- Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order by Anthony W. Fontes
With contemporary headlines dominated by violent spectacle, confusing chaos, and reactionary fear, Anthony W. Fontes' Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City is a timely – albeit disturbing – addition to ongoing theoretical and empirical conversa tions. His deep dive into the world of transnational gangs (maras), works to explain how gang-related individuals (mareros) have become the recognizable face and symbolic personification of all that has gone wrong in Guatemalan society since the late 1990s. Focused on the notorious Barrio18 and Mara [End Page 356] Salvatrucha (MS), Mortal Doubt traces the history and evolution of gangs in the context of Guatemala (including the country's civil war and the long history of U.S. intervention), the (dys)functions of the prison system and related extortion networks in the country, and the role of spectacle in producing and reproducing the figure of the marero in social imaginaries at multiple, overlapping scales.
Fontes provides a richly textured account of the uncertainty created by the pervasion of fear throughout Guatemalan society. It is against this backdrop that Guatemalans work to make sense of violence in the post-war era. Gang members, with their trademark tattoos and capacity for brutality and ruthlessness, have emerged as symbolic standard-bearers, serving as the recognizable embodiment around which diffuse, uncertain fears crystallize in the social imaginary. While not dismissing the extreme violence perpetrated and experienced by mareros, Fontes argues that the consolidation of blame for a variety of social ills onto one symbolic figure elides the structural roots of violence and does little to work towards resolving fundamental issues. In Fontes' words: "maras are not the problem, and the problem does not begin or end with them" (p. 241).
Drawing from extensive fieldwork and interviews with gang-related individuals from 2010 to 2016, Fontes weaves segments of interviews and oral histories together with scholarly and journalistic coverage, to produce a fragmented, sometimes contradictory – yet always evocative – assemblage of perspectives. I found the book to be highly readable, as it tacked between academic and popular writing, with theoretical engage ments and elaboration largely relegated to the footnotes. In its elevation of the perspectives of gang-related individuals, Fontes presents us with an intimate glimpse into the lives of mareros, generating complicated questions of agency, guilt, and innocence. The result is that Mortal Doubt strikes a balance in terms of humanizing mareros, yet not romanticizing or legitimizing gang violence.
The blurring between fact and fiction, myth and reality, and the pitfalls of attempting to create such clearly demarcated binaries, are key themes threaded throughout the book. As the title indicates, "doubt" and uncertainty are pervasive in "post"-conflict Guatemala, manifesting as a free-flowing ambiguity between traditional divisions such as licit and illicit, imprisoned and free, guilty and innocent, or structure and agency. Fontes skillfully illustrates this uncertainty with his depiction of the intricate networks of "flows" and "friction" in the prison system, arguing that "both the flow and the friction between the ideal and real of the prison are necessary for the very survival of the system" (p. 145).
It is, however, in his discussion of prisons that a general weakness of the book emerges. Focus drifts from the specificities of transnational gangs and telescopes outward to include the maladies of the Guatemalan prison system at large and the numerous (non-gang-related) actors involved. I suspect this is largely due to the fact that, as the author notes, much of the fieldwork ultimately took place in prisons. Although this detour does not detract significantly from the overall value of the book, I found that I was less persuaded by some of the related arguments. [End Page 357] For example, I did not find the argument regarding women's empowerment and agency during prison visits convincing, nor did I find it...