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Violence and Gangs in El Salvador

October 6, 2013 1 comment

An article by Óscar Martínez at the New York Times raises questions about the nature of state-society relations in Central America and the tactics politicians and bureaucrats use to find a way out of the cycles of violence that grip these countries torn apart by civil war.

In short, the article details how the state negotiated with the imprisoned gang leaders of Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, the most important gangs in El Salvador. While historically a bit removed, it reminds me of Robert Holden’s history of “public violence” in Central America and his notion that Central American nations were once “armies without nations.” The absence of a strong centralized state and the presence of organized crime or states outside the state, makes governing difficult. This episode raises questions the tactics states can/should take to lower homicide rates, including negotiating with criminals. Is disregarding the rule of law justified in the face of such horrible violence?Image

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“Tierra malhabida” or “Ill-gotten Land” in Paraguay

July 5, 2012 Comments off

In my last post on Paraguay, I referred to grass-roots movements in Paraguay and their role in bringing about change in that country. I recently wrote a review of an anthropological monograph on peasant movements in Paraguay called Guerrilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay (Duke 2011) by Kregg Hetherington. Hetherington describes peasant “audits”–peasant claims on land through direct negotiation with technocrats–of the bureaucracy that handles the titling of land in Paraguay. In an age of supposed transparency and bureaucratic efficiency, the Instituto de Bienestar Rural (or IBR), a bureaucracy created under General Alfredo Stroessner (r. 1954-89) is one of the last tangible throwbacks to the hellish days of Stronato. At least, this is the narrative that “new democrats”–proponents of neoliberalism and transparency in Paraguay’s democracy–assert with regards to the IBR. But to peasants who for decades have worked with and within this bureaucracy to attain the status of title holders in Paraguay, it is the only viable non-violent method for attaining legal ownership of the land.

Hetherington describes the historicity of land redistribution and land claims in this way. He finds the rifts between campesinos and new democrats in the recent authoritarian past, under General Stroessner’s heavy-handed rule (1954 to 1989). In the 70s and 80s, Stroessner promoted a massive land re-distribution campaign that seemed to favor would-be small landholders. Ostensibly, the land reform proposed to build a new nation and modern economy on the shoulders of campesinos as they developed redistributed land. But receiving a land title was the last step in a long bureaucratic process for campesinos, which involved demonstrating that they had sufficiently developed a homestead. (There were three legal categories of landholding what culminated in “title” and only this last one was legally viable in courts). In this way, Stroessner’s Cold War land reform propaganda suggested that rights were material goods acquired through labor, linking the idea of political subjectivity to the development of uncultivated land (105).

Hetherington argues that in the transition years after the 1989 coup that removed Stroessner from power, campesinos (formerly Stroessner’s political base) and new democrats (the opposition to Stroessner and the ruling Colorado Party) articulated increasingly divergent goals for national development. Given campesino’s connection with Stroessner and his land reform, new democrats see campesinos as anachronisms in the new democratic age. Campesino interests do not fit into neoliberal goals of market rationality, which involve selling thousands of acres of land to Brazilian soy farmers.

Hetherington’s analysis of the Stroessner years needs further development and clarification, but is still one of the only recent analyses that sheds light on Stroessner’s land policy. In the Stronato historiography, Stroessner is cast as an enemy to land rights in Paraguay, with emphasis on his violent repression of several libertion-theology-inspired campesino movements. Hetherington shows, on the other hand that many campesinos look to Stroessner with fondness because he provided them with land and ostensibly served as their political patron.

In Stroessner’s framing of the situation in the 70s, campesinos were the answer to settling Paraguay’s “frontier” or vast tracts of unused and thereby “uncivilized” land still inhabited by Guarani gatherer/hunters. He envisioned (and partially realized) the settling of the land through massive handouts to would-be small landholders organized in small farming communities. These campesinos could ultimately achieve title status once they demonstrated that they had sufficiently “settled” the land, a process that became very messy and corrupt, as Hetherington describes. At the same time, Stroessner redistributed hundreds of thousands of acres to his fellow Colorado generals and clients. This land would turn into vast tracts of soy fields sold to and developed by a variety of large Brazilian agro companies.

