Politics And History Of Violence And Crime In Central America

Editors: Sebastian Huhn and Hannes Warnecke-Berger
Publisher: New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 330p.
Reviewer: David Carey Jr. | May 2018

With only eight percent of the world’s population, but 33 percent of its homicides, Latin America is one of the most violent regions in the world. From 2000 to 2016, 2.6 million people were murdered. While international headlines and national discourses highlight that harsh reality, innovative efforts to curb violence are less well known. Across the region, leaders are experimenting with community police officers in high risk zones (Brazil), prohibiting firearms in cities and regulating the sale of alcohol (Colombia and Brazil), and providing job, athletic, and educational opportunities to keep youths out of gangs (Venezuela). Although the contributors to the Politics and History of Violence and Crime in Central America stop short of offering solutions to criminal and political violence, Central American activists and visionaries are engaged in that important work. To cite one example, the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras supports homicide investigations for a beleaguered (and often corrupt) police force and legal system. Not surprisingly, not all pioneering efforts are wholly successful, let alone embraced. In El Salvador, authorities brokered a truce between the two largest criminal gangs, which led to a significant decrease in the number of violent deaths in 2012, but the public rejected the arrangement, calling it a negotiation with murderers. Widely believed to have reduced the killings of gang members, the truce did little to benefit civilians who lived in “red zones”; many continued to be extorted, harassed, and killed. As the contributors to this sobering volume demonstrate, the interrelated causes of the broad range of violence in Central America are complex.

As a region, Central America garnered significant academic and journalistic attention during the 1980s when many of its nations were embroiled in civil war. After the Sandinistas in Nicaragua peacefully transferred power via democratic elections in 1990, and El Salvador and Guatemala signed peace accords in 1992 and 1996 respectively, attention waned. Often attributed to the vestiges of civil war, drug trafficking, and gang activity, the recent spike in violence in such post peace nations as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has thrust Central America back into the spotlight. Spurred by violent persecution, unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America too have elevated Central America’s visibility in the United States.

Most of the scholars in Politics and History of Violence and Crime in Central America agree that violence is not a rupture from these nations’ pasts, but rather part of a larger pattern and longer historical trajectory. As such, this volume contributes to a burgeoning body of literature in which scholars have drawn connections and identified threads between historical and contemporary violence, particularly in Guatemala and El Salvador. Apparently unfamiliar with that scholarship, the editors exaggerate its absence: “What is often portrayed as a dilemma, namely that historians almost never link their focus on the violence of the past to contemporary phenomenon and discourses, while social scientists don’t often take history into consideration, becomes a starting point for future research” (7). That blind spot is particularly perplexing given that one of the contributors, Jim Handy, has traced the historical roots of contemporary violence in earlier works. In his contribution to this volume, he demonstrates how “exclusion . . . dispossession, repression, hypocrisy, and denied hope have helped craft violence,” (282) beginning with the 1524 Spanish invasion of Guatemala.

What makes the study of Central America so intriguing is the diversity of experiences. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama also lie along drug trade routes, but they have low homicide rates. Those nations too suffered historical political and social violence that contributes to contemporary crime. Some of the most innovative findings in this study come from those lesser studied countries. In his comparative essay, Heidrun Zinecker uses Nicaragua to demonstrate that neither poverty nor marginalization need “to be overcome . . . to reduce violence” (48). As such, societies can become less violent without “poverty reduction and distributional justice” (49). Other scholars attribute Nicaragua’s comparatively low levels of violence to institutions such as community policing and social control inherited from the Sandinista revolution.[1] In a nation where the government hires mercenaries to repress political protesters, Nicaragua is far from peaceful.[2] Its apparent stability also begins to disintegrate on the Atlantic Coast where drug trafficking flourishes in the shadow of the state’s abandonment or complicity.

To their credit, the contributors do not elide the murky relationship between economics and violence. Measured in his observations, Zinecker points to a correlation but not causation between remittances and criminal violence. El Salvador and Honduras both have high homicide and remittance rates, whereas Nicaragua enjoys few remittances and low levels of criminal violence. Since they don’t empower the unemployed, at best remittances offer salves not solutions. They can also do great harm. David Stoll shows how remittances can drive land prices up in sending communities to the point where only migrants can afford land, and the local economy becomes unsustainable.[3] Although he does not reference Stoll, Zinecker too cautions against approaching remittances as a panacea for the region.

Nations with myths or reputations of peaceful pasts, such as Costa Rica and Belize, yield surprising insights. At times inaccurate perceptions of their stability encouraged scapegoating instead of national self reflection. Convinced of their own peaceful history and tendencies, Costa Ricans came to identify Nicaraguan immigrants with crime and communism (during the Sandinista regime)—unwanted sources of violence.

At times the volume gels well, such as the observation made by a number of authors that the drug trade did not catalyze gang activity; rather criminal organizations involved in illicit activities and trade have long histories in most Central American countries. Narcotics are simply the most recent illegal products from which they are profiting. In his essay on violence in borderlands, Robert Holden argues that the shadow polity of an elusive Central American Union or centroamericanismo in the context of weak nacionalismos has turned the borderland into an “instrument, a weapon with both inclusive and exclusive capacities that all sides in a conflict seek to exploit in different ways” (216). Well poised to take advantage of the cocaine boom, many “territorial groups” in the Central American borderlands enjoyed knowledge of and control over the area that long predated the drug trade (210-11). By shifting alliances rather than disrupting them, borderlands have become “hubs of isthmian violence” (229).

