In the Americas, history cannot be substantially
comprehended independently of an appreciation
of the importance of pre-Columbian history,
colonialism, and post-colonialism.
Background historical contexts bring into light
a myriad of factors that strengthen our
understanding of history in a broader sense.
Part I: The Great Mayan Civilization
The Maya Ixil of Guatemala are descendants of the great Mayan civilization that according to historians, archeologists, and anthropologists, have roots dating as far back (or further) as the Early Preclassic period when the discovery of Mesoamerican settlements began to tell their story. The work of a cadre of international researchers and scholars since the latter part of the nineteenth century have resulted in discoveries that point to the grandeur of the Maya people. The most important food, maize, was domesticated from wild grasses around 5000-7000 BCE, which allowed for subsistence farming to replace a migratory lifestyle, unequivocally transforming their lives. With masterful precision, they built magnificent cities with spacious, unique buildings. They created a functional social and economic society, organized around a hierarchical and sustainable mode of leadership. They invented an advanced form of writing, combining logos and syllables, and eventually, becoming substantially standardized and diffused throughout the Mayan society. The concept of 0 was an early Mayan invention in the world’s civilization.
Mesoamerican history includes the stories of many civilizations, each one encompassing aspects of advanced scientific and mathematical accomplishments comparable and even superseding to those of other continents around the world. Historical and cultural accounts of the Mayas inscribed in archeological ruins contain numerous acknowledgements attributed toward the scholars, scribes, and artisans. The winds of change in the Mesoamerican world reveal societies devoted to knowledge and achievements, but they also confirm the prevalence of warfare and how the outcome of such violence shaped the lives of people.
There’s an abundance of historical evidence that friction and conflict existed amongst and between the Mayan groups, and it seems that certain groups sustained an upper hand in the way they unabashedly inflicted cruel, miserable suffering on their adversaries. But, no one could foretell the kind of violence that would be instigated by the Spanish conquistadors that wanted only the treasures that they could take for themselves, and were intent on destroying everything else. Some historians point to the fact that, upon their arrival, the Mesoamerican civilization was work in progress for at least 15,000 years, and the Spanish conquest set out to destroy it in a very brief period of several years.
The Spaniards arrived in 1519, making landfall in the shores of the Bay of Campeche, the Gulf of Mexico, and then, initially traveled toward the valley of Mexico. There are numerous tales, legends, and historical accounts of the Spaniards’ conquest and subsequently, the destruction of the great Mesoamerican civilization. But, notably interesting is that a singular fact can sum up the underlying motive behind the Spanish conquest, that the pillaging of the “treasure” and destruction of a civilization was justifiable for the sake of spreading Christianity, particularly, in homage to the Spanish Crown.
The Ixil were Conquered in the 1530’s
The Spanish conquistadors’ conquest included the Ixil country because of the region’s proximity to the Cuchumatanes mountain range, where they could possibly mine valuable minerals. It was not an easy triumph since the Ixil people and neighboring groups fought courageously against their heavily armed enemies, but to an avail. The European-Spaniards imposed the feudal patterns of land ownership, and declared the embattled survivors as slaves, for which the people would not be able to escape, even after the power of Spaniards diminished.
The Spanish takeover throughout Mesoamerica, as well as in Latin America, created a jolting impact on the lives of the indigenous populations. From the point of their conquest forward, the systematic land grabs, and by means of slavery or forced labor, and debt servitude, the indigenous populations plummeted into a dire state of poverty where they could barely survive off a subsistence way of life. The Maya Ixil people, for whom an agricultural economy had been the sole means of living for thousands of generations, were forced into a very different survival mode due to the subjugation enforced by a foreign power. Forced to abandon their culture, indeed, their entire identity, the Ixil people had no choice but to adapt or fade into non-existence. Of course, they chose to survive, and by using their well-endowed mental and physical attributes, they adapted in ways that proved to satisfy the invaders but at the same time, remain steadfast in their dignity and respect toward their ancestral roots.
The Spanish Crown persisted in strengthening a power base whereby an elite social class of Spaniards and non-indigenous (ladino or mestizo) land owners enriched themselves through the acquisition of Mayan ancestral lands and the use of forced labor amongst the indigenous people. This hacienda-based economy had been in vigor under the Spanish Crown for two hundred years until the 1724 abolishment of the system of encomienda (a forced-labor law), in the condition that the Mayans converted to Christianity. By then, the population in Ixil country had been drastically reduced to its lowest number due to Old World diseases, and that many families had fled to the mountains.
From Oppression to Violence
Life under Spanish rule was predicated on the conqueror’s belief that Guatemala was their possession to do what they wanted, to live out their lives as if they were at home in Spain, but much better, and that the native population was to provide for them in every way possible.
Their egocentric approach guided the Spanish Crown invaders’ blueprint for a conquered country, replete with the comforts of life similar to their home in Spain: the spirituality of the Ixil would be replaced with the Spanish version of Christianity; the political component would follow a hierarchical organization whereby the ruling Spaniards claimed a privilege of uncontested governance over the Maya, turning the people into subordinates within a caste-like system; and the economy would enrich the Spaniards so they could assume the higher echelons of the Spanish Crown society. All of their exploits were detrimental to the health and well-being of the indigenous population. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Maya Ixil had lost 80 percent or more of their population due to horrific diseases and poverty-related deaths. But, the Spanish rulers also realized that they needed the indigenous populace to stay alive, for their sake. The Maya Ixil people possessed the utmost levels of skill and knowledge in farming, for instance, and the consistent conqueror’s determination was to identify their resources or abilities and then, to exploit these for themselves. And, of course, to gain possession of their lands so that their capital acquisitions would enrich them and their families for generations to come.
The southern and eastern regions of Guatemala were considered well-suited as the “core,” while the North and West areas were deemed the “periphery.” The conquistadors favored the pleasant land topography and climate in the core area, and immediately focused on growing wheat and raising cattle since bread and red meat were essential to their diet. They brought slaves from Africa to use as labor, and although slavery amongst the indigenous population was abolished in 1550, nevertheless, they were used almost as slaves, working in the fields and other labor for very low wages, through debt peonage, i.e., paying off an exorbitant debt by working it off, requiring them to fulfill fiscal and labor obligations for the Church, and through a system of labor repartamiento, which forced them to work year-round, away from their homes. The conquistadors and their proxies kept a very tight control on the indigenous work force, especially with the emergence of commercial ranching and agriculture. The Spaniards took possession of the best fertile lands to grow and harvest the cash crops such as cacao, cochineal, indigo, sugarcane, and tobacco. Their haciendas charged the indigenous workers with the responsibility of raising sheep, mules, horses, and cattle. The fincas in the high plateau of the Cuchumantes mountains were at that time, the largest in all of Guatemala and beyond.
No doubt, the indigenous population under the powerful suppression of the Spanish conquerors, endured a long-term suffering of structural violence. The economic hardships and the psychological impact of living in constant fear and control had substantial consequences. But, yet another period of sheer terror and torment would be forthcoming. Some historians have argued that the armed conflict, or as was called the “civil war” of the 70s, 80s, and 90s had its antecedents in the period of the Spanish conquest, but particular events in the late nineteenth century steered the country toward the civil-armed uprising. Specifically, events in the late 1950s and 60s acted as fuel that accelerated the fury of bloody battles, placing the Maya Ixil in direct harm of the conflict.
According to historians, the Internal Armed Conflict lasted for 36 years. The casualties were astronomical: 200,000 deaths, the majority of these were Mayan, many human rights violations were committed, mostly by the military, and at least a million people were displaced internally. Between 1976 and 1983, under the leaderships of Gen. Romeo Lucas García, and then, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, respectively; the Comisión de Esclaramiento Histórico (CEH1999) reported that 626 Mayan villages were totally destroyed. During the seven-year period, 150,000-200,000 deaths were reportedly killed. The Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica documented a total of 80 village massacres in the Ixil country (Chajul, Nebaj, and Cotzal) within a three-year period, 1980-1983. The case against General Ríos Montt in 2013 brought international attention to the genocide committed against the Mayans by the Guatemalan military. Ríos Montt died in 2018 during the appeal process after he had been convicted for crimes against humanity and genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison by the country’s federal court. Many other responsible officers have been convicted and are currently serving prison sentences, but others have yet to be brought to justice.1
Part II: The Liberal Revolution, 1871 -1944
The Liberal Revolution of 1871 consisted of a change of “guard” led by García Granados and Justo Rufino Barrios, who later, in 1873, became president. The “new” guard was known as liberal because it replaced the 30-year conservative ruling faction that had resisted the kind of change needed to compete at a broader level, in lock step with the capitalism of the modernized societies around the world. Rufino Barrios was known as Guatemala’s “Reformer,” because of the “sweeping” changes he instigated at the social, educational, economic, and political levels. He presided over the development of a new constitution; and brought into his government’s control of the powers of both the aristocracy and the Catholic Church. Rufino Barrios’ administration played a key role in promoting the privatization of Guatemala’s resources, the foreign investments, and in developing coffee as the main agroexport of Guatemala, which some historians point out had an enormous consequential impact on the lives of the indigenous population and threatened their survival. He played a major role in the 1873 inauguration of the Polytechnic Institute, a national military academy that graduated many of the country’s dictators. Under his leadership, the armed forces increased to 15,000. The infrastructure he prioritized led to the construction of the railroad, and more telegraph lines. His vision was to create a unified Central America, and even went to war with El Salvador that refused to join. He died in battle in 1885. But the liberal ascendency continued in the country with the consecutive dictatorships of Barrillas, Reina Barrios, and Manual Estrada Cabrera.
The dictator, Manual Estrada Cabrera who was president from 1898 to 1920, was known for using the military force as an instrument of terror. He also embraced and supported the economic development of the United Fruit Company, owned by the United States. Estrada Cabrera was forceful in his dictatorship by persecuting his political opponents, shunning individual’s human rights, and suppressing the news outlets. He was also accused of embezzling federal funds from the treasury. As a powerful dictator, Estrada Cabrera could not sustain his position without criticism and protests, and the eventual fallout from his supporters. He was removed from office, and within an eleven-year period, three other presidents were democratically elected, although not without controversy based on suspicion of fraud. A military coup d’état in 1931 marked the end of a series of presidents wrought with conflict, and the beginning of General Jorge Ubico’s term.