This narrative demonstrates that peasants have had a complicated relationship with Stroessner, that their alliance with Stroessner and the Colorado party have been contingent upon their ability to come through with land. This then brings us back to the recent killings in Canindeyu, the event that prompted the parliament to impeach and oust Lugo. The media coverage of the conflicts in Canindeyu suggested that peasants were moved to violence after a long struggle to regain “tierra malhabida” or “ill-gotten land” given out by Stroessner’s to one of his generals. The use of this term “tierra malhabida” is interesting since it is not normally used to describe land acquired by large landholders. New democrats have dominated the use of the term when referring to peasants supposedly squatting on land that isn’t theirs. Many of these peasants would claim that they have ownership of the land because it was distributed to them under Stroessner’s land reform.

For many, Stroessner and his land bureaucracy are the only thing giving them a bit of legitimacy to their claims on land. This knowledge should cause us to question the historical significance of the Stronato on land in Paraguay and complicate portrayals of land struggles in Paraguay today.

Paraguay: politics, land and law

July 5, 2012 Comments off

I appreciate Colin’s posts on the recent happenings in Paraguay. I want to provide a few opinions that I’ve gleaned from friends in the country. My more conservative contacts tell me that the ouster of Lugo has been in the works for months and that the disaster in Canindeyu was only a debacle that Lugo’s enemies were waiting for to make their move; that much has already been made clear in much of the news coverage of this issue.

What the media has not covered well is that the coalition between the Liberal Party and other smaller left-leaning parties recently fell apart. Conservatives are saying that in preparation for the upcoming presidential elections in 2013, Lugo told Blas Llano, president of the Liberal Party, that their coalition had ended and that Lugo would not rely on the liberals to achieve re-election. Supposedly he was planning on relying on the Tecopora Party (Guarani for “living well) and the Tecojoja (“living in union”) Party, parties built from Lugo’s popular welfare programs. Lugo’s behind-the-scene’s rejection of the Liberal Party, according to some conservative insiders, is ultimately what prompted the coup.

This opinion stands in stark contrast to what many “new democrats” and several news outlets and bloggers have said. That is that the coup is reflection of “growing pains” in a democracy that is struggling to negotiate old-guard styles of running the country and the infusion of grass-roots political activity. Thus, many observers in Paraguay find the term “parliamentary coup” an apt term to describe what happened and that charges against Lugo were completely illegitimate.

Several articles have suggested (sometimes snidely) that Paraguay’s democracy is still in its infantile stage, and needs some “maturing” still. This rhetoric of a democracy “growing up” sounds familiar and resonates with rhetoric found in the age of US interventionism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It assumes that there is a standard, ostensibly Western Europe and the U.S., to which all democracies must aspire. While, yes, the coup in Paraguay was reprehensible, I do not think we can simply say that it is indicative of a democracy that is not quite like ours. Instead, we must understand historically how Paraguayan (and many LA countries’) democracies function: with a high degree of patronage and clientelism. In other words, I do not think we should engage in a centuries’ old practice of placing countries on a “democracy meter” whose standards are set by the U.S. (This opinion stems from my training as a colonialist and critical reading of the enlightenment as a “universally” good thing).

Still, I feel that we need better analyses of the tensions between the newer grass-roots politics and old-guard politics, the results of which I feel we are seeing. The historical question we can ask is the degree to which Lugo’s career was a reflection of these new politics or was he just a new player in the same game? I think historians will find that it was a mixed bag.

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Bones

April 17, 2012 3 comments

A few weeks back, Colin posted on one of the Madres, Zaida Franz, celebrating the identification of the remains of her disappeared daughter. It does not surprise us that this Mother would feel a sense of closure and relief at this discovery.

