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Fear as a Way of Life Author(s): Linda Green Source: Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 9, No.
Fear as a Way of Life Author(s): Linda Green Source: Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 9, No.

Fear as a Way of Life Author(s): Linda Green Source: Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 9, No. 2 (May, 1994), pp. 227-256 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/656241

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Fear as a Way of Life

Linda Green

Departmentof Anthropology Columbia University

Thetraditionof the oppressed teachesus that'thestateof emergency' in whichwe live is notthe exception buttherule.

-Walter Benjamin



power so

effectively robsthemindof all its

powers of acting and reasoning as

make anythingterrible,obscurity seemsto be necessary.

-William Burke

People wantthe right to survive, to live withoutfear.



Fear is response to danger, but in Guatemala, rather than being solely a

subjective personalexperience,

ratherthan an acute reaction it is a chronic condition. The effects of fear are pervasive and insidious in Guatemala. Fear destabilizes social relations by driving a wedge of distrustwithin families, between neighbors,among friends. Fear divides communities through suspicion and apprehension not only of strangers butof each other.2Fearthriveson ambiguities.Denunciations,gossip, innuendos, andrumorsof death lists create a climate of suspicion. No one can be sure who is who. The spectacle of tortureand death and of massacres and disappearances in the recent past have become more deeply inscribed in indi- vidual bodies andthe collective imaginationthrough a constantsense of threat. In the altiplano fear has become a way of life. Fear, the arbiterof power-in- visible, indeterminate, and silent. What is the natureof fear and terrorthat pervades Guatemalan society? How do people understandit and experience it? And whatis at stakefor people who live in a chronicstate of fear? Might survival itself depend on a panoply of responses to a seemingly intractablesituation? In this article, I examine the invisible violence of fear and intimidation through the quotidianexperiences of the people of Xe'caj. In doing so, I try to

it has also penetrated the social memory.' And

Cultural Anthropology9(2):227-256. Copyright ?


1994, American Anthropological Association.


capture a sense of the insecurity that permeates individual women's lives wracked by worriesof physical andemotional survival, of grotesque memories,

relate below are the in-


andcollective accounts by virtueof their omnipresence(Lira andCastillo 1991; Martin-Baro 1990). Although thefocus of my workwith Mayan women was not explicitly on the topic of violence, an understanding of its usages, its manifes- tations, and its effects is essential to comprehending the context in which the women of Xe'caj are struggling to survive. Fear became the metanarrativeof my researchand experiences among the

people of Xe'caj. Fearis the reality in which people live, the hidden state of (in-

dividual and social) emergency thatis

make. Although

factoredinto the choices women andmen

of ongoing

militarization, of chronic fear.The stories I

experiences of the women with whom I worked;yet they arealso social

this "stateof emergency" in which Guatemalanshave been liv-


Albert Camuswrote that, from an examinationof the shifts between the normal


emergency, between the tragic andthe everyday emerges the paradoxes

and contradictionsthat bring into sharp relief how the absurd(in this case, ter-

ror) works (1955).


over a decade may be the norm, it is an abnormalstate of affairs indeed.

Violence and Anthropology

Given anthropology's empirical bent and the fact that anthropologists are

well positioned to speak

livelihood" (Taussig 1978:105), it seems curious thatso few have chosen to do so. Jeffrey Sluka has suggested thatthe practice of sociocultural anthropology

with its emphasis on a "cross-culturaland comparativeperspective, holistic ap- proach, reliance on participant observation, concentrationon local level analy- sis and 'emic' point of view" is particularly well suited to understanding the


dimensionof social conflict (1992:20). An-

thropologists, however, have traditionally approached the study of conflict,

out on behalf of the "people who provide us with our

war, andhuman aggression ple's lives. Although some

thropological inquiry over the last century-evolutionism,


manifestationsof violence, the lived experiences of theirresearch subjects have often been muted.When social conflict andwarfarehave been problematized it

