Unidad, Servicio y Recuperación: Twelve-Step Recovery in Civil War Guatemala, Part I

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Heather Vrana. Vrana (Ph.D. Indiana University, 2013) is Associate Professor of Modern Latin America in the Department of History at the University of Florida. Vrana’s research interests include disability, social movements, human rights, photography, and youth and student movements in Central America. She is author of the monograph This City Belongs to You: A History of Student Activism in Guatemala (University of California Press, 2017) and the anthology Anti-colonial Texts from Central American Student Movements 1929-1983 (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). She is co-editor with Julie Gibbings of Out of the Shadow: Revisiting the Revolution from Post-Peace Guatemala (University of Texas Press, 2020). Her articles have appeared in the Journal of Genocide Research, the Radical History Review, and elsewhere. Vrana has conducted archival and oral history research in Central America since 2007, focusing first on Guatemala, then on Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Today’s post is the first of a two-part series on AA in Latin America; the second part will run on Thursday. 

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and its sister fellowship Narcotics Anonymous (NA) arrived in Central America during the region’s nearly four-decade crucible of civil war. Incredibly, at a time when gathering in private was suspicious, if not explicitly forbidden (by countless states of emergency, curfews, and skirmishes), anonymous alcoholics and addicts met in homes and rented rooms most nights of the week. In their move to Central America, very little changed in the texts and practices of the fellowships. The literature and spoken rituals (like the Serenity Prayer, or Oración de la Serenidad) of group meetings were direct translations from the English-language texts. But the mid-1990s saw the emergence of a new and distinct twelve-step program, Neurotics Anonymous (N/A). 

The civil wars have largely been the purview of social movement history. At the same time, social movement history and alcohol and drug history are essentially separate subfields. But together they suggest why twelve-step recovery was so popular in Central America and, in turn, how some Central Americans responded to the trauma, political violence, and religious tensions of the wars and their aftermath. Histories of alcohol and drugs have turned decisively toward transnational and global approaches, a turn the upcoming bi-annual conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society aptly reflects. This research proposes that the same approaches might be usefully brought to bear on transnational and global exchanges of recovery.

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Dr. Heather Vrana

In this and a follow-up blog post, I summarize the history of three central twelve-step recovery groups in Guatemala: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Neurotics Anonymous. Like Stanley Brandes, whose wonderful Staying Sober in Mexico City offers a rare ethnography of AA outside of the U.S., I am curious about the reasons for AA’s impressive expansion in Latin America. But where Brandes emphasizes AA’s adaptability, I find orthodoxy. Through that orthodoxy, twelve-step programs provided an apparently apolitical outlet for affects, thoughts, and outlooks that were outcomes of political turmoil before and during the civil war (1960-1996). I also suggest that meeting spaces and fellowship practices provided a space for community that was largely unfettered by surveillance and political repression at a time when that was hard to come by. 

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Guatemalan AA’s oral tradition holds that Maryknoll priest Father Edmundo Mickler first introduced the fellowship in 1952 to an employee of his parish, in the city of San Pedro Necta in Huehuetenango, who was struggling with alcohol. A few years later, another priest, Father Joseph Ricket, joined Mickler and together they founded the first AA group. Four founding members, all men, met in the parish house. At some point, a man named Reinaldo Galindo joined the group. They learned the Twelve Steps and the Serenity Prayer. Meanwhile, Guatemalan politics became increasingly polarized and the nation’s celebrated Ten Year’s Spring began to unravel. For its part, the U.S. State Department and Central Intelligence Agency plotted anticommunist counterrevolution against democratically-elected president Jacobo Arbenz.

The first overseas census of AA members counted just 14,687 members in 1955. It is remarkable that a handful of alcoholics in an indigenous municipality amidst massive coffee plantations, where Catholic saints’ days were celebrated in the town square whilst ceremonies asking permission to cultivate beans and corn were observed at the sacred Cerro El Wash, were among AA’s global vanguard. In fact, toward the end of the 1950s, the region and its people were thrust into national and international networks of finance, surveillance, labor exploitation, and environmental degradation when valuable veins of antimony and tungsten were discovered in nearby San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán. (In November 1977, striking miners from the region launched an impressive 250-mile march to the capital city, galvanizing the public and uniting various other labor groups nationwide. The Labor Ministry met their demands before the group of 15,000 marchers reached the capital, but the miners decided to finish the march anyway.)