But after the military Junta fell in 1983, the Madres seriously debated whether or not to accept their disappeared children’s remains from the government. After a number of very contentious debates, the human rights group decided to oppose the unearthing of remains of the disappeared. Opposition stemmed from the fact that the government was simply handing out random skeletal remains to the Mother to silence them and “close the wounds” of the military’s reign. One mother reported that in 1984 she received a box from the government containing a partial human skeleton. An accompanying letter explained:

Dear Madam,
In response to your incessant search for your daughter Patricia, we have decided to send you part of her remains which should satisfy your anxiety to be reunited with your dear daughter…. This decisions was taken after an examination of her conduct as a member of a camp of armed guerrillas. In case you were unaware of them, we are listing the crimes that she committed with her husband Carlos Francesco:
-Betrayal of her country
-Concealing the activities of the enemy
-Collaborating actively with the Montonero assassins
For these reasons she was condemned to death. May God have mercy on her soul.

The Madre who received the package later verified that the remains belonged to a middle-aged male, not her youthful Patricia. Besides the attempts to close the door on the disappeared, the Mothers advocated keeping their children alive and bringing the military leaders to justice.

Since the 80s the process of finding the disappeared has become much more transparent and accurate, especially with the use of DNA testing. Still, the issue of bones has a long and painful history.

Paraguay’s Chaco

March 26, 2012 Comments off

The New York Times posted a video report and accompanying article on deforestation in Paraguay’s Chaco. The report focuses on the government’s meager attempts to stop deforestation, the role of foreign ranchers, and the displacement of indigenous people, like the Ayoreo. Highlighting the unsettled nature of the region and the difficulty of access, the reporter/narrator added that “even the Spanish conquistadors” struggled to settle the region.

I can’t help but chuckle at the reporter’s surprise that the Spanish conquistadors indefatigable spirit was challenged: you’re darn right it was. The Chaco region was never really “settled” by the Spaniards nor was there much desire to since most natives were non-sedentary. The Chaco region was also much larger then. The Paraguay river defined a borderlands for the Spanish settlements, with unsettled territory to the west of the river (now Argentina). The norther borderlands were defined by the Jejuy and/or Apa Rivers, about 200 miles north of Asuncion. Spaniards referred to Chaco groups generically as the Guaycuru. These were non-sedentary groups that subsisted from fishing, hunting, gathering, trading, and raiding who shared in the Guaycuru linguistic family. They often traded slaves for horses and iron items from Spaniards. At the same time, they constantly attacked and raided both Guarani and Spanish settlements. In the mid-17th century, Spaniards constructed a string of forts along the Paraguay River (see image below), but these were hardly the “castles”, that Spaniards described in print and in paint. These small outposts were mainly used to spot enemies coming up the rivers and then to sound the alarm so that those left defenseless could flee.

It was only in the late 18th century that Spaniards made serious attempts to settle the region, this after Jesuits had been working apace in the region for more than fifty years. Despite military attempts at pacifying the region, Guaycuru groups still troubled the new Paraguay nation. Today, the Paraguayan government turns a blind eye to its Chaco natives, allowing foreigners, mainly Brazilians to buy-up huge tracts of land while only employing a total of three environmental prosecutors.

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Kaiowa-Guarani Chief Murdered

November 18, 2011 Comments off

Brazil’s National Indian Foundation or Funai has reported that a Kaiowa-Guarani leader named Nisio Gomes was executed today near the Amambay in Mato Grosso do Sul. Forty masked men entered the the Guarani’s encampment, executed Gomes in front of his son who was also beat up and shot with a rubber bullet. (It’s interesting that hired thugs would possess rubber bullets–sounds like law enforcement or trained security was invovled). Two others were kidnapped, their whereabouts are unknown.The rest of the Guarani fled to hide in the forest. Apparently the gunmen were hired by local ranchers after the Guarani occupied land from which they were previously evicted. The Roman Catholic Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) told reporters that the Guarani remain defiant.

