Secure the Soul

Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala

Kevin Lewis O’Neill
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt13x1hv6
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  • Book Info
    Secure the Soul
    Book Description:

    "I'm not perfect," Mateo confessed. "Nobody is. But I try."Secure the Soulshuttles between the life of Mateo, a born-again ex-gang member in Guatemala and the gang prevention programs that work so hard to keep him alive. Along the way, this poignantly written ethnography uncovers the Christian underpinnings of Central American security. In the streets of Guatemala City-amid angry lynch mobs, overcrowded prisons, and paramilitary death squads-millions of dollars empower church missions, faith-based programs, and seemingly secular security projects to prevent gang violence through the practice of Christian piety. With Guatemala increasingly defined by both God and gangs,Secure the Souldetails an emerging strategy of geopolitical significance: regional security by way of good Christian living.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-96009-1
    Subjects: Anthropology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-8)

    The streets were on fire. They were burning the devil.La quema del diablo. Every year, on December 7, at sunset, Guatemalans torch their trash. To purge the devil, some say. For spiritual purity, others add. Old newspapers, stained mattresses, and broken furniture—they set it ablaze in the streets, which is where I stood. Outside a small Pentecostal church, in an unplanned, undevelopedzonaof Guatemala City, I stood with a pastor. The sun had set. Thick smoke gathered while dozens of bonfires cast shadows across otherwise unlit streets. He was on the phone with a young woman. Her...

  5. Introduction
    (pp. 9-24)

    Mateo preached amid chaos. The flames, the fireworks, the devil—each added to the drama, but the real tragedy had been brewing for decades. New regimes of deportation, as well as a blurring distinction between the United States’ War on Drugs and its War on Terror, combined with a multibillion-dollar drug trade to expand and embolden transnational street gangs throughout Central America. Guatemala got hit hard. And Mateo felt every punch. Following a thirty-six-year genocidal civil war (1960–96), uneven efforts at democratization and economic restructuring met a criminally negligent state to make postwar Guatemala the most violent noncombat zone...

  6. Forgiveness
    (pp. 25-32)

    Mateo’s father works a forklift in Arkansas. He has done it for years. When the paychecks added up, he bought a modest townhouse about thirty minutes south of Guatemala City. Made of quick but sturdy construction, repeated thousands of times across a now-sprawling metropolitan area, the house echoes in uncanny ways Los Angeles, California, in the 1950s. Southern California in that era found itself bulldozed into cul-de-sacs, with single-family, tract housing defining much of the San Fernando Valley. These massive developments, spurred by the GI Bill and stoked by industrial production, were manufactured with a kind of pre-urban nostalgia for...

  7. CHAPTER 1 Insecurities
    (pp. 33-57)

    The phone call was rushed, near frantic. From inside Boqueron, one of Guatemala’s maximum security prisons, a known gang leader pleaded with Pastor Morales via cell phone to do something: contact the press, notify a human rights office, intervene. A member of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Gustavo explained to Pastor Morales that he was being transferred to Pavoncito, a notoriously insecure prison that houses members of the Paisas. The Paisas are an association of prisoners that controls much of the Guatemalan prison system. Many are former soldiers, with extensive combat experience in some of Central America’s longest and bloodiest civil wars....

  8. Hamsters
    (pp. 58-64)

    We met up at the mall—a beautiful new mall. While the shopping center had all but died in the United States by then—the media widely reported that none had been built there between 2007 and 2012—investors in Guatemala saw malls as flagships for urban development. “Beacons of hope,” they called them, with greenfield developments on the urban fringe. We sat inside one of them. Mateo ate from a plate of nachos. I sipped a bottle of water. We watched a merry-go-round loop kids at a painfully slow pace while overhead speakers piped in English-language hits from the...

  9. CHAPTER 2 Reality
    (pp. 65-88)

    The eye masks looked ridiculous, and the guys knew it. The shiny strips of plastic made them look like old-fashioned bandits or, worse yet, dopey superheroes. A former member of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) complained into the camera, appealing to a public that he assumed was already laughing at him, “This thing makes me look like Batman or something. Or, no, like a little Batgirl, right?”¹ The masks didn’t even do a good job of obscuring their faces, which was their ostensible purpose. The masks were supposed to protect the identities of ten former gang members while they participated in a...

  10. Pangs
    (pp. 89-95)

    We were talking over the wind. In a taxi, with the widows open, Mateo tripped a nerve. His coworker, hitching a ride with us, shouted out something about Mateo’s first day on the job. “You told us about your son. In training, that’s how you introduced yourself. I was there.” Mateo looked out the window. Street life whirled past as we made our way to the call center.

