Photojournalist Eros Hoagland traveled with the FRONTLINE/World team to Guatemala to shoot stills for the story. He spent time at the National Police archive but also on the streets of Guatemala City, photographing young gang members and citizen vigilante groups trying to rid their neighborhoods of drugs and crime. Watch a narrated slideshow of the images Hoagland captured.
Produced by James Buck
Eros Hoagland began working as a photojournalist in 1993, covering the aftermath of the civil war in El Salvador. He has since worked in many countries marred by violence and unrest, including Iraq, Haiti, Eritrea and Colombia. His last assignment for FRONTLINE/World was in Colombia in 2002 for the broadcast story, “The Pipeline War.”
In an interview with FRONTLINE/World’s Senior Interactive Producer Jackie Bennion, Hoagland describes Guatemala as a far more dangerous place than the one he first visited in the mid-1990s. He has traveled through much of Central America and says that the problems facing Guatemala are the same as those of many countries in the region trying to recover from civil war. “You suddenly have a political peace, but there are still no jobs,” explains Hoagland. “People naturally gravitate toward crime, and that has become one of the most devastating aspects of Guatemala’s recent history.”
The interview took place on May 20, 2008, in Berkeley, California. It has been edited for clarity.
Q: You went to Guatemala with the FRONTLINE/World team last September. Was it the first time you’d heard about the discovery of the police archive?
Hoagland: I’d heard about archives in the past, but I couldn’t connect the stories that I’d heard with this specific place. Then a friend who’s very knowledgeable about Guatemalan history said that he had heard rumors of an archive holding millions and millions of police records, and that no one had been allowed to see it until recently.
Q: What sort of anticipation was there when you first arrived at the building where the archives were found?
Well, it looked like a complete mess, so I wasn’t completely surprised to find a beehive of activity. People were frantically trying to catalog and digitally scan boxes and boxes of documents. I did my best to show the sheer number of documents. Apparently, there are some 80 million [documents] in the archive rooms, and there are stacks upon stacks with titles like “Homicides,” “Disappearances.” It’s a bit overwhelming, so some of my pictures are trying to show a sense of scale.
Q: How free were you to move around and take photos of the documents?
We were free, for the most part, to move around. What we were not free to do was photograph anything at will. People were very concerned about showing the identities of the volunteers who were working there, for fear of retribution from those who stand to be prosecuted by what the records unfold.
I asked many times to see records and documents, specifically from the years of the civil war, which was primarily during the 1980s. The administrators of the archive were not very enthusiastic about showing them to cameras. What they did show us were many identification papers that had been collected by the police in the 1950s and 1960s. I was allowed to photograph and examine these documents. Some of them were arrest warrants for vagrancy. I found a couple of records where people had been arrested as suspected communists. That was a poignant thing to see – a kind of a precursor to the troubles that were to come. I kept thinking of the Nazi war criminals and how they kept meticulous records of everything they did.
Q: What was going through your mind, taking so many pictures of faces on ID cards from the past?
I thought quite possibly nothing had happened to that person but then quite possibly something horrible did happen to them. There were so many faces I saw in the photographs that it brought back to me a kind of 1970s Pinochet Chile -- a disappearing horror. They are the sort of iconic images you have in your mind of what a disappeared person looks like.
Q: Did it affect you emotionally?
Emotionally, it didn’t affect me so much. Maybe I’ve learned to distance myself from the projects I work on. It was very curious and interesting on an intellectual level because I did wonder, Who were these people? Are these merely mug shots from a simple arrest? Or was this person taken out and shot in the head and put in a ditch somewhere?
Q: You photographed a lot of graffiti and street art around Guatemala City. Do you know what it represented?
Some of them are elaborate paintings that depict the treacherous ways of the imperialist wars. You have to imagine that these are done by leftist radical students, and they have very strong feelings about the Guatemalan security forces. The swastika is a common symbol, and it’s used to depict the Guatemalan military.
Q: A lot of your images portray a general tension and anxiety. Did you feel that a lot while you were there?
There is a sense of tension, especially in Guatemala City. It’s a different kind of tension than in years past. It’s not so much about political murders and oppression [by] the security forces, rather a fear of escalating street crime. Crime has been a serious problem in most of Central America since internal wars ended. I saw it in El Salvador in the early 1990s after the war ended there, and we’re starting to see the same kind of patterns evolve in Guatemala. Basically, you have countries that were at war for so long, where there are so many people involved in either the military or the guerrilla army, that when the war is over, you have thousands of unemployed people used to killing, robbing, and raping. You suddenly have political peace, but there are still no jobs for anybody. People naturally gravitate toward crime, and that has become one of the most devastating aspects of Guatemala’s recent history.
