. by Carlotta McAllister and Diane M. Nelson
Reading about Guatemala’s state-sponsored terror can easily assault one’s sensibilities. Money, which can make life comfortable, translates as evil when partnered with greed and militarism. The two books under review, Adios Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death and War by Other Means: Aftermath in Post-Genocide Guatemala, bring together the consequences of this unseemly partnership.
Adios Niño examines the Guatemalan maras [youth gangs]. The maras self-configured from horrific civil war, the defeat of a popular revolution, and austere living conditions in Guatemala City. They developed from homeless war orphans to community-oriented, politicized street youth to apolitical gangs living with the concept of nacroliving or murder as a natural death. Nacroliving appears as a consequence of necropolitics, the anti-communist policies of the U.S.-approved Guatemalan military-sponsored scorched earth campaigns unleashed between the 1960s and the 1980s. Adios Niño opens with excerpts of a military rape scene and another of two girls by mara members. In the first five chapters, the book sets the historical stage by revealing the U.S.-supported 1954 coup that ended the socially-oriented reforms of Juan Jose Arévalo and Jacobo Arbenz unleashed by the October Revolution of 1944.
The maras first appeared in 1985 as twentieth century manifestations of psychological trauma, archetypes of violent machismo, bearers of violent identities and practices, and as the antitheses of the privileged classes. As their violence grew, attempts were made to decriminalize mara members through various channels, such as Pentecostalism and immigration. In many instances, there was a lethal price to pay, at home or in exile, for exiting the mara fold. In Chapter 3, the case of Estuardo illustrates the integration of past military violence and an adolescent aggression adopted to ensure survival. Estuardo, who did not witness atrocities, absorbed family memories of witnessed violence. He described massacre scenes taking place before he was born. Estuardo admired the maras’ violent stance against the world, perceiving the group as a hiding place where death is used as a problem solver. Estuardo joined a mara and in this way [End Page 282] personifies the essence of Adios Niño.
War by Other Means is a collection of essays divided into thirteen chapters. As the title suggests, war still exists in Guatemala, although current forms do not fit previous civil war parameters. A war of different objectives–left/right, just/unjust, overt/subtle–jostle for primacy and unfold within the timeless framework of power and profit versus people. In this context, war takes many forms and the maras are a powerful example. The book’s title is derived from a counterinsurgency project “aimed at thwarting hopes for structural transformation” through activism (p. 16). Omnilife is one such project. Omnilife supplants political activism for better living conditions through promises of individual gain and better health. While sales of this supplement provide a source of income for the poor, its sales philosophy manipulates trauma, the use of substance and food abuse to cope with unresolved emotional issues, the lack of essential services, and traditional values of community mutual help.
Emerging from a close reading of the two books under review are three intertwined concepts reflecting the tragic story of Guatemala: historical trauma, its consequences, and coping strategies used by individuals to address what remains. Generally speaking, trauma in its many forms kills the soul and its haunting memory can last a lifetime. If left unprocessed, memories can elicit ongoing, overwhelming psychological symptoms for which various coping strategies, such as substance abuse, promiscuity, and aggression are used. The victim is at risk of replaying the victim role or becoming a perpetrator, thus continuing the cycle...