The heroic images of young combatant females fighting alongside their male counterparts in the insurgent armed conflicts of El Salvador Nicaragua, Guatemala and Cuba, during the 1950s to 1990s, lead us to (re)examine the historical currents of gender inequality. The militant roles of women in the guerilla, combatants or non-combatants, run counter to the traditional wife and mother narratives. Certainly, their accomplishments serve to advance the argument that gender equality can be achieved as they’ve demonstrated in the battlefield and beyond. But, as in every instance, there are many stories behind the image; an historical context laden with facts and figures, analysis and perspectives. In the past, historians’ depictions of women’s roles in response to the call-for-arms were generally consequential or supportive, however, the recent works of scholars have yielded a vibrant profile of riveting insights on how women created their own space. Initially motivated by their ardent convictions that substantive changes must be structural in a society marked by blatant inequalities, revolutionary women progressively adopted a perspective as protagonists, confronting and calibrating changes in the injustices and gender biases relevant to their lives.
The discussion brings into focus these questions: 1) who were the women in the resistance and what specific roles did they play; 2) why is it important to recognize their struggles and challenges; and 3) why study the women and what can we learn from their stories. The first part of this article’ title: ‘To Change the World’ is a reference to the motivation that compelled so many women to join the guerrillas. There were other factors, of course, which are discussed in the corresponding paragraphs, but the women’s voices particularly stand out because they wanted a better future for themselves, their families, and their countries, specifically, their children. What sets the women in the resistance apart from other women seeking justice, such as the Western European and North American feminists, is the fact that the women in the armed resistance were concerned with issues beyond gender equality, for the greater good of the society, i.e., the fight for democratic freedoms, the right to live a life of dignity and free of violence, encompassing a far broader vision of equality.
‘Feminist Ghosts’ in the title is used as a metaphor that represents the act of consciousness-raising that underscores the urgency to think responsibly and critically about how to advocate for change so that all women, regardless of where they live and who they are, and have the opportunity to fight for social injustices and inequality. One of the goals of this writing endeavor is to encourage the reader to embark on a personal quest in a journey toward greater understanding and participation in gender-related issues and problems.
“First let me tell you, a woman is never more equal
The Gender-based Revolution: Collecting the Stories
One of many challenges of collecting historical, accurate numbers on the women that participated in the guerrilla is the lack of a single source for the depository of the data. In Nicaragua, a total of guerrilla members, men and women, range from 15,000 to 18,000.4 However, the Nicaraguan Revolution was a grassroots phenomenon that included the participation of 250,000 to 300,000 civilians.5 Many sources agreed upon the fact that the number of women in guerrilla increased as the revolutions progressed. Post-war or conflict demobilization data collected by external sources such as the United Nations offered yet another view. A general consensus, then, is that women combatants in the Nicaraguan Revolution (FSLN – Sandinist Front of National Liberation) consisted of 25 to 30 percent of the total number, about 5,000 or so. The Salvadoran armed conflict had a slightly lesser amount, about 4,400 or 30 percent of the total (around 15,000), although one of the guerrilla organizations, the ERP – Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, had as many as 40 percent female combatants.6 The Guatemalan armed conflict documents have the most inconsistent data base, perhaps due to the longevity of the war (36 years) and the high attrition rates among the women combatants. Guatemala’s united guerrilla, the URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca), developed in the early 80s, included four different guerrillas. Of the overall total of around 6,000 participants serving as combatants, approximately 1,440 women or 25 percent served during the 1978-80 period of the war.7
Oral History in the Context of War
The women’s stories in this volume are genuine, at least to the extent that they could be appropriately verified. Thus, the primary sources for the research purposes were social scientists, e.g., anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. In addition to the work of scholars in the areas of gender studies, the primed sources came from writers that based their information on first-hand experiences. Indeed, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting authentic narratives about traumatic events that the subjects personally experienced should be examined with a critical eye and filtered through the contextual lens of unprecedented moments of enormous upheaval. Historian David Carey8 points out that interviewees’ past accounts of events, as difficult and heart-wrenching as they were, often attach meaning to experience, and that by remembering the events, a process of reconstruction is at play. Thus, their narratives can be expected to be imbued with some imagination, omissions, and embellishments. There is also the importance of dignity in the manner by which the interviewee refused to speak or share only parts of their stories because they felt shame, for themselves and their families. Silence as a coping strategy was used by women who endured horrendous torture by the state military forces.
At the very least an historical snapshot of the three countries is essential, and potentially contributes to our overall understanding of the evolution of change and circumstance. Before the European conquistadors conquered and colonized the Mesoamerican region of the Americas, from northern region of what is today México to the southern area that includes about half of Costa Rica, the population consisted of widely diverse indigenous groups. Scientists and scholars’ works have produced voluminous publications about the history, cultures, and languages, an immense undertaking that has brought to light the phenomenal accomplishments of a civilization dating as far back as fifteen thousand years ago.
It was in 1523, after the fall of the Aztec Empire when the Spanish army led by Pedro de Alvarado began its expansive expedition into the Central American region. The state of Chiapas in Mexico was included in the Spanish conquest of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and most of Costa Rica. In 1522, the Spanish explorer, Gil González, traveled from Panama with his cavalry to ascertain his country’s conquest of Nicaragua. The Spanish crown governed the entire region from 1609 until 1821 when the newly established state of Central America gained its independence from Spain (as did Mexico). In 1823, Central America seceded from Mexico and became the Federal Republic of Central America. When the countries – Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica – became autonomous entities in the course of gaining their independence from Mexico in 1838 (and later, El Salvador in 1841), they terminated their collective federation existence after 230 years. It’s arguable, then, that as a result of their experiences as a long-time federation they share similar patterns of post-colonial governance, the emergence of an economy established in inequality, and the social adherence to the accumulation of wealth by an elite segment of the society. From the outset, each country was rooted in an historical context of pitting the majority poor against the minority wealthy that was destined to lead into a series of revolts, some of major proportions. It’s through the lens of history and critique that I analyze the stories, struggles, and achievements of the women in resistance.
Gumercinda “Chinda” Zamora is one of the organizers of the peasant movement, the Union Trabajadores Campesinos (UTC) in Chalatenango, a department in northeastern El Salvador, along with three others – Facundo Guardado, José Santos Martínez, and Justo Mejía.
Chinda, a middle-age woman, married and mother of nine children worked as labor union organizer and midwife in the areas around the rural communities of La Ceiba and Las Vueltas. She relates one of her encounters with a National Guard soldier to Joaquín Chávez, author of the book, Poets and Prophets of the Resistance.9 At the time, Chinda was on the “blacklist” as a dangerous militant because of her work with the labor union. The Guard was stationed throughout the neighboring areas, on orders to conduct surveillance, threaten residents, and if the soldiers deemed necessary, they would detain, torture and even execute those that are suspected of being radicals or subversives. Chinda and the other leaders lived in secluded areas in the mountains to escape persecution but would return to the villages at night. Chinda used her midwife identity to disguise her labor union activities. On her walk home one night, she was stopped by Guardsman and proceeded to interrogate Chinda – what was her business and why so late at night. Chinda explained that she was on duty as a midwife and even opened up her bag of herbs she uses to deliver babies. The Guardsman seemed satisfied and then asked her if she knew a woman by the name of Chinda Zamora. Chinda replied that she did know the woman, but she hadn’t seen her lately. Chinda was able to avoid capture this time, however, she was eventually arrested and imprisoned a few years later.
Chinda was by the State standards a very dangerous woman. She was one of the leaders that created a forceful, unprecedented peasant movement whose militant members engaged in all aspects of the revolutionary efforts and through their accomplishments, formed a foundation for the major armed organization, the FMLN – Faribundo Martí National Liberation.
The Armed Conflict Between the FMLN Guerrilla and the State Military
El Salvador entered into a very dark moment of history as two factions met in egregious combat for twelve years (1980-1992). The twelve year war caused devastation to a country already reeling from a debilitating economy, where approximately 75,000 civilians and tens of thousands of soldiers lost their lives. Some of the cases of brutal repression and suffering are described in a report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, “From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador,” and the data speak volumes of the most horrendous, unspeakable tragedies: 22,000 human rights violations were documented along with 60 percent extrajudicial killings, 25 percent disappearances, 20 percent were tortured; and approximately 85 percent of civilian killings were attributed to state agents such as the military and death squads while the FMLN killed 5 percent. Additionally, about a million people experienced displacement as a result of the war, and many were survivors of massacres similar to the scorched earth tactics practiced by the Guatemalan military during the genocidal era of the late 70s and early 80s.
The El Salvador armed conflict, the 36-year internal armed conflict in Guatemala (1960-1996), and the Nicaraguan revolution (1978-79), were part of a regional conflict the erupted after the Cuban revolution (1953-59). Both the Cuban and the Nicaraguan wars meet the criteria as transformative revolutions, although Nicaragua’s success was truncated with the eruption of the Contra War (1981-1990).10 Guatemala’s and El Salvador’s armed conflicts came to an end in the most dismal of circumstances thereby losing their ability to negotiate in a true revolutionary fashion. It was the era of upheaval where other regions of Latin America were marred with violent conflicts that resulted in the deaths of thousands, and countless numbers of extreme cases of human rights violations.11
The United States’ Dominant Role
One of the most notable features of the violent conflicts is the powerful influence leveraged by the United States, which undoubtedly is considered the world’s greatest military force. During the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) through Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), the United States played a dominant role in Latin America as the defense leader against the Soviet Union’s threatening menace as a nuclear power. Fearing that the “rebel” forces were aligned with the “communist bloc,” the Cold War, in geopolitical terms, the United States provided generously to strengthen the military might of the state governments thus, blocking the guerrillas from fully taking control. Even after Nicaragua’s triumph in 1979, the United States supported the “Contras,” the anti-Sandinistas, in their attempts to “take back” their government. Each of the three state governments -El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua – had a huge arsenal of all-things military, for ground, naval and air assaults. The military aid transferred to the three state governments during the periods of armed conflicts totaled to billions, an extraordinary amount, especially during the Reagan presidency. The price tag for fighting the insurgency in El Salvador, as well as Guatemala and Nicaragua, amounted to billions USD, that included the funding of the counterinsurgency in each country, the militarization of Honduras, and the support for maintaining the state repression. The insurmountable support underscored the interventionist role of the United States, and greatly attributed to the state governments’ abilities to counter attack the insurgencies, which resulted in the staggering death toll amongst guerrilla combatants and non-combatant civilians.12
Revolts, Electoral Fraud, and Coup d’état Waves
As a young girl, Chinda lived in and around the rural communities of La Ceiba and Las Vueltas, a region covered with rolling hills amid the two summits of Cerro Picacho and Cerro El Infiernillo in the volcano corridor of Chalatenango Department. Families subsisted in farming corn, beans, and sorghum, and cash crops such as coffee and sugar. In 1931, the Great Depression had impacted the coffee industry, and the consequences were the most devastating for families like Chinda’s. Chinda’s parents were contemporaries of Augustín Farabundo Martí, the labor union leader whose reputation for his rebellious and tenaciousness had won over the support of thousands of campesinos. The rallying cry amongst the peasants was the same then as it was during Chinda’s leadership with the UTC labor union. Far from extravagant or even unreasonable, the demands were basic like decent wages and working conditions, and use of land, all necessary for sustaining a meager subsistence. But after sixty years since the inception of the Central American Congress of Workers organization in 1911, and the perseverance of leaders such as Martí and others, Chinda’s labor union demands were more radical and astute, calling for the restructuring of the capitalist society, politics, and political economy. They demanded justice: higher living wages, improved working conditions, access to clean water, and an end to the abuses perpetrated by landowners.13
Martí’s rebelliousness and courage were emblazoned in the memory book of Chinda’s family and friends. An entire generation came to know Martí as a folk hero, the legendary leader that represented the hearts and minds of struggling, hard-working peasants that for the first time began to think about a revolution. But before Martí there was Anastasio Aquino, in 1832, a hundred years prior, who had led a year-long revolt with 3,000 campesinos in protestation of gross injustices committed against mostly indigenous farmers. Aquino’s status as a cacique offered him an unprecedented voice amongst the powerful elite and wealthy oligarchs that took advantage of the hard-working peasanty to further their wealth and prestige. The slavery existence which the indigenous people had been relegated since colonial times was further exacerbated with the usurpation of the ancestral lands which rendered the poor peasants landless. The wealthy oligarchs, owners of the indigo monocrop economy, justified their actions by falsely claiming that their profits were used for the betterment of the country. The huge margin of profits were incrementally used for budgeting infrastructure projects, but none were allocated for anything other than for personal benefit, thus enriching themselves and neglecting the “good” for the Salvadoran people. The revolt ended with the capture and assassination of Aquino, who was decapitated with repressive force to demonstrate an example of punishment for any other rebels that dare to speak the truth. Like Martí, Aquino was considered a hero. Chinda’s parents and grandparents reminisce about Aquino’s bravery as one of their leaders whose violent death by decapitation signified a fight to the end, like a true revolutionary.