Q: You were there during the presidential election last year [won by Álvaro Colom in a run-off in November]. Was there a sense of hope or change around the candidates?
I didn’t see much hopefulness in political change. I think people were just kind of figuring out which candidate was the least corrupt. Honestly, I don’t think anybody felt that Rigoberta Menchu [Guatemalen Nobel Peace Prize winner who was one of the candidates] had any chance of winning. A main feature of the election was the sheer number of political murders that were committed during the campaign season. Almost every day there were people being murdered who were linked to one of the party’s campaigns. I came across the burial service of two members of Rigoberta Menchu’s campaign. [They] were murdered about an hour and a half outside the capital in a rural town. They were shot to death, as far as I know, and left on the side of a road.
Q: Did you see violence firsthand while you were there?
I saw the result of violence a few times -- usually in the form of bodies in the street, which is quite common now. Most of the violence in Guatemala is common crime or related to drug dealing. And most of it is being committed by teenagers, many of whom are in street gangs and many of whom work for drug cartels or different bands of organized crime. I suppose in a sense it’s all political, because things are very incestuous. The politicians have ties with the drug cartels. The drug cartels employ gangs. The gangs – well, they’re left to die in the streets.
Q: There’s a photo you took of one young woman. I’m curious because it’s such a beautiful close-up portrait. What can you tell us about her?
This is a young woman who was very active in one of the main gangs in Los Angeles. She was shot nine times because she wanted to leave the gang. She was shot and left for dead, and she has since been living on the streets, in halfway houses, [living] hand to mouth, selling candy on buses. I met with her and photographed her over a period of a few days, and her story is entirely typical of teenagers in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras -- this whole area. They get involved early on with gangs that had been deported from the United States and embrace a life of crime. Many of them do horrible, horrible things. They are completely desperate, and they’re often hunted by rival gangs or private vigilante groups or the police.
Q: And you also spent time with one of these vigilante groups?
Yes. One of the most fascinating reactions to the level of violence in the streets of Guatemala has been the formation of citizen vigilante groups. I had heard about one neighborhood about half an hour outside of the capital, where a group of normal people with normal day jobs brandish machetes and shotguns at night and patrol their neighborhood, keeping out gangs of youths, organized crime – anybody who comes in to dominate their neighborhood with drug sales or extortion rackets. I spent a night with this group. It was fairly uneventful, but it was interesting to see how organized they were with radio communications, floodlights. They had their act together, and apparently, a week prior to my arrival there had been a gunfight where a couple people were killed [in] a gunfight with a gang that lives nearby.
Q: You photographed a gang member not long after he’d been shot on the street. Can you tell us about that?
There was one young gang member from the 18th Street Gang, also a gang imported from Los Angeles, who had been shot and killed. He was most likely shot by a rival gang member. He himself was for sure a gang member; I saw the tattoos on his back.
Q: Are there support groups working with these teenagers to get them out of the gangs and off the streets?
There are a few groups that work specifically with gang members. I think it’s very difficult for them to reach people, because there’s always a trust issue. But we did encounter a few people with strong ties within the community. The problem is that there’s so little funding. Their biggest challenge is raising enough funds to really do long-lasting work with them. I know that some people are trying to work directly with the Guatemalan government, but I believe it’s a constant uphill battle.
Q: Can you explain the connection between gang members [in Guatemala] and gang members in Los Angeles?
I think there are probably hundreds of people deported every week from the United States back to Guatemala. Many of them have been involved with gangs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, big cities. Somebody gets arrested for a crime in California or Texas or wherever, has no legal papers and is deported back to Guatemala, often where they find themselves lost. They don’t know the country very well. They were raised primarily in Los Angeles, and many people are deported just on immigration violations that had nothing to do with gangs or criminal activity.
Q: The images you selected for the slideshow, overall, what story did you want them to convey about Guatemala?
All these images, all these stories tie into a history of violence in Guatemala. Originally it was records that will help people better understand human rights abuses, murders that took place during the war years. And it transitions into a political violence surrounding an election where people are murdered for supporting one side or the other. And we end up with street violence, which is still almost the same story -- one side fighting against another. It’s still a civil war. They’re all the same people, and in the end, we see entire communities that are in violent confrontation with their own neighbors. And that’s been a historical thread in Guatemala for as long as I’ve known the country.