These types of land disputes and subsequent murders are common in Mato Grosso do Sul and in Paraguay’s chaco region. Throughout the twentieth century as monoculture agriculture and cattle ranching grew non-sedentary natives began to bump into farmers and ranchers. Many of these encounters resulted in just the thing that happened today in Mato Grosso–ranchers used violence to get natives off land they sought to use. In the 50s and 60s Catholic and Protestant missions tried to intervene. Many missions were established in cooperation with ranchers in an effort to bring natives out of the wilderness and out of conflict with advancing “progress.” This is a definitely a simplification of complicated processes with individual native groups, but many of them seem to have begun in an effort to save natives from these types of interactions with mestizo farmers and ranchers.

Unfortunately, as many anthropologists report, native populations were decimated once they came into constant contact large numbers of white missionaries. Encounters like today sadden me and reveal modern nation-states’ utter lack of resolve to preserve and protect minority indigenous peoples.

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Yguasu and Guaira

October 21, 2011 Comments off


Yguasu Falls (y- water, guasu- big) of Brazil, the longest waterfall in the world, measuring 1.7 miles across (caveat: Victoria is officially longer because it is unbroken, while Yguasu is not). When I visited the falls recently I was struck by the hugeness of the place. My photographs and video clips seemed so pointless; it’s truly an “experience” type of place. As I walked along the paths that overlook the falls I was reminded of a Jesuit’s description of the place when his company encountered it in the early seventeenth century. From a mile or so out from the falls, the Jesuit described what he thought was a forest fire, a huge plume of smoke rose high above the horizon, but as he got closer he realized what it was. Their descriptions indicate they were truly at awe.

The region surrounding the falls has an interesting history. Most websites credit Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca with the “discovery” of the Yguasu Falls; I believe a section of the falls on the Argentine side bears his name. Most sites jump from “discovery” to the nation-state and the “first population of the region” by Brazilians. “Discovery” is a stupid word to describe these events since Cabeza de Vaca was led by friendly natives to the place. More to the point, the region of Guaira, as it was called during the colonial period, was colonized and populated by Spaniards beginning in the latter half of the 16th century due to its large concentration of natives. Really, Guaira and most of the settlements lay fifty to one-hundred leagues to the north of the falls.

Histories of colonial Paraguay suggest that Guaira was colonized because elite Spaniards in Asuncion didn’t want to share their social and cultural power with their mestizo sons. This ‘push effect’ came on the heels of a rebellion in Asuncion supported by angry and anxious mestizos (the conquistadors’ sons) who apparently protested the fact that they were not granted Indians in encomienda. While many details of this historical thread need to be worked out this follows in line with other “push campaigns” throughout the Americas, a trend that some historians call conquest by relay.

Jesuits established reductions to the east of the R. Parana along R. Paranapanema, the R. Ivai between 1610 and 1630. By the 1630s unfriendly Indian raids and especially raids by Portuguese slavers drove the Jesuits to abandon the region and move to the region in-between the R. Parana and the R. Uruguay. For both the Spaniards and the Jesuits the region was in constant flux. The first major Spanish city, Villa Rica del Espiritu Santo, was established near the mouth of the R. Piquiry in 1570 but over the course of the next one-hundred years it moved six times finally ending up in the geographic middle of modern-day Paraguay.

In my previous post, I discussed the historicity of yerba-mate and as you might imagine yerba was an important commodity produced in Guaira. Because many parts of the region were so wet wild yerbales grew in abundance. Spaniards would send encomienda Indians to harvest these yerba from these wild groves as least once per year. Lots of the exports coming out of Guaira (including tallow, honey, hemp, and of course yerba) were sold in developing markets in Asuncion, Buenos Aires, and Santa Fe.

Unfortunately not much is known about social life in Guaira because most of the documentation from its cities and towns were “lost in the move.” But from the beginning it was a frontier that could not be tamed, a sentiment one feels when peering into the majesty and beauty of the falls.

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