Augustín Farabundo Martí was born in 1893, and although he lived in a community of hard-working, poor campesinos, his family was better off because his father was a moderate landowner. His father had adopted the surname of Martí from Cuba’s emblematic writer and one of the founders of the communist party, José Julián Martí Pérez. Farabundo Martí, nicknamed “el negro,” attended the university for a short time until his legal problems led to expulsion. He acquired learning experiences about the plight of the exploited campesino by living and working amongst the peasants in México and Guatemala. He eventually returned to El Salvador as a labor union organizer, and in 1928, then President Quiñones Molina, recognizing the activism in Martí, exiled him to Nicaragua. During the year in Nicaragua, he worked with Augusto César Sandino, whom he had met in México, in the insurgency efforts to oust the powerful, U.S. backed conservative faction of the Nicaraguan government. Martí was a devout Marxist and leader of the Socorro Rojo Internacional, while Sandino, who was two years older than him, was completely focused on nationalistic ideals. Both men dedicated their lives to fighting for the rights and freedoms of the working poor and their names became synonymous with heroism and hope.14 The leaders of the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan revolutions named their guerrilla organizations, respectively, the Farabundo Martí Front for Liberation (FMLN) and the Sandinist Front of National Liberation (FSLN), as a way to memorialize their heroes, and popularize their movement of armed insurrection.
La Matanza, literally translated as “the killing,” involved the military in the mass killing on January 22, 1932 of thousands of so-called “communists,” but in reality they were mostly poorly armed peasants and university students protesting in a campaign for labor reform. Martí was not part of the group because he had been captured several days before the uprisings and was unable to send a communiqué to the protestors to inform them of the military’s intentions. They were gunned down with machine guns, and not just the protestors, entire towns were targeted as well. The most destructive and incisive massacres happened in El Canelo and Nahuilzalco. The point of the operation was to annihilate “communists,” but less than 10 percent killed were actually participating in the communist party.15 Extrajudicial executions continued for weeks and Martí was assassinated on February 1st. The official count of deaths is unknown, mostly because the crime was so shocking and the military and the wealthy elite scrambled to hide the truth. Some historians claim that at least 12,000 people were killed, others estimate that 40,000 lost their lives.16
Many historians have remained fixated on the events that occurred before, during and after the “matanza,’ because of the horrendous tragedy but also for its overall impact and long-term consequences. A year before the “matanza” President Romero’s successor, Arturo Araujo was inaugurated and General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez was his VP. Araujo was a wealthy landowner who strived for an equipoise in governing on behalf of both the working class and the wealthy elite, but the oligarchy insisted on a governance hierarchy solely for themselves. Araujo’s selection of General Martínez as VP was a strategy to assuage their discontent. Within a nine month period, the oligarchy’s support for the military grew stronger which led to the eventual ousting of President Araujo, and General Martínez was allowed to take control of the government. The coup d’état was cautiously accepted by Martí and the organized protestors and supporters, but with a military official at the helm, they realized that their demands would never be heard. General Martínez proclaimed that “free elections” would take place in early January (1932), but his deception became obvious when he refused to certify the winners of the elections of the PCS (Communist Party of El Salvador) candidates. After the “matanza” there was little doubt that the military and the wealthy elite had created a bond of indisputable force.
The tragic events of 1932 marked a compelling chapter in the downward spiral of a history marred with extreme violence. At that point in history, revolution was not a viable solution for people who struggled with feeding their families, but there were signs that portended a massive revolt. First, despite their differences, the military and the wealthy oligarchs recognized their inimitable strength when they combine their forces against their common “enemy,” which fueled their authoritative, fascist rule. There were eight coup d’états within a five decade period (1931-1980); coups were commonly used by the military to select a new leader amongst themselves. And, Salvadoran voters became increasingly frustrated with frequent election fraud.17Second, killing unarmed, innocent civilians was of no consequence to either the military or the wealthy elite; the massacres were intentionally planned to “cast a wide net” in order to kill a few guerrilla, and “scorched earth” tactics were meant to unabashedly bolster the deaths of civilians for their own distorted purposes. Third, the cumulative effect of the massacres could arguably be described as genocidal.18 The military force overly extended its destruction of entire indigenous communities, which not only resulted in catastrophic deaths but also created a culture of fear and silence amongst the survivors. The emotional pain, the trauma was a constant part of the victims’ suffering, and to erase the memories also meant to eradicate identity, language, and customs. The 1932 “matanza” set into motion a hatred for “everything indigenous,” and the systematic racism had the effect of engendering a slow but eventual death of language and culture. As in most cases of cultural contact there is arguably a certain amount of endogenous language loss and a decline in the use of customs among indigenous people; it is a tragic consequences of colonialization.19 However, the tragic horror, and shock wrought by the “matanza” had a collective impact on the Nahuat-speakers, and what linguist call “language death” clearly exemplifies what happened to their language and culture.20 And fourth, in the intent to “kill off the Indians,” the perpetrators opened up pathways to planting the seeds for a revolution. The immense poverty, the persistent exploitation of the worker, the huge economic gap between the oligarchs who lived in luxury and the peasantry, that struggled every day and demanded nothing more than the opportunity to live a dignified life, all led to the fomentation of rebellion, and ultimately, to the revolution.21
“I was a woman who was never afraid.” Gumercinda “Chinda” Zamora.22
Chinda learned not to be afraid. Throughout her life she witnessed the brutal killings and mutilations of so many innocent people, and her clandestine lifestyle was due to the military repression that had steadily increased since the “matanza.” In the summer of 1974, in what is known as (the first) La Cayetana massacre, an organized group of peasants rebelled against the government’s refusal to support their negotiations for leasing land to cultivate corn and beans. They seized the land in protestation but the group’s leader was shot and killed by the soldiers. Four months later, National Guardsmen descended on the small town of La Cayetana (in San Vicente) and began killing the unarmed civilians. They captured the group behind the land occupation protest and corralled each member into a local church. The guardsmen proceeded to torture the men: they were ordered to lie down, face down, naked while the soldiers stomped on their backs. Six laborers were shot dead and their mutilated corpses were scattered in the streets. The Cayetano massacre sent shock waves among labor organizers because it was the first massacre that involved an entire community.23 Now, more than ever, the solidarity amongst campesinos was strengthened, and by joining the UTC (Union de Trabajadores Campesinos) they recognized their strength in numbers.
Chinda experienced a deep, profound and tragic loss when her dear friend, co-founder of the UTC, and brother-in-law, Justo Mejia was tortured and assassinated on November 9, 1977. Mejia was captured by the paramilitaries in San Fernando, near Chalatenango. The torture was an inexplicable horror; he was beaten, and with his eyes gouged, and bleeding, the men forced him to walk until he collapsed. As they buried his body, the men told the crowd of onlookers that he was a thief. Two weeks later his body was exhumed and prepared for a proper funeral in his hometown of La Ceiba. Thousands of people – families, friends, acquaintances, and activists from Chalatenango and beyond attended the funeral to offer their respects, and to honor the man that was best known as a caring, dedicated teacher. Chinda remembers him in this remark: ‘He was such a helpful [colaborativo] and wise [alcanzativo] man. Nobody told him what to do. He knew the work that needed to be done. He came to my house often and said, I have a task [una tarea]. God willing we will be able to complete it.”24 Eight months later, in August, 1978, the paramilitaries led another massacre in the area, known as, La Ceiba massacre, which resulted in the killings of six children and two women, all relatives of Justo Mejía.
The Paramilitaries and the Role of the United States
By the end of the 1970s, the Salvadorans felt the extreme intensity of the repression. The ubiquitous paramilitaries had increased in size and their brutality was overwhelming. Chinda lived among communities where families were torn apart because of their allegiances to either the state paramilitary or the revolution. As many as 150,000 campesinos joined the Nationalist Democratic Organization (ORDEN), the military’s rural component of El Salvador’s counterinsurgency unit. They were outfitted with U.S.-provided equipment and automatic rifles, and their training was based on guerrilla warfare imported from the Green Berets, known for their extremist tactics to annihilate the dangerous and armed communists.
ORDEN was a major paramilitary unit created in 1963 under the auspices of General Médrano, the head of the National Guard and the Armed Forces High Command.25
Special funding was provided by the United States as part of the Alliance for Progress (ALPRO), a regional initiative by the Kennedy administration in response to the threats posed by the Soviet Union under the specter of the Cold War. El Salvador received generous U.S. funding, and the aid was stipulated for modernizing and economic restructuring as well as for labor and education reforms.26 And although the ALPRO support was also earmarked for the development of a counterinsurgency apparatus as a contingency, the military/oligarch government of El Salvador relished the opportunity to use the funds to create a U.S.-style, world class military force. The United States State Department, including the CIA, had a direct influence on its development, providing specialized training, military equipment, and funds to maintain its operations. It was part of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, a complex, broad network of military units and intelligence agencies. The intelligence branch was the Salvadoran National Agency (ANSESAL), which collected personal data on individuals deemed as the subversive or communist leaders. The Security Forces included the National Guard, Treasury Police, National Police, and the Customs Police, which carried out the abductions, tortures, and assassinations, at first with cautious deliberation, but eventually these evolved into the “death squads.”27
The death squads’ murderous activities were sustained largely by the wealthy oligarch families and military personnel, representing the extreme far-right political faction. Their targets varied, but they clearly sought to eliminate the leadership amongst the religious and lay members of organizations such as the Christian Based Communities.28 With every tool of warfare at their disposal, and together with guerrilla warfare battalions such as Atlacatl, the death squad machine, committed the most brutal, heinous, and extreme violence against non-combatant civilians and entire communities and towns.29 The Salvadoran government denied its people agrarian, labor, and education reforms as stipulated and agreed upon by the ALPRO. And one of the most disconcerting facts is that death squads continued to terrorize Salvadorans after the Peace Accords of 1992. Their targets expanded to include gang members without substantial evidence of crimes committed; some were killed as part of a “social cleansing” mission.30
The question remains on why the Salvadoran government agreed to the ALPRO terms, and whether the intent was to first and foremost benefit from the United States’ generous support and funding, and then, to deny culpability or responsibility for any wrongdoing.
Guerrilla Organizations and the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMNL)
While Chinda and other UTC leaders worked indefatigably to organize their efforts in Chalatenango, guerrilla groups began to emerge, especially in response to the intense military repression. Salvador Cayetano Carpio, a former communist party leader, studied “the revolution” in the Soviet Union for a couple of years and later, in 1970, founded the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL). The FPL guerrilla eventually recruited 1,500 to 2,000 troops, and enjoyed the support of tens of thousands of campesinos in the Chalatenango Department.31 Carpio, also known by his nom de guerre, Marcial, believed in the North Vietnam revolutionary example of a prolonged war with camp bases established in the guerrillas’ mountainous strongholds, while other guerrilla organizations preferred the alliance with the Cuban revolution (1953-1959).32 Between 1979 and 1981, in a crucial moment of dire need, and in order to counter the forceful and powerful attacks by the U.S. backed Salvadoran forces, the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMNL), established an alliance with the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), the umbrella of a broad network of organizations, as well as Cuba, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, and México. The FMLN also harnessed the support of the European community. The integration of the existing five guerrilla organizations into the FMLN completed the consolidation process. On January 10, 1981, the FMNL-FDR launched its initial offense from its military stronghold in the Department of Chalatenango. The five guerrilla organizations united in solidarity were: the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL), Revolutionary Popular Army (ERP), Salvadoran Communist Party (PCS), National Resistance (RN), and Party of the Salvadoran Revolution (PRTC).33
Chinda was among the thousands that believed in revolutionary change. And although Chinda did not use any armed weapons, she was nevertheless arrested, detained and interrogated by the security forces for alleged subversive behavior. But the next generation of women took bolder steps in their participation as revolutionaries.
The Gendered Guerrilla Movement
As early as 1962, a few Salvadoran women were integrated into the “feminine column” of the guerrilla organization, the United Front of Revolutionary Action (FUAR), coordinated by Schafik Handal and Castellanos Figueroa.34 FUAR was the first of its kind to promote an armed revolution after the 1932 “massacre.” From 1951 to 1964, the leadership of the Salvadoran Communist Party created networks in the rural communities that worked in harvesting coffee in the western regions, and in the cotton plantations in the eastern region. The campesinos tried to set up unions, but their attempts were swiftly deterred by paramilitary troops. Instead, many chose to join FUAR. The popular guerrilla organization generated a couple of thousand followers within a two-year period, however, the leadership was split over whether the group should take up an armed insurrection. Marcial (Carpio) criticized the leaders for creating a scenario that he claimed would fail because a revolution requires much more than one guerrilla organization.35 FUAR did not evolve as the leaders planned, but the decision to grow a revolution from the Left had planted the seeds of determination.