Ubico’s thirteen-year tenure as president (1931-1944) is well-known for its dramatic departure from the Liberal Revolution ideals which set the 1870s revolution’s course in motion. Ubico drew praise for the country’s advances in economic growth, but his dictatorship led the country into a down spiral of democratic ideals. He suppressed the freedom of speech and promoted the 1816 decree that an indigenous member of the population would be assassinated for violating the laws. He used this law to resolve conflicts amongst community members, and appealed to the masses that he was their savior. He administered the Vagrancy Law that required the indigenous community field laborers to work for extended periods of time every year, for very little wages. He maintained a positive, productive relationship with the United States, and used the economic aid toward increasing military power and for self-aggrandizement. Ubico’s unique ability of manipulating the United States government to his favor probably represented the standard modus operandi by which various dictators adopted in their quest to gain similar diplomatic aid or support.
Part III: The “October 20, 1944” Revolution
In the Summer of 1944, Ubico was confronted with a nationwide strike led by a wide variety of people, including those from the middle-class, university students, teachers, and intellectuals. Ubico deployed the military force upon the strikers, and among them, one of the protesters, a young teacher, María Chinchilla Recinos, was shot and killed. The protestors became furious and the military could not maintain control. By the end of June, Ubico had resigned and one his appointed generals, Federico Ponce Viades became his proxy. On the first of October, the editor of the opposition newspaper, Alejandro Cordova, was assassinated. Twenty days later, on October 20, a military junta, led by army officers, including Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, launched a successful, relatively bloodless coup d’état and forced Ponce Viades to resign. The October 20th date became a rallying cry for future protests against military dictatorships for decades to come, some of whom unleashed an unprecedented torrent of human rights violations.
The teachers’ political party, Renovación Nacional, had chosen their candidate, Juan José Arévalo for president. Arévalo had a Ph.D. from an Argentinian university and at first, wanted to work in the Ministry of Education, but not under the presidency of Ubico. After working in Argentina as a professor, he returned to Guatemala in the summer of 1944 and became a leader in the Renovación Nacional party. The presidential elections were held in December, 1944, and Arévalo was announced the winner in a landslide victory.
Arévalo promoted socialist policies, and contrary to his adversaries claims, he vehemently rejected communist ideals. His was a “spiritual socialism,” that promoted compassion and understanding in dealing with the social and economic problems of the indigenous population. Seventy percent of the population were illiterate, and malnutrition and health issues were rampant. The Liberal Revolution’s policies concerning land holdings had been extremely biased against the indigenous communities, thus, the elite landowners owned three quarters of agricultural (fertile) land, leaving the peasant population in dire poverty. Yet, Arévalo envisioned his country as capitalist but with the focus on benefits for everyone. His ideas laid out the foundation for the reforms that his successor, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, would eventually integrate into his own vision.
Arévalo’s government ratified a new constitution, known to be one the most progressive in Latin America, mandating suffrage for women, and organizing labor in order to promulgate laws that treat workers fairly and justly.
Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán served as the Defense Minister in Arévalo’s presidency. His democratic ideals were at odds with many if not most of the other presidents who followed dictatorship examples, despite the fact that they had graduated from the same national military academy, the Polytechnic Institute. When Arbenz Guzmán won the presidential elections in 1950 with sixty percent of the vote, his first mandate was to modernize the agrarian reform bill. The bill was passed by the National Assembly in 1952 and was immediately enforced. The main goal was to transfer uncultivated land from elite landowners to the poverty stricken indigenous families. This was also important because the World Bank refused to loan funds which the country desperately needed. The landowners would be compensated with government bonds whose value was equal to the cost of the land expropriated. The reform project was deemed successful on several fronts, however, in the final analysis, only a few families successfully completed the land transfers, leaving 80-90 percent of the contested landholdings with the previous owners. Some historians argued that while there were problems with the land reform laws, overall, they addressed the most urgent injustices experienced by the poor farmers. The manner by which Arbenz exited or was ousted from the presidency lays out the complexity of the terms of success, leaving many questions unanswered.
The Agrarian Reform Law had at its core the phenomenal potential of correcting the historical injustices perpetrated against the indigenous people. The period from 1944 to the passing and enforcement of the reform bill was hailed by many as nothing less than a revolution, and Arbenz’ quote reaffirmed their belief: [the reform was not only] “the most precious fruit of the revolution and the fundamental base of the destiny of the nation as a new country, [but it also caused] an earthquake in the consciousness [of the Guatemalan people]” (Handy, p.169). Perhaps, it was the perception of Arbenz’ remarkable success that alerted the key players to assert their highest levels of power, that eventually caused his downfall: the U.S. State Department’s John Foster Dulles, under President Eisenhower, both of whom viewed Arbenz as a kind of threat to the United States, especially within the context of the Cold War; the Guatemalan military perceived Arbenz as a president that would enable the indigenous population to rise and challenge their authoritative position; and the various sectors such as the oligarchs, the politicians, and landowners would lose their positions of influence and power. That the three factions would eventually converge to construct a theater of urban, guerrilla warfare is often the least known within the scope of the historical armed conflict of Guatemala.
Behind the Coup d’état: Operation PBSUCCESS
The blueprint for ousting President Arbenz in the CIA’s Operation PBSUCCESS has been well described by historians, most notably by the authors/journalists of Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup, (1983) Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer. The descriptions of the events, timelines, and key players underscore the clandestine nature of Operation PBSUCCESS, but answers related to the reasons for launching the operation in the first place are less clear, unless the inherent intent was to create an ambiguous or conflated response to the question of motive. Clearly, the Cold War’s strategy to contain communist expansionism played a huge role in the decision made by President Eisenhower’s administration and the manner by which it was administered by the State Department, Secretary John Foster Dulles. But there was also the economic interest, namely, the United Fruit Company based in Guatemala, that was central to the decision making process.
Since the 1954 coup, world leaders, especially from Latin America, have harshly criticized the United States involvement as a political interventionist without purpose. Eventually, official records were revealed that the Secretary Dulles and his brother, the CIA director, Allen Dulles, benefitted financially from United Fruit Company, clearly in violation of the Conflict of Interest laws. Secretary Dulles and his law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, negotiated the land dealings between United Fruit and the Guatemalan government, and Allen Dulles was the director during Operation PBSUCCESS. Both men were on the United Fruit Company’s payroll for 38 years. The powerful members of the military junta, defeated in the 1944 coup d’état, and in conjunction with United Fruit, maneuvered their way back into power, using their connections with the Dulles brothers. To keep these financial dealings in private, it was important to maintain a “political” message, that the United States intervention was necessary to halt the “communist” government of President Arbenz. President Eisenhower, eager to fulfill his role as a powerful leader against the threat posed by the Soviet Union, whole-heartedly approved of the plan. The “economic” message was also inserted in the military components, however, the language used was specific to naming United Fruit Company as an important investment that benefitted the United States as a country.
The campaign to overthrow Arbenz’ government was in full throttle when the State Department decided on John Peurifoy as the ambassador to the Guatemala. Peurifoy, a life-long Democrat from South Carolina, was working in the State Department when he had a disruptive dispute with Senator Joseph McCarthy and his charge that communists were amongst staffers embedded in the Department, which Peurifoy vehemently argued to the contrary. Later, however, Peurifoy delivered to Congress the claim that a “homosexual underground” existed in the Department, which coincided with McCarthy’s anti-gay rhetoric. He was appointed Ambassador to Greece in 1950, and three years later, he returned to the United States, leaving behind a reputation of being undiplomatic, and a meddler in their country’s internal affairs.
As Ambassador, one of Peurifoy’s main goal was to convince President Arbenz that the United States had the sole interest of making assurances that his government was not communistic. The public relations company hired by the United Fruit Company, John Clements Associates, had the exact opposite assignment of lobbying to powerful influencers, and convincing them that Arbenz’ administration was intensely involved in communism. John Clements, a McCarthyite crusader against communism, developed a 300-plus page study, widely distributed to Congress, on why Guatemala’s president should be removed. Clements also added another volume to his study, specifically addressing proposed strategic military maneuvers, and the selection of Col. Carlos Castillo Armas as the lead officer, later named by the CIA as “Liberator.”
In November, 1950, Carlos Castillo Armas, a colonel in his forties and long-time enemy of Arbenz, led an army of 70 in an attempt to take over the Aurora Military Base in Guatemala. The operation proved to be a failure since 16 soldiers were killed and ten were wounded, including Castillo Armas. He was sentenced to die by firing squad, but after six months in prison, he was granted asylum by the Colombian government.
Around Christmas in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 1953, Castillo Armas began to broadcast and recruit for his “National Liberation Movement.” He awaited orders from the CIA in Nicaragua, aided by the dictator, Samoza, who was part of the collaboration. Allen Dulles, the CIA director, was the major force throughout the execution of Operation PBSUCCESS.
The Bitter Fruit authors, Schlesinger and Kinzer, offer a detailed and intriguing account of the coup. Initial steps in the Operation included the smuggling of weapons, presumably purchased by Arbenz. While the loaded ship of Czech origins stood anchored at Puerto Barrios, Honduras, the CIA commenced their next strategy of alerting President Eisenhower and the National Security Council of the weapons as proof of an imminent uprising and thus, the urgency to commit to a coup for the sake of saving Guatemala from the dangerous communists. Then, between June 18 and June 27, 1954, using Honduran soil to launch ground troops and aerial attacks, a series of bombings and gun battles ensued, causing the deaths of 17 soldiers and extensive property damage. The CIA used its improvisation tactics to create a scenario that the Russians were complicit in the attacks, even disguising the U.S. jet bombers, dressing them up as Soviet aircraft.
The entire operation involved the CIA, the State Department and the Executive Branch, and together, on the behest of the United Fruit Company, conspired to launch an illegal coup d’état to oust a democratically elected president.
