Permanent Counterinsurgency in Guatemala

Kenneth Anderson

American University - Washington College of Law; Stanford University - The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace; Brookings Institution - Governance Studies

Jean-Marie Simon



Telos, No. 73, pp. 9-46, Fall 1987

This 1987 article in the critical theory journal Telos examined the counterinsurgency carried out in Guatemala during the late 1970s and 1980s by the Guatemalan army and security forces, and the country's transition to civilian democracy in 1986 under the presidency of Vinicio Cerezo. The article, as an exercise in radical sociology of the Left, argues sharply that the transition is little more than the appearance of democracy, while beneath lies a "permanent counterinsurgency" and authoritarian control by the army. Based on extensive interviews by the authors with many actors in Guatemala, including leading military officers, it offers an inside look at how the Guatemalan military leadership conceived its extensive and brutal counterinsurgency campaign, particularly by comparison to other conflicts in Central America at the time - El Salvador and Nicaragua in particular.

Although parts of the account are of course dated twenty years later (it suffers particularly from the authors' youthful radical social theory, in which seemingly nothing, not even in principle, could show "actual" democracy as opposed to mere false consciousness) it is noteworthy for two features today. First, it offers an uncompromising account of what counterinsurgency requires, in the view of the Guatemalan army, including its view of the US-advised strategy of "hearts and minds" in neighboring El Salvador. That account remains relevant today by comparison to US counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, it observes that the success of the Guatemalan army's countersinsurgency depended crucially upon its internal nationalist coherence against corruption, whether by the private interests of the oligarchy which, strikingly, is clearly distinguished as often working against the interests of the "nation" by army officers - or the then-emerging drug trade.

Twenty years later, Guatemala, including its military, oligarchs, and others, are all deeply enmeshed in the drug trade and the effect is tearing apart society in ways often more extreme than, but overshadowed by, neighboring Mexico.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 38

Keywords: Guatemala, counterinsurgency, democratization, post-conflict, disappearances, death squads, 1980s, guerrillas, Latin America, Central America

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Date posted: November 22, 2010 ; Last revised: October 6, 2013

Suggested Citation

Anderson, Kenneth and Simon, Jean-Marie, Permanent Counterinsurgency in Guatemala (1987). Telos, No. 73, pp. 9-46, Fall 1987. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1711969

Contact Information

Kenneth Anderson (Contact Author)
American University - Washington College of Law ( email )
4801 Massachusetts Avenue N.W.
Washington, DC 20016
United States
Stanford University - The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace
Stanford, CA 94305-6010
United States
Brookings Institution - Governance Studies
1775 Massachusetts Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20036
United States
Jean-Marie Simon
Independent ( email )
Feedback to SSRN

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