Violence in Central American States is regularly headline news. In Guatemala, the gangs called “maras” thrive on drug trafficking and extortions. Their violence is however not as indiscriminate as it may seem: in reality, it plays a growing role in the criminalisation of social movements, and notably of the union movement.

It is an ordinary scene in Guatemala; a bus driver and his assistant are lying on the ground in a pool of blood. They have been killed by presumed members of one of the many criminal gangs that operate in the country through drug trafficking and extortions: the maras. The police rapidly arrive on the scene with black SUVs, the bodies are immediately covered by tarpaulins, only the feet are visible; and all this under the eyes of an accustomed crowd. In Guatemala, violence is a part of ordinary life. Not a single day goes by without Guatemalans dying of gunshot. This country of Central America even holds one of the highest homicide rates in the world: 45 per 100 000 inhabitants. The high publication newspapers thrive on it with bloody headlines: bus drivers killed, murdered women, and, latest folly to date, decapitated bodies, in a background of settling of scores between narco-traffickers. The news articles even showcase the different stages of the events with small cartoon drawings. According to the Human Rights prosecutor, since 2006, 617 bus drivers and 199 assistants have been murdered; this is maybe the most dangerous job in the country. These are the macabre numbers of the extortion fever that is raging in Guatemala.

As they have become much more than a source of financial wealth, organised extortion practices are used to quietly repress certain social movements, and the union movement in particular. In this context of endemic social violence, the repression thus goes through more ambiguous ways than the only use of proven strategies such as intelligence gathering, knowledge of repression tools, or even legal resources to demobilise social movements. In this sense, the violent social order becomes itself a form of control: there is no need to mobilise repressive resources, simply allowing the already present violence to take place is enough, thus letting it weigh on the potential contesters.

The economy of extortions

According to certain estimates1, the sum stemming from organised extortions of businesses, individuals and factory employees in Guatemala by criminal groups would have reached the amount of 100 million quetzales in 2005 (approximatively USD 13 million). Urban transportation is indeed not the only sector targeted by the racket economy. Small businesses, peddlers, and employees of the big textile factories are also victims of this particularly lucrative activity. Gamaliel Chil, the president of the association of bus drivers, estimates that around 1.2 million quetzales a month (approximately USD 150 000) is the price paid by the transportation businesses to criminal groups to prevent the attacks on their employees. Alongside the extortions taking place in urban transportation, the workers of the numerous textile factories in Guatemala called “maquilas”, are also the victims of the criminal networks. Behind the walls of the industrial zones of Mixco and Villa Nueva in the suburbs of Guatemala City and the pueblos workshops in the North East, millions of clothes are thus assembled, sewn, labelled, inspected, and ironed to be packed in boxes destined to the United States. In Guatemala, people thus dress the North since over 30 years. These factories have become the targets of the groups which organise the extortions. The low professional prerequisites demanded during recruitment have facilitated the penetration of maras members within the workforce. The maras have also rapidly knitted their network within certain industrial parks. Cesar, an employee from a Mixco factory, explains how the extortion takes place in his factory. “What happens, is that the mareros impose that a tax is paid. We are paid every fortnight and they demand that we pay 20 quetzales, sometimes more, every two weeks”. For a factory employing over five thousand workers, the extortions can reach very important sums. The maras have even infiltrated the factories’ structures by corrupting the management staff. “The supervisors themselves have to, because of their own needs, participate to the extortions. In fact, what they do, is that to some workers, they give a 100 quetzales bonus, more than what they should get in bonus, and then the worker gives him back 50 quetzales. This way, he earns money”, explains Mario, a Mixto employee. Like a number of other workers, he suffers the law of the maras. When faced with threats of reprisal, they all pay the tax every fortnight. He does not have a choice: “There was a worker who refused to pay, he was found dead a few streets away from the factory, a bullet in his head”. The extortion economy is spreading all over the capital and often targets the most vulnerable: employees who work in factories where the management refuses to pay the taxes to the maras, or the shopkeepers incapable of paying the expensive services of private security businesses. The criminal organisations are thus reinforced by the earnings of extortions; to such a point that racket has become a true underground economy and a simple way to silence any competition.  Indeed, if the authorities regularly point the finger at the maras, in a number of cases, the extortions are organised by the factory bosses themselves. In the urban transportation sector for example, some owners use extortion to eliminate the competitors and grab new market shares. There is nothing as simple as calling upon a mara to attack buses of competing businesses.

