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A study in gangland
I am an oral historian, which in my case involves doing fieldwork and writing down my observations as well as conducting interviews. The research for this book took place over more than a decade in different parts of Guatemala City, including some in which I lived, and in different settings, ranging from private homes to shelters for the homeless. I spoke and spent time with youths in and out of the Maras—the Guatemalan street gangs that erupted in the 1980s—and with social workers, psychologists, neighbors, parents, and others, some of whom I came to know personally. Those I quote are named, and dozens more are not, even though in one way or another they are all present. Our conversations varied: Some went on intermittently for long periods of time, and others were brief; some were structured or semi-structured interviews, others were informal. In addition to fieldwork, I have also drawn on newspaper articles by investigative journalists, essays and reports by professionals, and other published material, including surveys and data on gangs gathered by a variety of organizations that each have had their own researchers and perspectives.
No one book can do everything. With luck, this study will serve others in the community of people researching gangs in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America and, through comparisons and contrast, help to deepen what we know. I hope this book will also help the English-language reader to comprehend Guatemala and empathize with its people.
In the final months of my writing and cutting and more writing and more cutting of this manuscript, the still-life paintings of the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964) repeatedly came to mind. Over and over again, he painted certain objects—bottles and bowls and other vessels—that entranced him and whose integrity he wished to express. This book feels “over and over again.” I first studied the gangs before my first child, Ana, was born in 1987 in Guatemala City. After my second child, Jasmin, was born in 1990 in New York City, I returned to Guatemala to look at the general question of urban youth. I took up residence in New York again, and then Boston, and still I kept coming back to Guatemala City to see my friends, do research, and finish Hacer la Juventud: Jóvenes de tres generaciones de una familia trabajadora en la Ciudad de Guatemala (To Be Young: Youth in Three Generations of a Working Class Family in Guatemala City), which was published in 2005. Mareros kept coming my way, especially while, accompanied by my daughters, I kept meeting street children.
The last time I talked with a young person in a Mara was in 2008; I was alone, an older woman from the United States. Have I been the adequate or appropriate person to write about youth gangs? Can we “fit”—in some psychological, sociological, or historical sense—with what we study? It has become customary for scholars to make arguments about why they are suited to their particular topics and themes. I cannot make any claims that I am a good match: I did not grow up in Guatemala City, much less in a gang there or anywhere; I have never spent more than a night in jail, and not in Guatemala. It is simply that one thing led to another.
Because I wanted to understand how ordinary people make exceptional history, in the early 1980s I researched and wrote Trade Unionists Against Terror: Guatemala City, 1954–1985, a book about urban labor activists who turned murders committed by the state into their inspiration and thus kept their dead compañeros present, and life meaningful.
Still living in Guatemala City in the mid-1980s and working with a new research institute, I and others studied the urban gangs for a political reason: The government had generated a great deal of publicity and fear around them, yet nobody seemed to know much about them. Subsequently it became hard for me to let go of this thread. I spoke with street children who were joining Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara-18 (M-18) in the late 1990s. Most of these youths are dead.
Those two gangs are products of the wars in Central America. Young men, including ex-soldiers, who fled the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala for Los Angeles, California, started MS-13 and took over M-18, once a Mexican-American gang. The violent rivalry between MS-13 and M-18, which began over L.A.’s Latino neighborhoods, bled into the streets of San Salvador and Guatemala City.
Estuardo Edwin Mendoza was a youth from the streets of Guatemala City who joined M-18. I met him in a shelter in 1997 when he was 14 years old, tall for his age, pale, and sad. The first time we talked, we sat together, watching the rain pour into the patio. He said that he had been sick for a “lifetime” because he had caught susto (“fright sickness”) during the civil war, and it “just never went away.” He told me about the massacre in his family’s hamlet. “I touched dead bodies after the soldiers had cut them up with machetes,” he said. “I went running into the night. The soldiers were painted with charcoal.”
According to a social worker’s report, however, Estuardo had never been outside of the capital. He was born in a public hospital in Guatemala City in 1983 and lived with his mother for years in a “small dark room” in the shantytown called Tierra Nueva II that had absorbed many war refugees in the 1980s and 1990s. According to Estuardo, he left this home at age 10 because “my mother said she could not support me.” He stayed in Guatemala City’s streets for the rest of his life, sometimes stopping by his mother’s place, occasionally entering the shelter where we met, until the staff would kick him out for using drugs.
I am struck, still, by his recollection of the massacre. It was as if his most important memories were of his mother’s memories. His insistence on them rang heroic and somehow moral in light of a general silence that had come to surround the fighting in 1997, just a year after the war ended and 37 years after it began.
Estuardo explained to me that he joined M-18 “estar en algo” (to be in something). In early 1998, someone in MS-13 shot him with an assault rifle. His murder was impersonal. He could have been anyone in M-18.
Morandi kept painting his bowls and bottles, a bit differently each time. Writing this book, I kept drawing and redrawing the same terrain over and over, reframing material from the interviews again and again. Looking at his paintings and my manuscript, I worry that perhaps I have crowded the gang members too much together, that they may not have space in which to breathe—and don’t quite emerge—and that the surface upon which they rest is not wide enough. Hopefully readers can look at them with the consideration and compassion they all deserve.
Deborah T. Levenson is associate professor of history at Boston College. Her essay is drawn and adapted from Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death (copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press), by permission of Duke University Press.