At the core, front and center of the Salvadoran Civil War was the phenomenal social movement that amassed thousands of people from almost every corner of the country. Indeed, the long-standing, dire deficiencies in the social and economic conditions in a country governed by the super wealthy and a military infatuated with power created the revolutionary climate: ripe, where just about anyone could become motivated to participate. The leaders that emerged from the New Left movement were deeply critical of the injustices perpetrated against the campesino families that consistently experienced land insecurity and the essential basics for a dignified life. The economic hardships pushed some women to urban migration, especially single women with children. The new leaders rejected the constant lies of politicians that mostly represented the wealthy elite and the military bourgeoisie, the numerous electoral frauds, and the utter absence of basic democratic freedoms. And as the gut-wrenching war dragged on for years and with brutal intensity, everyone was deeply affected by the horrendous killings of thousands of innocent people. Although the communist ideals of Marxism and Leninism initially formed the guerrilla organization framework, the ideas and thoughts emanating from internal consciousness-raising processes eventually gave way to the transformed peoples’ revolution.
Stepping Into the Revolutionary Role
The women’s voices featured herein are selected from the scholarship of researchers that witnessed first-hand the testimony of former female guerrilla members. Without their rigorous and dogged investigations, historical accounts of this and other revolutions would certainly comprise an incomplete and biased narrative. And of course, our scope of understanding would be limited in regard to the contributions by women and the impact of their work on our lives.
By and large, many authors allude to their findings that women joined the guerrillas because they believed it was an act of doing social justice, of performing a duty based on their principled beliefs, and that their specific actions would lead to a society that serves everyone, especially the historically marginalized, poor people.36 There were other reasons, of course, such as to be with family members or to escape repression. But the women’s testimonies exclude the notion that their gender was a reason for participating.37 Before, and even during the Salvadoran War, women’s issues were politically framed within the broad context of societal needs and struggles, and the term “feminism” did not hold a functional key toward equality. It was in the post-war 1990s that women gained a collective vision of gender equality, and began to successfully roll out a social and political discourse on feminism.
Organizing the Women in the Guerrilla
Researchers Vasquez, Ibañez, and Murguialdy worked out a scheme by which to organize the former guerrilla female members that they interviewed.38 They identified five groups as the following:
1) The young revolutionaries from urban sites. These women were under twenty years old when they enlisted in the guerrilla fronts, living in the clandestine camp sites.
2) The young revolutionaries from rural sites. Like the women from the urban areas, they were under twenty years old when they joined the guerrilla front.
3) The adult revolutionaries from urban sites. The women in this group were from urban sites. They were over twenty years old when they enlisted and they had one or more children.
4) “Comandos urbanos.” These revolutionary women participated in the urban commands in San Salvador.
5) Collaborators of the guerrillas. These revolutionary women collaborated with the FMLN in control zones. They lived normal lives as citizens but carried out guerrilla activities in secret.
Karen Kampwirth provides a strong research basis by which to deduce that the female revolutionaries entered into the guerrillas via student and/or social organizations.39Kampwirth’s extensive interviews with former female revolutionaries in El Salvador and Nicaragua focused on social and educational backgrounds.40The Salvadoran guerrilla women tended to have more educational experiences then their male counterparts, and although many originated from the rural areas of the country, some chose to migrate to the urban areas. Educational opportunities played a major role on whether the females had attended school, and the women had greater access in urban centers.
Many of the “pre-existing networks,” as author Karen Kampwirth refers to the social/educational organizations, where the revolutionaries’ aspirations were developed and nurtured, were sponsored by the Church, i.e., the Archdiocese hierarchy, priests, religious, and laity. At the public university, the Salvador University Catholic Action and the Catholic Student Youth organizations spearheaded some of the major groups that served to educate revolutionaries, including the women: Christian Democrat Party (Partido Democrático Cristiano, PDC) – 1960; Committee of Representatives of General Studies (CRAC) – 1967; and the People’s Revolutionary Movements of the 1960s and 70s.42
Many student activists that turned insurrectionists, became actively involved through the University of Salvador (UES), the country’s national (public) institution. Since the 1918 reforms at the University of Cordoba in Argentina, many Latin American universities, including in Central America, sought to follow a similar path of democratization of the academic curriculum, essentially creating an autonomous university. In 1963, the UES’s rector, Fabio Castillo, a proponent of educational reform and later in 1976, served as Minister of Education, administered a four-year plan that included the substantial improvement of the quality of the university curriculum, and a huge boost in student enrollment, enhanced with the availability of scholarships for students who needed them.43 The student enrollment jumped exponentially. The 1960s era was a unique moment in the university’s history; thousands of students, many of whom would not have had the opportunity to attend, were not only learning about democratic ideals, but practicing democracy within their autonomous learning environment. However, within a decade, the repressive state of the Salvadoran government, with callous and indifference, retaliated with brutish force.
The October 1960 (Double) Coup D’état
After President Lemus was overthrown in a coup d’état in October 1960, the transitional power of the Governmental, Civic-Military Junta was used to pre-establish conditions for the next government. Among the proposed guidelines were the renewed emphasis on the democratic process of holding free and completely open elections, and on the development of a stronger social program aimed at suppressing illiteracy and raising educational levels for all students. These and other similar ideals were immediately questioned by the military leaders, particularly because they perceived the unusual membership of civilians amongst the junta members as threatening, namely Fabio Castillo, a Cuban Revolution supporter.44 As predicted, in just three months (by year’s end in 1960), the military officers in San Salvador took charge of a revolt that essentially proclaimed the ousting of the current junta and the replacement of a military junta led by Col. Rivera. The assertion was that a military intervention was necessary to maintain a control on communists and supporters of the Cuban revolution.
The PDC: A Groundswell of Support
(El Partido Democrático Cristiano – Christian Democratic Party)
Against the background of the military revolt by a junta and its leader, Col. Rivera, in November 1960, was the emergence of a new political party whose party members shared a strong bond with Catholic Action, an international movement that embraced “Social Christianity.” The Partido Democrático Cristiano, or the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), was founded by three broad groups: a) Salvadoran students in the University’s Catholic Action branch, Acción Católico Universidad or ACUS; b) Catholic intellectuals that had turned away from the “old conservative guard” of the Catholic Church; and c) the Confederation of Latin American Christian Trade Unions (CLASC).45 Catholic Action represented a radically unique, positive and progressive vision of a social reality unlike the dominant conservativism espoused by the Catholic Church for decades. The Christian Democratic Party’s broadly-based composition of students, Catholic intellectuals, priests, teachers, and middle-class non-communist populace produced a threat amongst the military and the wealthy elite, and also among members of the Communist Party (PCS). As a major political party, the PDC achieved the phenomenal task of creating an inclusive attraction rarely experienced in the country’s history. Students that adhered to the Catholic Action principles actively engaged in the PDC to promote an agenda for a nonviolent social revolution in El Salvador.
In 1972, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and two other political parties (MNR and UDN) rallied their support around a popular San Salvador mayor running for president, José Napoleón Duarte. After the election, a fiery argument erupted over the counting of votes. Although Duarte and his opponent, the right-wing favorite, Col. Molina, each declared victory, the National Assembly ruled that they would call the election. However, the Assembly declared Col. Molina the winner, and two days later, a revolt ensued led by Col. Mejía and a group of rebel soldiers. Col. Mejía claimed a short-lived victory by declaring that the San Salvador capitol city’s military guard was supporting him. In fact, he grossly miscalculated the aggression by the Salvadoran government’s military force. After a bloody battle, Mejía gave up on the coup d’état, and Duarte was exiled, as were Mejía and his collaborators.46
The New Left Student Movement
The Salvadoran president, Col. Molina, targeted the University of El Salvador (UES), claiming the students were Marxist and as such, revolutionary and subversive. But what Molina perceived as subversive rebellion was actually part of the New Left led by students throughout the world, protesting in solidarity with each other and calling for revolutionary change. It was during the1960’s era of television and radio when the New Left student movements created repetitive shock waves as people watched and listened to the violent confrontations between police and student protesters in México, Spain, North Vietnam, and France. Student activists in Latin American countries such as Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil brazenly touted their New Left revolutionary rebellion. The Salvadoran university student activists were enrolled in a specific degree program known as General Studies and thus, formed a cohesive group with common views about the New Left revolution in their country.47
President Molina proceeded to deal with the students’ activism in the usual repressive manner. Much to the dismay and horrified student body, he ordered government troops into the university campus to control all student protests. After a year, the troops were finally retired. But two years later, in September 1975, more than 2,000 UES students marched peacefully from the university to the downtown Plaza Libertad, where they were met with military-style gun fire by the National Guard, killing thirty-seven students and “disappearing” dozens more.48 Specifically, the UES students were furious over the government’s decision to spend an exorbitant amount ($30 million) in hosting the Miss Universe Pageant. But as a result of the massacre, the reasons for the protest faded as more and more student voices clamored for an armed insurrection.49
Both Col. Molina’s fraudulent election and crackdown on university students were fodder for activism that continued on a rapid spiral toward an armed insurrection. The unintended radicalization of students had consequences that the Salvadoran government would respond with even more repressive tactics.
“There will never be a deep change
in the country’s structure until we devote ourselves
to educate in all aspects our men from the countryside.”50
In the rural towns and communities, the Archdiocese of San Salvador sponsored the Escuelas Radiofónicas (1960s & 1970s), a grassroots educational network of volunteer teachers/community leaders that taught daily literacy classes to adults; “radio students” that attended daily classes; and specialized subject teachers that taught primary children. In the same period, the Salvadoran Catholic Church developed “Peasant Universities,” or “Centers for the Promotion of Peasants,” with the goal of graduating hundreds of students from nine rural areas (in Chalatenango, 1967-77, a total of 15,000 students had attended). Social organizations multiplied as a result of the grassroots networks, allowing people access to education and for many, it was their first time to set foot in a classroom. A collective vision had emerged; education as key to a greater societal change was a belief that the populace readily embraced. This quote, by the priest, Martin Barahona, in charge of a school in Chalatenango expresses the popular sentiment: “There will never be a deep change in the country’s structure until we devote ourselves to educate in all aspects our men from the countryside.”50
Schools were the prime socialization hubs for the communities. Part of the educational change processes were literacy campaigns that engaged hundreds of volunteers as teachers. Many women from diverse backgrounds joined the literacy/political movement. One of them was Lil Milagro Ramírez, a member of “El Grupo,” the predecessor of the guerrilla, ERP (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo).
Lil Milagro Ramírez was among a handful of female university students at UES (University of El Salvador) that created La Masacuata, (Nahuat for deer-serpent), a group of revolutionary-minded, Social Christian activists, and poets. La Masacuata eventually evolved into El Grupo in 1969. El Grupo laid the foundation for the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) guerrilla organization in 1972, in the relatively same period that Cayetano Carpio and others founded the FPL guerrilla (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación) in 1970. Lil Ramírez’ story is not well-known, in fact some sources of information lack consistency in her date of birth, either in 1945 or 1946. Some sources indicate that she was assassinated by the Salvadoran military in 1979, after having been detained and tortured since she was captured in 1976. Although Ramírez was not known as a “feminist” she was described as someone that was an intelligent poet, and loyal to the revolutionary movement. She was also the “traditional” woman that cooked welcomed meals for her fellow comrades, or the consoling mother that offered compassion and understanding.51
Ramírez and others in El Grupo were among the first to not only promote an armed insurrection but also to create alliances with the burgeoning groups of activists in the countryside.
Ramírez witnessed the state repression first hand when she participated in the 1968 ANDES (teacher union) strike. She helped her fellow comrades to safety during the violent milieu when the military opened fire at the crowd. Several were killed. She wrote the following letter to her father before she went into hiding:
Do you remember we were there during the first ANDES strike? I was one of the most committed to that struggle and my feelings of frustration and impotence began to take shape when I saw the helpless people who were asking for justice and got repression and death in response. I will never forget the morning when we took the dead bodies of the workers killed by the Guard to the cemetery … those were the first times that I reflected on this country and its political conditions … at that point I thought we had to find another way.52
The threads that compelled the urban and the rural alliances toward coalescence were constructed by three transformative events that occurred during the same time period. First, as described above, the success of the Christian Democratic Party with its Social Christianity emphasis and the support of the Catholic Action demonstrated that the Salvadoran people from widely diverse segments of the population were eager to collectively participate in a the establishment of a democracy, without the determent of the power regime pushed by the military and the wealthy elite. Secondly, the renewed identity of the Catholic Church created a unprecedented opportunity for the poor and marginalized populace to become fully integrated into the democratic process, and be able to participate in shaping theirs and their children’s future. And thirdly, the adoption of Paulo Freire’s philosophy and method for teaching literacy, especially to adults, was highly compatible with the delivery of homilies promoted by liberation theologians, combining learning to read and write with an understanding of self in society and becoming liberated from oppression.
