Sunday, October 16, 2011

Political violence as electoral strategy

People from the states often ask me about the violence in Guatemala. As anyone who reads newspapers or human rights reports will know, Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere.  Friends ask me about the sources of the violence (and also express concern about my personal safety).  Today I had a long talk with a friend and comrade from Xela about the sources and causes of violence, as well as drug trafficking. He basically confirmed what I have thought for a while: that the spike in violence over the last 8 years is part of the strategy of the far-right (at this moment represented by the Partido Patriota) to get its candidate elected in 2011. Unfortunately, it seems that it has worked, at least in part.

Guatemala at the end of the armed conflict was left with a lot of soldiers and officers who had been well trained by the military to kill, torture and maim -- and had been schooled to expect (at least at the level of officers) to be well compensated for their efforts. When the peace accords were signed, those in the top ranks of the military had to find other outlets for their skills and energies -- and other means of lining their pockets, and also advancing their interests as they could no longer manage the state apparatus directly by installing military leaders as presidents.

This would include the current presidential front runner, former general Otto Pérez Molina. The military and ex-military built networks allied with the drug cartels in Mexico and elsewhere, and other traffickers and criminals. So, make no mistake about this: most of the large-scale criminal operations in Guatemala, especially drug trafficking, do not exist outside the framework of the state and the legal system; they are intimately connected with the state, or at least, well-organized factions within the state apparatus.  It is not that "the state" (military, police) is "not capable" of controlling the drug trade; they ARE the drug trade, in large part. So they have no interest in controlling it -- other than insofar as they are able to profit from it, both for personal gain and to advance their political interests.  Thus the drug trade is unfettered -- articles in the daily papers bemoaning it notwithstanding -- and drug money filters into politics.

After the war ended, the country experienced several years with a lot of violence (i.e. murders), through the late 1990s and early 2000s but the murder rate dropped by 2003. Since 2003, it has risen to dizzying levels. It is not uncommon to pick up the paper (or go the website of one of the national newspapers) and read six or seven stories all of which detail armed assault and/or murder. The murder rate has risen to be one of the highest in the hemisphere. However, people have become more or less inured to these stories -- unless, of course, they involve someone who is personally known. We flip open the papers or listen to the news: 3 bodies found somewhere, a dismembered body of an adolescent girl (this latter one was in Friday or Saturday's paper) turns up in a neighborhood in Guatemala City. There are outcries, occasionally, against the violence. People lament that Guatemala is violent. Yes, we agree, it's terrible, the violence is awful.  There are campaigns against violence. Civil society organizations or students organize marches or concerts against the violence and make t-shirts or bumper stickers. I don't want to belittle honest efforts by well-meaning people, but these have done little to change the facts on the ground. The government appears to be completely incapable of doing anything meaningful.

So that's the general lay of the land. But the violence is not, in general, random or senseless, although it might seem that way.  Sometimes the actual object doesn't seem clear -- how much money can be gained by extorting bus drivers, for example? Not a huge amount; even if a bus contains 50 people who have paid Q25 each, that's only Q1250 (less than $200).

Guatemala is not violent because its citizens are inherently violent people. It is not violent because of something in the "national character". It is not violent because people don't have faith in their government or social institutions (that, certainly, is a result of the violence -- people see that the government or the police are either helpless, unwilling or disinterested in doing anything). It is not violent because of some kind of social collapse (I would argue that the social collapse is a product and not a cause of the violence).  It is violent, that is there is an alarmingly high murder rate and many of the murders are extremely gruesome -- because there are organized groups who stand to gain from the fear, lack of faith in social institutions, and social collapse brought about by the violence.

However, the violence, according to my friend's analysis, has another logic: to create a climate of fear and instability in the country, to such a point that people will be willing to put aside their qualms and vote for a candidate with a military background who promises to exert a "strong hand" or "hard hand" (the principal slogan of the Partido Patriota is "mano dura") against crime that seems out of control -- except, of course, the party itself is largely responsible for the crime. The logic is nearly beautiful in its chilling simplicity: create a situation of ungovernability and then present yourself as the savior who can govern. Create a mess so that you can present yourself as the one capable of cleaning it up.

And so the Partido Patriota and its friends in organized crime, then gangs, the military and the police (which are all part of the same entity, actually) -- oh, and I left out big business -- have done just that.  My friend says that the violence has been concentrated primarily in Guatemala City and surrounding areas very deliberately -- since that is where a lot of the country's population is located and therefore the violence would be able to affect a larger number of voters with less effort, more efficiency. However, he thinks that the strategy is beginning to backfire a little bit. That they have gone a bit overboard, and that people have become somewhat desensitized to crime -- which means that they are perhaps less likely (at least this is his hope) to vote for Pérez Molina.  He talked me through some of the statistics that appeared in the latest polls about the second round in the presidential elections. In the western part of the highland (the altiplano occidental, or western highlands), where the population is overwhelmingly Maya, the other party, LIDER, is in the lead. The Patriota is ahead in the southern, eastern and northern parts of the country --areas with a much lower percentage of Maya residents. These are also areas where there are large plantations, which means wealthy landowners. So  regional, class and racial/ethnic factors come into play.

This is, then, the electoral strategy of the far right (and make no mistake, this is the far right; this is not moderate or liberal or anything of that sort, no matter how much Pérez Molina might be blathering on in his radio spots about programs for the elderly and other social programs -- he is hardcore hard right). Yes, they have campaign ads and billboards and personal appearances, and all of the trappings of a normal "democratic" political campaign. But their real electoral campaign is the campaign of violence and terror that has been unleashed on the country since 2003.

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