has been often in abstractterms, divorcedfromthe historicalrealities of the co-

lonial or

litical anthropologists have emphasized taxonomy over process: for example,

the classification of simple

law, domination, and

vate sources, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, influenced the research agenda of NorthAmericanandBritish anthropologists, which was characterized by studies of orderanddisorderwithina functionalist paradigm(Vincent 1990). In Mesoamerica, RobertRedfield's 1927 investigation of Tepoztlan is ex- emplary of the ahistoricalnatureof acculturationstudies (Redfield 1930). Red-

from a distance, ignoring the harshrealities of peo- of thedominanttheoretical paradigms utilized in an-

and marxism-have






capitalist encounter. Throughout the 20th century, most studies by po-

or indigenouspolitical systems, political leadership,

intertribalrelations.After WorldWar I, funding from pri-



field stressed harmony andconsensus among the Tepoztecos,

tail their cultural traits and "life ways" without mention of recent historical events (the Mexican Revolution) or political realities (ongoing local turmoil in

Tepoztlan during his own fieldwork). There were exceptions, of course. Alex- anderLesser (1933), Monica Hunter (1936), andHilda Kuper(1947), for exam- ple, were producing politically and socially relevant ethnographyduring the same period. These studiesconcernedwith the impact of colonializationon mar- ginalized people were marginalized, however (Vincent 1990). Withthe upsurge of internecinewarfareworldwidesince WorldWar II, the

number of anthropological studies focusing on the subject of conflict and change increased exponentially. With the advent of the cold war in the 1950s,


revolutionary movements in many

counterinsurgency warfarebecame a common response to the dramaticrise

describing in de-

third-worldcountries.3While repression it-

self was not new, whatwas distinct were new patterns of repression andnew or-

ganizational forms for its implementation which emerged in close association

with United States security programs. Some anthropologists became involved in studies thatwere a resultof a U.S. militarypresence (for example, the contro- versial Cornell University Studies in Cultureand Applied Science), while other anthropologistsparticipated in intelligence activities during the Vietnam War. The emergence of two analytical frameworkswithin anthropology-neoevolu- tionarytheory (Fried 1967; Sahlins and Service 1960; Service 1962) and marx-

the increasing polarization taking

ism (Gough 1968; Hymes 1969)-mirrored

place in the United Statesin the 1960s. Yet, systematic inquiry on the subject of

human rights violations remainedelusive. Despite an alarming rise in the most

blatantforms of transgressions-repression

not captured the anthropological imagination (Downing and Kushner 1988). Overwhelming empirical evidence demonstrates that state violence has been

standard operatingprocedure in numerous contemporary societies in which an- thropologists have conducted fieldwork for the past threedecades.4 Paul Doughty, in a stinging commentary of anthropology's claim to author-

ity on the subject of Native Americans, has questioned

not addressed systematically "themost vital issues that deeply affected all Na- tive Americanssince Europeanconquest":death,discrimination,displacement, dispossession, racism,rampantdisease, hunger, impoverishment, and physical and psychological abuse (1988:43). Nancy Scheper-Hughes is insightful in this regard. She writes in her eloquent ethnography of everyday violence in North- east Brazil that "acritical practice (of social science research) implies not so

much a practical as an epistemological struggle" (Scheper-Hughes 1992:172). Perhaps this is whatlies at the heartof anthropology's diverted gaze. Whatis at stake, it seems, are the struggles between the powerful and the powerless, and what is at issue for anthropologists is with whom to cast their lot.

A numberof practitionerstoday who work in "dangerous field situations"

have begun to deconstructthe insidious and pervasive effects and mechanisms of violence and terror,underscoring how it operates on the level of lived expe- rience (Feldman 1991; Lancaster 1992; Nordstromand Martin 1992; Scheper-

and state terrorism-the topic has

why monographs have


Hughes 1992; Peteet 1991; Suarez-Orozco 1990, 1992; Taussig 1987, 1992b). AndrewTurtonhas pointed out thatan examinationof power must "includethe techniques and modalities of both more physically coercive forms of domina- tion and more ideological and discursive forms andrelations between the two, in which fear may be a crucialfactor" (1986:39-40). Among anthropologists it is Michael Taussig who has so well captured the complexities and nuances of terror,giving terrorsentience (1987). What is consistently compelling about Taussig's work,despite its sometimesrecondite tendencies, is his ability to por-