The country’s prisons: the command centres of extortions

This criminal economy has its headquarters. According to the head of the prison system, Eddy Morales, 80% of the extortions are organised in the main prisons of the country: El Boquerón, the Payoncito prison, the Infiernito in Escuintla and the prevention detention centre in zone 18 in Guatemala City. The head of the prison system even says that around 35% of the extortions are orchestrated from the sector 11 of the latter! Although the source has been detected, the traffic has not been controlled. At the contrary, the country’s prisons have become the operation centres of organised racketeering. With a capacity for around 8 000 inmates, the prison centres of the country are overcrowded: almost 13 000 inmates are piled up in the 22 prisons of Guatemala. The overpopulation, implying deplorable detention conditions, was recently denounced in a number of reports on the situation of prisons in Latin America2. The settling of scores between gangs, the taxes they take from other inmates for their protection, or even to have a bed to sleep in, and the deadly riots, are indicators of the criminal hold on prison life. Between 2005 and 2007, 87 inmates passed away of violent deaths within the Guatemalan prisons. Although they are jailed, many members of the maras have not lost their nuisance capacity. They now organise the extortion networks from the prison centres. The instructions are given by the maras chiefs from the prisons, and diffused outside by the members of the criminal groups. The important revenues of these thus allow them to maintain their control over prison life through the corruption of the staff. The prisoners “buy” an access to their networks outside the prisons daily: mobile phones or other types of arrangements. In a recent case, some prisoners even had access to computers with Wifi connections and would organise their extortions by email. The authorities have tried to fight against these criminal structures. Telephone communications blocking systems have been tested in prisons to fight against extortion organisation. But the system did not solve the problem, and seems more like an admission of helplessness of the authorities facing the criminal networks.

“They will die filled with lead”

Moreover, it is from a prison of Chimaltenango that Cesar received a phone call for the most threatening. In the factory, some affectionately call him “El Gordo”. And everyone in the factory knows Cesar: he is indeed the secretary general of the union of a maquila of around 5 000 workers. In the factories in Guatemala, a few union organisations have been created; and very few have nonetheless managed to sustain their actions when faced with physical threats, illegal redundancies and co-optation attempts on affiliated members by the employers of the sector. By answering this phone call, the unionist found himself in a dangerous situation. At the end of the line, an inmate from the Chimaltenango prison, a certain “Fox”, calls Cesar to force him, with reprisal threats, to rapidly engage himself in the extortion trafficking in his factory. “He wanted me to collect the tax for them” explains Cesar. “Fox” demands that the unionist give him the number of a production line supervisor from the factory to implicate him as well in the trafficking. “Fox” obtained Cesar’s phone number through an affiliated member of his union: before being jailed and taken in the extortion networks, “Fox” was an employee from this factory. He also knows a large number of employees, and even employees affiliated with the union. The pressure is focused on Cesar for a simple reason. As the cell phones are not allowed in the factory grounds, Cesar is a good entry point: as a unionist, he has the right to have his phone with him. “I went to talk to the supervisor to tell him about the problem, that they wanted his phone number, and he told me that he didn’t want to implicate me in the case, he told me that he knew what to do” tells Cesar. Under pressure, Cesar ends up giving the number. But soon, it is a new group of mareros that also threatens him. Cesar is stuck in the middle of a clan war which fight for the control on extortion revenues in the factory. A marero told him to participate in the extortions. “He told me: you must do what I tell you, here, I am the one collecting the tax”. To calm the situation down, Cesar then decides to present his resignation. The hassling continues and the desired pacification effect fails; worse, he is now asked to pay 10 000 quetzales (almost USD 1 300) for presenting his resignation, and thus trying to “duck out of it”. Cesar answers that he doesn’t have the money that is asked and that he will think about it.  The marero brutally answers that: “It is not a question of what you can or cannot do, it is a question of what you have to do”. Faced with those threats, Cesar decides to switch off his phone. After visiting the office of the prosecutor for human rights (PHR), where he tells his story, a summary of the calls on his phone is produced: more than 250 calls between the Saturday evening at 11pm and the Sunday evening. Cesar is being hassled. He no longer sees his partner in order to keep her away from any danger and the union activity is momentarily suspended. He even tries to change his bus trip habits, “just in case”. For several days, Cesar spends his days at the headquarters of the federation to seek support. A meeting is organised by a union leader at the ministry for the Interior to bring up his case. A public servant listens to both unionists. No personal protection can be given to Cesar, he only has the phone number of the policeman. The latter commits to multiplying police rounds around his house. The idea of transferring Cesar to another maquila for his safety is spoken of. On their side, the heads of the factory assure that they are doing everything they can to end the case and protect him. However, this superficial discourse reveals a growing reality in the Guatemalan factories: the extortions and attempts to enrol unionists in these traffics play into the hands of employers. The climate of violence, publicly criticised by the bosses, de facto participates to the downfall of the unionist activity, and to the occurrence of tragic situations for its leaders.