A Major Political Event of the Century
Known as the Second Vatican Council of 1962 and the Second Episcopal Conference of 1965, it was called, as a religious entity, the major political event of the century and its consequences could not have been greater than in all of Latin America, including of course, Central America.53
The proclamations in the Second Vatican Council documents of 1962 framed the Church in a very different historical perspective: the Church’s role, it declared, belongs within the community and its entire mission is contextual, not only spiritual. The Church exists in a communal environment and the sacrament of baptism deems every member as “equal.” At the Second Episcopal Conference in Medellín, Bogotá in 1965, the bishops took a bolder step and asserted the actions that were at the core of their proclamations: “the call to defend the rights of the oppressed; to promote grassroots organizations; to announce the unjust action of the world powers that work against the self-determination of the weaker nations.”54
The extraordinary transformation of the Church must have seemed ultra-revolutionary to many Salvadorans that were already contemplating the need for drastic change in their society. But, of course, those that were rigorously opposed to the Church’s new role were the conservative military, oligarch sectors that perceived the change not only as antithetical to their religious beliefs, but as a threat to their power as an authoritative regime. Although the Church had consistently worked against the incorporation of secular ideologies such as socialism or communism in the 1930s and 1940s, the Second Vatican Council chose not to condemn communism, but instead stood firmly in favor of the critics of capitalism abuses. In 1979, Archbishop Romero expressed his sentiments concerning the disunity that existed among Catholics in Latin America: “I believe that the path to unity lies in a ‘preferential option for the poor.’ …-we found Jesus Christ among the poor and there was no problem-… .”55
In the late 1960s, Lil Milagro Ramírez participated as a volunteer teacher of adult literacy classes in Cojutepeque, a city just East of the capitol city of San Salvador. At the time, the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) had yet to be formalized. As a member of El Grupo, she was keenly aware like everyone else that the education of the masses was a prerequisite for a successful revolution. The collaboration with the campesinos in the formation of a combined urban/rural front guerrilla was an imperative undertaking by the student activists. With extremely high illiteracy rates among the campesinos, an effective educational process had to address the urgency to educate as many people as possible within a limited time frame, and at the same time help them construct a meaningful knowledge base that allows for critical thinking and the building of self-confidence. Additionally, volunteers had to be trained on a wide scale in order to carry out this campaign.
The renewed identity and function of the Catholic Church was vigorously accepted by the poor and marginalized populations in the rural areas of the country. Within a few years starting in 1968, Christian Base Communities, known as CEBs, were organized and developed through the pastoral work of religious clergy. Dozens of CEBs cropped up in several areas, across various departments. The initial team usually consisted of a priest and a nun, but once they began their work, community members took on leadership roles. Education was at the center of their mission. The Bible was at the forefront of every lesson, but oral discussions dominated the mostly illiterate groups of adults. Certain messages resonated more than others; amongst these was the meaning of “liberation,” not the kind of being liberated at the time of death, but the liberation that anyone can achieve (with God’s blessing) during a lifetime. Liberation is within reach if one is willing to struggle for it.56
The literacy work that Lil Ramírez and other student activists engaged in were part of an extension of the pastoral mission by the Church. They joined the Center of Social Studies and Popular Promotion (CESPROP), founded by a sociologist, Father Juan Ramón Vega and Catholic students, and were trained on how to help adults become literate using the pedagogy popularized by Brazilian Paulo Freire that integrates consciousness-raising (conscientização) with literacy development. The pedagogy is student-centered; beginning with an understanding of their reality and through “problematizing” and didactical conversations, the learners acquire a different perspective of how the power structures result in inequality, and most importantly, how and why they are victims of long-standing and debilitating poverty. The learners continuously generate familiar words and expressions as they learn to read and write. Gradually they build meaningful frameworks for literacy development. Rather than a dispenser of information, the teacher assumes the role of facilitator/observer, challenging learners to think critically and independently.
Ramírez and dozens of other university and high school students associated with Catholic Action were highly active in CESPROP. Many of their students became activists and some later joined the armed insurrection. The government authorities became suspicious of their work, and in some municipalities, the Catholic Church was prohibited from teaching protest songs to their students.57
The Teacher’s Revolution (and Casualties)
While the children of the wealthy elite and military hierarchy enjoyed pricey educational schooling such as in private schools in San Salvador, the United States, or Europe, the majority of children, many living in extreme poverty, attended state-run schools in deplorable conditions. Newly graduated teachers were assigned to these schools unless they had some connection with a high ranking military official, or were affiliated with the correct political party. The Salvadoran government’s regard for the teachers’ services was evident in their low-paying salaries (about $80. per month), without benefits. A few teachers took issue with the government’s ineptitude and decided that the best option was to organize themselves. Within a two-year period, the teachers had their own organization, becoming the first autonomous teacher union in the El Salvador’s history.58
The organization was called the Asociación Nacional de Educadores Salvadoreños (ANDES) (officially recognized on June 21, 1965) and among the leaders was a teacher, Mélida Anaya Montes. The organization drew from its collective strength of fourteen thousand primary school teachers to demand that the government protect their legal rights and improve their working conditions with decent salaries and medical care.59 Beyond the essential stipulations that addressed their working conditions, the ANDES members established proposed curricular changes which were specific to working with children and their families in marginalized contexts. Their proposal called for specific instructional approaches, such as Paulo Freire’s liberation pedagogy, the teaching of critical thinking skills; a renewed focus on El Salvador’s history and on the construction of democracy.
The government’s lack of an adequate response compelled the ANDES members to deliberate their next steps with bold strategies.
In ANDES’ first confrontation with the government of President Sánchez Hernández in 1968, nearly four hundred teachers, mostly from the Department of Chalatenango, participated in a two-month strike as they camped outside the Ministry of Education building in the country’s capital. The message inherent in their narrative was a call for dignity: “la dignificación del magisterio.”60The government’s concessions were woefully inadequate, and ANDES organized a larger strike in 1971. Thousands of teachers, students, and supporters protested in the capital and throughout the country. Military, security forces, and ORDEN (paramilitary) forces attacked the demonstrators in different locations, including Chalatenango, Santa Ana, and Chalchuapa.61 Many suffered mild and severe injuries, while at least one university student, an engineer, and two university professors were killed, including a Mexican professor, Luis Quezada, who had survived the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in México.62
Mélida Anaya Montes was appalled at the disastrous and egregious assaults on teachers, and speaking on behalf of herself and ANDES she declared that their only option was to counter the repressive forces with violence since words were not sufficient or powerful against a viciously armed regime.63 Many teachers joined the guerrilla as did Anaya Montes, who eventually became a high ranking member of the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL), while others chose a path of stability by becoming affiliated with the national political party PCN (the Partido de Concilación Nacional).64
The Church’s Revolution (and its Casualties)
By the late 1960s, the repressive forces of the Salvadoran military had affected thousands of non-combatants, but by and large the targets were students, teachers, labor and social movement leaders, even government officials. The memory of thousands killed in the 1932 “la matanza” still haunted those that had been most affected such as family members or close friends. The people killed by the Salvadoran regime were deemed the subversives, the “internal enemies.” But the shock value was elevated to new heights when members of the clergy were assaulted and killed, as if they were “enemies” as well, and were no longer protected by their religious affiliation.
The first targeted priest was Father José Inocencio Alas who was abducted by ORDEN (or similar paramilitary force) shortly after he had given a speech at the Agrarian Reform Congress in 1970. Fr. Alas was a member of clergy that had strong connections with the campesinos in rural areas and fully supported agrarian reform that would bring much needed aid to the families. The response by governmental, military and business representatives was predictable – the least of concessions was most acceptable to these stakeholders, and Father Alas stood in diametrical opposition to their positions. He was eventually released and left for dead on a mountain cliff south of San Salvador. The archdiocese’ radio station, YSAX, had broadcasted his abduction around the clock, and listeners were asked to pray for Father Alas. To everyone’s relief, their prayers were answered and Fr. Alas was found, injured but alive.65
Father Nicolas Rodríguez’ dismembered body was found days after his abduction by the National Guard on January, 1972. Incredulously, the Church accepted the military’s explanation that Rodríguez had been killed by unknown assailants.66
Father Rutilio Grande’s assassination was particularly impactful because of his work with the CEBs and his relationship with the Archbishop Oscar Romero. Upon his arrival to San Salvador as the newly elected Archbishop, Romero was welcomed and briefed by Fr. Grande. Just three weeks later, Fr. Grande and another priest, Fr. Alfonso Navarro, were assassinated while traveling with other parishioners to celebrate Mass in a nearby town. Archbishop Romero recognized how Fr. Grande had been instrumental in organizing the community of Aguilares (in the department of San Salvador), developing thirty-seven CEBs and training 326 catechists. Within an eight-month period, the community had created their own grassroots leadership, mobilizing laborers to join with the Christian Federation of Salvadoran Campesinos (FECCAS) in 1973. The organized group had considerable success in May, 1973, when workers at the Aguilares’ La Cabaña sugar mill set up a peaceful six-hour strike, demanding the promised salary increase that the management had reneged. Although the strikers were able to recoup some of their earnings, not all of the salary increase, the strike was nevertheless considered a success. The infuriated oligarchs and their government supporters attributed the development of the labor organization and its outcome to the work of Fr. Grande and his grassroots leadership, despite the fact that he and all clergy members worked within the confines of a strictly pastoral agenda. The Aguilares example, along with other similar developments, attained an historical commendation in Latin America for its collaboration with the Church, touting its evangelizing efforts’ direct influence on the community and grassroots organizations.67
The persecution of priests and laity continued: between 1977 to 1981 eleven priests were assassinated and at least sixty priests were exiled, some forcefully. What was once considered the assassination or even the mistreatment of a priest as an anomaly, was now a systematic, deliberate strategy perpetrated by the military and wealthy elite.68
The 1980 assassinations and attempts of religious clergy were particularly impactful and tragic. In January, 1980, two Mexican nuns were abducted and taken to the National Guard barracks. They were released several hours later, only after Archbishop Romero had intervened and demanded their release. In June, a Salvadoran nun was severely beaten with a machete, receiving blows and cuts to her face and neck.69 Then, in March, 1980, the unthinkable and tragic assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero while saying Mass sent the entire country into total disarray. Archbishop Romero had deepened his connection with the Salvadoran people, especially the marginalized masses afflicted with poverty and social injustices. His sympathizers clung to his every word; his Sunday sermons broadcasted on YSAX were rarely missed since everyone was tuned in. At the same time, he symbolized “the internal enemy” by the powerful Salvadoran military regime and wealthy elite.70
When four American “churchwomen” were reportedly raped and murdered on December 2, 1980, the international community expressed horror and disbelief that this could possibly happen to the women who were in the country to fulfill their missionary duties. The case was investigated because family members of the women insisted, and although the government tried to cover-up the crime, the findings revealed that the military was involved in the planning and execution of the murders. The Commission on the Truth report concluded Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clark were returning from Nicaragua to return to Chalatenango, and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner Jean Donavan, staying in La Libertad, went to the airport to pick them up. After the four drove away from the airport, they were stopped by Sergeant Colindres Alemán and four National Guard members. They forced the women to an isolated area, where they were raped and shot execution-style. The next day they were buried in shallow graves in a nearby municipality and their vehicle was torched. A day later, the U.S. ambassador discovered the graves and ordered their bodies exhumed and taken to San Salvador.71 Needless to say, the religious community was particularly saddened but angered over the murders of the four women. But the U.S. government was not sympathetic according to Raymond Bonner, who quoted Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick upon learning of the women’s heinous murders: “They weren’t just nuns. They were political activists on behalf of the Frente.”72
Please see the iMAGE gALLERY for background information on each of the four women.
The eventual convictions of the perpetrators and the international attention on El Salvador’s human rights violations did not deter the military from committing more assaults against the religious clergy. A case in point was the execution style murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by the Atlactl battalion in 1989.73 One of the priests, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, had been an advocate for social justice; his voice particularly significant since the assassination of Archbishop Romero in 1980.74
The Catholic Church’s transformation during the critical period of the revolution throughout El Salvador impacted the lives of the entire populace. Faced with the stark inequalities wrought by abject poverty and opulent wealth, the Church fittingly decided to work alongside the people who most needed their help. Liberation Theology and its core message of advocating for change for the good of the parish and its parishioners, was subject to a wide array of opinions. Although the message of justifiable use of violence was not explicit in Liberation Theology, it was nevertheless part of the messaging inherent in the fight for liberation. Author Gustavo Gutiérrez discusses the Liberationist’s responsibility to support the revolutionary efforts of Christians “in spirit at least if not in action.”75 His book, A Theology of Liberation, published in 1971, introduced diverse and controversial topics that at the very least, highlighted the challenge of the Church’s renewed identity. For the revolutionaries seeking to fight in the frontlines, the call to action was a call to an armed insurrection.76
‘The Other Matanzas’ – Massacres in the Countryside and More Human Rights Violations
The United Nations report: From Hope to Madness: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (2001) detailed some of the egregious assaults on the non-combatant civilians that highlighted the patterns of human rights violations which the Salvadoran military regime was deemed largely responsible. But it should be pointed out that without the immense and consistent (or persistent) support by the United States government, the Salvadoran military would not have had the means by which to commit the military actions on such a massive and destructive scale.