President Arbenz felt that he had no choice but to surrender to the immense pressure, leaving Guatemala for asylum in México on June 27, 1954. The United States’ military might was overwhelming, and any diplomatic means by which to negotiate with such a powerful country were nonexistent. Perhaps, the most blatant response against Arbenz came from his leading military commanders, whom he had trusted and respected. They refused to support him, not because they sided with the United States, rather, their concern was about their survival as the dominant force amongst the indigenous populations, which their military status had consistently allowed them to exercise in privilege and power. Scholar/researcher, Jim Handy (1990), writes insightfully on the circumstances behind the military’s position of dominance among the rural communities. The general consensus was that the Reform would essentially lead to the diminishing of authority, or authoritative “grip” that the military had adapted for decades. Schlesinger and Kinzer described the ruling generals and their civilian backers as a “wealthy caste unto itself,” in reference to the special capitalistic privileges that engendered them individual wealth and exclusive access to the upper echelons of society.
Part IV: After the Coup
Col. Castillo Armas eventually took over the presidency as a dictator. Although he was CIA’s third choice for the position, the “Liberator” became the ideal obedient loyalist, and tyrant, as was expected. Within a three-year period (1954-1957), he officially abolished the heart of the Reform Law, Decree 900, outlawed political parties, banned any and all organizations and unions, prohibited voting by the mostly poor and illiterate populace, and restored the Secret Police brigade. He also ordered the burning of literature he deemed “subversive,” which were writings by leftists and revolutionaries, including Nobel Prize winner Miguel Angel Asturia’s novel, El señor presidente, based on the life of Manuel Estrada Cabrera during his reign as a dictator. Castillo Armas encouraged foreign mining companies to purchase drilling rights, and indeed, welcomed capitalist investors; he yielded to the demands of the Catholic Church and allowed it to own property and include religious instruction in public schools, restoring ties with the conservative Catholic faction.
Secretary of State Dulles seemed satisfied with Castillo Armas’ overall performance, except for his obstinate refusal to arrest the 700 ardent followers of President Ardenz, following the coup, that, as asylum seekers were protected in various foreign embassies. Dulles wanted to brand these loyalists as criminals, or Russian agents, even though they were not. He wanted them expelled from Guatemala, and sent directly to Moscow. Perhaps, Castillo Armas recalled how the Colombian embassy saved him from the death sentence, and that asylum in a foreign embassy was the only legal mechanism by which the defeated ranks could find a respite from impending punishment.2
Ixil Country After the Coup
It was as though the 10-year “revolution” had never occurred, or perhaps, it was a dress rehearsal for the “real” one yet to come. Or, as Jim Handy explains, the Agrarian Reform movement put into motion the process of slowing down what was apparent since the 1950’s: the gradual proletarianization of the campesinos. Certainly, the reform failed in achieving the most important objective, which was to allow the indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands that had been illegally seized.
But the Agrarian Reform served to expose the long-standing abuse of authority imposed upon rural communities largely populated by the indigenous peoples. Jim Handy’s research work reveals the systematic land grabbing by wealthy landowners, well-connected to the government’s military, in an attempt to monopolize municipal land, essentially pushing out the campesinos from their restricted planting areas. The campesinos were forced to pay in the form of “rent” for using the land, which only added to their economic constraints as subsistence farmers.
The Agrarian Reform Law was not designed to expropriate all community lands. In fact, the large number of denunciations were made by those using the land, mainly, the campesinos and not because of ancestral ownership. Thus, allowable expropriations were based on usufruct, with the aim of benefitting the farmers that needed the land for survival.
The land expropriation during Arbenz’ term came to a sudden halt after the 1954 coup. But, historians observed the accomplishments as well. David Stroll writes in his book, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Town of Guatemala, that the coup brought very few but important benefits to the communities. Even though Castillo Armas reversed the right for farmers to unionize, the organizational structures were established during the Arbenz’ presidency when they were mandated. So, the farmers essentially continued their organizational structures on their own, and proceeded to rally around their candidates in local elections. Stroll points to the way that the Maya Ixil leaders were able to reassert themselves in town halls, a monumental achievement in a history dominated by colonial and post-colonial rulers and politicians. However, the politicization process wasn’t completely favorable to the community as a whole since two distinct factions emerged in opposing directions: 1) the elderly men, or principales as they are called within the indigenous communal hierarchy, and at the other end of the pole, the elite oligarchy; and 2) the young, progressive, liberals, referred to as “communists.” These factions played a significant role in the years leading up to the 36-Year Armed Conflict and its aftermath.
The Vagrancy Laws had been abolished as part of the reform, but even so, farmers continued to work at the plantations as before, but this time on their own volition because their families depended on their wages.
But the elite landowners continued waging their political battles against the Maya Ixil people. The nearby Finca La Perla in Ixil country was one of the many haciendas that fell under the reform’s expropriation mandate, and in their defense, the landowners accused everyone, including the entire Maya Ixil on the side of the reform, as “communists.” This was the label for whom the progressive faction of the Maya Ixil could not deflect.
The Maya Ixil Pragmatism
No doubt, the Agrarian Reform Act rattled a hornet’s nest, and hostile conflicts, once private and out-of-sight between the landowners and campesinos, became known in public spheres. The Maya Ixil had long struggled to maintain their livelihood as farmers, but their protests and denouncements consistently fell on deaf ears. Instead, the communities acquiesced in the spirit of solidarity, adapting to national norms but at the same time adopting them. This was their way of life since the conquest, and survival was dependent on how well they succeeded.
Part V: The Beginning of the Armed Conflict
The consensus among historians is that the Internal Armed Conflict began in 1960 and ended with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996. However, the debates continue as historians posit various views and arguments; for example, some consider the October 20, 1944 coup d’état as the actual start of the Armed Conflict, not 1960. But certainly, key events during that period, described below, attributed to the turmoil that was later defined by historians as the underlying pillars that foregrounded the Armed Conflict.
The Cuban Revolution (1953-59) and its triumphant success for Fidel Castro’s regime and its jubilant Cuban supporters against a well-defined enemy deeply resonated throughout Latin America, Central America, and México. It was the ultimate revolutionary, freedom-fighting bravery that was almost too perfect, and many young, idealistic intellectuals found their hero in Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Many young Guatemalans were swept into the revolutionary spirit, and many felt that it was a sign that the revolution could be fought and won in their home country. Fidel Castro’s speeches declare that the Cubans now had the destiny in their own hands, that their freedom represents independence without foreign invasion or intervention. Castro immediately sought out a working relationship with the United States, but he was met with rejection and admonishment.
The U.S. Counter-Insurgency Expertise Comes to Guatemala
In 1960, five years after the start of the Vietnam War, the United States military and the CIA had committed to supporting the southern Vietnam region controlled by first Bao Dai, then, Ngo Dinh Diem, against the Viet Minh forces, also known as Viet Cong, or Vietnamese Communist. As in the case of the 1954 CIA-backed coup, the pressure wrought by the entanglement with the Soviet Union and the Cold War greatly enhanced the U.S. decision to intervene in the North-South Vietnam conflict. The United States overwhelming support for the South was imbued with the intent of crushing the North’s pro-communist ideals and structure promulgated in conjunction with the Soviet Union.
During the Vietnam War, the United States’ military forces and the CIA developed specialized techniques and strategies to engage in a myriad of combat situations. The Green Berets were brought in as a specialized unit. Amongst these were forms of torture and covert operations to track down the enemy. Their counter-insurgency expertise was touted as among the best in the world, and they operated training camps in the U.S. (Fort Benning) and Central America (School of the Americas). This kind of training was welcomed by the Guatemalan military, but not for the reasons for which they were developed. Rather, the warfare techniques were used to harm, maim, and kill individuals, many of them civilians, targeted solely because of their opposing political views.
The Uprisings That Marked the Beginning
After Castillo Armas assassination in 1957, General Ydigoras Fuentes stepped in as the next U.S.-approved dictator. Without using proper protocol, Ydigoras allowed the U.S. military and CIA to use Guatemala for their next operation: to train a selected group of soldiers, mostly Cuban exiles, and launch an attack against the Castro regime in an effort to regain control of Cuba.
Once the operation was in public view, the Guatemalan military’s reaction was highly intense, and what happened next was clearly unexpected by the military. Three uprisings, starting in November, 1960 ensued: in the first instance, which took place at a military base in Guatemala City, the attack was instigated by an insurrectional group, made up of as many as half of the Guatemalan army, including 120 officers; and then, a second one, that resulted in taking control of Puerto Barrrios on the Atlantic, and yet a third one at the Zacapa military barracks, in which 800 unarmed campesinos also participated. In each case, the attacks and raids were executed by dissident groups, and a rebellion began taking root, one that vehemently opposed President Ydigoras’ decision to allow the U.S. to use Guatemala to launch the operation, known as the Bay of Pigs, on the newly inaugurated government of Fidel Castro.
The United States, fearing that the uprisings would lead to a coup and thus, ruin the Bay of Pigs operation, reacted with force. The military ordered several B-26 bombers, piloted by the Cuban exiles, to attack the rebels. On a patrolling detail off the Guatemalan coast were five Navy vessels, including an aircraft carrier. The revolt ended, but many of the soldiers chose to escape rather than face punishment. Amongst these were two young men that eventually worked together to form the leadership backbone of the rebellion at the start of the Armed Conflict: Lieutenant Marco Aurelio Yon Sosa and Lieutenant Luis Turcios Lima. Even though both had attended U.S.-sponsored military training their political views about the role of the U.S. in Guatemala could not be more critical. Although their views or ideologies differed, they shared the common notion that, based on their admiration for the hundreds of campesinos that participated in the attacks a year earlier, the rural communities, mostly indigenous, could rise to the level of combat necessary to overthrow the government. They both believed in the “Che” Guevara model of combining social and military action, i.e., educating the rural communities of their democratic rights, so that they will eventually assume appropriate action, including engaging in combat. Yon Sosa and Turcios Lima moved to the eastern region of Guatemala, in the countryside, bordering Honduras. At that time, the grassroots, community action for social change was a popular approach for whom the Brazilian Paulo Freire is known in the literacy campaign for the masses. They had recruited the first wave of guerrilla fighters and called themselves the Alejandro de León November 13 Guerrilla Movement, (MR-13) in honor of their comrade killed in the November uprising of 1960. Several days before their second attack on February, 1962, they delivered a communiqué stating the urgency to overthrow the Ydigoras government and replace it with a democracy that represents human rights, and adopt a foreign policy based on self-respect. The group targeted the army camps near Puerto Barrios, but once inside the compound, they were swiftly chased out by the soldiers.
