Youth under the gun : violence, fear, and resistance in urban Guatemala

by Denis Roberto Martinez

Institution: University of Texas – Austin
Department: Anthropology
Degree: PhD
Year: 2015
Keywords: Youth; Violence; Fear; Resistance; Guatemala
Record ID: 2061999
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/2152/28318


This study examines how violence affects youth in marginalized urban communities, focusing on the experiences of three groups of young people: gang members, activists, and the “jóvenes encerrados”, youth who live confined to their homes due to fear. Based on 14 months of ethnographic research in El Mezquital, an extensive marginalized urban area in Guatemala City, I explore the socio-economic conditions that trigger violence in these communities, the responses of young people and the community to violence, and the State’s role in exacerbating violence in impoverished neighborhoods. In this dissertation I argue that gang members and activists are expressing a deep-seated social discontent against the exclusion, humiliation, and social stigmatization faced by young people in marginalized urban neighborhoods. However, the two groups express their discontent in significantly different ways. Initially, gangs used violence to express their discontent, but they gradually resorted to a perverse game of crime, in complicity with the police, and they distanced themselves from their own communities; in this work I analyze gangs’ process of transformation and the circumstances that led to this change. Activists express their discontent through community art and public protest, but their demonstrations have limited social impact, since public attention continues to focus on gangs; here I examine activists’ motivations, struggles, and obstacles. However, the vast majority of young people live in a state of fear, preferring to keep quiet and withdraw into their homes; here I show how violence, fear, and distrust affect the generation born into postwar Guatemala. This study illustrates the perverse role of the State in impoverished urban neighborhoods and its responsibility for the escalation of urban violence in Guatemala. On the one hand, the State shuns residents from these neighborhoods and systematically denies them basic services; it criminalizes and abuses young people, even forming social cleansing groups to eliminate gang members. On the other hand, the State fosters crime in these communities and acts as gangs’ accomplice in extortions, drug trade, and robberies. As in many other Latin American countries, the Guatemalan State penalizes crime, but simultaneously encourages and benefits from it; the State is complicit in crime.