El Salvador was perceived by President Reagan as being critical to the security interests of the United States. In his first year as president (1981-82) he allotted $82 million to El Salvador, almost five times what the country had received from the United States in a thirty-year period (1946-1979). From 1980 to 1982, the Salvadoran government received $354 million, and between 1984-85, another $312 million. President Reagan understood somewhat the inhumane reign of terror that the military regime inflicted upon its non-combatant civilians, and although the Salvadoran government promised to halt human rights violations, he insisted on demonstrable proof in order to certify the allocation of additional aid. In 1982, Salvadoran President Magaña’s assurances on land reform progress satisfied President Reagan, however after the six-month certification was signed and the aid was distributed, the Salvadoran government continued committing the violations. After the fourth time that the certification was issued to the Salvadoran government, and then, again finding the claims of progress to be false, it became clear to the United States that the certification process was a complete farce. However, President Reagan insisted that the United States continue its military support to El Salvador. In a joint session of Congress in 1983, President Reagan praised the Salvadoran government for “making every effort to guarantee democracy, free labor unions, freedom of religion, and a free press…”77
During the first six months after the inauguration of President Reagan, 7,152 Salvadorans were killed, over half were unarmed peasants, some of them taken from their homes and killed.78
In all, approximately, 75,000 Salvadorans lost their lives; 85 percent of the killings were committed by the Salvadoran government forces. As many as a million people were displaced throughout the 12-year war. President Reagan allocated billions of dollars in helping the Salvadoran government fight the guerrilla forces.79 The U.S. government provided El Salvador with the very best, world-class military equipment and training, but to the great dismay of many, the resources were used for the worst reasons. A case in point is the massacre in El Mozote, a rural community in the Morazón Department, where up to a thousand non-combatant civilians, entire families, women and children included, were murdered between December 11-13, 1981.80
Despite the aid, the Salvadoran government could not declare a clear victory, greatly frustrating the Reagan administration.81The Salvadoran armed forces increased from 10,000 to 1979 to 24,000 in 1982 to 56,000 in 1987. And although the FMLN insurgency had the capability of defeating the Salvadoran military, the United States’ intervening arm prohibited this possibility through its enormous support that enabled El Salvador to sustain a war indefinitely.
The Tragedy of the Honduran Partnership with the United States
The chart below, “Massacres During the Salvador Civil War,” includes the information on assaults perpetrated against non-combatant civilians by both the Salvadoran and the Honduran military forces.82 But some in this list were not included. Specifically, the “River Massacres” detail how civilians caught in the crossfires of the Salvadoran military forces attempted to flee to the Honduran border, and upon crossing the river that delineates the boundary, were attacked by Honduran troops. The Honduran government played a supportive role in the Salvadoran Civil War because of the aid received from the United States. Raymond Bonner writes about top secret information shared with the National Security Council on 1983, which revealed CIA operatives in Honduras that included patrols into El Salvador for the purpose of destroying guerrilla bases.83 The Reagan administration supported the Honduran military in 1983 with $31.3 million dollars along with generous amount of military hardware: “helicopters, counterinsurgency planes, mortars, howitzers, communications equipment, and patrol boats.”84 Bonner describes the United States’ intervening role in Honduras as the case of transforming a “banana republic” dominated by the United Fruit Company into a military base developed by the United States and ruled by Ambassador Negroponte and the Honduran Minister of Defense, General Gustavo Alvarez.”85 Mercenaries were bankrolled to perform military services such as piloting planes to ferry soldiers to their posts. Clandestine jails with torture chambers were set up in Honduras to “give Honduras the ugly face of El Salvador.”
The revolutionaries who felt any hesitancy in joining an armed insurrection became angry and embittered over the atrocities executed by the Salvadoran government forces. If ever there was a reason to fight, to pick up a weapon it was then, and the more the killings, massacres, disappearances, and assassinations unleashed by the repressive regime, the greater the likelihood that women would become compelled to participate in the revolution.
Massacres During the Salvadoran Civil War
March 1981 (Note: investigation incomplete)
El Junquillo, Morazán
At least 55 mostly women and children, few men – killed execution style
Military operation consisting of Cacaopera civil defense and soldiers attacked the inhabitants on night of March 11th, killing each in execution style, raping some of the females, even the little girls. Then, they burned their homes and stole their food. They had full knowledge that the guerrillas were not present in the area.
El Mozote, Morazán; and five surrounding villages/towns
In El Mozote 200 killed execution style; investigations led authorities to conclude that in all around 1,000 civilians were assassinated.
Atlacatl Battalion entered El Mozote on Dec. 11th. Men were tortured and executed, then, the women, then children. In the next two days, the military continued killing civilians in nearby areas: La Joya, La Ranchería, Los Toriles, Jocote Amarillo, Cerro Pando.
River Massacres May 1980
Chalatenango on Sumpul River border
About 250 Honduran soldiers stood guard on their side of Sumpul River; when hundreds civilians attempted to flee across the river to Honduras, Salvadoran soldiers shot and killed 600 civilians; Honduran soldiers, collaborating with Salvadoran government pushed the civilians back to El Salvador.
Department of Cabañas bordering Lempa River with Honduras.
20-30 killed; 189 reported missing
4,500-5,000 campesinos forced to flee their homes and cross the Lempa River to Honduras for safety. Air assaults by U.S. helicopter gunships targeted the civilians during their flight.
Same area as above.
147 killed, including 44 children.
Civilians attempting to cross the river to safety.
Same area as above – Department of Cabañas bordering Lempa River with Hondurans.
50-100 civilians killed.
Another counter-insurgency operation by the Salvadoran military kept 1,000 civilians under attack for 13 days.
Eastern Chalatenango, Sumpul River
Belloso Battalion unit of Salvadoran military fired at civilians crossing the Sumpul River as they fled toward Honduras for safety.
El Calabozo, San Vicente, alongside the Amatitán River
Over 200 men, women and children
In a military operation meant to hunt down guerrilla members, some 6,000 Salvadoran troops swept through an area inhabited by civilians. The families, fleeing from the military, tried to hide in El Calabozo but were discovered by the Atlacatl Battalion and taken prisoners. They were assassinated.
Around the Countryside May 1982
Throughout Chalatenango Department
Hundreds of civilians
In military operation using scorched-earth tactic, soldiers kill habitants and burn their homes and destroy their crops.
Nueva Trinidad and Chalatenango
150 civilians killed
Government forces in land and air military operations sought to regain control of populated areas where the guerrilla was stationed.
300-400 civilians killed
Military operation in a campaign for “pacification” purposes.
Las Hojas – Department of Sonsonate
16 non-combatant civilians killed execution style
Salvadoran military unit, Jaguar Battalion and a civil defense unit sought members of Las Hojas cooperative of the National Indigenous Association, who were beaten, bound, executed.
Throughout the Country; Guazapa received the most intense attacks.
Various deaths due to bombardments, mostly indiscriminate attacks on towns where guerrillas presumably were hiding.
Consistent, regular bombardments on civilians, including air attacks by U.S. A-37 jets, Huey helicopters, Cessna spotter planes.
Cerron Grande, Chalatenango
68 members of the Christian Base Community, including 27 children.
In a 3-day operation, Atlacatl Battalion and other military units used land and air power to attack and kill civilians, where presumably guerrillas were hiding.
*Not enough data to provide an approximation.
Women Join the Guerrilla Forces
One can argue that the majority of women living in the embattled zones throughout the country were part of the twelve year civil war. The revolution was the bonding agent, however, the extent to which women participated, and under what circumstances were decisions made by the individual woman.86 The underage children had less leverage in the decision-making, especially if their entire family joined. As described by Vásquez, Ibañez, and Murguialdy (2020) and Kampwirth (2002), the women who joined the guerrillas were organized into five categories: 1) Women originating from urban sites and under age twenty; 2) originating from rural sites and under age twenty; 3) originating from urban sites and had at least one child and was over the age of twenty; 4) originating from rural sites and had at least one child and was over the age of twenty; and 5) women that collaborated with the guerrilla and lived in the FMLN-controlled zones.
Kampwirth describes the former guerrilla women that she interviewed as having had substantial contact or had participated in relevant organizations which she labels as “pre-existing organizations.” Their participation in these organizations included key moments in which the women became convinced that joining an armed insurrection was the right choice. If there’s a pattern in this decision-making process it’s that each decision was complex and personal. Kampwirth’s research reveals that young women made very difficult choices, and many opted to put aside their ambitious goals to fulfill what they regarded as their “calling.” But at the same time, in taking on tasks that they never imagined before, some of the women were able to find pathways toward new futures. For instance, among the new opportunities that allowed women to learn were grassroots organizing, how to advocate for human rights nationally and internationally, leadership skills, and many others. Some women became feminists and proudly lent their voice to women’s rights and calling an end to the myriad of injustices long perpetrated by a patriarchal system and judicial practices that deterred the advancement of women.
The table below, FMLN 1980, lists the guerrilla organizations, and the approximate year that each one was formalized; the organization(s) that were closely aligned with the guerrilla that served as its armed body; and the approximate numbers of women in each organization. The data also include some information about the roles that the women held. All information and data is based on approximations for lack of a systematized collection process.
1992 – 1993 United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) Data: 30 – 40 percent were female **
Guerrilla (Year Founded)
Major Organiz. connected w/ Guerrilla
Numbers of female members*
FPL – Fuerzas Populares de Liberación, 1970
BPR – Bloque Popular Revolucionario; (1975) FTC – Federación de Trabajadores del Campo
696 (Had most political cadres.)
PRS -Partido de la Revolución Salvadoreña (Armed Forces: Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo – ERP, 1972)
LP-28 – Ligas Populares Febrero 28
RN – Resistencia Nacional (Armed Forces: Fuerzas Armadas de Resistencia Nacional -FARN, 1975)
FAPU (1974) – Frente de Acción Popular Unificada
1,549 (Had the highest number of women in the ranks.)
PRTC – Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos, 1976
MLP – Movimiento de Liberación Popular
1,056 (Had the lowest numberof women in the ranks.)
PCS – Partido Comunista Salvadoreño (Armed Forces: Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación – FAL, 1979)
UDN – Union Democrática Nacionalista
*The numbers changed during the course of the war.
** Note: this is not a comprehensive list.
Total number of FMLN members in 1984, 10,000; in 1994: 15,000;
Grand Total number of female members: 4,402
Ages: 90 percent between ages 14 and 40
Demobilization data: 8,552 total processed: 2,485 females (29.1 percent)
The Lacuna in the Chronicles of the Revolution
The alliances between the urban sector (the New Left) and the peasant movements in rural regional areas of Chalatenango, San Vicente, and Morazán formed the extraordinary strength of the insurgency, and if it constituted the “backbone” of the movement as posited by Chávez,then the women’s roles were at the heart and soul of the revolution.87Several sources have documented that the number of women in the guerrilla was at 30 percent of the total members. However, the exact numbers of women that participated as combatants compared to non-combatant brigadistas, or members of the rearguard, working in various combatant and non-combatant roles is next to impossible to discern.
Women’s roles in the guerrilla evolved from a “liberation” ideology rather than a “revolutionary” structure.88 Front and center of the much touted “liberating vision” was the goal of creating the alternative society that constituted the proposed Revolutionary Democratic Government (GDR, Gobierno democrático revolucionario). But liberation was a national concept inclusive of the entire family: women, men, children. The consensus amongst the populace was that the struggle for liberation included the eradication of hunger and illiteracy, the development of basic economic structures such as decent housing, access to clean or potable water, and the establishment of democratically run government. The grassroots organizations that civilians had developed and maintained for decades were part of the organizing efforts and practices of the communities in the control zones of the FMLN. In the task of “normalizing civic life,” women were central to the administering of these social and economic needs as stated in the description provided by María Caminos:
“There are literacy campaigns and clothes-making. There are councils of elders who know all about popular and traditional medicines and who are teaching university-education doctors how to cure certain illnesses. This is one example of how the revolution recovers the values of its people. A ‘glass of milk’ campaign intends to give every child under seven one glass of milk per day – something that has never been done in El Salvador.”89
Guazapa: The Stronghold
Constant bombardments from A-37 planes and Huey helicopters that enveloped the small town of Guazapa rendered the lives of the inhabitants in an absolute survival mode. Guazapa, in the department of El Salvador, just twenty miles north of the capital, was targeted by the Salvadoran military between 1983 to 1985 because it was considered a guerrilla-controlled zone. Journalist Raymond Bonner recalls that in the spring of 1983, the elite U.S. trained Atlacatl batallion terrorized the Guazapa Volcano area, killing residents and destroying everything in its path. The remains of people buried in shallow graves revealed the atrocities committed by the troops. Men, women and children had been executed with guns and machetes. On the bare adobe walls were graffiti scribblings by the troops, congratulating themselves for their anniversary work.90
As in other guerrilla-controlled zones, Guazapa inhabitants organized their communities in the most practical and efficient manner. Chalatenango followed a structured organizational plan per the encouragement by the FPL guerrilla commanders, facilitating the development of a Local Popular Power (PPL) whereby residents created their own local government. In San Vicente, Cuscatlán, and Usulután, the PRTC organization encouraged a well-structured local revolutionary government that included a ‘self-defense’ section that helped the residents employ emergency security measures.91 Guazapa men and women campesinos formed collectives and cooperatives that led to greater assurances that everyone had the basic essentials, at least as much as possible.92
The cattle cooperative provided milk for the vulnerable members of the community. The agricultural cooperative addressed food insecurity. Civil disputes were managed by an elected commission. Literacy classes were organized and children attended school. Medical care became available, and, alcohol and illegal drugs were banned.93 Women created novel inroads in their involvement. In 1981, an all-female battalion was organized in Guazapa. There were support roles such as doctors, medics, nurses, cooks, radio operators, and farmers, but women were also combatants. Women assumed tasks and leadership roles that had never been available to them. It was ‘liberating’ to a certain extent, compared to stifling experiences in their previous life. However, their struggle for equality within the context of a deeply-entrenched, traditional patriarchal society was ironically, a steep, uphill battle.
