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  • Writer's pictureMiguel Villalobos

Guatemala and the Moral Ambiguity of Social Order

The first time I visited Guatemala near twenty years ago, it was not by choice. A Mexican army commander, unsure about this unkempt young American riding through the southern hills of Chiapas on a microbus with an expired human rights observer visa, had his men pull me from my seat, search my belongings, and rough me up just enough to let me know that meddling in his country’s armed conflict was not roundly appreciated by all parties. Then he ordered me onto the back of a drab green troop truck, where a platoon of soldiers a year or two my junior battled with an urge to giggle. A half hour of bumpy roads later they ordered me down from the truck, threw my backpack at me, and pointed to an iron chain stretched across the road. I stepped over it. One of the soldiers smiled. Another waved. And then they were gone. I was now in Guatemala.

Aberto and Miguel in Chiapas, Mexico (April 2000)

My first impressions of the country were unflattering. It seemed to be all distrustful stares and abject poverty. And drunk men. So many drunk men. In La Mesilla, on the border, they were strewn about in the middle of the unpaved main street, passed out cold with zippers down and flies buzzing inside their gaping mouths. It was the middle of the day. In Huehuetenango, forty miles inland, their heads leaned like tumbled stones on the concrete lamp posts of the plaza. One of them, still walking, brought me to his home, insisting that my penniless deported self could stay there for free. But his mother answered the door, sullen and unimpressed, and shooed me away with a menacing broom. By evening on my first day in Guatemala, I felt wildly out of my element, physically and spiritually exhausted.

Then I met William, a 10-year old shoe-shine boy from Belize, who with a cherub’s smile and the Queen’s English said, “it’s beautiful here, don’t you think?”

Yes, to be sure, the cast of soft gold light from the setting sun made everything look stunningly beautiful. William urged me to take it easy on the people in Huehuetenango. “They’re usually more outgoing,” he said. “It’s just that everyone’s still a bit shook up about the lynching, you see?” The previous day, an angry mob had swarmed a busload of Japanese tourists in the nearby town of Todos Santos, stoning two to death and setting their bodies alight with jugs of gasoline. The victims had been taking pictures of colorfully costumed children.

“They was just frightened they’d come to take their babies, that’s all,” William said with an incomprehensible levity. I would later learn that radio evangelists had for months been stoking fears of satanic cults and gangs of baby snatchers.

“That’s horrifying,” I said as the golden light dimmed into something less beautiful. “Absolutely horrifying.”

At the time, I hardly knew a thing about Guatemala beyond what my eyes could see and what a ten-year-old boy could tell me. I had a vague idea there had been a war, but not that it had ended just four years earlier. I imagined the war had been bloody, but I didn’t know what bloody meant. Had I not been so ignorant at the start, I might not have left so quickly. But I was, and I panicked, so I uttered my goodbyes to William and resolved to flee. A few days later I snuck back into Mexico, hiding from military patrols all the way back to El Paso.

Two decades later I am back in Guatemala. No longer the wayward young activist, I have now come in the service of good scholarship, on a quest to understand the dynamics of social order in the absence of an effective state. I want to know how, in the face of a fierce and rising tide of criminal violence, some communities stand firm and resist, while others collapse under the breaking waves. I want to know what role superstition and myth play in these processes, how irrational collective beliefs justify violence or succeed in controlling it. I want to know what, in the mind of human beings, keeps us living and dying together on the scale that we do. Figuring this out, I think to myself, could help us live a lot more and kill a lot less.

Ester and Miguel in Todos Santos, Guatemala (July 2019)

Meanwhile, William and the story of the lynching in Todos Santos have stuck with me naggingly, like a bone splint. Now in country, I notice right away that I cannot, for all my fascination with the human image, bring myself to take a single photograph of a child. I shudder to even look at one. And although I never saw the charred bodies with my own eyes, I remember them viscerally as if I had, their twiggy hands grasping a barbed wire fence, an unimaginable pain sketched into their blistering faces. I want their suffering to make sense, to have been for some greater purpose. I want to see Evil washed away from what happened to them, and to re-see it as William did, as nothing more than the unfortunate consequence of a people under duress.

