Extortion is the most common of crimes in Central America today and the most despised. As a growing criminal phenomenon, it exemplifies trends prevalent across post–Cold War Latin America as well as other parts of the world. In many societies, the “democratic wave” and the triumph of market fundamentalism has been accompanied by deepening uncertainty: the state has become criminal, criminals counterfeit the state. For those caught in the middle, distinguishing between predator and protector is often impossible. Proliferating protection rackets are both a symptom of and answer to collective anxieties over the terms of everyday survival and the difficulty of determining just who is in charge. This essay is an ethnography of extorted life, mapping the expanding geographies of extortion in postwar Guatemala to illuminate how this cold-blooded business organizes life at the most intimate of scales.
Extorted Life: Protection Rackets in Guatemala City
Anthony W. Fontes is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His written and photographic work in Central American cities explores the blurred boundaries between the underworld, the state, law-abiding society, legacies of civil war, the meaning of justice, and violence in its most extreme and banal forms.