Regardless of how much the women in the guerrilla tried to convince the commanders that gender equality should be upheld and administered, their pleas were in vain. The guerrilla organizations were primarily concerned with the revolution agenda, and women were encouraged to participate because they were needed to fill in the numbers.
Women in the Rural Areas: To Join or Not to Join
The twenty-two Salvadoran women interviewed by author Ilja Luciak shared their personal stories that reflect profound sadness and even tragic circumstances by which they were compelled to weigh the decision on whether to join the guerrilla.94 The table below: “Women’s Stories on Joining the Guerrillas” lists the women and a brief excerpts or descriptions of their (selected) stories. Many women were beyond their combatant years, having had children who served in the guerrilla and killed in combat. They chose to participate in the rearguard, as cooks, for examples. Some women felt they had no choice because they were driven by the threat of being killed by the government forces. Others like Rosa, Mirta, and Vasilia were young enough to participate in the frontlines as combatants, medics, or radio operators. Whatever their circumstances in sorting out their decisions, the women shared a life of great suffering and the inescapable sentiment that their lives would never be the same again.
Women’s Stories on Joining the Guerrillas in the Rural Areas -1970s-1980s (Luciak, 2001)
San José Las Flores, Chalatenango (p.70)
Reasons for Joining
Having lost her husband and young son while they were fleeing from their home as government military soldiers attacked them, and after four brothers and four nephews were killed in the war, Doña Avelina joined the guerrilla as a cook to help out the troops.
Doña Antonia joined the guerrilla because of the repression – and she had no land. Many women in the guerilla believed that after the war they would be granted the right to own land.
Doña Amparo joined because she wanted change: “The people didn’t have jobs, and organized we could effect change.”
(The war gave the women few choices.) “We had no other alternative than this one.”
“I joined out of fear that the armed forces were in the area persecuting people. Many people died. This made one afraid.”
Doña Rosa joined the guerrilla movement at the age of seven. She felt it was her obligation: “Since my father joined, so did I. If my father had been part of ORDEN (a right-wing paramilitary organization}, I also would have been part of it. “
Doña Mirta joined “to follow my brothers. There were three of them, and all died in the war.”
Doña Raquel joined, she “was part of a massive incorporation. They said it would be only for three months but it became more.” (Sometimes entire villages were integrated into the guerrilla.)
“Well, they told us that if we didn’t go voluntarily, they would take us along by force. So I joined voluntarily.”
“We organized because the FMLN told us to, We didn’t know why. They told us that those who did not join – who knows what would become of them? At best, they would be killed by one group or the other.”
Doña Reyna worked as a cook in the guerrilla. She was very ill and by joining the guerrilla she was able to get healthcare. “I was only bones. I joined, and I cured myself.”
Meanguera, Morazán (p.71)
“The party [FMLN] told us that they were joining forces to improve the situation and that if we won, there would be a government with the participation of all, and there would be equality.”
Doña Purificación wanted to “help and support the muchachos in their just war.
Doña Dora wanted to help the guerrillas. She cooked and fed the FMLN fighters starting in 1979 and continued to serve throughout the war.
Doña Bartola joined to escape the army’s repression, particularly “the massacres and bombardments that happened in the community.”
“The army killed my family, and they threw bombs. One of them fell on my house, and I was left with nothing. They burned everything.”
Doña Angela joined because she was afraid and, “because they forced us.”
San Esteban Catarina, San Vicente (p.72)
“We were recruited by force. And yes, my husband stayed with the FMLN and he was killed. “
Doña Felicita joined “because there was so much suffering and because they killed my two brothers in cold blood – they hanged them.”
Doña Romilia joined “because they were fighting for us – the poor – and to escape the poverty, but things got worse.”
(cooked for the guerilla troops for 13 years) – “ I loved my people, and this is the only reason for me. There was no clothing nor money or anything, only love for my people.”
Doña Vasilia was a combatant in the guerrilla forces. She joined in 1977 at the age of 12, “because I wanted to fight and because of my mother who had been killed by the army.”
Young Women in the Urban Sites Join the Guerrilla
Karen Kampwirth’s research on former female guerrilla members reveal a particular pattern of lived experiences that she believes predisposed them to become involved in the armed struggle.95 Research conducted around 1996 of thirty-five Salvadoran women tell their personal stories; many women’s names are pseudonyms. The table below, “Women’s Stories on Joining the Guerrillas,” lists four women whose lives illustrate the specific background experiences in Kampwirth’s research. Sonia Aguinada was raised by her grandmother who was politically involved, and would take little Sonia with her to political events.96 In her late teens, Sonia became actively involved in organizations such as the Young Communists and eventually, joined the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) guerrilla organization. Bianca was also in her late teens when she joined the guerrilla underground. As a high school student, she had been a member of the Revolutionary Brigade. Ana Guadalupe Martínez became politicized while participating in the student movement at her university. She was a medical student for four years and then, made the decision to join the guerrilla organization for humanitarian reasons. She was one of the few women in the guerrilla to achieve rank, and in post-war politics was elected to the Legislative Assembly. Finally, Gloria was deeply affected by the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. She was a university student when she decided to join the guerrilla organization.
Initially, a few young women joined the guerrilla. But the numbers steadily increased as the struggle escalated and women began to find their niche in the guerrilla organization. As previously mentioned, by the end of the war, a third of the total number of guerrilla members were women.
Women’s Stories on Joining the Guerrilla – (Kampwirth, 2002: pp. 59-81)
Soñia attributes active involvement in the guerrilla to her grandmother’s influence. Her grandmother “raised her” from the time she was an infant since her mother was sixteen when she was born and her father passed away before her birth. As a little girl she participated in demonstrations with her grandmother who was a founding member of the Communist Party’s Women’s Fraternity (Fraternidad de Mujeres). Her grandmother, who read the daily newspapers, knew what was happening in the country’s politics, and related to Soñia her experiences and knowledge about the 1932 Matanza, Farabundo Martí and Communist Party founder, Miguel Marmol. One of her uncles, a union activist, was killed in 1968; she continued to demonstrate alongside her grandmother in support of the teacher’s union, and she joined the Young Communist’s Organization (Juventud Comunista) at the age of thirteen. Soñia joined the ERP guerrilla organization when she was seventeen years old. This was a momentous decision that caused a rift between her and her family. The 1972 electoral fraud that cost (candidate) Duarte the presidency greatly affected her decision to join the guerrilla.
At nineteen year old, Bianca was active in the Revolutionary Brigade of High School Students (Brigada Revolucionaria de Estudiantes de Secundaria), and when her parents found out, they were extremely concerned. At the time, death squads were terrorizing communities, instilling fear in families. Bianca’s parents pressured Bianca to leave the organization, but instead, Bianca left home and joined an urban guerrilla cell, and engaging in dangerous activities such as “distributing literature and making bombs.” She eventually became a combatant. (Kampwirth p. 62)
Ana Guadalupe Martínez
Ana was born in an agricultural community on her grandparent’s farm. She was the oldest daughter of four children; her father was a retired military officer. The family moved to the city of Santa Ana so that the children could attend high school and college. While in high school, Ana learned about the teacher’s strike because one of her teachers was part of it. Going on strike to protest inequality or unfairness was the first lesson that Ana learned on the meaning of engagement in the democratic process. Although her parents discouraged her to participate in the teachers’ strike, her aunt’s involvement in the Teacher’s Union exemplified the kind of engagement that Ana wanted to follow. In1969, she began her studies in medicine at the University of El Salvador. She participated in various demonstrations as part of the university student movement, and then, began to participate in the ERP guerrilla organization activities. After four years of medical school, Ana decided to pursue a path of humanitarianism, to help others like her mother had encourage her to do so. She went underground and became dedicated to the revolutionary struggle in the ERP. Fast forward several years and Martínez eventually achieved the rank of second in command in the guerrilla, and then, in the post-war era she was elected to the Legislative Assembly.
Gloria was eleven years old when Archbishop Romero was assassinated in 1980. His murder profoundly affected her and her family. It was tragedy that she could not forget and years later, as a college student, Gloria went underground and became an active ERP guerrilla member in late 1980s.
‘La Montaña’ Social and Political Experiment
Life in the guerrilla encampments was extreme and dangerous. Besides the violent assaults emanating from the state military, the constant maneuvering through the mountainous terrain presented many environmental hazards. A large percentage of the organizations included young men and women. Kampwirth’s research suggests that at least one fourth of the women were students at the time they joined, and, more likely, women were on the average more educated than the men.97 Although the diversity amongst the groups was staggering, the revolutionary agenda required the same standards of performance for everyone. Women took advantage of the opportunities afforded to them to engage in novel activities where they could excel. Educated women had a greater advantage over those that had not attended school or were poorly educated. Thus, the women who emerged in the ranks were generally better educated. The guerrilla commanding units made an effort to promote the message of “equality” between men and women, however, in reality, women experienced the kind of discrimination and machista attitudes that was prevalent in Salvadoran society.
Many reports from the related research point to the discrimination that women experienced, although the complaints on gender-based mistreatment were non-existent.98 The interview data show how some women rejected the fact that discriminatory practices were based on gender. Even ranking females in the guerrilla dismissed women’s gender-based concerns. Women who persisted in filing complaints were reprimanded, sometimes re-assigned elsewhere. Clearly, the women had not reached a level of consciousness that allowed them to analyze how they were being discriminated against based on their gender.
Kampwirth relates the story of how women’s organizations inside the guerrilla promoted female empowerment, which produced unexpected positive results for the women but created tensions amongst the male comrades. The story was told by one of Kampwirth’s interviewees, Yamilet.99 One of the male commanders suggested that women form their own organizations as a way to reduce the stress levels caused by strained relationships between men and women. Eventually, the women learned to use their collective strength to acquire certain products specifically for them such as sanitary napkins and woman’s underwear. They gradually gained self-confidence and in one case, the women were so bold as to call out one of the commanding officers that constantly used his privilege to “use” women for his pleasure. The commander that had insisted that the women form gender-based organizations claimed that the women were using the organizations against “them” and ordered the dismantling of the groups. But, women used their experiences in “la montaña” to understand about sexual harassment and other ways that discriminate against them, and how they could remedy their situation. But their gender-based agenda was sidelined as the guerrilla organizations became more militarized and vertically hierarchical, especially right before the final offensive in 1989. The common sentiment was that the situation would change after the revolution, and the women would be able to stay the course and pursue their feminist agenda. Nevertheless, the revolution was the portal of opportunity, transforming the lives of women as they advanced novel ideas, creating a political and social space for feminist thought and action.
The Road Toward Feminism – One Step at a Time
The war raged for eleven years until the Peace Accords, signed on January 16, 1992, marked an ending to the violent confrontations, although not the killings. But the struggle continued for women who believed that the liberation process was far from over. The women that took initial steps to organize themselves around issues and concerns sought to accomplish goals that were relevant to all of Salvadoran society, not specifically addressing gender issues. For example, CO-MADRES, an organization founded by women who had lost a relative, presumably a victim of the repression, and most likely killed, disappeared, or incarcerated by the State. This organization, founded in 1977, continued to be active beyond the war. Many other groups were founded for particular purposes and functions, and by mapping out the trajectories of these within a time frame, we can draw certain conclusions about how feminist organizations evolved, despite the obstacles and hurdles that impeded their progress.
The table below is based on the research archives that Lynn Stephen and others have analyzed, from the First Wave of Salvadoran women’s movement (1957-early 1970s) to the Second Wave (1975-1992).100 During the First Wave, the Women’s Fraternity was active from 1957 to 1969. The organization boasted a membership of 1,500 women, mostly market vendors, professionals, teachers, and nurses. The women organizations active in the 1960s to early 70s focused on issues that were of interest to labor and professional sectors.
Stephen’s list of organizations is divided into three phases: First Phase, (1975-1985); Second Phase (1985-1989); and Third Phase (1990-1992). The First Phase organizations continued in the similar vein as those in the First Wave, except that in the mid-1980s, the focus turned toward topics related to women survivors of the war such as economics, human rights, health, and literacy.
