NPR has been running a series of stories this week and last about violence in Latin America. Their reporters have been to Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil, reporting on extortion, kidnapping, and police violence. If you'd like to learn more about violence in the region, its roots and causes, we recommend the following books.
In her painful but important new book Cruel Modernity, Jean Franco examines the conditions under which extreme cruelty became the instrument of armies, governments, rebels, and rogue groups in Latin America. She seeks to understand how extreme cruelty came to be practiced in many parts of the continent over the last eighty years and how its causes differ from the conditions that brought about the Holocaust, which is generally the atrocity against which the horror of others is measured.
Violent Democracies in Latin America is a collection edited by Enrique Desmond Arias and Daniel M. Goldstein. Contributors explore why violence persists in the region despite the establishment of democratic governments. From vigilantism, to human rights violations, to police corruption, violence persists. It is perpetrated by state-sanctioned armies, guerillas, gangs, drug traffickers, and local community groups seeking self-protection. The everyday presence of violence contrasts starkly with governmental efforts to extend civil, political, and legal rights to all citizens, and it is invoked as evidence of the failure of Latin American countries to achieve true democracy. The contributors to this collection take the more nuanced view that violence is not a social aberration or the result of institutional failure; instead, it is intimately linked to the institutions and policies of economic liberalization and democratization.
Daniel M. Goldstein's Outlawed: Between Security and Rights in a Bolivian City is an ethnography examining how indigenous residents of crime-ridden, marginalized neighborhoods in Cochabamba, Bolivia, struggle to balance human rights with their need for safety and security.
We have several books about violence in Guatemala. In Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death, Deborah T. Levenson examines how the Guatemalan gangs that emerged from the country's strong populist movement in the 1980s had become perpetrators of nihilist violence by the early 2000s. In Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala, Diane M. Nelson looks at how Guatemalans are reckoning with the aftermath of a civil war that left fundamental assumptions about selves and others in tatters when it officially ended in 1996. And in her forthcoming book Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala, Kristen Weld uses poignant, intimate oral history interviews and on-the-ground participant observation to take readers inside the complex process by which “terror archives” are found, grappled with, and put to use.
We have several other titles that, like Paper Cadavers, deal with the aftermath of violence in Latin America: how people remember and memorialize genocide and other state violence. Accounting for Violence:Marketing Memory in Latin America, offers bold new perspectives on the politics of memory in Latin America. Scholars from across the humanities and social sciences provide in-depth analyses of the political economy of memory in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. It is edited by Ksenija Bilbija and Leigh A. Payne. In Unsettling Accounts: Neither Truth nor Reconciliation in Confessions of State Violence Leigh A. Payne argues that rather than reconcile past violence, truth commissions actually catalyze contentious debate. She argues that this debate—and the public confessions that trigger it—are healthy for democratic processes of political participation, freedom of expression, and the contestation of political ideas. Steve J. Stern looks at memory and reconcilation in Chile in his book Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989–2006. Stern’s analysis integrates policymaking by elites, grassroots efforts by human rights victims and activists, and inside accounts of the truth commissions and courts where top-down and bottom-up initiatives met.