A letter signed by the mara Salvatrucha

Josue is living a similar misadventure. This young unionist from a Mixco factory has created an organisation in 2008 following a protest movement stemming from the absence of payment of extra working hours. With about ten other workers, they went to the ministry for the Interior, official papers in hand, to ask for the recognition of their union. “We didn’t know what to do any more… Even though we didn’t know anything about law, about how to put together a union, we were helped by other organisations and ended up making it” explains Josue. For several months, conciliation reunions with employers and general assemblies were the rhythm in the life of the union. On 25 June 2009, a date engraved in his memory, Josue receives a letter at his home. In a style filled with mistakes and insults, the mara Salvatrucha threatens him with death if he does not pay 25 000 quetzales, a fortune for him, who hardly earns two thousand quetzales a month. “It is the second time that we speak to you since you did not want to last time, this time is the last one, if you don’t give us the 25 000 bucks, we will start by killing everyone in the union, starting with Chiroy [a member of the executive committee], we know that he has four kids, we know where one of them goes to school and where he gets off the bus with his mother, and you big son of a whore you live with your parents and brothers, we know where you get off son of a whore if you don’t give the money, they will die one by one, son of a bitch, […], we will call you at your home number 4070… and if you don’t answer son of a bitch, they will die filled with lead. We know that you have meetings every Friday mornings in the zone 1 [precise address], we want the money Saturday, we will not wait more, this is not bullshit fucking shithead, you will realise that this is serious […], La Mara Salvatrucha.” Like Cesar, Josue thinks about stopping his unionist activity for a while. His parents recommend that he leaves the union, the unionised employees work “with fear in their hearts”, others end up abandoning. Union activism in Guatemala is in reality a permanent sacrifice. For Josue as for Cesar, their commitment has consequences on their family environment, their friendly, and even romantic, relationships. “My mother tells me to leave the union, that one day something will happen to me”, explains Cesar. For several months, Josue left his general secretary functions at the union of his factory. Cesar keeps going in spite of the threats: “it’s hard everyday, I am often depressed, or even in depression, everything changes and it is impossible to go back in time”. Other unionists have paid the high price: since 2005, 53 of them were killed. The last murder to date, on 5 February, was of Miguel Angel González Ramirez, unionist from SITRABI, the banana farms workers’ union, shot dead, while carrying his child in his arms.  

Maintaining a climate of violence as a project to demobilise

In Guatemala City, the majority of businesses, even the bakeries, have a private guard and metal protection bars. The entrance of up-scale residential neighbourhoods is secured by guards, day and night, armed with shotguns. An entire industry stems from the insecurity and State inaction. According to Otto Argueta, a specialist in private security in Guatemala, the Guatemalan citizens spend USD 574 million a year on the matter while the State services only spend USD 271 million. Former military staff have found in this activity an ideal space for reconversion after the staff reductions started after the end of the civil conflict in 1996. But since then, many other profiles have stepped into the breach of the monopoly of legitimate violence: policemen and even simple novices without experience in the armed jobs. According to the national police’s own numbers (PNC), 90% of crimes in Guatemala remain unpunished. International unions and the International Labor Organisation (ILO) have denounced for several years the impunity that surrounds anti-union crimes. If the security is private, the impunity is indeed public.

However, alongside the murders, a new form of anti-union repression is appearing in Guatemala. Less visible, it consists in a demobilisation project insured by the generalisation of a climate of daily violence particularly inappropriate for political activism under all its shapes. More hidden, it only shows the face of ordinary delinquency on which the responsibility of anti-union actions is invariably thrown. Thus, in addition to the negative effects on unionised commitments, this repression finally has one advantage; in appearance, it does not have any responsible nor guilty actor. Everything is laid upon the account of an endemic social violence that the State cannot contain. It could easily be forgotten that this violence serves the interests of certain economic sectors in the end. For example, the owners of the maquilas do not even need to mobilise anti-union strategies to fight against these worker mobilisations: they can only leave the daily and ordinary violence do its job. In this sense, the criminal groups have become circumstantial allies. Always denounced publicly, they are nevertheless regularly used in the dark to do the “dirty work”.

  1. Torres-Rivas (E.), “La lógica empresarial al servicio del crimen”, El Periodico, 31/01/2010.
  2. Lucía Dammert, Liza Zúñiga, La cárcel: problemas y desafíos para las Américas, Reporte del Sector Seguridad Nº 4, FLACSO, 2008