A Bogeyman for the New World Order

So much has changed in Guatemala since I first came here, and so much has not. There are a lot more cars now, but old Toyota pickups still rule the countryside. Everyone seems to have a cell phone, but mountainfolk still bus down to work the coastal coffee plantations for about four dollars a day. Migrant remittances have transformed the landscape, but there is still almost no industry. Thousands upon thousands still flee, just no longer from the war. Tyranny is now a seven-headed beast, but it is still tyranny.

Perhaps the biggest single change in Guatemala has been the firm embrace of a new national bogeyman. During the war, it had been either the state-sanctioned clandestine death squad or the bloodthirsty Communist guerrilla, depending on who or where you were. Today, it is an equally feared, equally godless, figure: The demonic, face-tattooed cannibal of a street gangster known colloquially as the marero.

The marero’s mere image, without mention of deeds, strikes mortal fear into the hearts of most Guatemalans. He compels journalists to self-censure, the electorate to vote with their amygdalae, and an entire capital city to turn in after dark. He is the very embodiment of evil, and whether seen or unseen, he is always there lurking in the shadows, always at the forefront of one’s imaginings. In this way, he serves to obfuscate public concern for all other social and political ills, thus conditioning and constraining the better ambitions of society. In the United States, where the he enjoys a similar utility for political fearmongering, we know him by the name of MS 13.[†]

The iconic, but not very common, image of the marero (photo: Adam Hinton)

The marero was born out of the ashes of Guatemala’s civil war. In 1996, just as the United Nations began overseeing the demobilization of government and rebel combat units in service of the recently signed Peace Accords, the US Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which expedited the deportation of thousands of hardened gang members from America’s prisons to the streets of Guatemala City and elsewhere. Many of these deportees had come to the United States with their parents in the 1980s, as child refugees of war. Now, heavily tattooed and schooled in the criminal arts, they were sent back to a country they hardly knew, and which would hardly be happy to see them. But if they didn’t find jobs or social acceptance upon their return, they did find a weak and fractured state, a lot of guns leftover from the war, and whole new generation of poor, disenfranchised youths keen to copy their gangster style. As it is so often heard in Guatemala today, “the day the guerilla died, the mara was born.”

The marero has since transformed the Western Hemisphere. He brought hardline anti-crime presidents to power in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, who in turn ordered heavily armed police and national militaries back onto the streets to round him up en masse. Soon the prisons began bursting at their seams, but this only made him stronger, angrier, and more brutish in his violence. By the mid-2000s, he helped earn the Central American corridor title as the World’s most violent “peacetime” region, ravaging his own population through systematic extortion, rape, and murder. By 2014, his well-publicized atrocities helped fuel an exodus. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors, and later entire families, fled his lash and sought asylum at the US-Mexican border.

For those who have remained in Guatemala, the marero has, above all, contributed to the erosion of citizen trust in government, such that any semblance of a social contract has long been abandoned for a politics of brutish self-reliance. For the moneyed classes, this has meant a proliferation of private security firms, legal or (mostly) otherwise. For everyone else, there is the vigilante.

The Organized Neighbors

My new friend Artemio, a former special forces explosives specialist from the flower and furniture town of San Juan Sacatepequez, warned against meeting with the Vecinos Organizados.[‡] They were in the midst of some internal conflict, he said, and with so many invisibly shifting loyalties and alliances, one could easily find himself at the wrong end of a gun. “It might be safer if you came with me,” I suggested, irked by his attempt to dissuade. That was all the invitation Artemio needed. A phone call and five minutes later, we had a date with the infamous Tio Chulico, headman of the most powerful vigilante organization in Guatemala.

