The Guatemala Failed State Is a Failed Society

This horrible story seems to be about a Guatemala Failed State, though it doesn’t use that term:

Exhaust fumes from the old, poorly maintained cars traveling beside us infuse our cab. We pass shanty towns — settlements of poorly constructed, one-room houses; often nothing more than crumbling, lopsided walls with tin roofs. There are guns everywhere: Soldiers on the sidewalks, civilians guarding storefronts, young men in the backs of old pickup trucks. Everything is behind walls, protected, isolated.

We are driving through this town on our way to the tourist hub of Antigua. Our hosts know this particular cab company and assure us that we’ll arrive safely at our destination — not a given in Guatemala.

After decades of civil war, Guatemala is still in bad shape. The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala reports “the widespread killing of women and children.” Only 2 percent of homicides in Guatemala ever go to trial. A 2013 essay in Esquire calls Guatemala City “one of the most dangerous places on earth,” and describes the “savage means” used by narco-traffickers to maintain control of their territory.

The picture continues of ongoing violence and crippling poverty and malnutrition. When you read about Guatemala you will remember why you need to be thankful for where you live. People strive to earn money and trade, but they remain mired in a miserable existence, largely because it is impossible to amass capital in a place where you can be robbed with impunity. If property rights are virtually unrecognized and unenforced, then markets are never going to help a society very far.

But capitalism can’t flourish — and, therefore, can’t significantly reduce poverty —without property rights, the rule of law, and the basic belief that what you earn won’t be taken from you by violent force. Markets don’t exist outside of society, and prosperous societies don’t always spontaneously emerge. What’s needed, first and foremost, is for Guatemala’s government to establish a monopoly on violence.

I’m not an anarcho-capitalist so I don’t deny that a government with a monopoly on violence could do some good in this situation. But what kind of government would that take? A government that monopolizes violence can do nothing more than monopolize crime. You have to have a good government to have any hope that it could monopolize violence without extending it.

What are the chances that a government could arise from this society, described as a criminal chaos, that wouldn’t itself be exploitative and abusive? How especially could a representative government be better than the society that elected it? Government power typically requires alliances and consent from the powerful forces in society. So it is far more likely that government power would come from cutting deals with the drug cartels than by conquering them.

I will pray for Guatemala that it gets a state that is not only powerful enough to enforce justice, but honest and righteous enough to want to do so in an impartial manner. Admittedly, it is difficult to see how this can happen. It would take God’s work in raising up some sub-culture of people who fear God and hate bribes and putting them in power.  Or it would take God working throughout the society to get people to repent of robbery and to begin loving their neighbor as themselves. If enough of them did so, they could serve one another and the violence would become subservient to justice, much as we have seen happen in Detroit with the Treat Management Center, in Oregon, and in Oakland, California. We have even seen it in parts of Mexico beating back the drug cartels. The issue is not so much a single institution monopolizing violence as much as a critical mass of people who will only use violence for social ends (the enforcement of justice or protection of property).

Thinking of the issue this way can help us avoid supporting tyrants in the name of “promoting democracy” or making disarmament a chief policy tool.