French photographer Miquel Dewever-Plana has devoted more than ten years to uncovering the violence that continues to plague Guatemala. He presents 'The other war', an exhibition on the "maras", the gangs of Guatemala City.
Guatemalan history is steeped in blood. The country has endured a 36-year civil war and Latin America’s worst genocide
in recent times. This conflict has left a violent hangover that refuses to go away.
Since 1996 urban gangs, or “Maras”, made up of disenfranchised youths have given Guatemala the dubious distinction of being one of the three most dangerous countries in the world.
This is where photographer Miquel Dewever-Plana, a Frenchman of Catalan descent, plies his trade.
Dewever-Plana’s offering for the International Festival of Photojournalism, titled 'The Other War', features these “Maras” and the unbridled violence of Guatemala City.
The photographer devoted more than ten years of his life to studying the country’s indigenous Mayan people, which make up more than two thirds of the country and live in almost total exclusion.
It was the Mayans who suffered the worst in the country’s civil war, which Dewever-Plana says involved “Latin America’s bloodiest and least publicised genocide.”
Some 200,000 people, mostly Mayans, were killed between 1960 and 1966.
The genocide gave birth to Guatemala’s urban gang culture, which is responsible for an average of 18 deaths every day and is paralysing society.
Prison or grave
“Urban violence is one direct consequence of armed conflict,” Dewever-Plana explains in a calm and measured voice. He neither accuses or judges. He wants to understand. How can a society generate such a huge amount of violence?
Brought up in a society that barely recognises their existence, these rootless youths are endowed with little sense of social or cultural identity.
With often absent or abusive parents, the ubiquity of drugs and guns and a total lack of law and order, urban Guatemala is fertile recruiting ground for gangs.
“With violence at home and social violence everywhere, young people turn to gangs for solidarity,” Dewever-Plana says. “The gangs become their families. They would rather die at 15 than live long lives being humiliated, as their parents were.”
For the “Maras”, the road to hell starts at eight with an initiation in murder. It ends in prison or untimely death.
Dewever-Plana’s work began at Guatamala City’s El Preventivo prison, which he visited every day for five months, looking for chinks in the prisoners’ armour through which he could find an inner humanity.
He captured the thick arms, tattoos from head to toe, scarring and shaven heads in moments of tenderness, distress and relaxation. There are men under these monstrous masks, and through the lens you feel the photographer's love for their humanity.
“For pictures to be interesting one cannot shut out one's feelings,” he says. “I know these people have assassinated, raped and tortured. I know they have extorted, that they have terrorised.
“And it was disturbing for me to realise I felt not only empathy for them, but also a friendship for these boys who are nevertheless killers one and all.”
To his critics who accuse him of glorifying their crimes, he insists he is not making excuses for anyone, nor is he trying to justify anything. Rather, he is looking for the sociological roots of the pervasive evil in Guatemala.
“Before becoming killers, these boys were victims. No one is born evil. One becomes evil.”
'Fear is the supreme weapon of dictators'
Violence is a daily reality in Guatemala. But Dewever-Plana refuses to succumb to the tyranny of fear.
“You try not to think about the danger because it would be impossible to work with nagging fear in the belly. Fear is the supreme weapon of dictators,” he explains. He does however take every precaution possible, “but you’re never really safe”, he adds.
It is hard not to compare Dewever-Plana with French film-maker Christian Poveda, who was killed on September 2 in El Salvador. Poveda had also been working with “Mara” gangs. His film, 'La Vida Loca' is due for release on September 30.
His killing had a big impact on the festival. For Dewever-Plana, it is a big reminder of the reality of violence. But it won’t discourage him from his work.
“Why him? Why not me? When I heard about Christian, I asked myself is the price for working in this environment was not too high,” he says. “But it’s what I like doing and I have a need to tell this story. I am not reckless about it and I have no wish to be a martyr to my cause. But this is not a world I want to leave to my children.”
Dewever-Plana has produced a book titled “Sous la Terre de la Vérité” (Beneath the Earth of Truth) which he hopes will inspire Guatemalan schoolchildren to stop the evil at its roots and help them build a better world.
Date created : 2009-09-11