tray terror viscerally, in effect to take a moral stance against power played out in its more grotesque forms. In Guatemala recent works by Carmack (1988), Manz (1988), AVANCSO (1992), Falla (1992), andWilson (1991) have begun to document and analyze the testimonies of individual and collective experi-

ences during the most recent reign of terror.RicardoFalla in

his haunting 1992

accountof the massacresof the Ixcan,Guatemala, between 1975 and 1982, asks the chilling question of why one ought to writeaboutmassacres(andterror). His answeris simple yet provocative: intellectualscan act as intermediaries, to lend theirvoices on behalf of those who have witnessed andlived through the maca-

bre.This is the anthropologist as scribe,faithfully documenting whatthe people themselves narrateas their own histories, that which they have seen, smelled,

touched, felt, interpreted, and thought. Not to

tends, is an "actof indifference," a hostile act. Monographs can become "sites of resistance," "actsof solidarity," or a way to "write againstterror," andanthro- pology itself employed as an agent of social change (Scheper-Hughes1992:28).

do so, as Scheper-Hughes con-

The Nature of Fear

Writing this articlehas been problematic. And it has to do with the nature


to include some of my own experiences of fear duringmy field researchrather

thanstand apart as

andis impossible to stand apart. Itsoon became apparent that any understanding of the women's lives would includea journey into the state of fear in which ter-

ror reigned andthatwould shape the very natureof

ships in Xe'caj. Second, it was from these shared experiences that we forged common grounds of understanding and respect. Fear is elusive as a concept; yet you know it when it has you in its grips. Fear, like pain, is overwhelmingly present to the person experiencing it, but it may be barely perceptible to anyone else and almost defies objectification.6 Subjectively, the mundane experience of chronic fear wears down one's sensi- bility to it. Theroutinizationof fearunderminesone's confidence in interpreting the world. My own experiences of fearandthose of the women I know aremuch

like what Taussig aptly describesas a stateof "stringing out the nervous system one way toward hysteria, the other way numbing and apparent acceptance"


While thinking and writing aboutfear and terror, I was inclined to discuss what I was doing with colleagues knowledgeable about la situacion in Central

the topic itself, the difficulty of fixing fearandterrorin words.5I have chosen

an outsider, an observer, for two reasons. First of all, it was

my interactionsandrelation-



America. I would describeto themtheeerie calm I felt most days, anunease that lies just below the surfaceof everyday life. Most of the time it was more a vis- ceral ratherthana visual experience, and I tried, with difficulty, to suppress it. One day I was relating to a friendwhatit felt like to pretend notbe disturbed by the intermittentthreatsthatwere commonplace throughout 1989 and 1990 in

Xe'caj. Some weeks

while painted-faced soldiers with M-16s in hand perched above us, watching. My friend's response made me nervous all over again. He said thathe had in- itially been upset by the ubiquitous military presence in CentralAmerica. He too, he assured me, had assumed thatthe local people felt the same. But lately he had been rethinking his position since he had witnessed a numberof young women flirting with soldiers, or small groups of local men leaning casually on tanks. Perhaps, we North Americans, he continued, were misrepresenting what was going on, reading our own fears into the meaning it hadfor CentralAmeri-

the market plaza would be surrounded by five or six tanks

cans. I went home wondering if perhaps I was being "hysterical,"stringing out the nervous (social) system. Had I been too caught up in terror'stalk?7Gradu-

ally I came to realize thatterror's power, its matter-of-factness, is exactly about doubting one's own perceptions of reality. The routinizationof terroris whatfu- els its power. Such routinizationallows people to live in a chronic state of fear with a facade of normalcy, while that terror, at the same time, permeates and shreds the social fabric. A sensitive and experienced Guatemalaneconomist

noted thata majorproblem for social scientists working in Guatemalais

survive they have to become inuredto the violence, training themselves at first

not to react, thenlaternot to feel (see) it. They miss the context in which people live, including themselves. Self-censorship becomes second nature-Ben- tham's panopticon internalized.


