The Violence of Dispossession: Guatemala in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

  • Jim Handy


This chapter seeks to understand contemporary and late twentieth century violence in Guatemala—most especially the horrific state-controlled violence of the late 1970s and 1980s and the heightened levels of violent crime in the early twenty-first century—by placing this violence into a historical context. It explores a history of promise and deception, of violence wrought from dispossession inherent in a particular form of capitalism and institutionalized through racism and neoliberalism. This chapter argues that heightened levels of violence were deeply etched into the Guatemalan social landscape during the second half of the nineteenth century as sectors of the Guatemalan elite followed a particular logic for expanding the agricultural export economy. This logic required material deprivation, increased racial discrimination and a fairly dramatic increase in the coercive capabilities of the Guatemalan state. In the process, a particular vision of progress and modernity was fostered that required the dispossession and exclusion of the majority of the population: mostly indigenous rural cultivators dispossessed of land and impoverished through coercive labor practices. Guatemalan elites justified continued dispossession by pointing to the culture of poverty created and deepened by these very policies. Poverty was then racialized. In the twentieth century, attempts to redress some aspects of this dispossession and to reduce both the coercive nature of the state and racialized impoverishment were briefly successful and then brutally eliminated. This promise and its quick elimination set the stage for contemporary violence: a memory of successful organization and resistance and its brutal repression mingled with late twentieth-century politics of the cold war and international guerrilla insurgency to create a coldly deliberate policy of extermination driven by the heat of fear and hatred. In a somewhat similar fashion, a two-decade campaign to foster civil society activism in favor of broadly encompassing peace accords inspired many to believe that the twenty-first century would usher in an era of peace and—if not prosperity—at least reduced levels of dispossession and exclusion. Instead, betrayed by the clandestine nature of power in Guatemala, by the limitations of neoliberalism and the expansion of drug cartels, Guatemalans have suffered through increased violence, even more disabling because it is less predictable.


National Police Peace Accord Agrarian Reform Debt Contracting Guatemala City 
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jim Handy
    • 1
  1. 1.College of Arts and Science, University of SaskatchewanSaskatoonCanada

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