I have devoted the last two posts to reflections on massacres in the coffeelands that happened more than a decade ago in the context of armed revolution, one in Guatemala and the other in Mexico. Why? Because these were not idle reflections on the remote past. The revolutionary movements of the 1980s in Central America may have faded. And the spectaular Zapatista uprising may have evolved into the more quotidian work for the democratization of everyday spaces in Chiapas. But many parts of the coffeelands are still — quite literally — in flames, and violence continues to cast a long and ominous shadow over the lives of coffee farmers.
In Guatemala, a lynch mob of more than 2,000 people recently burned a thief alive in the backpacker mecca Panajachel. The victim was accused of stealing textiles in the local market there. The angry crowd then turned on the police and demanded they turn over three other suspects they had taken into custody. When the police — to their credit — refused, the mob overturned and burned four National Civil Police trucks.
The incident came just over a week after another case of mob violence in the department capital city of Solola — a 20-minute drive from Panajachel — in which a lynch mob burned three people alive. In that case, the suspects were accused of executing of a bus driver after failing in their efforts to extort a ransom payment from the company he worked for. They were taken into custody by the police who — incredibly — turned the suspects over to the unruly mob when the crowd threatened to turn its ire on the police themselves. Once the suspects were released to the crowd, reprisal was fast and furious: they were doused with gasoline, burned in the central square and displayed as a warning.
One long-time activist recently told me the violence now is worse than it was during Guatemala’s 36-year genocidal civil war in which the official record suggests 250,000 people were killed. The massacres during the war were wrenching, he explained, but the dynamic and “logic” of the war were clear and transparent. By contrast, today’s violence in Guatemala is driven by a volatile and unpredictable mix of drug cartels, their shock troops, mafia, brutal gangs and a state that is — depending on who you ask — unable or unwilling to put it down. The reigning impunity has invited more amateur actors into the fray, with extortions routine even in rural communities where everyone still knows everyone else. As a result, the terror is more generalized. The ugly backlash in the coffeelands is a reflection of the fear, frustration and anger of common people.
The failure of the state to perform the most basic function of the social contract fuels the cycle of violence, as villagers in the coffeelands seek the kind of swift and terrible retribution we have seen in recent months in Guatemala. If you want to truly understand the coffelands, you have to understand that large swaths of it still feel a lot like the Wild West.