We agreed to meet the following afternoon in a secret location on a hilltop overlooking town. There, among the shrubbery and pines, meandered some thirty masked men, cloaked in black robes and carrying shotguns, pistols, and sticks. Among them, to our great surprise, was El Pequeño Pinchín, the newly appointed area chief of the Civilian National Police (PNC), surrounded by a small entourage of his deputies. Tio Chulico had, for reasons not perfectly clear, invited them to the meeting, too. As the masks gathered around a campfire and began to speak, I wasn’t entirely sure who their message was for.

The Vecinos Organizados at one of their hilltop hideouts (July 2019)

“Marero visto, marero muerto!”[§] said the one they call El Andador. “That is our slogan!”

“Luchamos por nuestras familias!”[**] said another. “That is our slogan!”

For the better part of an hour, the masks spoke their minds, all of them (more or less eloquently) framing their decision to take up arms as a moral necessity and a deep personal sacrifice in response to a pervasive evil threatening the lives and welfare of their families and communities. The marero, they drilled, was the essence of that evil, and since the government had proven itself unwilling or unable to doing anything about it, they had resolved to take matters into their own hands. They had been doing so for the last sixteen years, during which time their organization had grown substantially, recruiting hundreds of brave local men who dedicated several days a week to the labor of security, and who could be called upon anytime the need arose.

“How do you manage to keep the town safe?” I asked. “I mean, how do you keep the mareros out?”

“We all work together,” explained one. “We stand guard, we go on patrol…we have a whole system of communications that allows us to react immediately to any threat. Every one of us is dedicated a hundred percent. We have sacrificed our time, our money, our sweat and our blood to make our communities safe. Isn’t that right, men!”

“That’s right!” chanted the chorus of masks.

Indeed, they had created an elaborate alarm system spanning three neighboring towns that, when supplemented by the ubiquitous Whatsapp messaging service and a handful of walkie-talkies, has allowed the Vecinos to organize a formidable armed response to any kind of threat in short order. Informally, they also coordinated with both the traffic police and the PNC, who with financial and technical assistance provided through the US Embassy, recently acquired scores of hi-tech security cameras to monitor strategic points around town. All of this, combined with the regular carrying out of night patrols intended to “clean up” the criminal element, has helped make San Juan Sacatepequez uniquely safe compared to so many other towns and cities in Guatemala.

Behind all the organizational structure, technology, and community spirit, there was also, of course, the very real threat of violence.

“Well, it’s true that in the past…” The mustachioed mask, El Andador, began somewhat apologetically. “We did occasionally take things a bit too far.”

He was referring to the general practice of lynching, the last instance of which had taken place just seven months prior, in January. On that occasion, a group of women in the town market caught a transient vender dealing in counterfeit money. Two hours later, having been stripped naked and dragged through the streets and beaten by onlookers, the man’s heart seized, righting the wrong and putting an end to the grizzly affair. Three months before that, a teenage girl lost her hair and very nearly her life to the same angry mob, but was saved by a police officer who commandeered a bus to escort her out of town. She had been accused of conspiring to steal another woman’s baby.

Lynching, however, was only used as a last resort, and only for the most egregious of crimes, the masks assured me. More often than not, the vigilantes actually stopped lynchings from being carried out to their full conclusion. “The people here are really mad,” all agreed, offering examples of how they intervened one time or another to protect a suspected criminal from being pummeled and burned to death by enraged shopkeepers. The Vecinos Organizados were, in short, a kind of an institutional constraint on the collective passions of a desperate people abandoned by their government, as well as the extralegal spearhead of punitive violence.

In any case, lynching was ultimately a necessary evil. Although everyone dutifully asserted it was “a very bad thing,” and that it did, to some extent, compromise the moral integrity of the vigilantes themselves, its deterrent effect on crime was undeniable. Recalling the dramatic decline in thefts, muggings, murders, and extortions in San Juan Sacatepequez over the last decade, as well as the total absence of anyone even closely resembling the iconic marero, one mask put it most plainly:

“You have to admit, it really does send a message.”

