Receipt: June 23, 2022
Acceptance: December 19, 2022
This essay, which accompanies the documentary “Suk’ B’anik,” is based on a case of theft settled by the so-called “ancestral Mayan law” in the municipality of Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala, where more than 80% of the populace self-identify as Maya-K’iche’. The material seeks to deepen understanding of the collective reasoning and emotions that took place in the community trial of the case. In the face of the systemic weakness of the state’s justice system, in this region popular courts coordinated by local community mayors and supracommunal structures of ancestral authorities have become common to collectively try criminals or alleged criminals and to subject them to some form of corrective punishment.
These judicial proceedings are developed within their own cultural understandings, which frequently offer highly ritualized spectacular choreographies for local as well as wider consumption. That visuality, often accompanied by community video practices, gives the participants’ performance an intrinsic status in the interior of these judicial processes while reaffirming the structures of local power. In these collective scenarios, the individual bodies of those accused are exhibited and prosecuted by the local authorities in front of audiences that demand sanctions to drum out the wrongdoing perceived as being damaging to the community. This, in turn, acts as a metaphor of moral cleansing and reequilibrium of a social body processing its own conflicts. Just as in rites of passage or in the theater, the popular trials in these Maya-K’iche’ communities often invoke other times and spaces, including supernatural ones, that have a bearing on the effectiveness of the reorganizational message that at the same time reinforces their own constructions of identity.
Keywords: crime, indigenous law, Mayan law, social drama, Guatemala, maras, Quiche, conflict resolution, rite of passage, collaborative video
community justice and ritual spectacle: a case of mayan law in guatemala
This essay, which accompanies the documentary "Suk' B'anik," is based on a case of theft settled by the so-called "ancestral Mayan law" in the municipality of Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala, where more than 80% of the populace self-identify as Maya-K'iche'. The material seeks to deepen understanding of the collective reasoning and emotions that took place in the community trial of the case. In the face of the systemic weakness of the state's justice system, in this region popular courts coordinated by local community mayors and supracommunal structures of ancestral authorities have become common to collectively try criminals or alleged criminals and to subject them to some form of corrective punishment. These judicial proceedings are developed within their own cultural understandings, which frequently offer highly ritualized spectacular choreographies for local as well as wider consumption. That visuality, often accompanied by community video practices, gives the participants' performance an intrinsic status in the interior of these judicial processes while reaffirming the structures of local power. In these collective scenarios, the individual bodies of those accused are exhibited and prosecuted by the local authorities in front of audiences that demand sanctions to drum out the wrongdoing perceived as being damaging to the community. This, in turn, acts as a metaphor of moral cleansing and reequilibrium of a social body processing its own conflicts. Just as in rites of passage or in the theater, the popular trials in these Maya-K'iche' communities often invoke other times and spaces, including supernatural ones, that have a bearing on the effectiveness of the reorganizational message that at the same time reinforces their own constructions of identity.
Keywords: mayan law, indigenous law, Maras, crime, resolution of conflicts, collaborative video, social drama, rite of passage, Quiché, Guatemala.
In April 2018, I received a video recorded by Maya-Kakchiquel colleague Marta Matzir Miculax of the organization Uk'u'x be', who has accompanied ancestral authorities in the western highlands of Guatemala in matters of organization, research and promotion of indigenous practices and rights in the region. This material meticulously recorded the case of two men who had been prosecuted by the indigenous authorities of Santa Cruz del Quiché after being identified as the perpetrators of the theft of a neighbor's car. During the trial, it was revealed that both defendants belonged to the so-called maras violent criminal gangs.
Through this case, the material documented how several K'iche' communities with high levels of social violence, criminality and impunity were attempting to control criminal and anti-social behavior on a daily basis through their own legal system. In addition, it showed the constant use of video in the community to record such judicial processes in order to save evidence and educate other community members about the nature of local customary procedures. Finally, and in a broader sense, it left a trace of the ways in which these judicial practices provided them with greater autonomy in the face of a deeply racist and discriminatory non-indigenous nation-state that, through its public policies, had encouraged violent and highly punitive forms of conflict resolution in communities across the country.
It should be recalled that after the armed conflict in Guatemala (1960-1996), one of the most violent in the second half of the twentieth century in Latin America,1 the recomposition of the State was not accompanied by sufficient measures to solve social and criminal conflicts that multiplied with the withdrawal of the military forces that had established an important social control in large parts of the country, especially in the indigenous regions. In view of the summary and highly violent executions perpetrated during the concluded military confrontation, together with an almost non-operational justice system, some communities in the country opted for markedly punitive and spectacular forms of corporal punishment of persons accused of committing crimes in their localities. This situation resulted, from the signing of the peace agreement in 1996 until the beginning of 2000, in hundreds of public beatings and lynchings of alleged criminals without any kind of conflict resolution procedure by legally recognized authorities.2
In this context and as part of the opening provided by the peace accords, several indigenous mayors elected in community assemblies in different parts of the country began to play a renewed leading role in the exercise of justice in their localities. Central to this, and in contrast to the removal of the physical presence of the accused in their local environments (either by death/lynching, imprisonment in the official system or even banishment), these mayors opted for the strategy of trying to reincorporate the transgressors into the communal fabric through judicial processes known locally as suk' b'anik, aimed at changing or "straightening out" criminal behavior for others more in line with accepted values of neighborhood coexistence. This practice is part of the so-called Mayan law or mayab' legal system (Asociación Maya Uk'ux B'e, 2019).