A month later, a second group of guerrilla fighters emerged. The former Minister of Defense in the Arbenz administration, Carlos Paz Tejada, led the group, the October 20 Front, so named as a tribute to the 1944 revolution. His message was similar to Yon Sosa and Turcio Lima’s, i.e., calling for the end of the despotic rule of Ydigoras, and particularly, the termination of foreign power intervention that he allowed, and to set up a government worthy of the people’s trust.
As former military leaders, well-trained in the counter-insurgency field, Turcios Lima and Yon Sosa recognized the U.S. military as the most powerful and specialized in the world, and thus, their intentions in leading a rebellion was focused on a brief and well-strategized plan. Clearly, their plan was modeled after Castro’s successful, perhaps, brilliant revolution blueprint. However, once they left the leadership of the original group, the conflict evolved into a very different vision than they had imagined. Basically, it was hard-pressed to find anyone that predicted the intensity and scale of the counter-revolutionary violence, predicated and executed by the right-wing, and elite factions of Guatemalan society.
On March 16, 1962, hundreds of student demonstrators marched in protest and demanded Ydigoras’ resignation. They represented the major opposition political parties, including the party founded by Castilla Armas. As predicted, Ydigoras’ response was to call in the military and after the two-day raucous fighting and resistance, there were at least 20 students killed and 200 injured. The violent protests proceeded for at least two more months. Ydigoras doubled down by replacing his entire cabinet with appointed military officers.
The United States viewed the attempts to oust Ydigoras as a national security threat. The U.S. government offered to help, and Ydigoras eagerly accepted. The target was the eastern region of Guatemala, in Zacapa and Izabal, where the first guerrilla (MR-13) was founded. The aid was in the form of U.S. manufactured T-33 jets (for training purposes) and transport jets. Two American officers and five soldiers formerly trained in Vietnam as specialists in counter-insurgency, set up a base in Izabal for the purpose of furthering their techniques in specialized training of guerrilla warfare. Among the ranks of instructors were 15 Guatemalan military soldiers that had been especially trained in the Canal Zone camp.
By the end of 1962, Ydigoras, aided by the U.S. military and CIA, had managed to halt the student revolt and the guerrilla groups. But, the number of casualties was extremely high with hundreds either killed or jailed. Amongst these were students, middle-class professionals, campesinos, community leaders, and former military soldiers. But Ydigoras was removed from office and Colonel Peralta Azurdía replaced him. One of Peralta’s first official action was on March, 1963, when he ordered a ban on all political parties, presumably to deter political unrest.
The Organization and Disorganization of the Guerrilla
A crucial turning point in the early organization of the movement was Turcios Lima and Yon Sosa’s joining the traditional, decades-old Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (PGT – the party of labor), after leaving the MR-13, which had a far-left ideological base. Then, between 1962 – 65, the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR) was formed, and FAR became the guerilla front of PGT. But when César Montes became the newly elected leader of PGT, an ideological conflict flared up between the members, intensifying the conflicts between Turcios Limas and Yon Sosa. FAR had developed a strong following, and as the 1966 elections approximated, its members had their hopes on one of the progressive candidate. But, the PGT leader, César Montes, preferred his former law professor, a member of the Partido Revolucionario (PR), César Méndez Montenegro. A serious stand-off between the FAR and PGT members ensued, but ultimately, the FAR officially announced their support for Méndez Montenegro. After he was elected in 1966, the FAR began to partially demobilize. By then, Turcios Lima, angered over FAR’s support for Méndez Montenegro had left the PGT. In 1966, he was killed in an automobile accident, and Yon Sosa, who had also left, was killed in 1970. So rancorous was the animosity between the FAR factions supporting or opposing Méndez Montenegro, that, once he became president, Méndez Montenegro allowed the U.S. military to intervene, causing violence, chaos, and death at an unprecedented scale. The PGT-FAR faction opposing Méndez Montenegro became the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (instead of “Rebeldes”).
The “Butcher of Zacapa”
Méndez Montenegro appointed a ruthless officer, Colonel Carlos Arana Osorio, as commander of the eastern region, in the state of Zacapa, where the guerrilla activity was most active. Historian/anthropologist and author of Betweeen Two Armies in the Ixil Town of Guatemala (1993), David Stoll labeled Arana Osorio, the “butcher of Zacapa,” in reference to the colonel’s notorious reputation in ordering the killings of so many people, some were guerrillas, but many, perhaps, most were civilians. It was known as the Zacapa-Izabal campaign, and the specially-trained military used anti-guerrilla tactics, including political kidnappings, disappearances, and assassinations. The targets were selected individuals that had been associated with the Arévalo-Arbenz presidencies, prominent members of the PGT-FAR, students, intellectuals, activists, professionals; anyone that was perceived as a leader, and as leaning toward “liberalism.” Paramilitary groups such as right-wing terrorists also participated, aiding the military in finding their victims and threatening others. As the violence escalated with time, so did the terrorists’ expertise in the precision by which they targeted “key” individuals. Within a seventeen-month period in 1966-68, it was estimated that the Zacapa-Izabal campaign resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3,000 to 8,000 people.
The U.S. Military Aid, 1966-1970
Arana Osorio’s ambition to eliminate the opposition led to a close affiliation with the United States. He allowed the U.S. Green Berets to conduct the specialized counter-insurgency training starting in October of 1966. The training included techniques similar to those practiced in Vietnam, such as interrogation or torture of prisoners, guerrilla warfare and jungle survival. The U.S. also granted the Guatemalan military a total of $17 million in funds and equipment. Vice-President Marroquín Rojas informed the media that a squadron of U.S. planes, flying out of Panama, had dropped napalm on certain guerrilla bases without landing their planes in Guatemala.
The U.S. aid to Guatemala also included $2.6 million from 1966 to 1970 for equipment and training of police officers. The National Police increased their force from 3,000 to 11,000 members. By 1970, over 30,000 Guatemalan police officers had received the training. Guatemala had the second most largest police force in Latin America; Brazil had the largest but its population was at least twenty times larger.
The Guerillas Attack the United States Military
The guerrilla forces were outraged over the assassinations, kidnappings/disappearances, and overall, the blatant manner by which the President Méndez Montenegro and Col. Arana Osorio carried out the campaign of terror and violence. After the ultra-right paramilitary tortured and killed a former beauty queen turned activist, Rogelia Cruz Martínez, the guerrilla killed two American targets: Colonel John Webber, director of the military aid mission, and military advisor, Lieutenant Commander Ernest Munro. The guerrilla communiqué, in an attempt to reconcile the murders, blamed the United States for the death squads that have unleashed an excruciatingly high level of violence on the civilian population.
The guerrilla also attempted to kidnap the U.S. Ambassador, John Gordon Mein, and use him as a trading chip for the release of one of their leaders, Comandante Camilo Sánchez. The plan failed and the ambassador was shot and killed as he fled from the guerrilla.
By the time the next presidential elections were scheduled in 1970, Arana Osorio decided he had the best chance to win the presidency. His campaign message was that he had the best record to prove that he upheld the law and order, just as he was known for, and that he had succeeded in the attempts to eliminate the “communists.” Arana Osorio had also succeeded in coalescing the far-right into a well-defined constituency, insuring success at the ballot box. The elite, oligarchs, wealthy landowners, the powerful military, and supporters cleared a pathway for his victory by rigging the elections and bankrolling his campaign. In the first three years of his presidency, Arana Osorio remained focused and on track in the terror campaign, adding double or more the number of murders, assassinations, and disappearances. Essentially, it appeared as though the Zacapa-Izabal campaign, initiated in 1966, had become an institution in itself. It became sort of the standard with dealing with the opposition in general.
The Guerrilla Increases in Size and Power
During Arana Osorio’s presidency, two considerably strong guerrilla groups emerged, splintered from the FAR revolucionarioas faction: the Organización Revolucionaria del Pueblo en Armas (ORPA) founded by Rodrigo Asturias Amado in 1971; and Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP), founded by Mario Payeras and Rolando Morán in 1972, some of whose members had fought in the 1960 uprising in the eastern region. ORPA’s leaders cited reasons for their unit based on the perception that FAR was racist and excluded the indigenous populations. EGP pursued the “social and military” action approach, a Cuban revolution invention, in recruiting from the rural communities, which were primarily from the indigenous population. The EGP, strategically focused on the rural highlands of Huehuetenango and Quiché, assumed the major role in the conflict that embroiled the Maya Ixils from the mid- 70s to early 80s. By this time, the guerrilla had adopted similar terrorist tactics, albeit at a smaller scale. Among their first targets, the EGP selected Jorge Bernal Hernández Castellón, a former advisor to Arana Osorio and known as the strategist for identifying and ordering the disappearances and killings of people they deemed as radicals. The guerrilla expansion was unquestionably on the rise, especially after the kidnapping of the son of one of the prominent families, for whom a ransom of $5 million was paid upon his release.
Arana Osorio’s Replacements
Arana Osorio’s reign as the fearsome dictator continued with as much veracity as he could muster, but even the political right-wing faction viewed his actions as extreme. In 1974, a new military general, Gen. Kjell Laugerud García, was installed as a replacement for Arana Osorio. Seemingly a moderate in his administrative style, Laugerud García nevertheless continued with the campaign of terror that his predecessor had established. As if the violence and chaos wasn’t enough, a strong earthquake shook Guatemala, killing 25,000 people in 1976. Laugerud García disallowed foreign aid and his government provided only the smallest amount of help for the victims. The guerrilla’s increase in active warfare engagement signaled a dangerous turn in the conflict, positioning the military to respond to guerrilla aggression with even more force. This type of tit-for-tat pattern only increased as the armed conflict evolved into a major, tragic catastrophe.
