Lynchings are wreaking havoc again in rural Guatemala. In a recent 15-day span, nine people have been lynched here by citizens who chose to take justice into their own hands. And in the past year, lynch mobs have attacked over 250 people, resulting in at least 42 deaths. The numbers are scary, and they reflect the reality that Guatemala has not forgotten a crucial part of its grisly past. In addition to the deaths caused, the lynchings reflect the inadequacy and inaccessibility of state justice institutions and the legacies of violence from civil war and state-sponsored genocide.
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.
In the Americas, lynching is not unique to Guatemala. Carlos Vilas has also documented cases in Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, and Brazil, most often in areas where the state is weak (see below). But lynchings have been particularly pervasive in Guatemala, where the practice attracted a lot of attention immediately after the 1996 Peace Accords. From 1996 to 2000 alone, scholars noted well over 300 lynchings in Guatemala. A decade later, the practice seemed to have subsided somewhat, with only eight deaths in 2008. One might have hoped that the practice would have been headed for the dustbin of history, but the figures from 2009 suggest otherwise.
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, the absence of institutions like courts in indigenous, rural areas is a clear legacy of the systematic exclusion of these communities from exercising citizenship throughout—and beginning well before—the twentieth century.
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 Guatemala were the proportion of indigenous population and the concentration of courts. That is, more indigenous people in a municipality raises the odds of lynchings, while more courts in a municipality reduces the odds of lynchings. When including the proportion of indigenous population in the regressions, Mendoza finds this variable to have a much greater impact than past human rights abuses.
These authors all make clear that the past remains a heavy burden on rural Guatemala. In particular, rural areas with high indigenous concentrations in the central and western highlands have the highest incidence of lynchings, with the departments of Quiché and Alta Verapáz registering the highest levels between 1996 and 2002. These and other highland areas bore the brunt of the civil war, and they have long suffered from a diabolical mix of interactions with the state. When it comes to public goods provision—criminal justice being a critical example—the state has been notoriously absent. With respect to repression, however, the Guatemalan state has been present in spades, with the military using all its might against the civilian population.
One might think that the latter half of this explanation should no longer be relevant in Guatemala. After all, the armed conflict ended 13 years ago, Guatemala has tamed its military and the country has even elected its first left-of-center president since 1954.
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 Guatemala’s slow, ongoing process of coming to terms with a brutal recent history. When considering these stories alongside the persistence of lynching in these same rural areas, one begins to understand that the 25 years since the scorched earth campaigns and the nearly 15 years since the abolition of civil defense patrols have not healed the wounds of Guatemala’s armed conflict and genocide. Instead, this history lives on. Rural indigenous communities remain scarred by brutality and deprived of access to the formal justice system. In the absence of such protection, people in many such communities have shown a horrifying predisposition to resort to collective violence to address perceived insecurity and injustice.
*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and his research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.