War and Peace

I spent the next two weeks combing the Guatemalan countryside for signs of vigilantism, following rumor trails and hunches that rarely disappointed. Varying significantly in size, structure, strategy, and criminal disposition, I found that civilian anti-crime groups were active almost everywhere I traveled, from Joyabaj to Zacualpa, from Santa Cruz del Quiche to Huehuetenango. Some rooted their practice in the old traditions of indigenous social order, the so-called “Mayan Law,” which favors ritualized public humiliation and the threat of excommunication over outright violence. Others relied more heavily on masked night patrols, radio-communications, batons, and shotguns, as well as the occasional lynching. Some levied a tax on local businesses, and some fought those who did that. Some were in good with the mayor, while others lost the election and may have a problem on their hands. But they all had one thing in common: Their origins could be traced to the war.

Forty years ago, Hell broke loose in the central and western highlands of Guatemala. The Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), one of several armed revolutionary groups active at the time, had found widespread support for their cause among the region’s poor Mayan peasants, and soon began launching attacks on police and military outposts. Unable to locate the enemy, and suffering high casualty rates while trying, Guatemala’s military forces resorted to indiscriminate violence. Within the span of just a few years, they tortured and killed tens of thousands of people, massacring entire villages and driving others from their lands in an effort to eliminate civilian support for the insurgency.[††] It is now commonly referred to as a genocide.

The Catholic Church in Zacualpa. The Guatemala military turned it into a barracks during the civil war. They tortured and killed more than three hundred people within its wall, dumping their bodies head first into a well in the courtyard. The bodies were finally recovered in 2003.

Then the government armed the people. Inspired by the “strategic hamlet” policy employed by US forces in Vietnam, it organized as many as 900,000 peasant men and boys into so-called Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil, or PACs, which would help fight the EGP and other rebel forces. Carrying M-1 rifles, sticks, and machetes, the PACs kept close watch on anyone coming and going through their communities. They interrogated suspected guerrillas, punished detractors, and occasionally went into battle alongside government forces. They would keep at it for fifteen years, until the war ended and the government came to pick up the guns.

But by then there were untold thousands of landless peasants roaming the countryside in search of food, and desperate enough to steal it. By then there were satanic cults and baby snatchers and foreigners with strange, painted faces. By then, there was the marero. Something had to be done.

A drunk man "fell down" in El Quiche (July 2019)

“We already knew how to organize ourselves,” said Ernesto, an 81-year-old vigilante and former PAC leader in Joyabaj. “We learned that during the war.”

And so the old PAC leaders, in town after town, applied the lessons learned while fighting a leftist insurgency to the new problem of criminality and social deviance. They put on masks, picked up weapons, and patrolled their streets night by night. They kept a close eye on newcomers and transients, interrogating anyone who looked suspicious. They developed alarms and communications systems to coordinate emergency collective action, and they fostered a culture of personal sacrifice and brotherhood to sustain it.

The Guardianes del Vecindario on patrol in Joyabaj (July 2019).

For the most part, these war-born citizen security regimes have worked splendidly, even if at the cost of an occasional lynching and a general disregard for the rule of law. Today, the regions most heavily affected by the war, those where the fighting and genocidal violence were most intense, are among the safest in all of Guatemala.

“Here in the highlands, even one or two little crimes is too much to tolerate,” a police commander sympathetic to the vigilante cause told me in Santa Cruz del Quiche. “Here we nip it the bud.”

A motorcycle thief is caught with the help of the Guardianes del Vecindario in Joyabaj (July 2019).

The Dark Place

Towards the end of my travels, Artemio sent word that Tio Chulico agreed to let me accompany the Vecinos Organizados on their Saturday night patrol. It would only cost me a bottle of Johnny Walker and a round of soda pop and potato chips for the patrolmen. As a general rule, I try not to mix research in conflict zones with hard alcohol, but this was an exceptional opportunity. Besides, I had already established a degree of rapport with the men. I felt I could trust them, even if I never saw their faces.