Essays on Costa Rica, Belize, and Nicaragua provide valuable insights into how different national histories distinctly shape contemporary violence. In Belize, a “forestocracy” controlled much of the colony during the nineteenth century and used the state to facilitate access to labor. In El Salvador the landed oligarchy similarly shaped national politics and the economy to their own needs. Whereas the charged racial and class tensions in El Salvador did not erupt until 1932, in 1894 riots in Belize revealed that colony’s deeply divided racial and class relations. Exploding nearly forty years prior to the 1932 massacre in El Salvador, Belizean unrest was starkly different. Hannes Warnecke-Berger attributes Belize’s more peaceful protests and measured responses by authorities to the “bread and butter strategies” that did not challenge “the basis of society” (253). In sharp contrast, faced with Salvadoran peasants’ demands for land redistribution and other reforms that threated the elite’s wealth and power, President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez (1931-1944) and the military responded with a massacre in 1932. Those dramatically distinct protests and responses forged radically divergent national trajectories.

Most of the contributors focus their essays on structures of violence and historical patterns without paying much attention to class, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality. Warnecke-Berger is among a few exceptions to that rule. Handy’s analysis of poverty and marginalization across time in Guatemala offers another. Other contributors generally cursorily address ethnicity, if they do at all. In his conclusion, Zinecker mentions “the merits of indigenous customary law” without any pursuit of how it might shape Central American judicial and policing mores. Although Michael Riekenberg’s assertion that “ethnic groups moved in cosmologies that entailed entirely different meanings of violence than those that are today common-sense for us” (183) promises analysis of ethnicity, the essay generally approaches Guatemalan indígenas as subjects (in the military and of the colonial and independent state) and anachronisms. Even when he turns his attention to fighting among indigenous communities and the 1837 revolt in which many indígenas participated, they fade into the background rather than emerge as actors in their own right. Such glossing lends an air of exoticism to his initial observation, particularly when set against undefined “meanings of violence that are today common-sense for us.” With so many different approaches to analyzing violence in the volume, common sense understandings of it are elusive.

Gender gets even shorter shrift than ethnicity or class. None of the contributors mention let alone analyze the phenomenon of feminicidio—the killing of women with impunity because they are women—even as a few explore issues of domestic violence. Despite such recent initiatives in El Salvador as special gender-based violence courts and police units (called unimujer units), women continue to be murdered at an alarming rate—524 in 2016. In light of the feminicidio epidemic that has been gripping Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and (to a lesser extent) Nicaragua, its omission speaks to a broader deficit in the book: little analysis of gender-based violence.

As internal tensions within the volume emerge, the endeavor appears to lack coherency—a problem compounded by the absence of a conclusion to tie the many divergent threads together. Methodologically, most contributors approach the study of violence via statistics or discourse. Unfortunately, few authors combine the two methods, which often leaves their analysis less than rigorous. In his study of how crime and violence have been portrayed in Costa Rica and (to a lesser extent) Panama since the 1950s, Sebastian Huhn offers compelling examples from political speeches and newspapers that allude to rising crime rates, but no evidence of crimes themselves, leaving readers to wonder the extent to which perceptions of crime matched reality. Representations of crime and violence shape people’s experience, but actual violence and its frequency also matter.

Some contributors critique the volume’s overarching approach. In the introduction, the editors assert that much can be learned by comparing historical and contemporary violence in different Central American nations. Yet in his own essay, Warnecke-Berger notes how “the comparative method has lost ground” (244) and points to the recent critics who argue, “comparisons simplify and in the end produce artefacts” (244). Similarly, Riekenberg insists, “we do not learn anything new by comparing” (183). Such critiques are important, but in a volume premised on conveying knowledge through comparative studies, they need to be contextualized better.

With some very strong essays paired with less coherent contributions, the volume is uneven. A few are based primarily on secondary sources and thus read more like literature reviews than original interpretations based on empirical evidence. Some chapters promise innovation such as Alberto Martín Álvarez and Eudald Cortina Orero’s essay on revolutionary violence among the Salvadoran armed left. In national contexts where military, police, and paramilitary forces tortured and murdered opposition, critically analyzing insurgent methods and war crimes is gutsy. Alas, the authors offer adept description but little critical analysis.

On the whole, the volume offers insights and interpretations from which scholars who study violence and Central America will benefit. In a critique aimed more at the press than the editors, many of the essays are marred by poor copyediting and proofreading. Instances of mixed sentence construction, redundancy, and verbiage hinder the volume’s appeal to professors looking for well-written books they can assign to undergraduate students.

David Carey Jr., Doehler Chair in History, Loyola University

[1] Geoffrey Ellis, “Evaluating Common Hypotheses for Violence in Central America,” Master’s Thesis (Monterrey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2016), at https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/51687/16Dec_Ellis_Geoffrey.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

[2] Vladimir Velásquez interview with Roberto Orozco, La Prensa August 5, 2016 at http://www.laprensa.com.ni/2016/05/08/suplemento/la-prensa-domingo/2030877-roberto-orozco-la-policia-y-el-ejercito-estan-a-manos-sueltas.

[3] David Stoll, El Norte or Bust!: How Migration Fever and Microcredit produced a Financial Crash in a Latin American Town (Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

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