Hunted: Predation and Pentecostalism in Guatemala, by Kevin O’Neill

David Lehmann assesses a journalistic account of clerical abuse in Central America

November 21, 2019
Man smoking drugs
Source: Getty

This book deals with criminal acts and human rights violations by individuals claiming the status of Pentecostal pastors. In a Guatemala City where, Kevin O’Neill says, 200 independent Pentecostal “centres” take in drug addicts on an industrial scale, mostly funded by the relatives of those addicts, he has drilled down on one centre and a small number of individual cases, observed over a 10-year period, recorder in hand and ethnographer’s pen at the ready.

The centre described here is owned by a pastor who goes hunting for drug addicts and captures them violently. He imprisons them in overcrowded, heavily secured premises where they are, in essence, enslaved. They undergo a “theological therapy” of daily sermons from itinerant preachers whose message oscillates between rebirth by self-discipline and resignation that their fate is in divine hands. If they gain the pastor’s trust, they accompany him on hunting trips to find new inmates. Those trips are an opportunity for escape, but escape to what? Most likely, those who break free will fall back into the world of addiction and die as a result. Usually they are recaptured, with the accompanying beatings.

The book is written in the breathless tone of investigative journalism, but the author is not a journalist, a detective or a lawyer, and indeed he shows that to try involving the “authorities” is pointless. When he went to the police, he was told that if he submitted a formal report they could indeed enter the premises and free the inmates – but, again, where would the inmates go once released? Guatemala, which is a staging post in the traffic of drugs from South to North America, has no official addiction treatment system, little public health provision and indeed barely a state aside from its all-powerful army.

O’Neill’s agonising, which is sometimes toe-curling and often too long and inconclusive, about his role as ethnographer, openly recording every conversation, is presumably balanced by his awareness that this “research site” will yield a rich, though poisoned, vein of information and eventually a successful publication. He is drawn into a relationship of friendship and dependence with his “key informant”, until he “buys” the man’s freedom from the pastor for $100. A few months later, his friend is killed while crossing a four-lane highway.

The story will unfortunately not come as a surprise to Guatemala watchers, but this is a necessary addition to the literature on Latin America’s Pentecostals, whose number exceeds 100 million. By (thankfully) confining modish theoretical reflections to the footnotes, O’Neill has produced a highly readable text. But it lacks background: readers, especially novice students, need to know about global Pentecostalism and the disintegration of society in Guatemala.

The book should also carry a health warning: anthropologists should think hard before taking on the role of journalist, detective or lawyer, and certainly before developing close relationships with people closely involved in abuse and exploitation, as perpetrators or as victims. If O’Neill considered writing a section on the ethics of research and then rejected the idea, that is understandable, for these are very difficult issues that call for more than agonised introspection. But his readers should reflect on them.

David Lehmann is emeritus reader in social science at the University of Cambridge. His books include Struggle for the Spirit: Religious Transformation and Popular Culture in Brazil and Latin America (with Batia Siebzehner, 1996).

Hunted: Predation and Pentecostalism in Guatemala
By Kevin O’Neill
University of Chicago Press, 240pp, £58.47 and £19.00
ISBN 9780226624518 and 9780226624655
Published 15 September 2019

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