The Silent Violence of Peace in Guatemala

Guatemalans have supposedly lived in peace and democracy since the brutal 36-year civil war formally ended in 1996. But the state-sponsored terror of the past is again rearing its head. In today's undeclared war rates of violence in some cases surpass even those of the war, with the government repeating many abuses of the past.

May 14, 2008

Standing in a crowded bookstore in Guatemala City, my patience was tested as I waited over an hour for some photocopies. The manager of the store, an older, short, red-headed woman saw my unease and came up to chat with me. One of the books I was making copies of, Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio, the final report of the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), rested on the table.

Monsignor Gerardi (pictured) led the exhaustive Recuperation of Historic Memory (REMHI) report: Guatemala Never Again. He was assassinated in 1998 just days after it was published. (Photo: James Rodriguez/

She picked it up and asked me why I was reading it. “Did you know one of the authors was assassinated?” she queried. I told her that I was doing research to compare rates of violent crimes today to rates from the war. She laid the text down on the table and said, “It is more or less the same.” She matter-of-factly added, “Nothing has changed. They wanted to exterminate us then; they want to exterminate us now.”

I have heard similar comments so often in Guatemala that they have nearly become cliché. Stories of threats, armed robbery, kidnapping, hijacking, and even murder pass as mundane conversation. Such normalcy exemplifies the ubiquity of the violence but does not make this striking reality any less terrorizing.

Fear induced by the current violence in Guatemala is rationalized not only by lived experience and anecdotal evidence, but by statistical data as well. Statistics now surpass the staggering number of violent deaths during the country’s 36-year civil war (1960-1996). The average number of violent deaths from 1970 to 1996 was just under 5,000 homicides per year, according to the CEH. In 2006, a time of ostensible peace and democracy, 5,884 homicides were reported.1

Homicide in Guatemala has reached epidemic proportions, and it is only getting worse. According to Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman the number of homicides rose by 60% between 2001 and 2005. And homicide against women has risen an alarming 127% from 2001 to 2007.2 The Ombudsman office adds that nearly 10% of this rise stems from the return of “social cleansing” operations.

Such numbers leaves the public in a constant state of fear. The violence is poorly understood and can seem random. As was evident in the store clerk’s commentary, the most ambiguous and frightening part about the violence is confusion about who are the perpetrators of this violence.

The CEH attributes 93% of the human rights abuses and acts of violence committed during the armed conflict to the state, but at the time, newspapers and popular media sources painted the guerrilla forces as the main perpetrators.3 Today, the state and mainstream media blame a majority of the violence on gangs and random criminal activity, but evidence indicates the Guatemalan government still has a strong role in the rising death toll, as it did during the war.4 “They continue with a slow genocide” is how one woman put it at an indigenous conference held last year.

Even some members of the government are risking their safety to make that responsibility clear. When I went to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman to ask for homicide reports in Guatemala, I was met by a brave researcher. When I explained my investigation, he went to his office and returned with stacks of books and articles containing much more information than I had asked for, including a report on the characteristics of the violence.

These characteristics, he told me, give clues as to who is doing the killing. “These aren’t just gangs,” he whispered to me in the lobby of the stuffy, crowded government building. “This is strategic. This is social cleansing. It is the authorities.”

The government has partly managed to hide from international scrutiny what a majority of Guatemalan citizens already suspect: that the Guatemalan government is still involved in systematic gross violations of human rights. Last year, the government finally agreed to establish the UN-backed International Commission on Impunity in Guatemala, which right-wing parties in Congress had stonewalled for months. One of the many tasks of the commission is to investigate and prosecute the activities of clandestine security groups.

Why It Isn’t All Gangs

Broad-stroke analyses on gang violence done in both Latin America and the United States illustrate several pertinent points: in gang-related homicides the bodies are not usually mutilated or tortured, the perpetrators almost always use guns, and the bodies are most often left in the place where the homicide occurred.5 Researchers say these characteristics are largely attributable to the fact that gang members want to spend the least amount of time possible with the body or near the crime scene for fear of being apprehended. And they usually do not have the resources to move bodies without being seen or caught. Furthermore, the end-goal of gang-related homicide is usually either self-defense in a confrontation or revenge-based killings.

