In the latest issue of Cultural Anthropology, Chris Garces describes a successful prison protest against the unlawful practice of preventative incarceration in Guayaquil, Ecuador. In late 2003, unjustly detained prisoners in Guayaquil’s horrendously overcrowded La Penitenciaría managed to mobilize public opinion behind their cause by staging a series of self-crucifixions, eventually resulting in the release of hundreds of persons. Although the Ecuadorean press often focused on the macabre aspects of the protests, “The Cross Politics of Ecuador’s Penal State” shows that these acts carried explicit politico-theological significance. Garces argues that prisoners used religious imagery to quilt together a powerful counterclaim against the sovereign violence of the neoliberal penal state. Self-sacrifice was the literal and metaphorical crosspiece that allowed the protests to traverse “multiple, internested modalities of force” both inside and outside of the prison. The protests found a wide audience outside the prisons because their use of sacrificial imagery “meshed with a long established Ecuadorian model of citizenship and political sovereignty tied to Christian purity.” But the demonstrations’ success also depended on alliances forged within the prison. Garces’s ethnographic account of life inside La Penitenciaría reveals how prisoners in one cellblock forged an unspoken alliance amongst themselves, prison guards, and international organizations. Together, these cross-cutting perspectives on the prisons, the protests, and the politico-theological basis of sovereignty in Ecuador provide a glimpse into how the sovereign violence of the penal state was, for a brief moment, undone.
Cultural Anthropology has published several essays on media politics in Latin America. See, for example, Cymene Howe's “Spectacles of Sexuality: Televisionary Activism in Nicaragua” (2008), Charles Briggs' “Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations between Narrative and Violence” (2007), and Kent Maynard's “Protestant Theories and Anthropological Knowledge: Convergent Models in the Ecuadorian Sierra” (1993).
Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of essays on prisons, including Daniel Fisher's “Mediating Kinship: Country, Family, and Radio in Northern Australia” (2009), Karolina Szmagalska-Follis' “Repossession: Notes on Restoration and Redemption in Ukraine's Western Borderland” (2008), and Lorna Rhodes' “Changing the Subject: Conversation in Supermax” (2005).
This following photo essay by Chris Garces culls images related to a 2003 prison protest in Guayaquil, Ecuador in which the participating inmates had themselves literally crucified in order to denounce their indefinite, unconstitutional detainment. It provides a window into the largely obscure rationale and the hidden growth of penal state politics.
This image shows a prison guard escorting his wards from one cellblock to another. The prison guard is a powerful figure, absolutely central to the inmates' 2003 intervention, as a key liaison between multiple mafia hierarchies and the penitentiary's titular administration.
"Prison overcrowding in Ecuador reached its first major crisis in 1999, when 5,558 [individuals]... found themselves detained without sentence. By late 2003, the situation had grown much worse."
"Earlier in 2003, prisoners [living] in this state of exceptional incarceration responded to their abject legal condition with the announcement of imminent revolts.... Well aware of their [prisoner] compatriots’ [failed mutinies], Guayaquil’s preventively incarcerated now sought “more peaceable” measures to wrest what they considered their inalienable rights from an unwilling state."
"The protest tactic of staged crucifixions ... grew popular in Guayaquil during the 1980s and 1990s, with symbolic victims tied—although not nailed—to wooden crosses."
"Despite their small numbers (involving 34 out of the 1,500-plus preventively incarcerated in Guayaquil’s Peni), the inmates’ gruesome spectacle captured the attention of multiple publics in Ecuador as few stories from prison manage to do."
"[T]he crucifixion protests’ juridical success was contingent on a deeper series of moral exclusions: not only were guards’ interests in facilitating the [prisoners'] campaign absolutely illegible..., so too was the role of foreign nationals, accorded entirely different privileges within a shared space of confinement."
"Most cellblocks have organized themselves into shadow networks... that not only manage the flow of narcotics, money, and weapons but also engage in a widespread and unchecked practice of blackmail, theft, and torture known as sometimiento ('the subjugation')"
The following is a short bibliography of readings on preventive imprisonment in Latin America:
Breeden, George. 2009 "¿Qué es la Prisión Preventiva?" Prison Fellowship International (October)
Carranza, Elías. 1997 (editor) Delito y seguridad de los habitantes, México D.F.: Siglo XXI/ ILANUD/ Comisión Europea.
del Olma, Rosa; James Cavallaro; Anthony Bottoms. 1999 (contributors) "Prisons and Rehabilitation: Current Conditions and Future Prospects" Panel Session VII, Conference on "Rising Violence and the Criminal Justice Response in Latin America." http://lanic.utexas.edu/project/etext/violence/memoria/session_7.html
Duce J. Mauricio; Cristián Riego R. 2009 Prisión Preventiva y Reforma Procesal Penal en América Latina. Santiago: UDP.
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 1997 "Chapter VII: the Right to Personal Liberty" in: Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Ecuador. Washington, DC: OAS/ICHR.
Salla, Fernando; Paula Rodriguez Ballesteros, et. al., 2009 "Democracy, Human Rights and Prison Conditions in South America" Report: Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, May 2009. http://www.cidh.org/countryrep/ecuador-eng/chaper-7.htm
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Garces Chris Garces taught for three years at Sarah Lawrence College before moving to Cornell, where he holds a Mellon-funded postdoctoral fellowship and a visiting assistant professorship. His dissertation, “Whither Charity? Andean Catholic Politics & the Secularization of Sacrifice,” tracks how Catholic charities in Ecuador haltingly incorporated expert medical and labor knowledges into their traditional injunction to care for the poor, telling hidden stories about the non-secular origins of the modern Ecuadorian state. His writings have appeared in Anthropological Quarterly, Anthropology & Humanism, Hispanic American Historical Review, Material Religion, Íconos: Revista de Ciencias Sociales, and the encyclopedia Iberia and the Americas, among other places. He is currently preparing a book-length manuscript on early colonial race relations in Peru and their representations across Catholic hagiographic and viceroyal administrative literatures.