become socialized to terror?Does it imply conformity or ac-

quiescence to the status quo, as my friend suggested? While it is true that, with repetitiveness and familiarity,people learn to accommodatethemselves to ter-

ror and fear, low-intensity panic remains in the shadow of waking conscious- ness. One cannotlive in a constantstate of alertness, and so the chaos one feels becomes infused throughout the body. It surfaces frequently in dreams and chronic illness. In the mornings, sometimes my neighbors and friends would

speak of theirfears during the night, of being unable to sleep, or of being awak-

ened by footsteps or voices, of

nightmares of recurring deathandviolence. After

six months of living in Xe'caj, I too started having my own nighttimehysteria,

dreamsof death,disappearances, and

torture. Whisperings, innuendos, and ru-

mors of death lists circulating would put everyone on edge. One day a friend,

Nacho, from Xe'caj came to my house, very anxious. He explained, holding

backhis tears, thathe

taryencampment. As Scheper-Hughes has noted "theintolerablenessof the[se] situation[s] is increased by [their] ambiguity" (1992:233). A month later two soldiers were killed one Sunday afternoonin a surpriseguerrilla attackakilome- ter from my house. That evening several women from the village came to visit;

emotionally distraught,they worriedthatla violencia, which had been stalking

How does one

hadheardhis namewas on the newest deathlist atthemili-


them, hadatlastreturned.Dona Marianoted thatviolence is like fire; it can flare up suddenly and bum you. The people in Xe'caj live underconstant surveillance. The destacamento (military encampment) looms large, situated on a nearby hillside above town; from there everyone's movements come underclose scrutiny. The town is laid out spatially in the colonial quadrangle pattern common throughout the alti- plano. The town square, as well as all of the roads leading to the surrounding countryside, arevisible fromabove. To anuntrained eye, the encampment is not obvious frombelow. The camouflagedbuildings fade into the hillside, butonce has lookeddown from there, it is impossible to forget thatthose who live be- low do so in afishbowl. Orejas(spies, literally"ears"),militarycommissioners, andcivil patrollersprovide the backboneof militaryscrutiny.8 These local men areoften formersoldiers who willingly report to the army the "suspicious" ac- tivities of their neighbors.9 The impact of the civil patrols (or PACs) at the local level has been pro- found. One of the structuraleffects of the PACs in Xe'caj has been the subordi-



of traditional village political

authority to the local army commander.

When I arrivedin Xe'caj, I first went to the mayor to introduce myself. I asked for his permission to work in the township and surroundingvillages, but mid- way throughmy explanation, he cut me off abruptly. If I hoped to work here, he explained impatiently, then whatI really needed was the explicit permission of the commandanteat the armygarrison. The civil patrolsguard theentrancesand exits to the villages in Xe'caj, he said. Without permission from the army the civil patrols would not allow me to enterthe villages. My presence as a stranger and foreigner produced suspicions. "Why do you want to live and work here with us?" "Why do you wantto talkto the widows?""Forwhom do you work?" the alcalde asked.It was the local army officers who told me it was a free coun- try and thatI could do as I pleased, provided I had their permission. One of the ways terrorbecomes diffused is through subtle messages. Much as CarolCohndescribesin her unsettling 1987 accountof the use of languageby nuclearscientists to sanitize their involvement in nuclear weaponry, in Guate- mala language and symbols areutilized to normalizea continual armypresence.