One of those men was El Andador, the mustachioed black ski mask from the first meeting, whose soft, unassuming voice and penetrating intellect had won me over quite plainly. I liked him from the start, in part because we both love photography (we conversed at length about aperture settings and lens angles), and in part because he was just very thoughtful, kind, and sober, all very comforting traits when one is surrounded by strange men with guns. El Andador told me he would be there for Saturday’s patrol—he and I had been emailing—and this helped to calm my nerves.

It was two hours past sundown when Artemio and I arrived at La Erica, another hilltop hacienda the Vecinos use for R&R. Tio Chulico and his associates, unmasked and veritably intoxicated, had been barbequing, and they invited us to a fine round of grilled corn, tamales, and Gallo (Guatemala’s national beer). But the dialogue was whiskey-toned and ruckus, the laughing abrasive. The joke about shooting the dog to try out a new kind of meat was not as funny as it once might have been. Cigarette smoke consumed my pores like in the 1990s, and the gray cinderblock walls of the hacienda, spider-webbed and tomblike, seemed to be closing in on us. El Andador was nowhere to be found, and Artemio hadn’t been back from the bathroom in a curious while. I began to fear things.

Then I noticed Artemio’s cell phone connected to a charger on the table and felt relieved. He would obviously come back for it, and a moment later he did. And Tio Chulico, for all his slurred speech and stumbles, was true to his word. When news came that the patrolmen had assembled in the town over, he immediately shut down the party, thus freeing us from the prospect of barbequed dog meat, and other prospects darker still. The real show was about to begin.

Fifteen minutes later Artemio and I were walking through an abandoned field in near pitch blackness, breathing in the fresh crisp air of a starry night sky, our fright turned to exhilaration.

“Welcome back, my photographer friend!” spoke a familiar voice from the dark.

El Andador emerged with his ski mask and trench coat, a swelling of masks about him. We were standing about thirty or forty yards from the highway, and the occasional flash of passing headlamps cast a dim glare on the men’s eyes and steely shotgun barrels. Strangely, I felt right at home.

The Vecinos at their pre-patrol meet up point (July 2019)

“You’re going to patrol with us, right?” Someone said.

“That’s right!” I replied.

“Well, then you will need these,” the man said, presenting us with a selection of face masks and cloaks to chose from. I chose a black plastic theater mask and something resembling a Prussian warrior’s tunic. Artemio, less concerned with style, settled with a very tight-fitting beanie cap with bored out eye holes.

“Men!” another voice thundered, a moment later, above the invisible sea of heads. “We’re heading out!”

Like a giant amoeba, the mass of us seemed to move in all directions at the same time, yet somehow still hovered towards the highway. Along the way, a few voices shouted peps. “Men, let’s show them what we’re made of!” These, in turn, were tempered by cooler heads. “Remember, we’re the good guys tonight, so we’re not going to throw anyone out of their cars, okay?”

The Vecinos on patrol in San Juan (July 2019)

Forming columns on either side of the highway, we marched for about a half-mile, passing several small furniture factories and pottery shops along the way. All of them were once regular victims of extortions and theft, I was told. We passed an elementary school that once shuttered its windows after gang extortionists threatened its young students. It was now re-opened and operating freely. We passed a street lamp, a yellowish monster from pre-LED times, and I snapped a photograph of those who took credit for this new world order.

The Vecinos Organizados (July 2019)

Tio Chulico, meanwhile, was very eager to portray the vigilante movement as a legitimate citizen security regime. Not entirely sober, he ordered his men to randomly stop passing vehicles, question their drivers, and search their belongings, which they did as respectfully as one might hope for, given the circumstances. Then, wishing to show me evidence that the public at large fully supported these endeavors, he insisted that I personally interview the detained drivers about their experience as it was happening. I still cringe at the image of it. There I am, clad in a black tunic and facemask, surrounded by fifty other masked men carrying any number of deadly weapons, asking a terrified old man to tell me how much he appreciates all this.

“Yes, well…umm…it’s good,” went the typical answer, either stuttered or scolding.