F. Romeo Lucas García
It was October, 1978 and another massive protest erupted in Guatemala’s capital after a wealthy landowner, F. Romeo Lucas García, was named the winner in a fraudulent election. The protest began with a dispute over the increase of bus fare. The military’s response was predictable and after a couple of weeks of sparring with the protestors, the number of casualties included 30 deaths, over 300 injured, and at least 600 arrested. Labor leaders called for a national strike and the protest widened and deepened as protestors in the thousands clamored for the end of institutionalized repression. The labor strike became official on October 20, on the anniversary of the 1944 revolution. In response, the military targeted a university student leader and during the course of his speech to a huge crowd gathered at the plaza across from the National Palace, the military gunned down the young man with machine gun fire. The assassination had the intended effect of not only killing a student leader but striking fear and terror in the hearts of the protestors, indeed, all Guatemalans. By the end of Lucas García’s presidency in 1982, another layer of violence had emerged; this time it was more malicious and catastrophic than previous assaults, the killings were grotesque and monstrous, and the victims were innocent civilians, poor families from the indigenous populations living in rural communities.
Lucas García and his brother, General Benedicto Lucas García, whom he had selected as military-in-charge, had created a government of unprecedented power, and the manner by which they proceeded, with a confidence of impunity and ruthlessness, points to their perception that the State power of Guatemala could not be constrained, not even by the United States, the most powerful country in the world.
The United States’ Response
Schlesinger and Kinzer (1983) include some of the details in the communication delivered to the United States congress by Guatemalans that sought the attention of the constitutional body. A leader of the political party, René de León Schlotter, of the Christian Democrats, rose to the occasion and provided a congressional committee with an overview of the situation in Guatemala. His speech attempted to provide clarity within the context of the “fog of war,” stating that the violence in Guatemala is at a grander scale than one can readily perceive, and that the source of violence originates from the extreme right-wing political faction. The fact that Schlotter was a member of a center-left political party may have casted doubt among many cautious congressional members, but his message, delivered to Congress in 1976, resonates with substantial credibility within a historical context. His message underscored the unequivocal, overwhelming belief among the progressive factions throughout Latin America, that the United States was responsible, albeit indirectly, for promoting and supporting three decades of dictatorship regimes that have caused great undue hardships on Guatemalans and have consequently violated human rights.
President Reagan and President Ríos Montt
At the time that the political, social, and economic climate could not be at its worst level in modern history, another round of violence, terror, and death was at the horizon with the installment of another dictator, General Ríos Montt in 1982. A year earlier in 1981, the United States, whose congress hesitated to admit or take responsibility for its mistakes in facilitating the institutionalization of a repressive military regime in Guatemala, had elected Ronald Reagan. President Reagan’s campaign slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again,” was built upon a platform of patriotism, imbued with the assertion that the United States should take the lead in combatting any semblance of communism as exemplified in the Cold War, and particularly, in keeping at bay the enemy, such as the one behind the 20-year Vietnam War, that just ended 5 years before his election. President Reagan’s administration expended a great deal of energy, perhaps, a disproportionate amount, on Central America, contributing large amounts of military aid and other resources with the intent of facilitating the governments’ efforts to yield their oppressive powers and “defeat” their opponents. After General Ríos Montt became the self-proclaimed president of Guatemala in 1982, President Reagan visited Ríos Montt in Guatemala in December of the same year, lavished him with praise and renewed economic aid that the previous president, President Jimmy Carter, had withheld due to allegations of human rights violations. During the course of about a year, 1982 – 1983, President Ríos Montt was responsible for the complete destruction of hundreds of villages and the killings thousands of innocent people, mostly Mayan civilians, men, women, and children, and from the departments of El Quiché (Ixil country), Alta Verapaz, and Huehuetenango. The two presidents, representing two entirely different worlds, somehow shared the frame of mind to converge upon the consensus of what constituted military success.
One of the most important elements of the Armed Conflict, and its tragic consequences on innocent people in Ixil country is centered on the young insurgents that comprised the first group or “wave” of rebels. Who were these insurgents and why did they pursue such an ambitious and dangerous road? By the time the young army lieutenants (Turcio Limas and Yon Sosa) and their comrades took the initiative to create the revolt against the dictatorship of Ydigoras in 1960, an ideological explosion had set fire to a generation’s new kind of thinking. The Cuban revolution had spotlighted the emerging conscientiousness of freedom and self-expression, and distinctively different ways of explaining the social and cultural world-wide order, which resonated perfectly with the kind of educational experiences of public university students sought throughout Latin America, including in Guatemala City.
USAC and the Student Movement
The University of San Carlos (USAC) was founded during the colonial period in 1676 as the Royal and Pontifical University of San Carlos Borromeo. As one of the oldest universities in the Americas, USAC was originally established as part of the Catholic Church, receiving orders directly from the Vatican. During the course of almost three centuries, the university underwent four transformative changes, and in 1944, it emerged as a uniquely different university closely aligned with the country’s “ 1944 revolution.” USAC became part of the student movement evident across Latin America, and students’ empowered voices captured the fundamental shifts in the revolutionary collective in Latin America. The Cordoba Model, so named after the University of Cordoba in Argentina, was behind the inspiration for the USAC’s new identity. Essentially autonomous, USAC students served in the governing capacity, with the utmost authority to select the entire curriculum, from the subject matter to the professors. They enjoyed the privileged sanctuary that the university offered students, many, if not most, from the middle and upper classes. The students seized upon the opportunity to become self-autonomous, entirely in control of their education. The leaders of the insurgency originated from this educational environment, and the most ardent and character-driven students joined the revolutionary forces. They were young, around mid-twenties, and had an affinity toward a vision of change that was not yet aligned with the reality that their youthfulness had not yet grasped. Some of the recruits were former military soldiers. Young women joined, as did students pursuing a pastoral vocation. The guerrilla units evolved over time, and by the time they arrived in Ixil country in 1972, they had become the second wave with the appearance and resolve of a full-blown military force, completely undeterred over the fact that the Guatemalan military was a far superior power, which they would never be able to match. In proportional terms, the U.S. supported military, fully trained and equipped with weapons (such as the Israeli’s M-16s in 1989), helicopters, jets, artillery and mortar power, was a colossal opponent.
The Guerrilla Connecting with the Maya Ixils
David Stoll’s comprehensive volume, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala (1993), details the military tactics between insurgents and counterinsurgents that occurred from the 1970s to 1990s. He incorporates information from the work of an ex-guerrilla member, Mario Payeras’ Days of the Jungle: The Testimony of a Guatemalan Guerrillero (1983), in order to accentuate the authenticity of his facts and provide contextualization. Stoll adheres to his established thesis, that the guerrilla was principally responsible for the armed conflict, mainly in the beginning stages where, in his view, they stirred up and manipulated the Ixils to join their revolution. However, Stoll’s insistence on laying blame on the guerrilla is eclipsed by the overwhelming, well-documented information interjected throughout his book, establishing the fact that the Guatemalan military committed the most and worst atrocities against the indigenous peoples, especially the Maya Ixil.
The Guerrilla of the Poor
The Ejército Guerillero de los Pobres (EGP) chose to establish their base in the Ixcan region of northern Quiché in 1972, close to the Mexican border, amongst the Cuchumatanes mountain range and its dense forest, and not far from the Ixil towns of Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal. The guerrilla group had begun to transform itself into the “second” wave of recruits. Although they operated within the foquismo model of belief that a few “outsiders” could serve to start-up the kindling of revolutionary fire, their vision of how to accomplish success had widened to include a prolonged struggle, unlike the two-year time table of the Cuban revolution. What they stood for was crafted in the names they adopted for the two column fronts: “Che” (after Che Guevara) and Ho Chi Minh, so named in honor of the popular North Vietnamese revolutionary hero.
The EGP’s initial recruitment efforts among the surrounding communities were disappointingly unsuccessful. The people that were interested in listening to them, but not necessarily in joining them, were the indigenous groups in search of a new and liberated life, clearing the nearly impenetrable Ixcan, setting up cooperatives, schools, and clinics; a long-sought creation of a peaceful, autonomous, authentic “model” communities and towns. The groups were aided by the Catholic clergy such as the Maryknoll order in Huehuetenango. The Catholic Church had embraced the concept of Liberation Theology in the late 60s, and adopted the mission of facilitating change in oppressed areas in Latin America, with the expressed goal of instilling empowerment and autonomy amongst the poor. The Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) was one of the groups that sought solidarity with the Catholic clergy, known as Catholic Action, working alongside the campesinos, which included labor strikes and political activism.
The Assassination of Luis Arenas
Three years after the arrival of the EGP in the Ixcan, the assassination of Luis Arenas, an hacienda boss at La Perla, whose reputable character was well known in the area, became the guerrilla’s first political killing. The 1975 assassination and its motives and consequences, have been fiercely debated amongst credible sources, some suggesting that it was the EGP’s biggest and costly mistake. But, it caught the attention of two groups of people: those that felt it was a justified killing, and those that disapproved of the killing, primarily the hacienda workers that depended on Arenas for their living wages. It also brought the attention of the army. In the following year of 1976, the army arrested a man that the EGP had entrusted as a key bilingual Ixil and Spanish language intermediary. He was known as “Fonseca,” a fair-skinned Cotzaleño. After four days of interrogation and torture, the army had extracted from Fonseca the names of his contacts, and soon after, the army rounded up hundreds of innocent families and sent them to an army base Santa Cruz del Quiché; their fate was never revealed. The town folk blamed another man, Gaspar Pérez Pérez (a political boss), for presumably “welcoming” the army to their town. The use of torture to finger others, was one of many forms of brutal savagery that the army used systematically against innocent people. Among the Cotzaleños were the first EGP recruits, and from credible data sources, the Cotzaleños were among the Maya Ixil that overall suffered the most repression during the armed conflict.