    “Why would you do that?” I asked, “Why would you—not, like, say, ‘Hey, I’m from LA.’”

    The coworker jumped the question, “It was training, as a group, and you say a...

  11. CHAPTER 3 A Calling
    (pp. 96-119)

    “I need this job,” a recent deportee confessed while waiting for his interview. With a rosary tattooed around his knuckles and a faded13peeking out from under his collar, he continued nervously, “For real. Keep me busy. Keep me fuckin’ busy. I don’t need to be in the streets dodgin’ bullets and shit. It’s crazy out there. Guy in my church just got shot. Went to his funeral yesterday. It was sad, man. Kid was pumpin’ gas. Got three to the head. Pop. Pop. Pop. He was ataxista[taxi driver] and wasn’t paying hisimpuestos[taxes] to the...

  12. Service
    (pp. 120-126)

    I wasn’t sure he had heard me. I yelled again. This time a little louder: “Mateo, get the fuck off of him!” Mateo was in his front yard, on top of some teenager, throwing punches. It had all happened so fast that I didn’t know how to react. One moment, we were watching a movie in Mateo’s living room. Then an older woman walked through the door. She was looking for her son. Mateo got upset, raised his voice at the woman, and said that her son was not in his house. And maybe she should keep a better eye...

  13. CHAPTER 4 Left Behind
    (pp. 127-150)

    “It’s not so much that they need me and that they need us, but we need them. We need the people of La Paloma.” An evangelical Christian from Barey, North Carolina, with hipster hair and a tasteful tattoo, clarified his commitment to the child sponsorship program that his faith-based 501(c) (3) facilitates. Pitched in the name of gang prevention, the program connects North American evangelical Christians with at-risk children in one of Guatemala City’s most structurally violent neighborhoods: La Paloma. Along with US$35 a month, sponsors shower the sponsored with handwritten letters, birthday presents, and even the occasional site visit—...

  14. Captivity
    (pp. 151-157)

    A house sits atop a hill, just beyond the reach of Guatemala City. The capital’s skyline frames its northern vista. Rolling hills and jutting volcanoes sit to the south of it. A former military man and now Pentecostal pastor owns the house. He lives there with his wife and two children on the first floor. They enjoy a quiet, middle-class existence, with a full kitchen, tiled floors, and an above-average television. A steady stream of income keeps them afloat amid an otherwise downwardly mobile neighborhood. “Drug addicts are all around,” the pastor complained. “This area used to be nice. It...

  15. CHAPTER 5 Forsaken
    (pp. 158-181)

    He was completely tied up. Wrapped in a thin mattress, then trussed with twine, a young man lay on the floor of a Pentecostal rehabilitation center. Straight from the streets of Guatemala City, on a mix of crack andquímica, he struggled to free himself as the echoes of an uncanny interview returned to me.¹ Earlier in the week, from the same windowless rehab, a different young man had confessed, “I feel tied up. Crack ties me up. I see my life slipping away but I can’t do anything about it. I know that the blood of Jesus has the...

  16. Adrift
    (pp. 182-192)

    We walked. Nearly seven years after we first met in a church parking lot, Mateo and I strolled through his neighborhood. I was over for a visit and Mateo wanted to get some fresh air. Out of work and absolutely bored, with much of the day ahead of him, Mateo was going a little stir crazy. He had nothing to do—that afternoon, or that week. So we walked.

    Mateo’s neighborhood is not huge. A main drag divides three streets, with twenty townhouses on each side. The houses themselves are nearly identical. Distinctions have emerged over the years, of course,...

  17. Epilogue
    (pp. 193-194)

    I pulled the manuscript from my bag. It was just a stack of papers, hundreds of pages of paper, but it piqued Mateo’s interest. “’Bout fuckin’ time,” he smiled.

    It’s just a draft,” I insisted, suddenly nervous. We hadn’t spoken in months. Mateo’s cell phone had stopped working. “We were drinking,” explained a recent deportee from Miami. “And you know Mateo. He passed out in the streets and someone took his phone.” But I had caught Mateo on a better day, on his way home from a church service. He looked fit.

    “Well, what’s it say?” Mateo asked. So I...

  18. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 195-200)
  19. APPENDIX: Notes on Research
    (pp. 201-204)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 205-246)
  21. Reference List
    (pp. 247-276)
  22. Index
    (pp. 277-288)