Fromtime to time armytroops would arrivein aldeas (villages) obliging the vil- lagers to assemble for a communitymeeting. The message was moreor less the

same each time I witnessed these

telling the people thatthe army is their friend, thatthe soldiersarehereto protect

them against subversion, against the communists hiding out in the mountains. At the same timehe would admonishthem that if they did not cooperate Guate- mala could become like Nicaragua, El Salvador, or Cuba. SubtienenteRodri- quez explained to me during one such meeting thatthe army is fulfilling its role of preservingpeace and democracy in Guatemala throughmilitary controlof the entire country. Ignacio Martin-Barohas characterized social perceptions re- duced to rigid and simplistic schemes such as these as "official lies," in which social knowledge is cast in dichotomous terms, black or white, good or bad,

gatherings. The commandantewould begin by



friend or enemy, without the nuances and complexities of lived experience


Guatemalansoldiers at times arrive in the villages accompanied by U.S. NationalGuarddoctors or dentists who hold clinic hours for a few days. This is part of a larger strategydeveloped underthe Kennedy doctrine of Alliance for

Progress, in which civic actions are part of counterinsurgencystrategies.10 Yet the mixing of the two, "benevolent help" with militaryactions, does not negate

the essential fact that "violence is

logic" (Scheper-Hughes 1992:224). Coercion through its subtle expressions of

official lies androutinizationof fear

tary uses to control citizens, even in the absence of war.

I was with a groups of widows and young orphangirls one afternoonwatch-

ing a TV soap opera. It was in mid-June, a week or so before ArmyDay. During

Kaibiles appeared on the


through the mountains. 1 Each time a new frame appeared, therewas an audible

gasp in the room. The last image was of soldiers emerging from behind corn stalks while the narrator said, "The army is ready to do whateveris necessary to

and said, "Si pues, siempre

estanlista que se matanla gente" [sic]

defend the country." One young girl turnedto me

one of the commercial breaks, a screen dressed for combat with

intrinsic to its [the military's] nature and

andterrorare apt mechanisms thatthe mili-

series of images of

painted faces, clenching

their rifles

(they are always ready to kill the people).

in this context.



significant. The women would say they

family members, even if dressed

wearingarmy boots. When my neigh-



The use of camouflage cloth for clothing andsmall items sold atthe market is a subtle, insidious form of daily life's militarization. Wallets, key chains,

belts, caps, and toy helicopters madein Taiwanare disconcerting

As these seemingly mundane objects circulate, they normalize the extent to

which civilian and military life have commingled in the altiplano. Young men

who have returnedto villages from military service often wear

shirtsthatdenote the military zone in which they had been stationed, and their

dog tags. The boots themselves are

knew who it was that kidnapped or killed their

in civilian clothes, because the men were

young boys brought

him over to my house so they could show his photo albumto me with

the young soldier stood shyly in the background, Juanitoand Reginaldo pointed

enthusiastically to photographs of

bor's cousin on leave from the army came for a visit, the

he was leaning on a tank slung over his shoulder,

with his automaticrifle in hand, a bandolierof bullets

while in anotherhe was throwing a hand grenade.Yet, these same boys told me,

many monthsafterI had moved into my house andwe had become friends, that

when I first arrived they were afraid I might kill them. And Dofa Sofia, Regi- naldo's mother, was shocked to learn thatI did not carry a gun.

internalizationof war

and militarization among a group of 203 children in an effort to understandto

what extent they have assimilated the efficacy of violence in

and social problems (1989). While generalizations cannot be drawnfrom such


a limited study, whatMartin-Barofound to be significant was thatthe

of the children interviewed stated that the best way to end the war and attain

theircousin. In one,

In El Salvador,Martin-Baro analyzed the


solving personal


peace was to eliminate the enemy (whether understoodas the Salvadoran army or the FMLN [Farabundo Manti National Liberation Front]) through violent means.This tendency to internalizeviolence is whatMartin-Barohas referredto as the "militarizationof the mind" (1990). The presence of soldiers and ex-soldiers in communities is illustrative of lived contradictions in the altiplano and provides another example of how the routinizationof terrorfunctions. The foot soldiersof the army arealmost exclu- sively young rural Mayas, many still boys of 14 and 15 years, rounded up on

