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This study analyzes whether Guatemalan success with the kingpin decapitation strategy of bringing major drug traffickers to justice has accomplished its greater objectives of reducing cocaine trafficking and drug-related violence. The analysis finds little evidence of success for the first objective in Guatemala but notable success for the second. One of the few studies to examine the application of this strategy outside Mexico and Colombia, its findings are interpreted in light of their contrasting experiences. The article provides an overview of drug trafficking in Guatemala and concise studies of two of its most important organizations targeted by the kingpin strategy.
The differing perspectives and actions of US government, business and labour towards the Guatemalan government and Guatemalan trade unionists themselves in the half-decade or so following the overthrow of the Arbenz administration in 1954 are the focus of this study. Few areas were more important to the US project for Guatemala following the Castillo Armas invasion than helping the Guatemalans to create a ‘free’ and ‘democratic’ labour movement – and few areas would prove more frustrating. Part of the problem was the intransigent stance of Guatemalan elites. An additional challenge was strong opposition from the major US-based companies operating in Guatemala, most notably the United Fruit Company and its affiliates. This work contests interpretations that regard US policy towards countries like Guatemala at the time as simply beholden to business interests or as seeking domination. Rather, as Washington's interest in the transition diminished, officials in the US embassy and representatives of US labour in Guatemala were left isolated, unable to fulfil their vision for a democratic labour movement in the teeth of such opposition.
It should be well established by the prior chapters that the relationship between popular contention and government repression is crucial for understanding both El Salvador and Guatemala in recent decades. More generally, this relationship is an especially intriguing one theoretically for social scientists because after decades of good work by many scholars the fundamental puzzle remains. Following his thorough review of the existing literature more than two decades ago, Zimmerman identified “theoretical arguments for all conceivable basic relations between governmental coercion and group protest and rebellion except for no relationship” (Zimmerman 1980, 181). Seven years later the dilemma remained, well-captured in the title of Lichbach's (1987) oft-cited theoretical analysis: “Deterrence or Escalation? The Puzzle of Aggregate Studies of Repression and Dissent.” Judging by the most recent reviews of the literature, such as Davenport 2000; Goldstone 2001; and Goldstone and Tilly 2001, the puzzle persists.
Clearly repression often succeeds for the state, deterring popular protest, for reasons thoroughly elaborated in the scholarly literature. At other times repression provokes heightened popular mobilization, including sometimes increased support for, and participation in, revolutionary movements. Again, probable reasons for this opposite effect are amply explored in the literature. Accordingly, the real task before us has been, as Opp and Roehl (1990, 523) point out, to determine “which effect is to be expected under what conditions.”
Bringing some resolution to the puzzle of the paradoxical relationship between repression and protest is the principle task of this and the next chapter.
Contentious movements reached high levels of activity in El Salvador in a democratic opening in the early 1930s and again in 1944 when popular forces brought down a long-governing dictator. Otherwise, political space was too limited for any effective organizing into the 1960s, with only brief exceptions. Consequently, activists in El Salvador in the 1960s and 1970s were attempting to mobilize a population with limited experience in contentious politics, certainly compared to their Guatemalan counterparts who instead were struggling to energize remobilization following the 1954 overthrow of Arbenz and the repression that it brought.
Progressive activists succeeded in mounting three different contentious campaigns in El Salvador during the three decades after 1960. The first led up to the election of February 1972. The second, and far more intense protest cycle, led into the civil war that began in 1980. The third is as astonishing as its counterpart in Guatemala – the resumption in the mid-1980s of a nonviolent protest movement in the capital once state violence directed at movement activists declined sufficiently, yet occurring in the midst of a continuing civil war. Heightened grievances were important to each of these campaigns as was the mobilization of organizational resources, as detailed in prior chapters. Critical too was the opening of greater political opportunities. Although each dimension of the configuration of political opportunities usually played a role in facilitating movement emergence, their rise and fall was often tied to corresponding fluctuations in the use of violence by the state against social movement activists.
As grievances intensify potential challengers have new incentives to act. With support from allies they gain encouragement and resources. But whether movements will emerge and persist and whether they will succeed in achieving any of their objectives will be substantially determined by factors outside of their control. These central dimensions of the configuration of political opportunities are the subject of this chapter, which examines Guatemala, and the next chapter, which analyzes El Salvador and then concludes with a comparison of both with the other three countries of Central America.