In the Second Phase, starting in 1985, the organizations featured two important characteristics. In the first instance, there’s an expansion in the scope of the organizational goals and objectives. CONAMUS (1986) delivered on the creation of clearinghouse, setting up a broadly based information center that includes a variety of women’s groups. Secondly, the emergence of an organization that exclusively addresses the interests and issues of indigenous women marked the beginning of a new approach to feminism. The women behind these organizations worked in conjunction with feminist groups from other countries in Latin America and Europe, and gradually, a confluence of ideas and thoughts evolved and were incorporated into the organizations’ missions and goals. A series of conferences were instrumental in bringing women together to share ideas and advance creative ways for achieving their goals. For example, in 1985, the United Nation’s Women’s Conference was held in Nairobi; three Latin American and Caribbean Feminists ENCUENTROS were held – in Bogotá, Colombia (1981); in Lima, Peru (1983); and Bertioga, Brazil (1985).101 Women like Norma Guirola de Herrera, a founder of IMU (Institute for Research, Training, and Development of Women) were well-versed on feminism, and their work contributed to the foundation of a burgeoning feminist movement. Norma Guirola was assassinated in 1989; her family and supporters, feeling indignant over the killing, were even more determined to carry out her work. In 1991, they founded CEMUJER (Centro de Estudios de la Mujer “Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera” ) to offer training and grassroots organizing assistance to women’s groups.
Finally, the emergence of CONAMUS (Coordinadora Nacional de Mujeres Salvadoreñas) played an important role in the opening of the first women’s shelter in the country in 1989, which was perceived as a formidable accomplishment that addressed the social and legal aspects of gender-based violence.
The Third Phase (1990-1992) in Lynn Stephen’s research was a critical period of development, characterized by the influence from the strong feminist waves and movements throughout the United States, Europe, and even in Latin America. As more women became involved, their voices and self-confidence gained strength. Women were empowered and demanded change, but they also attracted rebuke from a broad range of critics. Salvadoran social attitudes toward women hardly changed after 1989, and the most vocal anti-feminist critics came from the dominant conservative and traditional sectors of a patriarchal and homophobic society. Women leaders that became feminists received the brunt of the backlash, but were undeterred in their determination to institute changes. The language and messaging were focused on the tenets of feminism. The CEF (Centro de Estudios Feministas – Center for Feminist Studies) proudly focused on “feminist” issues and themes; MAM (Movimiento de Mujeres “Mélida Anaya Montes” – Mélida Anaya Montes Women’s Movement) named after the leader of the powerful teacher’s union in the late 60s and 70s and later a ranking member of the FPL guerrilla organization, and adopted the term, “feminist autonomy”; and in 1992, the Colectivo Lésbico Feminista Salvadoreña de la Media Luna – Half-Moon Salvadoran Lesbian Feminist Collective was organized as the first self-proclaimed lesbian organization in the country.
SECOND WAVE PHASES—(Stephen, L.1997, pp. 67-84)
FIRST PHASE 1975 -1985
CO-MADRES – 1977Comité de Madres de Reos y Desaparecidos Politicos de El Salvador Monseñor Romero
Grassroots organization, founded in 1977 in response to extreme levels of repression and in defense of human rights. CO-MADRES was one of two organizations that remained active throughout the war and beyond.
AMES – 1979 Asociación de Mujeres de El Salvador
Its work was directed toward market vendors, maids, and urban slum dwellers. Emerged from FPL; was greatly affected by deaths of Anaya Montes and Carpio.
CUMS – 1980sComité Unitario de Mujeres
Founded by Salvadoran women exiled in Costa Rica.
ASMUSA – 1983Salvadoran Women’s Association
Organizations that focused on issues related to women: economics, survival in the war, human rights, health and nutrition, literacy, and housing. ORMUSA remained active after the other two were dismantled in the 1990s.
FMS – 1984Federación de Mujeres
ORMUSA – 1985Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas
SECOND PHASE 1985 – 1989
CONAMUS – 1986Coordinadora Nacional de Mujeres Salvadoreñas
Originally set up as a clearinghouse for other organizations, it opened up the country’s first women’s shelter in 1989.
IMU – 1986Institute for Research, Training, and Development of Women – Instituto para la Investigación, Capacitación, y Desarrollo de la Mujer
IMU facilitated the development of grassroots organization in the areas of communications, legal rights, and education. Its founder was Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera, a well-known pioneer on feminism, assassinated in 1989.
AMIS – 1986Association of Salvadoran Indigenous Women – Asociación de Mujeres Indigenas Salvadoreñas
First organization of its kind to address the concerns and issues of indigenous women in El Salvador.
COM – 1989Coordinación de Organismos de Mujeres
First national coordinating organization of its kind that included five women’s organizations.
THIRD PHASE 1990 – 1992
CEF – 1990Centro de Estudios Feministas – Center for Feminist Studies
CEF was focused on the dissemination of feminist materials.
DIGNAS – 1990Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida – Women for Dignity and Life
The organization was founded by members of the National Resistance (Resistencia Nacional – RN) as part of a strategy to broaden their support for women and to be able to receive international funding. RN was one of the five political parties/guerrilla organizations (FARN) that constituted FMLN and had the highest number of women in the ranks. In 1992, DIGNAS broke away from their affiliation with the RN and became an autonomous organization.
CEMUJER – 1991Center for Women’s Studies – Centro de Estudios de la Mujer “Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera”
Founded with a feminist agenda that provided technical assistance to women in legal aid and on training in grassroots organizing.
IMC – 1991Iniciativa de Mujeres Cristianas – Christian Women’s Initiative
Theme-based feminist agenda.
MUES – 1991Mujeres Universitarias de El Salvador – Salvadoran University Women
Theme-based feminist agenda.
CMPDI -1991Concertación de Mujeres por la Paz, la Dignidad, y la Igualdad – Women’s Coalition for Peace, Dignity, and Equality
Originally formed in association with the RN, the CMPDI became an organization that welcomed groups seeking an identity independent of their political party affiliation. It focused on coalition-building efforts. It served as an umbrella for 24 organizations.
MAM – 1992Movimiento de Mujeres “Mélida Anaya Montes” – Mélida Anaya Montes Women’s Movement
The founders (Lorena Peña and others) maintain that MAM is an autonomous organization even though Mélida Anaya Montes was a ranking member in the FPL guerrilla organization. They adopted the term, “feminist autonomy.”
CLFSML – 1992Colectivo Lésbico Feminista Salvadoreña de la Media Luna – Half-Moon Salvadoran Lesbian Feminist Collective
El Salvador’s first self-proclaimed lesbian organization.
Nosotras, las mujeres (We, the Women): Las Dignas Organization and the Salvadoran Feminism
Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida or Las Dignas was formally introduced at a summit, el Encuentro de Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida on July 14, 1990. It was at the end of the twelve-year civil war and one of the FMLN guerilla organization, Resistencia Nacional (RN), proposed the idea of a woman’s organization to bolster the guerrilla’s political party appeal, and even attract international funding. A group of former combatants including Morena Herrera, started their organizing efforts with the immense networks of the RN’s Concertación de Mujeres coalition that included 24 women organizations. These were organizations in departments controlled by the RN, mostly in rural and semi-rural areas of Cuscatlán, Cabañas, La Libertad, Santa Ana, and San Miguel.103 The initial charge was to unite the women, but remain well enough independent to initiate their own agenda. The women leaders, accustomed to combat in the front lines soon realized that to take on such a responsibility they would need to follow the “militant’s bible” and stay loyal to the principles of the ‘revolution,’ adhere to the rigors of discipline, concretize the information to carry out the mission in exact terms, practice the ultimate sacrifice, and fight to the death. But instead, they discovered that by applying the principles of feminism for which they ascribed, their lives would be utterly transformed. As feminists they learned to think critically, to analyze their experiences against a feminist theory in order to understand the inequality and hierarchical relationships between men and women. They realized how the political institutions subordinate women, and about the power relations that perpetuate inequality. By confronting their past political practices they created possibilities for the construction of a new reality, more “horizontal and democratic.”104
The following statement from Gloria Castañeda de Zamora exemplifies the incredible journey of discovery, for most of the women:
When I first heard the word feminism, it was like speaking about the devil. I didn’t know what it was about, but they had told me that it was bad…. Now we have been learning that there are different currents of feminism and that feminism is simply the revindication of women… It’s still very hard for us women to have the ability to speak openly about ourselves. It’s a process. There are still a lot of individual interest, political interests, party interests…. 105
The historical account of the first decade of LAS DIGNAS chronicles the difficulties in the process of uniting a very diverse group of women at a national level. One of the first challenges the group encountered was the decision to break away from the Resistencia Nacional, the guerrilla organization, and become an autonomous body. Without the organizational and financial support of the RN, LAS DIGNAS had to find a new identity and support base.106 Not all women wanted to join LAS DIGNAS unless they would receive something in return. The different sectors, urban and rural, each had their own unique situations and specific needs. It was an enormous challenge and almost impossible to conquer. But, the group persisted in working with the women; at every turn of events, LAS DIGNAS re-grouped and tried yet another approach. They realized that a “strategic” approach to addressing the issues and problems was not enough; the circumstances of women who were drowning in poverty and lacked sufficient literacy skills, for example, required a “practical” approach that allowed women to work and learn simultaneously. Eventually, LAS DIGNAS decided against the division of strategic vs. practical, and instead opted for the creation of a wide-ranging platform whereby women can organize and take on their own projects.
The Women’s Revolution (Continues)
The wide array of issues and problems related to extreme poverty and other social factors persisted after the war.107After the war, the poverty rates decreased slightly from 65 percent in 1992 to 59 percent in 1998; extreme poverty fell from 34 percent to 26 percent. Adult literacy and life expectancy rates remain the same or worse than before the war. During the same time period, rural farmers or campesinos experienced declining wages and the price for agricultural goods declined, worsening poverty levels. Between 1994 and 1995, the crime rate soared to 138 per 100,000, exceeding the rate at the height of the war – 55.3 per 100,000. No doubt these and many others served as obstacles in the work of LAS DIGNAS during their initial ten years, but in their own practical terms, the organization worked out a plan based on their specific criteria. Their vision was global, connecting with the international community of feminists, as well as local, building on grassroots organizing by key members of the communities. Their ideas and recommendations were (and still are) inclusive of all women, of all ages. The platform that they developed and disseminated as a result of the series of coalition-sponsored events and debates in the “Mujeres ’94,” which led up to the 1994 elections, included issues that overlapped with the United Nations Beijing Platform for Action of 1994-95.108
The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
The United Nations General Assembly adopted CEDAW in 1979 with specific guidelines that focus on action plans to end discrimination against women.109 It’s framework includes definitions of discrimination against women as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex.” Additionally, its major work includes the development of assessment protocols on various countries’ progress in the areas that constitute the Convention’s articles. The most recent periodic report submitted by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to El Salvador (“Concluding Observations on the Combined Eighth and Ninth Periodic Reports of El Salvador”) elaborates on the progress and achievements of the Salvadoran administration, as well as some of the most pressing areas of need. The document specifies the acceptability of the action plans that the government has committed to develop and implement, e.g., areas in institutional and legal framework, as well as access to justice. The report considers recommendations of major importance, such as the following: 1) the need to provide women who were victims of the armed conflict with reparation measures; 2) to improve the quality and speed by which to investigate and prosecute acts of harassment, discrimination, violence, and assassination of women human rights defenders, and offer remedies and reparation to the victims; 3) allocate sufficient resources to the implementation of policies and action plans to ensure a violence-free life for women; 4) to improve an action plan to prevent and combat trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls, particularly in gang-related situations; 5) to improve efforts to eradicate illiteracy, especially among women and girls in rural areas; and many others.
Salvadoran women who seek abortion care do so through clandestine circumstances, and are often exposed to unsafe procedures. Women are at great risk of suffering blotched abortion procedures, and if they seek emergency care, the hospital staff is required by law to report the women to the authorities. Women are prosecuted and imprisoned if found guilty of having an abortion or even a miscarriage if the judge is convinced that an “abortion” was committed. It is the absolute criminalization of abortion and is perceived to be extraordinarily unjust for Salvadoran women.110 Clearly, the Salvadoran authorities reject the charge that criminalizing abortion is discriminating against women, or if they acknowledge the injustice, then women are blatantly denied justice.
Feminists understand the politics of injustice. As long as the revolution exists,
the question remains: when will the women finally win the revolution?
(…we were women, women-mountains, the mountains with the memories of women).
