This post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in San Jose. Check for other posts from the conference.

By Anthony W. Fontes, author of Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City

I’ve been exploring the causes and consequences of transnational gangs (maras) like the Mara Salvatrucha for nearly a decade now. In 2010, I began fieldwork in Guatemala City to investigate how these gangs became public enemy #1 in Northern Triangle cities. This work took me inside prisons, gang-dominated urban neighborhoods, and out along the Central American migration routes to the US border. It also took me into government ministries, bank boardrooms, FBI gang taskforce meetings, and US Agency for International Development offices in Washington DC. Out of this research, I wrote Mortal Doubt, an intimate exploration of extreme peacetime violence that traces the ties that bind the gangs’ dystopian evolution to those residing in far safer environs.

In Central America’s Northern Triangle, transnational gangs’ play an essential role in both making and mooring collective fear. They are among many violent actors that have turned the region into the deadliest non-combat zone in the world. But at the same time, they have become a flashpoint, a central node by which people from all walks of life seek to make sense of what has become, for many, an epoch of senseless violence. They have become a means of rendering the illegible legible, of imposing a sense of finitude and control on out-of-control insecurity. In short, in cities across Central America’s Northern Triangle, both the maras’ real and imagined violence are absolutely essential to the making of a certain kind of order.

And now, ever since President Trump and Co. started publicly accusing the Mara Salvatrucha of “turning US cities into blood stained killing fields”, I’ve been struggling with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. While rightwing US politicians have long leveraged Latino gangs as a means of demonizing immigrants, this administration is adapting its language and tenor straight out of a Central American playbook. A politics of fear that has come to dominate tiny, poor nations with sky-high homicide rates is today front and center in the world’s most powerful democracy. And once again, gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha are cast in the starring role.

I keep asking myself: what does it mean that, in the name of protecting US society from a Central American “invasion”, conservative US politicians and media are pantomiming the politics and policies that made the maras what they are?

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