Grey Room

Architectures of Captivity

Kevin Lewis O'Neill

Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela. Center, Guatemala City, 2011.


“It was never meant to be this.” Diego spoke with me on the outskirts of Guatemala City. By “it,” this pastor meant a former factory, and by “this,” he meant a Pentecostal drug rehabilitation center. Nearly a decade earlier, as Guatemala became a key transit point for the movement of Andean cocaine to the United States, Diego renovated this factory into a rehab. At the same time, dozens of other Christians across the capital also converted abandoned buildings and low-rent opportunities into Pentecostal drug rehabilitation centers. These centers are informal and largely unregulated enterprises that hold drug users captive (often against their will) for months, sometimes for years. Their central assumption is that standing sober before God can save someone from the supposed sin of drug use. It rarely does, but this has not stopped the faithful from building a shadow carceral system from the industrial ruins of a flagging Central American city. Replete with steel bars and coils of razor wire, these makeshift centers advance the war on drugs at an aggressive clip. Today more drug users find themselves tied up inside these centers than locked up inside Guatemala’s state-run prison system.

Against this background—of cocaine, Christianity, and captivity—this article builds on Diego’s observation: that no one ever designed this factory to be a Pentecostal drug rehabilitation center. At one point, architects and planners imagined this factory and disciplinary buildings like it as catalysts for social transformation, but now these structures function as containers for what Christians call “sinners.” In Central America, where pastors rather than the police practice prohibition, the ethnographic question becomes, How and to what effect have architectures of captivity supplanted more progressive ambitions in and possibly beyond Guatemala City?