Lynching Persists in Guatemala
Lynchings are wreaking havoc again in rural
Lynching may seem like an antiquated concept to Americans, but it remains a very real part of rural Guatemalan life. The practice of linchamientos differs somewhat from the mob-led hangings of African-Americans that once plagued the American South. Instead, Guatemalan lynch mobs resort to stoning, beating or pouring gasoline on victims and setting them on fire, often resulting in death. Petty criminals have been the most frequent targets, but lynch mobs have also attacked figures of state authority (such as a judge who issued an unpopular rape verdict). Some reports have even attributed lynchings to drug gangs seeking to eliminate competitors.
How can one explain the distressing persistence of this phenomenon?
The first part of the answer is the unevenness of state institutions, particularly access to the justice system. In a crime-plagued country where most criminals are never apprehended—and those that are arrested usually avoid serving jailtime—many rural Guatemalans simply do not trust authorities. The institutions of the state, for the most part, do not reach areas like these, which political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell has deemed “brown areas” to denote the state’s relative absence. In
Guatemala’s violent history provides the second part of the answer. In particular, lynchings emerged immediately after the state-sponsored genocide that targeted rural indigenous communities and killed approximately 200,000 people. By sowing fear among the civilian population, pitting neighbor against neighbor and normalizing violence, this brutal military-led campaign bred distrust as well as a propensity for violence. Lynchings were one manifestation of this horrific legacy.
Considerable scholarly work has explored Guatemalan lynchings. For instance, Angelina Snodgrass Godoy finds that lynchings often mirror violence during the Guatemalan genocide—in particular, mob attacks and public executions of people by civil defense patrols. Godoy notes that leaders of now-extinct civil defense patrols—responsible for 30 percent of the massacres during the genocide—have organized many lynchings in the post-war period. She and Maria Cristina Fernández García both note how the armed conflict replaced indigenous community justice mechanisms—which themselves could involve corporal punishment, but not death—with the far more repressive civil patrols.
Meanwhile, Carlos Mendoza’s quantitative analysis on the subject finds that the best predictors of lynchings in
These authors all make clear that the past remains a heavy burden on rural
One might think that the latter half of this explanation should no longer be relevant in
A quick scan of newspaper headlines from recent days, however, reveals the extent to which this society still grapples with its bloody past. In Chiséc, Alta Verapáz, 28 bodies were exhumed and re-buried this week—one of well over 1,000 such exhumations conducted since 1992—and community members demanded reparations. Meanwhile, a prominent NGO re-united three families whose members had not seen each other since being displaced 27 years ago, a bittersweet reminder of the pervasive damage primarily wrought by state violence.
News stories like these provide just a taste of
*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the
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