By midnight it was all over, and as promised, I bought a round of soda pop and potato chips for the patrolmen, who were plenty happy to kick back and relax a bit. I would have done the same, but my thoughts were now stuck uncomfortably on the long road back to my hotel. After dropping Artemio off at his home, a gated community with round-the-clock armed surveillance, I would have to drive the rest of the way alone. But I had never driven through these mountains so late at night, or so exhausted, or so without Artemio’s wits and pistol. Worse still, I would likely have to drive through areas controlled by other armed groups, groups that might be at war the Vecinos Organizados.

Enjoying a post-patrol soda pop.

Google Maps, it should be noted, does not track the territorial disputes of criminal organizations or any other armed non-state actor group. Instead, searching for the quickest way back, it took me right into the mouth of the lion, the infamous, gang-infested city of La Quetzal, headquarters of the Vecinos Organizados’ mortal enemies. There, my nerves frayed and head spinning, I ran a stop light at a five-way intersection, braking just in time to avoid slamming into an old Dodge minivan. The van screeched to a halt in front of us, and its driver stuck his head out of the window to curse me. His hair was greased back. He wore a wife-beater tank top. I think I saw a tattoo on his neck. I think I saw, in the dim yellow light of an old street lamp, in the brief few seconds before he drove off, a real marero!

Going Home

Less than a week after leaving Guatemala, Artemio sent me the news: El Andador had been shot to death by an unknown gunman as he left work late afternoon the previous Monday. Rumor pointed to a rival vigilante group, but Artemio surmised we would likely never know. The Public Ministry doesn’t get involved with these kinds of cases, he said. It’s not worth their time. They don’t have the resources. It’s too dangerous. The journalists won’t touch it, either, he lamented. “Some stories just aren’t worth risking your life for,” a local reporter had told me two weeks earlier. “Maybe none of them are,” I remember thinking.

I didn’t really care who did it, anyway. My thoughts, yanked from the billowing white clouds of a First World summer sky, fell like wet plastic wrap over the few brief moments I had spent with the fallen vigilante. The soft-spoken, mustachioed ski mask with whom I had discussed the minutia of hobby photography was, behind all the black cotton and bored steel, just a working man who assembled home furniture for a living. He had a wife. He had children. He had about thirty-five or forty years of doing what we all do, trying to the make the best out of the lot we’ve been given. He may have made some serious mistakes along the way. He may have done some terrible things. Beating a man to death with the butt of a shotgun may be one of them. But I can’t say whether he deserved what he got, only that deserve’s probably got nothing to do with it. He was a living, breathing man, the one they called El Andador, and now he was no longer.

As the dark of it all began to set in, I felt myself reaching for a familiar old habit. Like a child seeking safety under his blanket, I shut my eyes and wished into existence a clear moral order in which each and all elements of life—all the Good and all the Evil—had their rightful, unalterable place. In this orderly world, anyone with enough wits and goodwill could always navigate a safe path forward. Evil was a choice, one so obviously bad that only the truly evil could choose it. And if ever there must be war, I’d know which side was the Good one, and Good would always prevail.

Shaking myself from this fantasy, I suddenly thought of William, the Belizean shoe-shine boy in Huehuetenango from twenty years ago, his dark smiling eyes looking up at me. It really is beautiful here, don’t you think? Yes, William, it most certainly is. They was just frightened they’d come to take their babies, that’s all. Yes, I suppose that must be very frightening. Why are you afraid? I’m only a little, maybe more. You should stay! I have to go. Will you come back? Sure, I will. When? Someday. Will you come visit me? Of course, of course I will.

The Fernandez Family, El Quiche Department (July 2019).

[*] Note: The names of all persons depicted in this essay, given and assumed, have been altered to protect their identities.

[†] MS 13 and the Barrio 18 are Central America’s two main rival gangs. In the United States, however, only MS 13 continues to carry symbolic relevance for political discourse.

[‡] In English, “The Organized Neighbors”

[§] In English, “a marero seen is a marero dead.”

[**] In English, “We fight for our families!”

[††] Most scholarship has settled on a estimated total deaths of 200,000, the majority of whom were indigenous civilians.

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