Nebaj and Chajul Encounters with the EGP
The EGP entered Nebaj in 1979, and although the Nebajaños declared themselves as “neutralists,” some eventually took sides between the State and the guerrillas, but overall, their most concerted effort was to protect themselves from both fighting entities.
The Chajuleños were among the last recruits to join the EGP. In March, 1980, the State military police ordered all men in Chajul to form a line to receive ID cards, presumably as a form of control and to enlist them in the army’s civil patrols. The women folk erupted in protest, and after a struggle, the police responded with machine gun fire, killing 15 people. The year before, in 1979, the EGP had responded to requests from local Chajuleños to assist in dealing with their killing of cattle thieves. Basically, the Chajuleños used the EGP to deflect a possible murder charge. They wanted the EGP to take the blame. Then, the EGP in an effort to exploit their newly formed relationship, hauled into town corpses of soldiers they had killed in an ambush. It was a tactic among other means by which to reinforce their insistence that they should join their ranks for protection.
Promises They Could Not Keep
Perhaps, one of the reasons the Maya Ixil resisted the guerrilla’s efforts to recruit them was because in previous decade or so they had gained some traction in local politics. The 1944 revolution had left the campesinos without the fertile lands they badly needed, but they made some headway in figuring out their power base and using it to their advantage. The guerrilla’s campaign of promises convinced only a small constituency of the community, mostly progressive young males. But the older members–conservative, costumbristas, were against any kind of drastic change. The guerrillas’ message was clear and exhilarating, promising the villagers that they could win back their lands, procure constitutional rights to fend off discrimination practices against them, and prosper in an environment of freedom and democracy. By the beginning of 1990’s, the hardship and tragedy of a brutal war had worn out the last standing insurgency, and all hope of fulfilling the promises as an insurgency had been completely erased. In the armed conflict’s aftermath and in retrospect, one can analyze more clearly that the guerrilla’s promises of a revolutionary future were based on falsehoods and propaganda.
However, once the fighting erupted into a full-scale armed conflict, the Maya Ixil found themselves in a precarious position where their survival depended on whom they chose to support – the guerrilla or the State. But the Maya Ixils had a clear disadvantage because the guerrilla’s intent on embedding themselves within and amongst the people, creating an indiscernible space – was highly successful. Unbeknownst to them, the Maya Ixils’ mere presence amongst the guerrilla, or vice versa, had sealed their death pact.
The 1980-81 Massacres
The insurgency’s tactic of ambush became the EGP’s preferred mode of attack. As a guerrilla that included local bilingual recruits, it had the advantage of knowing the strategic areas in the vast terrain. The army would immediately retaliate by massacring villages, falsely claiming that all civilians were involved in some way. As in the urban warfare of the 60s and 70s, the State military retaliated harshly against the insurgency attacks, and in every instance these would be much more powerful and deadly response. In February, 1981, the insurgency blew up a State army vehicle; the army retaliated by burning houses in the community, causing 45 people to be burned to death. Soon afterward, the State army henceforth engaged in massacring villages without insurgency provocation. They had established a military tactic of claiming that all Maya Ixils were guerrilla soldiers and their communities, villages, and towns were in the “red” zone, indicating in military terms the regional position of the “internal” enemy.
Massacres Without Provocation: The Death Toll Rises
The presidency of General Lucas García (1978-1982) ended a period of brutal oppression. But the despotic rule that was systematically established since the 1954 coup d’état was far from over. Under the command of his brother, Benedicto Lucas García, the regime had continued the use of assassination death squads, which they deemed effective in eliminating their “opposition;” the civil patrols or PACs that were used as “voluntary” military units; and the so called “model cities,” which were more like prison camps, were being constructed. The Lucas García regime’s astronomical scale of violence and oppression was atrocious, and, yet, without rebuke from the United States, the elite military guard would not change its course.
Chajul, 1980, 1981
The military targeted Catholic priests and other religious clergy that were part of the Catholic Action, a community-based religious organization which they considered associated with the guerrilla. The army assassinated the town’s priest in Chajul, causing panic and fear, some of the parishioners took refuge in Barrillas, Huehuetenango. This was not an uncommon assassination. Approximately 40 Catholic priests, many of them Spaniards, were assassinated throughout the regions affected by the violence, presumably because of their political views. The military coerced the town’s men to “volunteer” in the civil patrol without pay, and elected Domingo Rivera Asicona known as the Charismatic religious leader, as their commander. This act of military action was meant to make an example of what the State expected of the town folk. Many of the Catholic Church catechists converted to evangelical or charismatic religions for many reasons, but the military’s execution of Catholic Church clergy pushed these and other worshippers toward religious conversions.
Shots were fired from a neighborhood in Cotzal; the military patrolling the town presumed the presence of the guerrilla. They entered the neighborhood, rounded up 64 men and executed them. They rounded up another 60 men and just as they were about to be killed they released them, and were told that they would be killed next time. None of these men were part of the guerrilla.
Nebaj: December, 1981
In one of his last official speeches as military commander, Gen. Benedicto Lucas García sent a stern message to the Ixil town folk in Nebaj. The people had to choose whom they should support, and if they side with the guerrilla they would surely die.
January, 1982: The Civil Patrols
A massive recruitment effort across Ixil country brought in thousands of recruits to join the civil patrols or PACs (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil), essentially to serve as army surrogates. Many relevant sources indicate that up to a million Ixil men participated in these patrols, possibly the entire male population. The men of all ages were trained on how to “kill,” using methodical means by which to emulate the savagery that was commonplace in counterinsurgency manuals. Since the late 60s, the military had ensured that the army follow the extreme forms of counterinsurgency, which had been introduced by the United States, and young cadets had to endure extraordinarily cruel and harsh training methods so they would become the ultimate human killing machines. According to sources that describe the massacres and murders in Ixil country, some of the worst kind of killings were committed by civil patrol members, men that were also Maya Ixil and in some cases, knew their victims. Credible sources alleged that some of the murders were revengeful in nature. But, evidently, the army dismissed the extra-killings, or denied responsibility, explaining that the civil patrols were following orders. The civil patrols fulfilled the various roles required by army soldiers, even kidnapping suspected guerrilla fighters. The civil patrol recruits were obligated to participate several times a week. Their time away from their farming duties was strenuously difficult for their families.
February 13, 1982
The army ordered the civil patrols from Cotzal to “punish” the town folk of Chisis, an aldea nearby. The death toll included 200 men, women, and children. No guerrilla insurgents were reportedly killed. According to Ricardo Falla, author of Massacres in the Jungle (1992), the February 13th massacre was part of the first of three waves of “scorched earth” destructions in the same month, a military maneuver to eliminate the guerrilla and the people that declined to engage in fighting against the insurgents.
March 23, 1982: Enter Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt
A military triumvirate replaced the Lucas García regime, and after a brief period of political wrangling, one individual emerged as leader: Gen. Ríos Montt, chosen as superintendent at the military academy, but most significantly, according to the general, he was chosen by God. The born-again general, banished temporarily from the country by his military comrades, had returned from exile as a member of the Church of the Word, and as leader of his country, the religion that he professed would play a huge role in his leadership style. He donned a populist leadership persona, calling for the end of the elite police forces terrorizing the middle and upper classes in urban areas, and general amnesty for the insurgency, carefully scripted with specific restrictions. The guerrilla rejected the amnesty offer, and the urban warfare of forced disappearances, death squads, etc. continued. His appearance and demeanor were in the same style as the previous dictators, but what was most uniquely different about Ríos Montt is how he used his religious fervor to deceive the masses and allow the horrendous killings of thousands of civilians, and then, ask them to forgive him because he is deserving of God’s forgiveness.
1982: The URNG Combined Forces
The Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP), having suffered significant losses in their ranks, joined with other guerrillas to create a better equipped and formidable force: the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG). Combining their forces with the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR), the Organización Revolucionaria del Pueblo en Armas (ORPA), and the Partido Guatemalteco de Trabajo/Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (PGT/FAR), the URNG strategized a renewed plan to seek political amends for the oppressed masses, mostly the indigenous populations. Recognizing its shortcomings as a military force, the guerrilla umbrella sought a win-win solution in its negotiations with the State, but it was too little, too late since the army had become an unstoppable power giant.
Early April, 1982
The army, in coordination with the civil patrols in the area, massacred the villages of Ilom Estrella Polar, Covadonga, Chel, Juá, and Amajchel, killing hundreds of men, women, and children. The intent was to “punish” the civilians, and not necessarily to engage in combat with the insurgents. The army command targeted communities based on the slightest evidence that certain residents allegedly aided the insurgents, and the order to kill indiscriminately was sanctioned by the office of the highest military commander, General Ríos Montt, General Commander of the Army and Minister of Defense, and second in command, Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores, Vice Minister of Defense.
Late April, 1982
The army executed 46 men as part of a round-up of guerrilla supporters in the Nebaj aldea of Acul. The men had been fingered by a hooded prisoner.
In Tu Chobuc, near Nebaj, the army slit the throats of 29 non-combatant men, women, and children after finding nearby a guerrilla storage bin.
June 6, 1982
The guerrilla killed 13 civil patrol leaders from Cotzal.
June 15, 1982
The army, in retaliation mode, and using a guerrilla disguise, stormed into the town of Chacalté, killing or wounding every inhabitant. At least 100 were killed and 35 were wounded.
June 9, 1982
Declaring himself as president, Gen. Ríos Montt also announced his platform for reform and the promise of democratic elections in 30 months. (Ríos Montt was removed from office in a military coup in August, 1983.)
President Ríos Montt issued the “fúsiles y frijoles” action plan that highlights amnesty, the return of displaced people that had taken refuge in the mountain, and the construction of army-controlled (aldeas modelos) and supported communities. The “amnesty with punishment” plan also called for the deaths of guerrilla insurgents and anyone that rendered aid to them.
