State Strength, Non-State Actors, and the Guatemalan Genocide

June 13, 2016

Written by guest blogger, Frederick M. Shepherd


My article, “State Strength, Non-State Actors, and the Guatemalan Genocide: Comparative Lessons,” emerged from my scholarly and political interests going back several decades.  As a student and political activist, my interest came out of concerns for social justice, prompted by the Reagan administration’s obsession with Central America in the early 1980s, subsequent travels to the region, and then work with several Washington-based organizations working to oppose U.S. policy.  As a graduate student at Georgetown University and new faculty member at Samford University, much of my early research confronted the issue of how to understand Central American politics in the context of the profound and enduring external penetration experienced by the nations of the region.  The two themes I emphasized in this work were weak governments and powerful transnational actors.  My more recent immersion in the field of genocide studies at seminars sponsored by the Lilly Foundation, the Holocaust Education Foundation and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum, partly led me to other continents and historical eras.  But it also led me to try to understand massive injustice in Central America in the context not only of genocide, but also of the courageous human rights activists who opposed genocide and injustice. It is these themes that, I believe, provide the basis for useful comparison between Guatemala and other cases of genocide.

As the article explains, then, what ended up emerging as I scrutinized the Guatemalan case were two different narratives.  The first one was of a brutal, genocidal regime using the pretext of anti-communism to destroy the lives and culture of Guatemala’s indigenous majority.  By almost any measure, the levels of brutality and oppression were shocking, eclipsing just about any other case of violence in the long and bloody history of Latin America—and making Guatemala an obvious case for inclusion in all but the most restrictive lists of genocide. All of this occurred as the U.S. either supported or tolerated the Guatemalan regime. The second narrative adopted a different lens, emphasizing the historical weakness of the Guatemalan state in basic areas such as taxation and popular mobilization, and the effectiveness of human rights activists—often with assistance from transnational organizations.  These contrasting narratives are at the heart of this article, and, I believe, provide an interesting basis for comparing Guatemala with other cases of genocide. At the end of the article, I make extended comparisons with the Holocaust and Rwanda, with explicit references to issues of state strength and the efficacy of transnational actors in opposing or abetting genocide.

I’d like to thank two of the top scholars in the field of comparative genocide studies, Jim Waller and Jens Meierhenrich, for helping me to put all of these tragic and fascinating issues into a meaningful context, and for making what might seem beyond comprehension—an attempt to destroy the lives and culture of a distinct group—a bit more understandable.


Frederick M. Shepherd’s article, “State Strength, Non-State Actors, and the Guatemalan Genocide: Comparative Lessons,” has been published in Genocide Studies International Volume 10, Issue 1 2016. Read it today at GSI Online – http://bit.ly/GSI101_Shepherd or on Project MUSE – http://bit.ly/GSI101PM_Shepherd

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