army"sweeps" through ruraltowns. The "recruiters"arrivein

grabbing all young men in sight, usually on festival or market days when large

thecenterof the pueblo. One morn-

ing at dawn, I witnessed four such loaded trucks driving out from one of the

each corer of the truckwith rifles pointed

outward, the soon-to-be foot soldiers packed in like cattle.Little is known about

the training these young soldiers receive, butanecdotaldatafrom some who are

willing to talk suggests thatthe "training" is designed to breakdown a sense of personal dignity and respect for other human beings. As one young man de- scribed it to me, "Soldiers are trainedto kill and nothing more" (see also For- ester 1992). Another said he learned (in the army) to hate everyone, including

himself. The soldiers who sentryduty in the pueblos

pass through the villages on recognizance andtake up are Mayas, while the vast majority of officers arelad-

inos, fromother regions of the country, andcannot speak the local language. As

a second lieutenant explained, armypolicy directsthatthe foot soldiers andthe commandersof the local garrisons change every three months, to prevent sol-

diersfrom getting to know the people. A small but significant numberof men in Xe'caj have been in the army. Many young men returnhome to their natal vil- lages after they arereleased from militaryduty. Yet, their reintegration into the

and problematic. As one villager noted, "They [the

men/boys] leave as Indians, but they don't come back Indian." During theirtime of service in the army, some of the soldiers areforced to kill andmaim. These young men often go on to become the local military com- missioners, heads of the civil patrol, or paid informersfor the army.Many are demoralized,frequentlydrinking and turning violent. Others marry andsettle in their villages to resume their lives as best they can. I met several women whose sons had been in the military when theirhus- bandshad been killed by the army. In one disturbingsituation, I interviewed a widow who described the particularly gruesome death of her husband at the hands of the army, while behind her on the wall prominently displayed was a photograph of her son in his Kaibil uniform. When I asked about him, she ac- knowledged his occasional presence in the household and said nothing more. I was at first at a loss to explain the situationandher silence; later I came to un- derstandit as part of the rationalinconsistencies thatare built into the logic of her fracturedlife. On a purelyobjective level, it is dangerous to talk aboutsuch things with strangers.Perhaps she felt her son's photographmight provide pro- tection in the future. Although I raninto this situationseveral times, I neverfelt

community is often

two-ton trucks

numbersof people have gatheredtogether in


of Xe'caj, soldiers standing in



free to ask more aboutit. I would give the women the opportunity to say some- thing, but I felt morally unable to pursue this topic. The women would talk freely, although at great pains, about the brutal past but maintaineda stoic si- lence about the present. Perhaps the women's inability to talk about the frag-

ments of their tragicexperiences within the context of largerprocesses is


son (the soldier) would perform the same brutishacts as those used against her and her family? To maintaina fragile integrity, must she block the association in much the same way women speak of the past atrocities as individualacts but remainsilent aboutthe ongoing process of repression in which they live? The di- vision of families' loyalties becomes instrumentalin perpetuating fear and ter- ror.

a survival strategy. How is it thata mother might be able to imagine thather

in it-

In commenting on local violence in San Pedro de la Laguna during the

1980s, Benjamin Paul's analysis is revealing of the relationship between disor- der andcontrol andhow local factionalism has been manipulated and exploited in ruralcommunities contributing to a breakdownin social structure (Paul and Demarest 1988). It should be noted that San Pedro was less affected by direct armyrepression and guerrillaactivity in the 1980s than many other towns; yet

years. Paulnotes that:

local death squads terrorizedthe population for over four


divisivenessand settling old scores, butthe temptation shouldbe resisted.Reli-

gious competition and vigorouspoliticalinfighting werefeaturesof San Pedro life for decadesbefore 1980without producing violence.The samecan be said

andweresettled by means

shortof murder.What disrupted the

for interpersonalantagonisms.They arosein the past


be tempting to blamethe outbreakof violence in San Pedroon social


in SanPedrowasnotthe presence of

agents and spies


differencesanddivisionsbutthe army's recruitmentof

theeffect of exploiting these cleavages.[Paul andDemarest 1988:153-154]