Thus, after their capture, the defendants through the system suk' b'anik usually undergo the public exposure of their faults in open assemblies; collective assessment of the incriminating evidence presented; counseling or p'ixab' from the Mayan authorities' decision to punish the accused once guilt has been established and public repentance has taken place. In addition, the accused usually receive sanctions decided by the local mayors once their guilt has been established. This usually takes the form of physical tests such as walking on one's knees (xukulem) to ask for forgiveness from the community and Mother Earth, and/or also with ritual whippings known in the Quiché region as xik'a'y. The exercises of Maya justice thus become legal choreographies in whose visible and public aspect lies much of their procedural essence.3
Following this general guide to action and as can be seen in the documentary film accompanying this essay, the community's legal action also shows a series of manipulations of time and space together with the sacralization of the judicial terrain in accordance with its own cosmogonic understandings, saturated with long-standing cultural archetypes. Here it has been of paramount importance to imprint a sense of unity capable of connecting not only the supernatural forces such as the Nim Ajaw (the main deity in the area) with the earthly procedure, but to the collective among themselves and their ancestors. These judgments, emotionally charged by appealing to other times, spaces and supernatural entities, become effective reorganizing messages of the social balance together with the permanent reinforcement of the community structure. In public judgments of this type, then, there is a primordial recreation in which an attempt is made to unify wills and organize social disorder, where it is hoped to give the crisis or social drama a resolution towards the future with the help of superior wills outside the influence of earthly human subjectivities and passions (see Artaud, 1958: 51; Turner, 1987).
Resorting to these archetypal spaces staged through the application of local law thus endows those who direct, invoke and transmit them with important degrees of political legitimacy, because they mediate strongly rooted understandings among those present and because it places them within abstract, general, untainted and sacred spaces that are above individual wills. At the same time, the process magnifies its force, since the accused are subject not only to the power of the local authority and its followers, but also to that of supernatural entities. In this way, the transgressing conscience is forced to situate itself in the domain of a community of wills of different levels and meanings (Butler, 2001: 63).
On the other hand, in societies with a high degree of social insecurity, fears of transgressive and dangerous crime are constantly mobilized, which is always present within the collective that participates in this type of community discipline exercises. In these spaces there is the idea that the violent criminals now exposed are characters that have emerged from the same social body that have not only lost their way or contaminated their lives, but are potentially harmful and can even infect others. In that sense, the community, in observing the judicial spectacle and its resolution, also finds itself processing its own conflicts (see Cicero, 2017). There is, therefore, a kind of communal "autobiography," a social mirror in which it is possible to focus the bad through which the group reinforces and redefines its identity and cohesion in relative opposition to the disintegrating forces identified as dangerous (Turner, 2008: 97; Balandier, 1994: 80).
The primary objective of prosecution and eventual san(a)tion in such contexts is therefore not merely to punish subjects who have willfully broken the local law, but rather to restore control over a certain social order challenged by criminality in order to diminish, as far as possible, anxieties and pernicious effects on communal life (see Foucault, 2014: 244). It means, finally, an assertion of legitimacy from the staging of a cultural heritage that returns to the present public a manageable, idealized and acceptable image of itself (Balandier, 1994: 23).
Many of the indigenous prosecutions in the region function in a manner similar to the rituals of passage, as they are characterized by seeking an ontological transition of the accused to be reintegrated back into the communal matrix as full members with rights and obligations. To this end, it is important to situate the accused as entities morally and symbolically "separated" from the community, both for their past criminal actions, as well as in the very moment of Maya conflict resolution. The threshold of passage that establishes a before and after in this process of reconversion and social rehabilitation is what Victor Turner called "liminality", although there are not always guarantees that the procedure will be effective. Frequently, in these restorative rituals, transgressors in a liminal state are represented as dispossessed persons. Their behavior, the author points out, has to be "usually passive or humble; they must obey their instructors implicitly, and accept arbitrary punishment without complaint" (Turner, 1987: 94-95).4
Although the social drama essentially recreates cultural archetypes such as the eternal struggle between good and evil, order and disorder, death and resurrection, the passage from child to adult, etc., the unfolding script also emphasizes the subordination of the transgressors to the correcting space that makes the transition possible. Likewise, the liminal spaces multiply their force in the sacred, and the associated sacrifices make the staging tragic, "since the key to the drama is the physical or moral death of those whom power accuses in the name of safeguarding the form and supreme values of society" (Balandier, 1994: 24). The accused thus find themselves disempowered, outside of their own power structure previously granted by the mara criminal. Now, rather, they have to operate within a hierarchical system that deals with contrary moral codes represented by the mayors and the population behind them. As Oscar Chase points out, "it is precisely in the spectacular adherence to the conventions and norms of the performance ritual where legal procedures derive their power over social control" (Hartigan, 2018: 104). Furthermore, Julie Stone Peters indicates that the "Performance makes authority visual, palpable, corporeal (accessible to the senses)" (cited in Sarat, Douglas and Merrill, 2018: 5).
