Death as a way of life

MAY adios nino B4Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death
Deborah T Levenson
2013, Duke University Press
183 pages, paperback, plates


IN A society where violent death is everywhere, it is impossible to live. For this reason, members of the feral youth gangs that inhabit the dark underbelly of Guatemala City embrace the only condition over which they have ever managed to exert any control. As a result, many spend their lives killing – often each other – and expect to be dead by the age of 22. It is this Hobbesian condition that Deborah Levenson captures brilliantly in her depressing history of gangs and their transformation in one of the world’s most dangerous cities. It is an urban environment so traumatised by the aftermath of a genocidal war and the social destruction caused by neoliberalism that it is all but impossible for outsiders to comprehend, but she has done so and has clearly put herself at risk in the process. Since the 1980s the Maras, or organised youth gangs populated by tattooed thugs, have come to epitomise the depth of this trauma. Levenson captures from the outset the psychologically harrowing climate in which so many Guatemalan citizens struggle to exist in country where the rule of law has all but broken down. She paints a detailed picture of the conditions in which Mara violence has festered and develops the concepts of “necropolitics” – levels of state violence so spectacular that they rested on the absolute negation of life – and “necroliving”, the Maras’ cohabitation with death that invades comprehensively the subjectivity of everyday life. She writes: “In the city, the postwar mareros control life through their power to take it away.” The bitter, tragic irony of this condition is that hardly any members of the violent Maras of the 1990s directly experienced war – in fact, they came of age in a Guatemala City “remade and reassembled by violence”. Levenson has set herself the almost impossible task of unpicking and explaining the messy consequences of this, while exhorting us in often heart-rending terms to extend our compassion towards the abandoned subjects of an abandoned nation.