Guatemala: Public Support for the Death Penalty

Picture “brooms head romans.. ” by Antigua Daily Photo and used under a Creative Commons license.

One might see a contradiction in Guatemala in regards to attitudes towards the death penalty. On one hand, Guatemalans are heavily devoted and participate in religious festivities of the Catholic and Protestant churches during holy week, which is the time for the faithful to commemorate the execution of Jesus Christ. However, with the same devotion and passion, most Guatemalans strongly support the death penalty. First, it was announced that death penalty will not be applied to the criminals (there are more than 40 waiting in line), and the international community supported this decision, while several ordinary citizens were really upset. Then the President said that the decree was unconstitutional, and that the law had to be enforced.

Bloggers have divided opinions, some in favor, some against it. But sadly, in all of them you can read the lack of credibility in the system and the loss of hope. Such contradictions are clearly exposed by El Toronteco on his post Overdue Pride, where he argues:

During my quarter of a century growing up in Guatemala the death penalty was a non-issue. It existed, it was enforced every now and then, it was even broadcast on the news at noon. I learned compassion, thought, through the eyes of my Tía Luz who served somewhat as our nanny and to whom I am in debt for who I am almost as much as my parents. Her reaction to anyone being incarcerated or taking in by police, or worse, anyone who was in death row was Pobrecito (“poor little guy”). Compassion for a criminal is something that is not often seen, particularly in Guatemala where the sole mention of the “Human Rights” in relation to common criminals provokes the outcry of the general public as a way of letting people get away with their wrongdoings. Now that I think about it to put it in black and white pixels Human Rights have so many different meanings in Guatemala. On one side we have the issue of the genocide of those who were fighting against the government (blowing up the extremely necessary and scarce infrastructure of the country, I must say to echo my “maternal” point of view); those who are seen by the international community as criminals against humanity, the masterminds and executors of the massacres during the civil war and even after the peace accords of 1996. And then we have the Human Rights of the common criminal (or even the organized one) which are completely disregarded by the common public. Linchamientos (“lynching”) was (is?) a usual way of the people of taking the law into their own hands, as democratic as an open town hall. Out of frustration, the general public chased the criminal (be it someone who was stealing a pair of sunglasses or someone being suspected or trying to kidnap a baby), beat him/her up almost to death, until “the authorities” arrive. Is in this context that Human Rights are looked down by Guatemalans, not in the context of the massacres”.

As blogger Miguel Arriaga said on his post Pena de Muerte en Guatemala [es]:

Mi postura es totalmente a favor de la pena de muerte, y tengo entre otras, dos razones que considero válidas. La primera, es que debe hacerse cumplir la ley, si la ley dice 5 años que se den 5 años, si 10 pues que se den 10, y si la ley dice pena de muerte se debe aplicar; porque de antemano se sabe cuales delitos se castigan con la pena de muerte y el delincuente lo sabe, y si aun sabiendolo delinquio, pues que se le de la pena máxima.

My position is totally in favor of death penalty, and I have, at least 2 valid reasons. First, you should enforce the law, if the penalty is 5 years, then you should apply it, if it is 10 years, then you should give them 10 years, if the penalty is death, you should do so, because one knows in advance which crimes are punishable by death and if the criminal commits the crime regardless, then they should be punished with death penalty.

On the other side is Lucía, who argues on ¡Que pena con la Muerte! [es]:

Por supuesto que hay tipos a los que dan ganas de matar, y mejor si es lenta y cruelmente. Conozco a unos cuantos que merecerían bailar eternamente en la horca. También sé que las cárceles de Guatemala son escuelas del crimen, y que nosotros pagamos la comida de los presos, etcétera, etcétera. Pero de eso a pensar que la pena de muerte es justificada en una cultura hay mucha diferencia. ¿Tiene un ser humano derecho a quitarle la vida a otro.

Of course there are people that you wish you could kill, and is better if the death is slow and painful. I know some that deserve to be hung forever. I also know that prisons in Guatemala are schools for criminals and that we have to pay taxes so prisoners will have food, etc. However, from that to justify death penalty in a culture, there is a huge difference. Has a human the right to kill another human being?

Death Penalty is supported by some Protestant churches, as explained by El Blog de Chapu [es]:

Me referiré con todo respeto a la actitud tomada por la Alianza Evangélica, ellos dicen que: “Dios nos creó a imagen y semejanza y, por lo tanto, el que alguien destruya su propia imagen y semejanza merece el máximo castigo posible. No hay duda de que Dios es no sólo el Creador del hombre, sino creador de la pena de muerte”. El pastor general de la Fraternidad Cristiana dijo que: ” el hombre es una creación divina y cuando alguien atenta contra esa creación, se merece y se gana el derramamiento de su propia sangre”. Recuerda que cuando crucificaron a Jesucristo, había otros condenados a muerte, cuya sentencia fue ejecutada.

I will respectfully refer to the attitude adopted by the Evangelical Alliance, they say: “God created man in his image, so, if someone destroys the image of God, he has to be punished with the highest penalty. There is no doubt, God is not only the Creator of man, but also the creator of death penalty”. The leader of Christian Fraternity said that “Human beings are a divine creation, so when someone acts against such creation, he deserves that his own blood to run”. He argues that when Christ was executed, there were also other people that were executed.

On his post: Deshojando la Margarita… Blogger Hablando de Guatemala [es] said:

Estados Unidos nos da un ejemplo, ellos no la han abolido y en varios estados aun sigue siendo la pena máxima. ¿Entonces porque aquí no? Álvaro Colom tiene dos opciones ser Nerón o Ser Pilatos las dos opciones son difíciles pero hay que analizar la situación detenidamente y hacer lo que la sociedad demanda, lo que la mayoría demanda. Así funciona la democracia. ¿Y las victimas que pensaran? ¿Acaso no es correcto hacerles justicia? ¿La ley del Talión acaso?

The United States provides us an example, they have not abolished capital punishment, and in several States it is still the highest penalty. Then, why not here? Alvaro Colom can either be Nerón or (Pontius) Pilate, which are the hardest roles, but the situation has to be examined carefully and what the majority of society has to be done. That is a democracy. What about the victims? Is it not fair to rule in favor and for justice for them? Lex Talionis, then?

The streets in Guatemala are covered by flowers and images of Christ during Holy Week. You can see flower vendors, candle vendors,, people in the streets at night, whole neighborhoods making the arrangements for the festivities. In Guatemala, with public support and an ambigious response of the Head of State, the death penalty is still in effect and a couple of criminals will be executed in the next weeks. The discussion took place just before the holidays.


  • I think I have to look further into this issue because I have the feeling I have misinterpreted the news… the death penalty still in effect in Guatemala… that really saddens me. Great post Renata… I love how you were able to tie it up to the most infamous application of the death penalty, the one being commemorated this week.

  • Thinking death penalty is going to be used against someone enemies is an argument that is saying that Guatemala is still in the 70’s/80’s. No one says we need it for everything, we are thinking of those people what commit cruel crimes, specially against kids, women an elderly.

    I know some crimes are commited by crazy people, but what about crimes that new “mareros” commit to apply for the “group”. If many of these people knew they can have its life taken away perhaps they didn’t commit the crime. We need something done now, not in 10 years when education and improvement of law enforcement starts giving some results.

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