"Nunca Más" (Never Again). (Photo: James Rodriguez/

In the case of social cleansing and state-sponsored violence, the characteristics of the violence are very different. The goals of social cleansing is the extermination of a specific social group and the creation—or in the case of Guatemala the reinforcement—of a culture of terror. To this end, the bodies are often heavily mutilated and tortured. They may be strangled, cut up, beaten, or tied at the hands and feet.

The number of mutilated and tortured bodies has grown significantly in the past few years. In 2004, twenty-two tortured bodies were found and reported; in 2005, that number grew to 305. Another characteristic of state-sponsored terror is leaving the bodies in relatively public spaces. This shows a high level of premeditation in the crime and a desire for the general public to know about it. It also indicates that the perpetrators have the money and protection that allows them to transport the body. In 2005, 12% of homicide victims were left mutilated in an area different from where the crime was committed.6 This means 648 cadavers in 2005 were placed in strategic areas, where Guatemalan civilians are likely to find the victim.

The end result is that from 2005 alone 648 everyday people now live with the trauma of finding a dead, mutilated body on the side of the road or riverbank, and that terror is amplified through story-telling with friends and family. The psychological effects are compounded by the multiple deaths reported in the paper everyday. The articles often blindly name the gangs as perpetrators without motives or simply leave out any mention of culpability. The reach of terror, and the reinforcement of a culture of fear, steadily grows.

Impunity and the Courts

One night, in a small village in northern Quiche, I went to bathe at the communal pila, a kind of cement structure where water is gathered from a well or stream for bathing or washing clothes. I ran into a friend who had just come from his job at the municipality. We chatted about laundry and how tiring the hour-long trip to the pueblo was.

I noticed he seemed preoccupied and asked if everything was okay. “Sorry, I am a little shook up,” he replied, “I just came from seeing the bodies of two people who were murdered and left in the cemetery. We didn’t know if they had any family so the municipality had to deal with them.” Although I knew what the answer would be, I asked if any investigations were underway. He chuckled dryly and simply said, “This is Guatemala. There are no investigations here. We think we know who did it, but everyone is too scared to say.”

What may arguably be the strongest indication of the state’s role in the current violence is an absolute void of effective homicide investigations. Null or non-existent forensic investigations are a textbook indication of social cleansing. They allow for complete impunity, a heightened culture of terror, and increased powerlessness of victims’ family members, and more widely, civil society.

A religious procession in memory of those disappeared during the war. (Photo: James Rodriguez/

Impunity in Guatemala reigns to such a degree that despite national and international pressure, the government refuses to extradite the greatest intellectual author of the genocide in Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, and allows him to serve as the current head of Congress. According to the Office of Human Rights and a report done by Philip Alston of the United Nations, the number of extrajudicial killings reported in Guatemala has grown by 70% from 2001 to 2005, and there has not been a single policeman or state official that has been tried or investigated, much less sentenced, for one of these deaths.7

According to Alston, lack of investigations is not the result of a lack of resources, but the lack of political will. In fact, within the Central American region, Guatemala is not an exceptionally poor country. The GDP in Guatemala is higher than it is in El Salvador, twice that of Honduras, and three times that of Nicaragua, all of which have more police, more judges, and higher conviction rates than Guatemala.8

Parallels to History: War Time Abuses

One of the most chilling aspects of the current violence is how it mirrors the actions committed by the state during the early stages of the civil war and during the Guatemalan genocide from 1980 to 1982. The biggest difference is that today’s violence is mostly concentrated in urban centers, but many of the characteristics remain the same. During the genocide (which was then called a “counter-insurgency” offensive) the military left cut up, decapitated, and burned bodies in rivers and ravines. After the massacres, the perpetrators often took the time to mutilate post-mortem bodies and leave them for others to see.