Critics claim that the distinction between mobilization and political opportunities is often muddled in case studies using the political process approach. Poletta and Amenta note that critics particularly object to “a post-hoc quality” to such accounts, which identify as “‘opportunity’ any political development that preceded mobilization” (Poletta and Amenta 2001, 307). This and the next chapter accept this challenge, identifying first key changes in political opportunities, and then predicting the expected direction of popular mobilization. These predictions are tested with data for key indicators of contentious politics, demonstrations for Guatemala and strikes for El Salvador.
The Configuration of Political Opportunities
The relative openness or closure of the institutionalized political system, the stability or instability of elite alignments, and the capacity and propensity of the state to rely on repression are key aspects of the configuration of political opportunities facing contentious challengers. These have important consequences for their mobilization as well as their possibilities for success.
Traditional approaches to the study of collective action – be it union organizing in the cities or revolutionary mobilization in the countryside – stressed levels of discontent, or grievances, as the central explanatory factor. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, the importance of motivational factors was downplayed in favor of the mobilization of resources and then the fluctuation of political opportunities and constraints. These later analytical perspectives have greatly enriched our understanding of collective action, correcting the exaggerated attention given to grievances in the earlier “traditional” model, as well as its frequent unfortunate assumption about the social disconnectedness of participants.
There certainly can be analytic utility to holding one dimension of collective action constant, such as grievances, in order to gain a better understanding of another dimension, such as the mobilization of resources. It is seriously misleading, however, to maintain that discontent is a secondary source of collective action or that discontent is a constant among underprivileged populations and therefore is not useful for explaining movement emergence. To the contrary, the principle argument of this chapter is that a full understanding of the causes, course, and consequences of contentious politics requires an integration of the older concern for grievances with attention to resources, frames, opportunities, and mechanisms. This is most especially true for understanding collective action under conditions of significant risk, which is the situation much of the time in much of the world.
This book offers an in-depth analysis of the confrontation between popular movements and repressive regimes in Central America during the three decades beginning in 1960, particularly in El Salvador and Guatemala. Examining both urban and rural groups as well as both nonviolent social movements and revolutionary movements, this study has two primary theoretical objectives. First, to clarify the impact of state violence on contentious political movements. Under what conditions will escalating repression provoke challengers to even greater activity (perhaps even the use of violence themselves) and under what conditions will it intimidate them back into passivity? Second, to defend the utility of the political process model for studying contentious movements, indeed, finding in this model the key to resolving the repression-protest paradox. The study is based on the most thorough set of events data on contentious political activities collected from Latin American countries.
Contentious movements in Guatemala following the 1944 overthrow of dictator Jorge Ubico followed a path quite different from that of El Salvador. The mobilization of popular groups in El Salvador was slow and intermittent, but fairly steady across the decades until largely destroyed by heavy repression in 1980. In Guatemala, by contrast, there was an explosion of popular organizing during the reformist decade from 1944 to 1954, followed by several cycles of demobilization of protesters under the barrage of increasing repression and then reemergence of contentious movements when repression slackened. Through the years, the memories of the strong popular organizations that thrived during the reform period, and especially during the early 1950s, sustained and inspired Guatemalan activists.
Memories of the reform period, the organizing experience gained during that time, and the strong emotions engendered from having had their just cause frustrated – and by the intervention of an overbearing powerful external force no less – all facilitated popular organizing in Guatemala compared to El Salvador. However, the United States, in alliance with domestic forces, overthrew Jacobo Arbenz largely because of their shared fears about the growing influence of communism in the country and its party, the Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (PGT). Ties to the Arbenz past were a mixed blessing for popular movements in post-“liberation” Guatemala, then, since the preeminent concern of the domestic right and the U.S. government in Guatemala during the Cold War was to prevent any return of communist influence.
Progressive activists grew more assertive in Central America during the 1960s, mobilizing groups around their shared grievances and struggling through collective action to create a better life for themselves and others. Normally initiated by students, teachers, and other professional groups, these efforts were joined by urban labor organizations, which by the 1970s were frequently in the forefront of the broader social movements that had emerged. Organizing in the countryside invariably has faced greater constraints in Central America but here too peasant movements grew and on notable occasions played important roles in furthering the demands of popular (i.e., non-elite) movements.