1982: The Year of Death and Destruction
The scorched-earth (tierra arrasada) military policy, initiated by the Lucas Garcia regime and continued by Rios Montt, ravaged Ixil country and beyond, causing catastrophic destruction of homes and communities, and thousands of deaths. The armed conflict that began in 1960 seemed to have crescendo to its highest level, but to the great dismay and chagrin of those most affected, the intense destruction and killings would rage for at least another five years.
Villages, whose inhabitants were all suspected of aiding the guerrilla, were systematically destroyed. The army and civil patrols regularly cut down the maize fields, the primary food supply, and burned down the homes and confiscated anything of value from their property. The people fleeing for their lives were shot dead, or if captured, they were rounded-up like prisoners and corralled in relocation camps. When they were completely helpless, homeless, hungry, sick, etc., the army, in their relentless pursuit, would administer even more harsh and cruel conditions to acerbate their struggle for survival, causing more to die.
Acts of Genocide 1981-83
The United Nations Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification released in 1999, titled Guatemala Memory of Silence Tz’inil Na’Tab’al (CEH), records with utmost accuracy and careful documentation, the claim that as a State, Guatemala committed acts of genocide between 1981 and 1983. The legal framework that formed the basis for the charge of genocide is stated in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It was adopted by the U.N. National Assembly on December 9, 1948 and ratified by the Guatemalan State by Decree 704 on November 30, 1949. Other documents such as Guatemala Nunca Más, by the Office of the Human Rights of the Archbishop of Guatemala (REMHI), provide documentation with precise details of the various human rights violations during the armed conflict.
Genocide refers to acts committed with the intent to destroy, in any manner, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group. For example: killing members of a group; causing serious bodily and/or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group certain conditions that bring about the physical destruction of the members; imposing measures intended to keep women from reproducing; and taking children by force and placing them in another group. The document also indicates that the individual(s) charged with committing genocide shall be tried by a competent tribunal of the State.
In preparation for a trial purported to bring justice to the victims of genocide, a concerted effort was made by various professional personnel to collect any and all evidence to support the charge.
June, 1982: Campaña Victoria 82
The Ríos Montt regime developed a plan by which the president could order the military to engage in action that involved the indiscriminate, unlawful killing of non-combatant civilians in their attempts to eliminate the guerrilla forces. Ríos Montt usurped the constitutional powers of the three branches of government in order to abuse his powers, cause extreme harm, injury and death to innocent people, and not be held accountable under the cover of impunity. The National Security and Development Plan in the Campaign Victoria 82 included objectives in military, administrative, legal, social, political, and economic terms, and identified three specific geographic areas as targets: Quiché, Huehuetenango, and Chimaltenango. The document’s guide, the Manual of Counter-insurgency Warfare, identified the enemy as communist, criminal, and subversive. According to one of the three strategists that designed the plan, General Gramajo Morales, the entire military plan was designed and developed thoroughly, down to the last detail. The first stage was to identify the population areas as “red zones,” indicating the threat level of the “enemy,” thus, proclaiming the killing targets, where the entire villages would be completely razed and every inhabitant killed or hunted down, leaving no trace of life. Ixil country was in the exact center of the military’s crosshairs. The clarity by which the documents exert in their plan of action was indicative of the extent to which every military member, from the top to the bottom ranks, was well informed, especially as it pertained to the overall message of what constituted “scorched-earth” destruction. Researchers uncovered archival data that include declarations by military officials congratulating each other for the manner by which they used aggressive and extreme forms to kill non-combatants, using language that reeks of racism and hatred toward the indigenous people.
The Plan for campaign Victoria 82 was a national priority, and every resource was focused on its implementation. Of the 10,000 new recruits that the army added to its force (totaling 36,000), at least 20 percent were young men from the rural indigenous communities that had to comply with the conscription of two years of service.
If there were any doubt about the exact intentions behind the military operations in the Ixil region, it became abundantly clear during the so-called Operation Sofía. Under the leadership of President Ríos Montt and his operation commanders, the mission was to destroy, kill, eliminate, erase, exterminate – the indigenous population, particularly, the Maya Ixil. A specific mindset against the Maya Ixil is reported in Operation Ixil, a 1981 military document, highly regarded as a well-studied, psychological analysis and assessment report. The issue is described as a problem with the Maya Ixil, and the need to “save” them because of their historical and ethnic characteristics so they can become integrated into Guatemalan society. The indigenous population has endured racial discrimination throughout their entire history in Guatemala, and through the lens of racism, the armed conflict was an extension of the same structure that persecuted them because of their indigenous roots.
Information based on archival documents of Operation Sofía reveal that between July and August of 1982, 500 specialized “Kaibiles” soldiers parachuted into the Ixil town of Nebaj. These soldiers were trained to carry out the extreme forms of warfare and their orders were to “exterminate” the “Indians.” The entire Ixil population was deemed “the enemy” and whether the guerrilla was hiding amongst them was irrelevant. The “scorched-earth” operations accelerated as the army perfected its strategy.
The following Graph A displays a time frame that marks the period between 1981-83, approximately 18 months when 75,000 people died, mostly non-combatants. To be more exact, the period between April and November of 1982, was the most deadly. The CEH concluded that 81 percent of human rights violations were committed between 1981 – 1983.
In the following Graph B, the data show that 83.3 percent of the victims throughout the duration of the armed conflict were Maya, 16.51 percent were ladino or mestizo, and .16 percent were of another source.
Graph C contains the location of the total massacres during the armed conflict. The CEH reports 18 cases of massacres which are specifically attributable to President Ríos Montt that took place in Chel and Ilom, in the Ixil region. These are recorded in the context of the most brutal and deadly, with 1,400 victims. The Archdiocese REMHI report, Guatemala nunca más, includes a total of 451 massacres in 1982, and particularly illustrated from this list as horrendously cruel and extreme in human rights violations were 180 massacres. These reports chronicle the testimonies of survivors, carefully detailing the most egregious crimes committed against a civilian population. Reports of killing innocent women, children, and the elderly, are incomprehensible; but the cruel, malicious torture of these individuals without purpose except to inflict suffering, is emotionally devastating. In almost every report that involves massacres, there are cases of sexual abuse and assault, on girls and women of all ages.
In Tzalbal, an aldea of the Nebaj municipality, the army executed 300 people, all women and children. There were 310 victims that have never been identified. Later, in the same village, a woman and 20 others voluntarily surrendered to the army, thinking they would be safe. But, instead, the army executed each one.
Graph D data that show the percentages of human rights violations listed by department, which corroborate with the data on massacres displayed in Graph C.
Number of Massacres, 669, Perpetrated by Responsible Forces (CEH)
Ixil Villages Destroyed (1980-1983)
According to the REMHI, there were 80 massacres in the Ixil region from 1980-1983. The CEH recorded 90 massacres: 54 in Nebaj, 26 in Chajul, and 10 in Cotzal. The exact count of casualties as a result of these massacres is unknown, but from all other sources, the death count estimates probably exceeded 80,000. There were 17 disappearances recorded in 1982.
Forced to Flee
The army was ordered to completely annihilate the villages, assuring that the inhabitants would abandon their homes and become moving targets for execution. The people, in panic and terror, fled toward the mountain tops and dense vegetation. But, the army was relentless in their pursuit. The CEH concludes that about a third of the people that fled from the violence and sought refuge in the mountains died from starvation, decease, injuries, and/or grief.
The number of civilians that took refuge in the mountains between 1980 and 1983 is estimated at 50,000. The three guerrilla-friendly areas where the refugees settled were known as “refugee zones:” Amajchel, Xeputul, and Sumal. Of the three, the Sumal area was at the highest elevation of the Cuchumatanes Sierra, and where the army maneuvered their next operation, the Campaign Plan Firmeza 83, beginning in August of 1982, until January, 1983. A specialized unit called, the Gumarcaj Task Force, was ordered to attack the encampments of refugees, numbering between 18,000 and 25,000. The military ground troops surrounded the Sumal region as aerial bombardments triggered a chaotic response from the large groups of refugees. Some of them immediately fled the area but were executed by the army soldiers waiting in camouflage. Many of the captured refugees were taken to Nebaj and ordered to serve in the civil patrols and/or to construct the army-controlled settlements. The Sumal and Amajchel were the last EGP-friendly settlements. Other settlements that sheltered the displaced refugees were organized as Communities in Population as Resistance (CPRs). These settlements eventually received some international aid, particularly from the Catholic Church. Amongst the various indigenous groups were the Maya Ixil, which constituted the majority. A decade after the refugee settlements began, at least 25,000 people were still living in the CPRs. Nebajeños were among the last refugees to finally return from the mountains. At the same time that the army pushed the refugees to return, under the banner of amnesty, the campaign of terror continued in the rural communities.
Lack of Aid for the Refugees
The military plans for fighting guerrillas were developed and executed in minute detail, however, a grave error was committed in the manner by which the State managed the refugee crisis. The civilians, that were forced to “surrender” were treated inhumanely, as if they were hardened criminals, and in many cases their human rights continued to be violated. They were submitted to the feeblest essentials without proper medical attention. The State had created an unprecedented, disastrous crisis without the ability nor will to resolve it. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was unable to assist the refugees, many of them Maya Ixil, because the aid was set up for refugees crossing international boundaries, such as the returnees that had fled to México. Funds were unavailable for refugees that had been displaced internally, within their country. The scale of poverty amongst the refugees was detrimental in every sense of the word.
Restrictions in Army-controlled Areas
The army dictated when and where the refugees could live. These were called, “model cities,” or “development poles,” terms that hide their prison-like characteristics. The State defended these tactical plans to keep the people, the survivors, under close control and to keep them from “re-entering” the guerrilla forces. They were forced to build their shelters, without compensation, and continued to serve in the civil patrols. Despite the restrained conditions for re-building their lives, the people sought to create their plots of maize to subsist in a way of life that was familiar to them.
The United States Aid and Support for the Army
The two significant questions that emerged in Post-conflict research and reports that addressed the catastrophic death toll and damages to the Maya groups pointed to the burden of responsibility and the role of the United States. Graph E below indicates the conclusion drawn by the CEH, that the Army was responsible for 93 percent of the human rights violations and acts of violence.