A few years later, Galindo and his wife struck up a conversation with Miguel Ángel Rodas on the bus into Guatemala’s second-largest city, Quetzaltenango. Moved by their new friendship, Rodas invited Galindo for a whisky and, in response, Galindo explained AA. The conversation stuck and, four years later, Rodas told the story of AA to a friend named Paulino who wanted to quit drinking. The two agreed to practice the most basic tenet of AA: for twenty-four hours they would not drink and if they were tempted to drink, they would call one another. Despite the earlier fellowship in San Pedro Necta, this date, January 6, 1960, is celebrated as AA’s anniversary in Guatemala. 

In July 1960, the national newspaper Prensa Libre ran a story about a group meeting in Huehuetenango. Under the headline “Antialcoholic Fight,” the story began, “In the town of San Pedro Necta Huehuetenango department one of the strangest organizations formed in the country in recent times is in operation for some time now: an association of hardened drunks [borrachos consuetudinarios] referred to as Alcoholics Anonymous.” The reporter explained: “Strange because it is alcoholics upon whom the least sense of organization is conferred; and because the AAs, more than convening in a group with concrete aims like mutual aid and recovery by means of gregarious exercise, have to fulfill one [just] requisite in order to participate in the organization: be hardened drunks.” The reporter added that the group counted twelve members and was led by a Catholic priest who had studied the development of AA in the U.S., El Salvador, and Colombia. Historians date the start of the civil war in Guatemala to later that year, though a series of inept military men had ruled since the 1954 counterrevolution. 

The book La Historia de AA en Guatemala notes that by January 1963, six groups met regularly and counted 134 regular members. These groups were concentrated in the capital city. These early years were not without their problems, as every AA group was and remains autonomous: political parties attempted to use the rooms to curry favor or loyalty and tensions over opening prayers challenged the group’s commitment not to follow any particular faith or creed. La Historia de AA en Guatemala also dramatically recounts how one women’s group, Revelación Feminina, collapsed when all of its members abandoned their meeting place, benches, tables, and all, to go out for a drink.

That AA was brought to Guatemala by Catholic priests is notable, at least from the perspective of the fellowship’s U.S. history. But it was crucial to twelve-step recovery’s success in predominantly Catholic countries. The close association between the Catholic Church and AA in Central America lent the fellowship a good deal of repute. AA did not have the same stigma as seeking help from a private rehabilitation center, public hospital, or physician. Additionally, owing to the high cost of private treatment, AA really was the only option for treatment for many middle- and working-class families. Along with the fellowship’s ties to the Church, the practice of anonymity eased preoccupations with shame, honor, and keeping up appearances. 

Official curfews aside, the threat of political violence—imagined and real—must have cooled members’ enthusiasm for nighttime meetings. With intelligence officers and paramilitary units going door to door in search of subversives, in the countryside as well as the city, suspected “terrorists” being detained and assassinated with impunity, and the roads in and out of major cities frequently barricaded, it is hard to imagine how groups aimed at mutual aid, or apoyo mutuo, could survive. Yet they did. 

In fact, twelve-step recovery flourished. Just as AA expanded at a particularly violent and challenging moment in the nation’s history, so too did NA and N/A.

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Grupo Florecer, founded November 17, 1980 in Quetzaltenango
Source: El Quetzalteco

One thought on “Unidad, Servicio y Recuperación: Twelve-Step Recovery in Civil War Guatemala, Part I

  1. Wow. This is the first time that I read about this article. I already have background study about Guatemala Civil war. It’s really hard to control ourselves when we get addicted over something especially alcohol or any kinds of drugs that made us dependent on it. I am from Philippines, and drinking alcohol is one of the highest addiction here in my country. And people usually do it with reasons, may it be they are broken-hearted, they’re celebrating and some would do it just for fun. And all of it’s reasons turns out to be their addiction that they can’t live their life without it. It’s good to know that their is this AA’s that help a lot of people who are drown to drinking alcohol and start to change their lives. I know there are still a lot of groups, organizations or fellowships related to this that can help recover a person. There are also people from medical world that helps with this problem of a person. But again, I realized, that if a person is willing to change then he or she is capable to recover. It’s a matter of willingness of a person for success of recovering. Treatment, hard work and trust is a key. We just have not to give up in life.

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