- Remnants Revisited:Guatemala's Landscapes of Fear
I was first approached in January 2020 about writing a retrospective essay reflecting on my article Remnants of terror: Landscapes of fear in post-conflict Guatemala (Clouser, 2009). It was during a coffee break at the Conference of Latin American Geography (CLAG) conference in Antigua, Guatemala. At the time, I began to ponder the shifts that had (and had not) occurred since 2009 in post-conflict Guatemala. These included the historic genocide trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt, the 2015 anti-corruption protests—which led to the resignation and subsequent jailing of then-president Otto Perez Molina—and the more recent disheartening closure of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2019.
Of course, since January 2020, the world has shifted not once, but several times. Not only would the CLAG 2020 conference be the last in-person conference I would attend that year, but the coronavirus pandemic has since gone on to infect over 120 million people, killing nearly 2.7 million of them. And in Guatemala specifically, at the time of this writing, there are more than 184,000 confirmed cases, with 6,619 deaths (WHO, 2021). The pandemic has produced landscapes of fear characterized by the eerily empty streets of lockdowns throughout the world, including in Guatemala. Barren images of normally congested zones, like the infamously busy El Trébol intersection in Guatemala City, circulated online (Hernández, 2020). And, as restrictions decimated livelihoods built on the informal economy, white flags denoting hunger and starvation began to dot the landscape of Guatemala as early as April 2020 (Abbott, 2020a).
Then, as I settled in to write this essay in late November of 2020, international news headlines prominently featured Guatemala. Two deadly back-to-back hurricanes and massive national protests (one of which resulted in burning part of the National Congress building) captured the world's attention. It is not [End Page 259] new for Guatemala to be framed in a such a way. Popular media's simplistic narratives form broader geographic imaginaries of the country as endemically prone to disaster, corruption, violence, and general bad luck. Yet, as scholars have long argued, the realities of Guatemala are extremely complex, deeply tied to historical legacies, contemporary injustice, U.S. interventions, and enduring sociopolitical structures that enable and perpetuate marginalization, racism, and violence.
Beyond headline-inducing moments of cataclysm, in Guatemala the post-conflict daily reality is rife with continued pain, struggle, and fear for millions. In an effort to highlight this quotidian persistence, in my original article I used landscape theory to examine the multiple ways in which fear and insecurity are interwoven into the country's landscape. Analyzing the examples of model villages, scorched earth blank spaces, clandestine graves and exhumations, and landmarks and memorials, I sought to emphasize how both presence and absence in the landscape can serve to reflect and reinforce a culture of fear throughout the country. In this retrospective essay, I revisit these examples to contemplate how things have evolved in the decade since my original article.
a landscape of fear framework
In 2009, I argued that using the lens of landscape theory, with an explicit focus on landscapes of fear, was a particularly productive point of entry for examining the profound legacies of Guatemala's thirty-six-year civil war, as well as the longer-term legacies of colonization and modernization that various actors have imposed upon Indigenous populations in the region now known as Central America for centuries. Drawing on Tuan's (1979) insistence that landscapes of fear are equally psychological as they are tangible, I unpacked layers of meaning in the post-conflict landscape of Guatemala, highlighting the presence of fear. I sketched out the implications of these deeper connotations, which manifest in inhabitants being "ever on the alert in the spaces of everyday life" (Pred, 2007, p. 363). Finally, noting the works of Crump (1999) and Till (1999), I described the importance of attending to absences in the landscape. Because power imbalances, particularly in post-conflict situations, lead to skewed control in forming the landscape, absences can be critical for understanding the threads of fear...