But from the point of view of the Maya Ixil, there are far too many reasons why not to blame the tragedy on just one group. The compulsory participation of the male population in the army’s civil patrols and the guerrilla’s Local Irregular Forces (FIL) brings into question the individual or collective responsibility of those that participated in the violence. Those that joined the guerrilla and survived, had similar views since their soldiering requirements included acts of violence. There’s no question that the carefully constructed strategy of “spreading the blame,” tactic was used by the army to deflect from the extreme cruelty in carrying out the mission to “exterminate” the targeted non-combatant population.
The archival data in the CEH report include declassified communiqués between the U.S. and the State military. President Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Schultz, played a greater role in the politics of Nicaragua and El Salvador than in Guatemala. Schultz’ focus throughout his administration (1982-1989) remained in alignment with President Reagan’s commitment to end the Cold War. The Reagan administration continued to support the Guatemalan military’s role in the armed conflict at least until 1989, perhaps, beyond. The aircraft and artillery equipment used in field and aerial bombing raids conducted during the village and refugee massacres were from the United States. The communiqués between the CIA and Guatemalan State officials reveal that the “scorched-earth” policies were well known and supported by U.S. officials, based on their perception of the need to kill non-combatants and civilians in order to defeat the guerrillas. In referencing the burning down of several villages, the CIA communiqué disregards the death toll of non-combatants, stating instead, that many guerrilla insurgents and supporters or collaborators were killed. None of the released communiqués conveyed any sense of alarm over the killing of thousands of civilians in indigenous communities.
Unearthing the Truth, Literally
In the post-conflict period, between 1998 and 2001, a team from the Center for Forensic Analysis and Applied Sciences(CAFCA), conducted forensic anthropological investigations of over 100 exhumations in the Ixil region. By 2010, the CAFCA scientists completed over 167 exhumations. Their findings corroborate with those made by the CEH researchers on the causes of death, that many people died from starvation, and some were victims of violence. Most of them were non-combatants and civilians, and about a fifth were female. The location of hidden gravesites, the descriptions of the victims, and how many were buried, were submitted by the survivors in their testimonies, and included in both the CEH and REMHI reports. However, the remains of thousands of people that were forcefully disappeared have yet to be found.
Charged with Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity
The cold and calculated planning and execution of thousands of civilians by powerful military generals and wealthy elitist individuals became an international outrage in post-conflict period of the late 1990s and 2000s. The question on how to bring those accountable to justice was paramount, but survivors of the armed conflict were reluctant to re-live the agony and suffering of the most shameful period of their lives. On the other hand, clarion calls for punishing those responsible were perceived as a necessary step toward the healing process. To date, only a few high-profile cases have been tried in Guatemala’s tribunal courts, although many military officials charged with related crimes have yet to be brought to justice, and remain on the list of wanted fugitives.
The case of Ríos Montt, charged with genocide and crimes of humanity was the most prolific trial, which was a phenomenal accomplishment due the insistence and perseverance of many people, but particularly by Guatemalans determined to bring justice in their own judicial courts, “tribunales de alto riesgo.” The Ríos Montt trial began on March 19, 2013 and by May 10, 2013, he was convicted and sentenced to 80 years of prison for both counts, genocide and crimes against humanity. However, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the verdict, citing certain technical issues, and ordered a retrial. Ríos Montt died during the retrial proceedings, on April 1, 2018. One of the most significant outcomes of the case were the testimonies delivered in a courageous display of strength and fortitude by the men and women survivors, as shown in the documentary, 500 Years: Life in Resistance.
Another high-profile case that resulted in a guilty verdict was that of the murder of Catholic Archbishop and human rights defender, Juan José Gerardi Conedera. Gerardi was a vocal opponent against the human rights violations committed by the army during the armed conflict, and as a bishop in Quiché, he strongly criticized the administration of President Lucas García for ordering the 1980 assault on the Spanish Embassy by the military, causing the deaths of 39 people. As an activist and a stern defender of human rights activists, Gerardi was a target by right-wing political groups. On April 24, 1998, Gerardi released the much anticipated book, Guatemala Nunca Más (a project of the Interdiocesano de Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica and the United Nations) that chronicled in well-researched detail, the human rights violations against the Mayan people by the State army during the armed conflict. Two days later, Gerardi was murdered in his home. Three former military officials were later convicted and sentenced to prison on June 8, 2001. One of the officers, Col. Byron Disrael Lima Estrada played a key leadership role as commander of the Gumarkaj Task Force during Ríos Montt’s period of “scorched-earth” atrocities. All three have since passed away including José Villanueva, and the colonel’s son, Byron, Jr. Author Francisco Goldman’s book, The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? (2007), writes an insightful narrative behind the crime and mentions the possible involvement but never convicted, of Otto Pérez Molina, another retired military officer, and former President (2012-2015), and currently serving a prison term for corruption charges.
The CIA’s Involvement
The case of Efraín “Everardo” Bámaca Velásquez, a former ORPA guerrilla leader and spouse of the American lawyer and author, Jennifer Harbury is one of the most significant cases that addresses the question surrounding the extent to which the United States’ CIA played a role in the armed conflict. Bámaca was kidnapped by the army in 1992, the year after he and Harbury married. The search for her husband, dead or alive, became an arduous, dangerous, and heartbreaking journey for Harbury, which she describes in her book, Searching for Everardo (1997). Her involvement in fighting civil rights cases against the CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Council led to the release of documents which proved that the United States had previous knowledge of Bámaca’s kidnapping. The astonishing and disturbing fact was that the military personnel responsible for the crimes committed against Bámaca were paid CIA assets. Once this was made public, a campaign was launched, and thousands of records were disclosed or declassified, revealing that the U.S. and Guatemalan authorities were collaborating in the human rights violations committed during the armed conflict, to a greater degree than previously known. Harbury eventually learned about her husband’s fate but the whereabouts of his remains are unknown.
Part VI: The Long and Winding Road Toward Peace
The pathway toward peace in post-conflict Guatemala entails layer upon layer of many narratives from various perspectives that require a lengthy undertaking. The most central question is how can a nation heal itself in the aftermath of an armed conflict that caused 200,000 deaths, mostly indigenous peoples, numerous physical injuries, over a million families displaced from their homes, 40,000 disappearances, and the traumatic, psycho-social ailments suffered by many survivors. The intention of the Peace Accords, or Firm and Lasting Peace, (Acuerdo de Paz Firme y Duradero), was to focus on a peace treaty whereby all sides could agree upon, and set into motion a plan to address the injustices, improve the institutions, and promote democratic rights and responsibilities. The United Nations team that comprised the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala or MINUGUA were tasked with this assignment from September, 1994 to November 15, 2004. The Peace Accords, which consisted of several agreements, but most notably the agreement on socio-economic and agrarian rights, and the agreement on the rights of indigenous peoples, were not vastly different from the international human rights declarations previously promulgated by the United Nations. For example, the UN specialized entity, the International Labour Organization Convention 169, promotes the protection of rights of indigenous and tribal peoples as exemplified in their 1989 revision of the 1957 convention. What makes the Peace Accords most significant is the State of Guatemala’s forthcoming in their acceptance of these human rights, upon which their official signature indicates.
The Peace Accords represent a mandate for a democratization of the Guatemalan government, insuring the rights of all its citizens, and the strengthening of the institutions that protect these rights. Ironically, the United States, which extols its democratic values and condemns societies that don’t comply with the freedoms inherent in a democracy, rendered support and aide to Guatemala’s efforts toward creating a repressive and controlled society governed by dictators and despots.
The question remains whether or to what extent Guatemalan government officials will uphold the Peace Accords. The current president, Alejandro Giammattei, presumably opposes the peace process much like the former military officers that financed his presidential candidacy. The government’s judicial system is particularly problematic because of its weak system of impunity and corruption. The institutions lack proper accountability because they’re largely controlled by former military personnel and the wealthy, conservative business owners for whom change toward a democratic society is their true enemy.
Twenty-four years after the 1996 Peace Accords, the Maya Ixil face an economic crisis that threatens the future of the youthful generation. The educational system has failed to help children and young adults achieve adequate grade-level schooling, and to improve school drop-out rates. The few children that achieve high educational levels have economic challenges that often prevent them from attending higher education. Many adolescent males opt to migrate to the United States in search of employment opportunities. Migrating to urban areas such as Guatemala City or Quiché may offer a better solution, however, they will undoubtedly encounter various other problems such as gang violence. Many young women face similar economic challenges, however, they face other serious problems associated with femicides and domestic violence.
In Their Own Words
The Ixil towns of Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal are experiencing an incline in population growth. The Ixil community leaders are active members in both their indigenous authority and in local and national politics. The technology advances are evident, at least in the use of mobile phones and the internet in some educational settings. But, home-use technology and more efficient and environment-friendly, alternative forms of energy are still far in the future. Families have altered their ways of living in an economy that relies on income to purchase their products, gradually replacing the subsistence farming way of life. The present-day Maya Ixil’s vision of the world is evident in their belief that survival is tantamount to a greater, more prosperous future.3
1. Other references that are directly related to Stoll’s volume, and cited by him, are Guatemala: Nunca Más, Informe del Proyecto Interdiocesano Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (1998); Massacres in the Jungle: Ixcán, Guatemala by Ricardo Fallo (1994); and Guatemala: Memory of Silence, T’zinil Na’tal”bal, Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification (1999).
2. Castillo Armas was assassinated in 1957 by a lone gunman who afterward committed suicide, and Secretary Dulles had to reduce his workload due to health problems; he died in 1959. His brother, Allen W. Dulles was a controversial director of the CIA until 1961. In his book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret War (2013), author Stephen Kinzer, writes a biographical portrayal of the duo and their role in the international stage of diplomacy and power. David Talbot’s book, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of the America’s Secret Government (2015), allows the reader to take a closer look behind the incredibly powerful CIA director and the assassination of JFK.
3. Related documentary videos: Who are the Maya Ixil: A Photo Essay; Nebaj: A Collective Memoy, 11-2-19; and The Maya Ixil School of Life: Ways of Knowing and Learning; Author.
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