News of a lynching

May 26, 2010

Journalist Michael Herr wrote that Vietnam taught him ¨that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem is that you didn´t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later.¨

In January I saw a lynching. The facts are these. At 9 AM on a Friday morning I arrived at my affiliate university, Guatemala´s most exclusive school located in the sprawling, affluent suburbs on the city´s south side. While I was meeting with my advisor, three young men (including one boy) snuck over the barbed wire fence that surrounds the parking lot and robbed a student at gunpoint. By the time I exited the campus around 10:30 AM, word of the robbery had spread, and a crowd of 50 students had caught  the men and begun to beat them. Although the campus police successfully extricated the suspects, students surrounded the traffic checkpoint where they were held and blocked an exit road, preventing additional police from entering the campus. Eventually, ambulances made it through, the purported assailants were taken to the hospital, and that was that, according to the three paragraph long account that appeared in newspapers the next day.

But what I saw, and remember, was this. As I walked out of the campus, through the closely guarded gates and under the razor wire, students from across the campus were running towards the parking lot. The spectacle was blocked by a bus, and so I didn´t see what was happening until I arrived at the bus stop. I for a moment I didn´t realize what was happening, I only saw a group of students dressed in carefully manicured American fashions, screaming and tearing at something. Then the police emerged from the crowd, holding the man with his hands handcuffed behind his back.  His shirt had been ripped off his body, his nose looked broken, his face was bleeding.  He face was taught with fury. The students followed.  One, a boy  in a black striped button up with gelled hair, jumped through the air, lifted his leg, and planted the sole of his shoe in the middle of the man´s naked back.

Too frequently, the violence I witnessed or heard accounts of  in Guatemala City unfolded in close proximity to my comfortable daily routine.  A wave of killings of police officers, possibly an attempt by organized crime to destabilize the center left government now in power, occurred on my route home from work and in my quiet Zone 2 neighborhood. And in the second week of March, my roommate and I were preparing dinner at 8 PM on a Tuesday night, when we heard the sounds of machine gun fire in the street outside our colonia. We learned later that a man in a pickup truck was shot by unknown assailants while driving his car. It was almost certainly a hit, as the assassins were probably waiting on top of a nearby house. The man was killed instantly, crashing into the wall that surrounded a nearby house. The next day I saw the cracks in the wall, now tilted and crumbling, revealing a pomegranate tree bearing unripe fruit within the courtyard.

But when I first heard the shots, I simply poured myself another glass of wine.

I haven´t written about it before because I didn´t know how to.  This period was my most difficult in Guatemala City. I have never felt more alienated, more lost,  more confused.  Because it is easy to list off statistics that illustrate the prevalence of violence here, the lynchings, victims of femicide, and disappeared from the civil war, but it is much harder to reconcile these images of violence with the Guatemala I experience on a daily basis, a place with a culture defined by an unusual mix of deferential formality and ribald humor, where melodramatic love songs are the soundtrack of choice for burly bus drivers and children are cared for as treasures.  How do such cruel cultures of violence emerge, and how is it possible that they are sustained? How can a place be so deeply traumatized that its people perpetuate the cycle of violence they have survived?

A month after I witnessed the lynching, I attended a ceremony that marked the beginning of the excavation of La Verbena, the public cemetery where unidentified bodies were dumped for decades and human rights advocates suspect the remains of the urban disappeared from the civil war can be found. After the various foreign diplomats from the embassies funding the dig gave their speeches, the group moved to the excavation site, a well several stories deep full of body bags. Family members of the disappeared were invited to name their loved ones, and to throw flowers into the grave. One by one, seemingly silent, stoic men and women, many now old, began to sob, screaming the names of their children and sisters, brothers and fathers. It was the sound of keening, grief so fresh and yet so old that it cannot be comprehended.

I would like to take responsibility for what I have seen, but I cannot even pretend that I  have begun to understand it.

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