The Structure of Fear

The "culture of fear" that pervades Guatemalan society has roots in the traumaof the Spanish invasion five centuries earlier.Fearand oppression have been the dual and constant features of Guatemalan history since the arrivalof Pedro Alvarado and his conquistadores in the early 16th century. The words written in the Annals of the Cakchiquels almost five hundred years ago are as meaningful today as then:



little,heavy shadowsandblack nightenveloped


All of us werethus. Wewerebornto die. [Recinos andGoetz 1953]


Andus also,oh, my sons

Terror is the taproot of Guatemala's past and stalks its present. When speaking of la violencia of the 1980s, I was struck by how frequently people used the metaphor of conquest to describe it. "Lo mismo cuando se mato a Te- cum Uman" (It is the same as when they killed Tecum Uman), Dona Marta said,


alluding to the K'iche-Mayan herowho died valiantly in battle against the Span-

ish, when describing

the Spanish conquest have become more commonplace on the cusp of its quin- centenary, in 1988 and early 1989 ruralconstructions of local experiences in

termsof the invasion were striking,haunting, as if a collective memory hadbeen passed generation to generation. Citing Benjamin, Taussig asserts that "it is where historyfigures in memory, in an image thatflashes forth unexpectedly in

a momentof crisis, that contendingpolitical forces engage in battle" (1984:88).



constructingpolitical consciousness and the will to act politically" (1984:88). Franciscandocuments from the 16th century describe the disorderresult- ing from a local judge's orderto bur down towns when Indiansrefusedto com- ply with official decrees. Lovell writes, "Chaosensued. Roads and trails were strewn with poor Indian women, tied as prisoners, carrying children on their backs, left to fend for themselves" (1992:epilogue, 34). Five hundred years later

publicationsby anthropologists(Carmack1988; Falla 1983, 1992; Manz 1988) andnumerousinternationalhuman rightsgroups recountviolations of a similar

magnitude (America's Watch

the recent "whirlwindof death." Although references to

this way history

engaged throughmemory becomes a social force comprised

"the power of social experience, imagery and mood, in constructing andde-

1986, 1990; Amnesty International 1981, 1982,


Fear has been the motor of oppression in Guatemala. As Brecht noted,

"Fearrules not only those who

elite, dominantclasses aredriven by racistfears of "indios"and in morerecent decades by the "redmenace"of communiststo perform the most brutishacts to protect the status quo. There are upper-class ladinos in Guatemala City who deny thatthe massacres in ruralareasever really happened. In one interview, a

are ruled, butthe rulerstoo" (1976:29-297). The

ladina journalist noted that

a commotion among

one of the reasons why repression did not cause too big

Guatemalansin the capital wasbecauseit was mainly Indiansthatwereaffected.

All the suffering thattook place wasnot

Indians.TheGuatemalan upper classbelievesthatIndianscannot reallyfeel, that

anIndianwomanwill not truly sufferif herhusbandorchildrenarekilledbecause

she is not"thesameas us."

reallysuffering becauseit happened to


Although Suarez-Orozco has described the process of denial in Argentina

during the years of the "dirty war"as a psychological coping mechanism for the terror (1992), what stands apart in Guatemala is not the denial of the

suffering, rootedin racism.For the women

unthinkable, buta dismissiveness of

and men of Xe'caj, however, fear is a way of life, and injustice the rule.

Like most fledgling anthropologists, I had been nervous about getting my

research underway andwas well

aware, or so I thought, of the "special" circum-

stances in which I had chosen to work. By the time I began fieldwork in Guate-

mala in 1988, it was permissible to discuss openly and publicly "la situacion" and"laviolencia" of the past eight or so years, andthe plight of widows andor- phans was becoming a matterof public record.12 Yet, the fragile "democratic



opening," which had been

buoyed by a sense of hope when Vinicio Cerezo took office

vilian president in 16 years), was in grave dangerby 1988. An attemptedcoup

d'etat in the spring of for significant social

backstage. In short, the military recognized the need for internationaland na- tional legitimacy through a returnto civilian rule in orderto addressits severe economic and political crises.

