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Abstract

For a period of approximately four months in 1994, stories circulated throughout Guatemala that light-skinned foreigners (gringos) known as robaniños, were abducting children, murdering them, and extracting their organs for sale, export, and use in transplant operations. These tales produced a nationwide panic that led to riots, attacks on institutions of state authority, and violence against foreigners which created a brief political crisis with international implications. Despite the intensity of the social unrest caused by these tales, there were no verified cases of organ-stealing gringos. As such, the authority of these tales – their ability to excite the imaginations of thousands and to motivate popular action – did not depend on their factual accuracy. This study presents the first ethnography of the Guatemalan panic of the robaniños, situating the phenomenon within the social, historical, and cultural context of the moment. I argue that the tales of the organ-stealing gringos were examples of “narratives of mistrust,” modes of interpreting social reality through stories whose management of truth-claims and capacity to inspire action powerfully express the concerns, questions, and fears of those who tell them. Specifically, the panic of the robaniños evoked, encoded, and critically engaged two modes of violence – state terror and structural violence – which served as the interpretive corollaries and locally-grounded critiques of the master narratives of democracy and development. The argument that involves several steps. First, the panic was premised on a set of stories that were markedly resistant to verification and factual challenges suggesting that the power of the tales gained authority and was intimately bound to these qualities, as the tales used a logic of victimization to forge a community of common outrage. Second, the elements of the stories were simple and repetitive and directly evoked state terror through imagery of mutilated bodies, resonating with actual acts of forced disappearance and “public presentational torture.” They played off a core tension between what was hidden and revealed as powerful unseen actors operated in a context in which impunity assured. Third, the tales made claims made about distinct bodies – the bodies of child victims, the gringo bodies of distant beneficiaries of extracted organs, and the bodies of perpetrators whose gringo qualities defined them as suspicious – which supported and enabled a cascade of moral judgements and reflections regarding identity claims and reflecting on a variety of experiences of disempowerment and distance. Fourth, the tales of the organ-stealing gringos deployed imagery of bodies and power through stories that were narratively incomplete and required social interpretation to be rendered sensible, especially through references to the “social body” and concerns regarding politics, identity, and suffering. Fifth, the power of the tales was intimately bound to their ability to evoke the pleasures of storytelling and link multiple actors through a unifying moral calculus as seen in specific acts of performance and spectacle. The narratively grounded moral panic of the robaniños was a celebration of mistrust. Its semiotic logic engaged a set of interrelated issues that resonated profoundly among large numbers of Guatemalans because of how the tales, as narratives, encoded lived experience and enabled the expression of a series of key elements of the Guatemalan political imaginary at a crucial moment in the country’s turbulent history.

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