Witnessing such atrocities, often committed in front of victims’ family members, instituted an unimaginable terror. As intended by the intellectual authors of the violence, this terror made the population much easier to intimidate and control. From interviews with numerous survivors of the massacres, it is clear that seeing the bodies often paralyzed their intentions to fight back against the state. It also created a sense of disorder and desire for institutional control, even at the hands of the military.

In his 2007 investigative report, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston concludes that the state plays direct and indirect roles in the current violence in Guatemala. Alston draws clear connections between the war and the current violence. Alston challenges state authorities writing, “Guatemala faces a choice: realize the vision of the Peace Accords or fall back on the brutal tactics of the past.” He adds, “In concrete terms, the methods [of the Guatemalan government] are difficult to distinguish from the tactics of the counter-insurgency” and the current policies are similar to the “national security” doctrine of the 1970s and ‘80s which gave rise to an ‘unqualified disaster.’ ”9

A Call to Action

"Youths demand memory, truth, justice." (Photo: James Rodriguez/

SAs many sources have told me, “The peace accords were signed, but we have no peace. We can speak out a little now, but we still live in fear. How can we trust the government if they continue to kill us without shame?” The culpability of the government comes from myriad factors, it is not only the act of social cleansing, but the lack of political will to take measures that ensure public safety. Young men I have interviewed in rural and urban Guatemala indicate that gangs can offer the protections that the state does not provide.

One former gang member, who is now a dedicated computer teacher in the village where I live, told me, “I never wanted to be a marero (gang member), but when I went off to high school and people messed with me, I needed protection. It was necessary, so I joined.”

Clearly, a high percentage of the homicides are indeed attributable to gang violence, but how many of the young men that join gangs do so in response to a climate of terror that is created, directly and indirectly, by their own government?

The UN’s Philip Alston concludes, “Continuities between current violations and those from the period of armed confrontation are surprisingly widespread and should cause great concern among both the national and international community.”

Citizens in Guatemala have understood for years that the state continues to be a prime source of human rights abuses, and many Guatemalans are actively trying change change this, despite threats to their personal safety and few signs of amelioration. Unfortunately, corruption and violence are so entrenched that national efforts are valiant but insufficient; international solidarity and action are necessary to mitigate skyrocketing rates of violence and state terror in Guatemala.

Joy Agner was a Fulbright Scholar in Guatemala from January to October 2007. Her research focused primarily on contemporary human rights issues in Guatemala. She would like to thank Holly Dranginis for comments and suggestions on this article.

All photos by James Rodríguez, who is an independent photo-documentarian based in Guatemala. His work is available online here. Any comments or interest regarding publishing his photos, please contact him at

1. PDH, Las Characterisitics de las Muertes Violentas en el Pais (Febrero 2006). These numbers come from the National Police Force (PNC) and the Procurer of Human Rights in Guatemala (PDH). It is certain that there are a considerable number of killings are not reported to these agencies – particularly homicides that are clearly committed by agents of the state. It is also important to note that some scholars estimate that the death toll during the civil war was higher. The CEH numbers were determined by post-war testimonies; there was no record keeping during the war. Chances are that neither estimate accounts for all who died.
2. PDH, Las Characteristicas, (2006).
3. This has been commented on by a number of anthropologists and other scholars of the war. The author also personally reviewed newspaper archives from the most violent times of the genocide, particularly Prensa Libre’s publications during 1982.
4. According to a 2006 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the share of violence attributable to gangs in Central America is greatly over-exaggerated.
5. PDH, Las Characteristicas, (2006).
6. PDH, Las Characteristicas, (2006).
7. Alston, Philip. Mission to Guatemala: Civil and Political Rights, Including the Questions of Disappearances and Summary Executions. United Nations, General Assembly. (February 2007).
8. Alston, Philip, Mission to Guatemala, (2007).
9. Alston, Philip, Mission to Guatemala, (2007).

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.