In the international popular imagination, Guatemala in December of 2012 was defined by two events: the much-hyped and misappropriated end of an era in the Maya calendar, and to a lesser degree, John McAfee’s abortive attempt to win asylum following his flight from neighboring Belize. While both have been treated superficially in mainstream discourse, they are interesting for the windows they opened, at least momentarily, to more complex social and political dynamics touching on issues of indigenous rights and impunity.
Reception of the “2012 phenomenon,” in particular, revealed the depth of colonial attitudes towards indigenous populations. The general lack of understanding that Maya populations continue to exist and maintain spiritual and cultural practices is the most telling example of these prejudices, though more extreme examples of racist belittlement circulated among flippant and ironic references to the “End of the World.” This media and social network fervor, however, may also reveal hidden—if distorted—sympathies with the messages of contemporary indigenous movements. With each passing year, it becomes progressively harder to deny their warnings that the global economic and political system is the source of massive ecological and human damage, and it may be this realization that underlies popular culture’s affinity for scenarios of apocalypse and systemic collapse. As the Maya intellectual Victor Montejo commented, “mass media, with talk shows, series and movies on the theme had ignited a desire for cataclysmic destruction in a population anxious to die.”
The cultural appropriation of the Maya calendar and attendant silencing of indigenous voices recycled age-old tactics of colonialism. Photojournalist James Rodriguez vividly documented the divide-and-conquer tokenism of the Guatemalan government’s celebration at Zaculeu, Huehuetenango, which was contested by Maya social movements, which instead marked the beginning of the 13th B’ak’tun cycle as a moment for the renewal of ongoing anti-colonial struggles. The Zapatista movement echoed this message with massive marches on the main cities of Chiapas, their silence eloquently answering the invisibilization of indigenous populations with a collective manifestation of conviction and resistance, at once a threat and a promise: “Did you hear? This is the sound of your world tearing itself apart. It is the sound of our world being reborn.” For native peoples and their allies, the beginning of a new era offers a symbolic moment for renewed commitment to solidarity with movements for decolonization, for immigrant and workers’ rights across borders, and against domination and environmental destruction. These values are at the core of the surging #IdleNoMore movement, which has begun to move beyond rejection of harmful Canadian legislation into a generalized indigenous peoples’ movement, with actions and statements of support coming from around the world.
John McAfee’s odyssey seems trivial in this context, but it did offer a glimpse of how old structures of impunity may be changing in Guatemala. In his attempt to avoid detention as a person of interest in the murder of his U.S. neighbor in Belize, McAfee secretly crossed the porous border into Guatemala, which has no extradition agreement with Belize due to a long-running territorial dispute based in the colonial seizure of Belize by the British. There he contracted one of Guatemala’s most mercenary lawyers, Telesforo Guerra, a long-time player in the political and legal arenas notorious for his defense of narcotraffickers, military officials wanted for crimes against humanity, and other infamous cases. But even Guerra was unable to block McAfee’s prompt extradition to the U.S., where he could be sent back to Belize if charged with a crime.
McAfee is hardly the only high-profile seeker of impunity to face extradition to the U.S. under the newly cozy relationship between the Guatemalan and U.S. justice systems. In 2012, several alleged drug traffickers wanted by the DEA were extradited, including presumed operatives of the Sinaloa Cartel and allies of the Zetas. Former President Alfonso Portillo is also fighting a losing battle against his pending extradition on charges of money laundering, for which he was absolved by the Guatemalan courts in 2011 a heavily criticized judicial decision. The UN Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) recently launched a frontal assault on the judiciary with the publication of a list of 18 “Judges of Impunity,” naming judges accused of specific acts of corruption which have protected political officials and organized crime, including human trafficking networks. Under Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, the Public Ministry has announced a reduction of impunity from 90% to 70% of cases in 2012. The combined influence of the CICIG and Paz has been credited with beating back refuges of corruption and impunity within the legal system which have historically protected military and civilian structures linked to state terror, para-state organized crime and violence, and the illicit accumulation of territory and riches.
But fighting impunity—long a central demand of Guatemala’s human rights and social movements—is just one aspect of the broader struggle for justice. As civil resistance to the imposition of mega-development projects, extractive industry and unpopular policies are met with increasing repression and criminalization, a strengthened justice system will mean less than nothing if social demands are not met and structural violence continues. With that in mind, #GuateSec over the next weeks will offer an overview of sources and analysis on themes that will be important to monitor in 2013 and beyond:
- Drug War militarization in Central America
- Impunity, or justice for crimes of the past?
- Privatization of security policy in Guatemala
Thanks to all who have read and supported this blog, I am looking forward to further correspondence and hoping to see you in the streets and elsewhere during the coming year!