Across the region these movements faced great odds, from the intransigence of economic elites to harassment and intimidation by both public and private security forces. They also were attacked violently by agents of the state. As nonviolent mass movements grew in size and contentiousness – often paralleled by the rise of armed groups fighting for their revolutionary cause – states became more repressive, less so in Costa Rica and Honduras, much more so in Nicaragua, and horrifically so in El Salvador and Guatemala. Yet, even in the face of virulent state terrorism, some committed and courageous activists continued on and, whenever repression slackened, popular movements reappeared.
This confrontation between committed popular movements and state violence is most striking in the cases of El Salvador and Guatemala, which are the primary focus of this study.
The relationship between popular contention and political opportunities generally, and repression specifically, has been of interest to political observers going back centuries, including some of the great theorists of the past. De Tocqueville, for example, in seeking explanations for the European upheavals initiated with the French Revolution, noted the paradox that carries his name, “it often happens that when a people which has put up with an oppressive rule over a long period without protest suddenly finds the government relaxing its pressure, it takes up arms against it…. Only consummate statecraft can enable a king to save his throne when after a long spell of oppressive rule he sets out to improve the lot of his subjects” (quoted in Oberschall 1995, 155).
One option open to the “king” when popular mobilization ignites following the opening of political opportunities is to reapply repression. Indeed, often this has been the response of rulers. Sometimes this heightened repression has succeeded from the viewpoint of “the throne.” But at other times it has aroused even higher levels of opposition and even an overturning of the throne itself. In the face of this repression-protest paradox, rulers have been advised by Machiavelli (paraphrasing): “if high coerciveness is applied, it should be applied consistently.”
This study has sought to build on such astute ages-old observations, as well as the findings of more recent scholarship, in order to bring a fuller understanding to these paradoxical relationships.
Few Latin American countries have witnessed a cycle of contention as lengthy and as intense as that of El Salvador in the late 1970s going into the early 1980s. Nor have many witnessed a sharper confrontation between a highly mobilized mass movement and a state willing to kill unarmed civilians as necessary in order to defeat its challengers. What is less well known is that within just a few years of the crushing of El Salvador's nonviolent contentious movement, a new protest cycle developed again in the mid-1980s in the capital. And, of course, throughout the 1980s a civil war raged that even after a decade of fighting found neither side able to defeat the other. This chapter will give close attention to the relationship between contention and repression in El Salvador, utilizing datasets for both sides of the relationship that, while not as complete as those used for Guatemala, are far better than those commonly utilized for such studies. The final section of this chapter then closes the study by analyzing the contention/repression relationship at the level of the individual.
This analysis of the relationship between cycles of contention and repression in El Salvador is organized by the same hypotheses utilized in the prior chapter on Guatemala. As with its larger neighbor, this analysis will show that there is a close fit between these hypotheses and the Salvadoran experience, as seen both with events data and with conventional accounts of the periods under examination.
Repression by authoritarian regimes – along with other means of limiting access to the political system – normally keeps nonviolent protest at a minimal level.
Most of the time in most of the world the poor and the powerless are not politically active and certainly not contentious when they are. Contentious movements occur infrequently, invariably enlist far less than the majority of the aggrieved population when they do, and seldom persist for long. This is especially true for the most radical expression of contention, revolutionary movements.
For radical activists (and often for scholars as well), the political quiescence of the disadvantaged is seen as self-defeating if not irrational, resulting from counterproductive values and attitudes. However, with the assistance provided by activists – be that education, training, resources, or consciousness-raising – the poor and powerless can come to see their condition not as natural but as socially created, not by abstract forces but by identifiable elites who are perpetuating their own enrichment at the expense of the vast majority. With this change in understanding, the theory goes, contentious activism emerges and grows, at first motivated usually by individuals' own immediate material interests and those of their closest social affiliations. But with time and further transformation of consciousness, they might even come to understand the need for revolutionary changes in the very social order itself.
From a different standpoint, the reluctance of the disadvantaged (and other nonelites) to join the contentious causes of political activists is seldom irrational or the result of counterproductive attitudes.