In retrospect, political analysts now define the May 1988 and May 1989 coup attempts as "successful"in all but yielding the presidential seat. Whatlittle power the military had relinquishedduring the electoral process in 1985 hadre- verted back into the hands of the generals. Although, as these coups demon- strated, the army was far from a monolithic institution (Anderson and Simon

clearer was that

1988 (followed by anotherin May 1989) dashed anyhopes reform.The military remained firmly in charge, although

welcomed by

the majority of the population in 1985,

(the first elected ci-

1987; Jonas 1991; Mersky 1989),13 what was becoming

Cerezo's role was to be directedtowardaninternationalaudience.He had, in ef-

fect, yielded power to the military without vacating the presidentialpalace. Hu- man rights violations in the capital and in ruralareas continued unabated. Internationalhuman rights organizations documented the continuationof

systematic human rights violations (see America's Watch

International 1987). Once again, the U.S.-based Council on Hemispheric Af-

fairs namedGuatemalaas the worst human-rights violator in LatinAmericafor 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992. The massacre of 21 campesinos in El Aguacate,

San Andres Itzapa,Chimaltenango, in 1988; the political assassinationsof Hec-

tor Oqueli from

and the political leaderDanilo Barillas; the killings and disappearances of uni-

versity studentsand human-rightsworkers; the 1990 murderof the anthropolo- gist MyrnaMack;systematictorture,threats, andintimidation against countless others throughout the period-all these point to the persistent violence andre-

pression used by the state against its citizenry. While the statehas denouncedthe atrocities, it has tried to explain them away as crimes by delinquents. It has vowed to investigate and prosecute fully those responsible, but few have ever



complicity of state security forces. Thus, with a wink and a nod to its citizens,

a policy of impunity makes it clear to everyone who retains power and under what conditions. As Martin-Barro noted, "The usefulness of violence is its ef- fectiveness andthecrucial pointconcerning the proliferation of violence in Cen- tralAmerica is its impunity underthe law" (1990:344). Despite a hideous recordof documented human-rightsabuses, the United

1992 for thefifth consecutive it in the advisory ratherthan

Nations Commission on Human Rights decided in year to downplay Guatemala's record by placing

violations category. Yet inside the country, repression continued unchecked. Repression is used selectively: to threaten,intimidate,disappear, or kill one or two labor leaders,students, or campesinos is to paralyzeeveryone else withfear. Terroris widespread and generalized. If one crosses the arbitraryline, the con-

1990 and Amnesty

El Salvador, Gilda Flores,

a prominent Guatemalan attorney,

convicted or have served a prison term for human-rights violations-de- the fact that frequently therehas been substantialevidence indicating the


sequences arewell known; the problem is thatone cannotbe surewhere the line is nor when one has crossed it until it is too late.

searching for a field site, I settled upon Xe'caj. Al-

After several monthsof

though it had been the site of much bloodshed and repression during the early 1980s, la situacion was reportedlytranquila(calm) in 1988. The terrorand fear

that pervadeddaily life were not immediatelyperceptible to me. Military check- points, the armygarrison, andcivil patrols were clearly visible; yet daily life ap- peared "normal."The guerrillawar, which reachedan apex in the early 1980s, had ended at least in theory if not in practice.Although guerrillatroops moved throughout the area, clashes between them and the army were limited. The war hadreacheda stalemate.While the army claimed victory, the guerrillas refused to admit defeat. The battlefield was quiescent, yet political repression contin- ued. Scorched-earth tactics, massacres, and largepopulationdisplacements had halted, but they were replaced by selective repression and the militarizationof daily life. Army General AlejandroGramajo's now infamous inversion of Karl Marievon Clausewitz's "politics as a continuationof war"was clearly accurate. The counterinsurgency war had transformed everyday life in the altiplano into a permanent stateof repression. Economicconditionsin this climate were unsta- ble, and the majority of people found themselves more deeply entrenched in poverty, hunger, and misery (