In a way, these stagings with performances, gestures, speeches, movements, among others, function as ways to fix social relations and reinforce local socio-cultural understandings among the settlers. In fact, they are instruments for transferring enduring rules to the collective, although their nature - unlike the written legal exercise - seems fluid, unstable and ephemeral. It is this set of bodily languages and unwritten codes, which Diana Taylor called "repertoire" (cited in Hartigan, 2018: 76), that transfers moral and disciplinary messages to the participating public in these popular trials in Santa Cruz del Quiché. It means, on the other hand, that the transgressors must acquire the commitment to a new role and social act in the becoming of the communal drama. Once achieved, the community as a whole can heal and prepare for the next social crisis. As Maria Lucas, the indigenous mayor who led the event under analysis, points out:
That is what we want, to help the population in general and not just Crispín [the young offender]. There are others that we have captured and they change their lives. They stop stealing, they start working, because stealing is not right, it is a suffering that they give to the people, to the town and to the canton. We don't want that, rather we want a change in these times. We have captured many and almost most of them have improved.
Thus, new identities are ideally constituted and imposed during the process: from the thief, liar and dangerous subject, to the repentant, reflective and hardworking subject. In both cases there was a moral and juridical discursive framework that first fixed the previous identity and then a "new" one with projection to the future, "supplying and imposing a regulating principle that completely invades the individual, totalizes him and gives him coherence" (Butler, 2001: 98). Their past acts incriminate them, but it is in this judicial present where they can transform their lives. As Pellegrini and Shimakawa point out, every trial is a temporal scheme that looks at the past and the future simultaneously. According to these authors, a legal term for this temporal paradox would be "precedent," which locates the judicial mandate in the present, but at the same time governs social relations in the future while resting on evidence from the past (2018: 102).
Despite the existence of intra-communal differences and contradictions, the trials of known transgressors tend to create consensus and a sense of unity within the population about what is and is not permissible. At the same time, they grant majorities the possibility of disengaging from the commitment to deal on their own against neighborhood offenders, while allowing their leaders to assume such responsibilities in exchange for important quotas of political power (see Cicero, 2017). With these cultural forms, therefore, it has been assigned to the suk' b'anik the dual function of not only punishing physically and in an exemplary manner, but also of making amends and correcting.
Thus, in the Mayan legal choreography, confession, sanction and repentance of those involved after the advice or p'ixab' The mayors' actions play an essential role in sustaining the internal coherence of the judicial script vis-à-vis the population. In other words, it is through this correction that individuals are expected to be transformed with respect to their faults and, thanks to the penitence suffered and their public repentance, to mutate also with respect to the transgressive actions they might commit in the future. It is, at the same time, a dissuasive spectacle to discipline potential offenders among the public who, according to local authorities, have not had proper guidance from their parents or good people.
The theatricality of the judicial ritual represents in the end a controlled way of channeling and neutralizing outbreaks of violence and social passions always present and at all levels. Therefore, it often becomes a space of collective catharsis, where repressed desires, fears and frustrations among the population find some kind of momentary relief, through the spectacular exposure of an exemplary punishment to annoying and dangerous neighbors. Daily anxiety is usually greater while knowing that the familiar and the strange coexist contradictorily in the same social body.
Artaud, Antonin (1958). The Theater and Its Double. Nueva York: Grove Press.
Asociación Maya Uk’ux B’e (2019). 15 casos resueltos por las autoridades indígenas de Santa Cruz del Quiché. Aportes al Sistema Jurídico Mayab’. Chimaltenango: Asociación Maya Uk’ux B’e.
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Hartigan, Ryan (2018). “This is a Trial, Not a Performance!” Staging the Time of the Law”, en Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas y Martha Merrill Umphrey (eds.). Law and Performance. Amherst y Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, pp. 68-100.
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Title: Suk' B'anik (Correction)
Duration: 33 minutes
Director: Carlos Y. Flores
Production company: Asociación Maya Uk'u'x B'e, Guatemala
Synopsis: With high levels of criminality and scarce state justice, some Mayan communities in Guatemala resolve their conflicts through community processes called locally suk' b'anik. In this way, transgressors are expected to publicly repent and "recover their shame" before being reintegrated back into the community.
Carlos Y. Flores D. studies at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico, and a Ph.D. at the University of Manchester, England, specializing in the area of visual anthropology at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology. He worked for several years as a visiting professor in the postgraduate program in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He has published on visual anthropology, political violence and community reconstruction processes and access to justice in the Mayan region. He has also produced several videos in collaboration with indigenous authorities and videographers in Guatemala, on historical memory and Mayan legal practices in communities in the region. He is currently a full time professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos, Mexico.