Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City

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Photo of incarcerated Guatemalan gang member.

SIS Professor Anthony Fontes’ first book, Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City, explores the country’s new social order as seen through the intimate lives of local gang members.

The Fresh Start

After nearly 40 years of anti-communist demagogues and military dictators jockeying for power, Guatemala’s Civil War finally ended in 1996. In that time, political opposition met violent ends and the genocide of more than 250,000 (mostly indigenous) people left deep wounds on the country’s collective psyche. Abroad, the United States began deporting large numbers of criminally involved Central Americans and Mexicans back to their countries. In this newly born crucible of violence, a very different threat to Guatemala’s safety and security grew: gangs.

“Cold War conflict eviscerated public institutions and social organizations, especially among the poor,” says Fontes. “The violence that Guatemalans live with today, though, is of an entirely different species – it’s gone urban. Here’s a quote I heard many times when I was working there: ‘At least during the civil war, you knew where the bombs would fall and who would come after you. Now, you could walk out your door and you don't know who might be in a gang, who might be waiting around the corner to rob you.’ And for many urban Guatemalans, that kind of insecurity appears more impactful than any kind of insecurity that they experienced en masse during the civil war.”

Fontes explains how the terror of yesterday began to evolve into daily insecurity and fear: “Rich or poor, anyone you talked to in Guatemala City, the only place they feel safe in is their homes – and many of them, not even there. After seven o'clock, most places are totally empty because of the fear of public space.”

In the wake of the civil war, widespread judicial corruption gave rise to vigilantism with banks systematically working to protect the elites and inadvertently allowing gangs to operate with financial impunity. The perfect storm for growing inner-city violence. Post-war life in Guatemala was supposed to be better, but it instead led to a new kind of social order – one that left the average urban family facing more day-to-day danger than ever before.

Political Pandering

Guatemala’s dangerous reputation is well known. US lawmakers and news media frequently arm themselves with rhetoric about the encroaching threat of gang-related violence. The lawmakers do so in order to engage their political bases, and the news media use violence to drive web traffic to their sites with sensationalized “click bait” headlines. Fontes encourages us to focus less on dire statistics and instead relay the human dimension: “Guatemala is the fifth most violent nation in the world, but impacts on real human lives can be erased by those numbers. For instance, once you look more closely at those body counts, you realize that 80 percent of the people killing and dying are males between the age 15 and 25, and a large percent of that violence occurs in cities. For many of these young men, gang association might be the only solution for security because the state has never been present in their lives as a protective force.”

And those politicians sensationalizing the gangs? Professor Fontes explains that their demonization only speaks to people’s desperation: “Total uncertainty begets imposing a sense of certainty, using whatever tools you have at your disposal. That’s what makes gangs so powerful: they’re an image upon which people can pour their fears and trauma. Incarcerating gangs provides society a sense of order, born out of considerable disorder.”

Humanizing the Homies

Fontes’ entry into the world of gang members was rife with danger, but he was determined to see past the headlines and visit the prisons where gang leaders refined and franchised their cruelty. This became the center of his fieldwork as he worked to gain both prisoner and judiciary trust by researching “the blurred line linking the law and lawlessness by working with police and special local precincts. I did ride-alongs and spent hours and hours in extortion and murder hearings to make relationships with judges, prosecutors, investigators. From there, I spread my net as wide as I could,” he says.

He discovered that the inhumane conditions that govern prison life were being continuously exported to the ethos of gang members on the street. Fontes explains: “Incarceration keeps the violence of our society out of view, put into a place where we can ignore it. But it’s a false sense of certainty, because it results in multiplying the violence by linking aspiring gang members to networks of other criminals.”

Seeing both sides gave Professor Fontes a unique glimpse into the world of police and ruthless Guatemalan gangsters, and left him uncertain about the efficacy of efforts to stem the violence: “These gangs will only grow, and if not the gangs, then something else. The gangs are not the problem; they are an extreme expression of the problem. You have to get beneath them and use them as a lens to understand and look at those deeper structural problems.”

Ultimately, Fontes explores how living with such intense everyday violence creates extreme existential and ethical uncertainties. To capture and convey this “mortal doubt,” the book delves into not just the politics and history, but also the fraternity and faces, of Guatemala’s gangs. It is an ethnographic exploration of gang culture in Guatemala, but at its core, it explores human nature under daily oppression and questions what constant insecurity does to the basic foundations we use to order daily life and judge between right and wrong.