In post conflict El Salvador, a new chapter of suffering and chaos ensued. Despite the Peace Accords of 1992, demobilization and reintegration efforts into civil society, the women that participated in the guerrillas were left behind: as a social group they received the least benefits in war reparation and compensation, and suffered deteriorating health consequences.112
Las Dignas recognized the need to address the mental health issues that burdened women who had experienced profound loss of a loved one, and psychological trauma. They developed a program of support groups, allowing women to begin the healing process by making “the pain visible, what the war had made invisible” (“hicimos visible el dolor invisible de la guerra”).113 At first, the participating women hesitated to even attempt to recall their painful lived experiences during the war. The process was gradual; the women created their own narratives to help them release the emotional pressure. The mountains where they had spent so much time and endured the torturous explosions of war evolved into a metaphorical symbol of “mother earth” protecting and nourishing their struggle: “las montañas nutrientes de la lucha, no fueron entes abstractos, fuimos mujeres, las mujeres montaña, las montañas con recuerdos de mujer.”114
The mental health program (programa de salud mental) achieved considerable success in its first few years. Not all of the participating women adopted the feminist ideals encrusted in Las Dignas’ philosophy but there transpired an overwhelming perception that the riveting women’s stories are essential to our understanding on how the revolution impacted women. Norma Vásquez, Cristina Ibáñez, and Clara Murguialdy (and Morena Herrera) organized the research project and published their work, titled Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y colaboradoras del FMLN. 115
The women’s stories included in the Mujeres-Montaña are organized by themes. In the following section are twelve stories (selected) from the publication to illustrate a sample of the collection. The stories are written in the original Spanish language. However, to facilitate the English language reader, an English translation is provided by the bilingualfrontera.com author.
Female Child Soldiers. Following the stories from Mujeres-Montaña are narratives of two women – “Griselda” and “Digna” collected from the research work of Alan Henríquez Chávez.116 These stories represent the harrowing experiences of young girls that entered the guerrillas as children.
Their life experiences are marred with the kind of unbearable suffering that any adult can possible endure, yet as children they had to face the consequences. The war took away a part of their life that can never be regained; if amongst the groups that were victims that bore the extreme consequences of war in scale and depth were women, then female child soldiers were doubly victimized. And yet, in the post conflict era, research reveals that the needs and rights of child soldiers were largely ignored.117
STORIES from Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y colaboradoras del FMLN
1. Gloria Castañeda, Resistencia Nacional – (RN)
No quedaba ningún chance de reflexionar, era la euforia, un contagio, un ir haciendo y hacienda acciones y no pensar, simplemente te dejas ir y vives ese instante con gran fuerza y te entregas a él sin medir consecuencias. Dejábamos a los hijos en cualquier lado, entrenábamos de noche, hacíamos cualquier cosa, no había limites ni condiciones en la entrega, queríamos hacer cuantas cosas se pudiera, no importaba qué ni cómo. La reflexión vino cuando ya estábamos bien zampadas y no había camino de regreso.
We got caught up in the euphoria, a contagion, to take immediate action without considering the consequences. We would leave our children with family or friends. We would train at night. There were no limits. We wanted to do everything we could. It didn’t matter how. When we realized what was happening, there was no point of return.
2. Margarita Villafranco, Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos – (PRTC)
A mi me reclutó una compañera muy buena y me entró con el discurso de que teníamos que sacar al imperialismo yanqui de El Salvador, me comenzó a generar conciencia antimperialista y clasista y me atrajo; también por mi conciencia religiosa yo era muy sensible al aspecto del sufrimiento humano.
My girlfriend who recruited me told me that we had to get rid of empiricist yanqui. I reflected upon my conscious against imperialism and inequality. And insofar as my religious consciousness I thought logically about the aspect of human suffering.
3. Silvia, orphaned at a very young age; enlisted in the guerrilla at age 18
Yo desde muy jovencita estaba en grupos de la iglesia y ahí estudiábamos, hacíamos muchos cursos de lo que llamábamos realidad del país y me acuerdo que Monseñor Romero nos explicaba cómo teníamos que vivir la Biblia en la vida real. Así aprendíamos, los pasajes de las Sagradas Escrituras los aplicábamos a la realidad y entonces era que entendíamos de política. Fue por medio de la Iglesia que decido meterme en la vida política y cuando me incorporo plenamente al partido, todas las reflexiones que habíamos hecho en ese grupo me ayudaban a entender lo que se decía. Era más bonito y la gente entendía más si le hablabas de la palabra de Dios y de cómo estábamos cumpliendo con la lucha sus mandatos.
When I was growing up, I participated in church sponsored youth groups. I had many classes where we discussed the reality in our country. I remember Monsenor Romero explaining to us that we had to live the Bible, in real life. That’s how we learned, by applying the sacred scriptures to reality and that’s how we understood politics. It was through the church that I decided to enter into politics. And when I became part of the political party everything we had discussed in that group helped me better understand the political discussions. It was beautiful the way people understood when we talked about the Word of God and how we were accomplishing the mandates.
4. Milagros enlisted at age 24 through her church
Había unos seminaristas en la parroquia que nos hablaban de las injusticias y los problemas que había en la sociedad, de los niños que no asimilaban en la escuela porque estaban mal alimentados….Nos decían que en América Latina estaban ocurriendo grandes cambios, hablaban del Che Guevara y de la revolución cubana, decían que en El Salvador se podría dar una situación igual porque había mucha injusticia y desempleo, porque no había respeto a las personas. Me invitaron a participar en seminarios con el enfoque de la Iglesia y después dijeron que en el país se iba a dar un cambio social, que era para construir una nueva sociedad y un nuevo hombre con un pensamiento diferente y me dijeron que era importante que yo participara en ese proceso.
There were some catechists in our parish that would talk to us about the injustices and problems in our society that children could participate in school because they were malnourished. They would tell us that Latin America was going through some big changes; about Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, that the same could occur in El Salvador because of so many injustices and unemployment and the lack of respect for the life every human being. I was invited to discuss the role of the church and then, I was told that there would be a social change in our country so we would be able to construct a new society, the New Man with a different perspective. And they told me it was important for me to participate.
5. Lorena, a medic, enlisted at age 27
Mi mama, como muchas mujeres de esa época pese a que eran muy tradicionales, se metía en cuestiones políticas. De ella fue que escuché que teníamos que estudiar y prepararnos, pero no para ganar dinero solamente sino para ayudar a la gente que no tenía nada. Los ricos siempre pueden comparar salud o lo que quieran, nos decia, pero los pobres son los que necesitan y no tienen cómo.
Even though my mother was very traditional like so many others during her era, she was nevertheless interested in politics. She told us that we had to study and prepare ourselves not only so we can maintain ourselves but so we can help the people that don’t have anything. The rich can buy healthcare or whatever they want, but the poor are the ones in need and they don’t have the means.
6. Alejandra, se incorporó a le edad de 14, y a los 21 años como combatante
Nos incorporamos porque mis papas se metieron en eso, como ellos se metieron también nosotros. Yo tenía 9 años. Mi mamá daba catequesis y decían que ella era guerrillera, que la iban a matar y entonces ya no vivíamos tranquilos porque ella estaba con ese miedo. Primero murió mi papa, después en un operativo mataron a mi mamá. Yo vine a San Salvador porque me mandaron a reunirme con mis hermanas y para que diera testimonio de lo que habían hecho en ese operativo, pero ese no era mi lugar. Al fin en el ’86 dije me volvía a la zona y me fui.
We got involved because of our parents, and just like them we got involved. I was nine years and and my mother taught catechism. They said she was a guerillera [revolutionary] and she was going to get killed. Then, we lived in fear just like my mother. First, my father died. Then, in a military operation they killed my mother. I came to San Salvador because I was told to reunite with my sisters and that I should give testimony about my role in that military operation. But that wasn’t my place. Finally, I left at the end of 1986; I returned to the zone.
7. Elvira, se incorporó en un frente guerrillero a los 18 años 1989
Lo que pasa es que la vida de ellas giraba alrededor de la guerrilla y la guerra y vivían una situación tremenda porque la gente no hallaba ni siquiera cómo mantener a sus hijos, entonces las muchachas, niñas de 10 o 12 años, en vez de estar aguantando hambre en su casa, o tal vez ya ni casa tenían, se iban a los campamentos donde por lo menos tenían la comida asegurada y los zapatos y su vestido y ahí estaban seguras aunque les tocara trabajar un poquito.
Some little girls as young a twelve years old joined the guerrilla refugee camps out of necessity. They came from very poor homes where a parent or both parents were gone. The lack of food was a dominant problem. At least in the refugee camps the young girls had food, a pair of shoes, and clothes, even if they had daily chores.
8. Rosario, joined the student movement in 1985 and eventually served as part of the guerrilla’s urban command.
Cuando me incorporé a la lucha ya había pasado por un proceso de cambios enmi manera de pensar y veía las diferencias entre los ricos y los pobres, entre los trabajadores y los que no trabajan; luego, la repelladita que me dieron en la iglesia me ayudó bastante. Me incorporé de manera consciente y creo que si no lo hubiera hecho no me lo hubiera perdonado en toda la vida.
Era distinto el caso de otras que se incorporaron porque sus papas os sus hermanos ya lo habían hecho porque vivían en el frente o en el refugio y ahí las reclutaron, quizás con 12 o 15 años. Ellas se comportaban distinto a quienes habíamos entrado por conciencia … nos dolía mucho cuando malgastaban las cosas que les mandábamos desde aquí, pero uno pensaba qué se les puede pedir a esas cipotas que en realidad su vida ha sido la guerra….
By the time Rosario had joined the struggle her way of thinking and perceiving had changed dramatically, which she acknowledges was due to the influence by the church. She understood inequality that existed between the poor and the wealthy. She alone experienced a level of consciousness that transformed totally and if she hadn’t she would not have forgiven herself. Rosario joined as a result of conscious-raising unlike the young girls who sought shelter in the refugee camps because their older siblings and/or parents had joined out of necessity.
9. Elizabeth enlisted at age 18 and spent 8 years in the camp, she never attended school but learned to read and write while in the guerrilla
¿Por qué me animé a participar? Bueno, ellos nos daban bastante charlas, nos decían que esto iba a cambiar, que ya no íbamos a estar sumergidos por los yanquis, a nosotros nos hacían ver eso y dijimos, ‘vamos a morir o a vivir mejor’, porque esa era la consigna, además nos decían que eso iba a durar un día o lo más una semana y que después podíamos regresar a seguir estudiando y que la educación iba a ser mejor, gratis. Bueno, nos presentaban un montón de oportunidades y yo me la creí, mi familia también.
Why did I decide to participate. Well, we had many discussions and they told us that we would not succumb to the yanquis; we would ask ourselves: are we going to die and live better? And, they would tell us that it [revolution] would last a day or a week and afterwards we could return and continue our studies. And our education would be better and free. Well, they presented at lot of opportunities and I believed them and so did my family.
10. Esther, age 27, began as a collaborator with the guerrilla when she found out her husband had deceived her.
A mi, lo que hacía que siguiera participando es que nos decían que ya no iba a existir el guaro (licor), que lo iban a tratar de erradicar un poco, porque en mi comunidad a cada paso se encontraban las ventas de guaro y no se podía vivir con los hombres bolos (borrachos). Yo por eso trabajé con muchas ganas, éramos cinco los que ellos pusieron de directivas, pero solo las dos mujeres nos mantuvimos.
For me the reason I continued to participate was because they told us that they would eradicate the guaro (liquor) because in my community you can find a liquor store in every block and no one can live with drunk men. That’s why I worked so hard.
11. Ana, collaborator in the rearguard front for 14 years; six of her children died during the war.
Usted sabe que uno por los hijos da la vida así que cuando ellos me dijeron ‘mama, nosotros no queremos morir con los brazos cruzados ni masacrados, nosotros nos vamos a la lucha y al lado de usted se queda el pueblo,’ yo me di a la tarea de ir a los campamentos a moler. Como mis hijos estaban en diferentes organizaciones, yo me iba un mes donde el campamento del ERP y otro al de las FPL y luego al de la RN. Mi corazón de madre no entendía de divisiones.’
You know that when children are your life, when they tell you Mama, we don’t want to die with our arms crossed, or in a massacre. We are going to fight and by our side are the people; I decided to work in the guerrilla camps to grind corn and since my children were in guerrilla camps, I would go to the ERP camp, the FPL camp, and then, the RN. As a mother my heart could not distinguish between the divisions.
12. Alma was active in the guerrilla for 14 years and was a combatant for a time until her partner was killed, and she remained in communications.
Yo quise especializarme en el manejo de armas y aprender el arte militar, ese era mi objetivo, pero no me dejaron, me pusieron en comunicaciones. Yo estaba convencida de que podía ser una buena combatiente, de que podía llegar a ser jefa de un pelotón, pero me cuentearon sobre la importancia estratégica de las comunicaciones y no me quedó más remedio que pasar 10 años en eso.
I wanted to specialize in the use of weapons and learn the military arts. That was my objective. But they didn’t let me. I was assigned to communications. I was convinced that I could become an effective combatant and eventually achieve the rank of squad leader. But they pointed out the important strategy of communications and I didn’t have any other option so I stayed there for ten years.
STORIES from “De la locura y a la esperanza truncada: memorias de desarme, desmovilización y reinserción de excombatientes en El Salvador posconflicto.”118
According to Beth Verhey’s research, a follow-up survey completed by UCA/UNICEF includes the data on the ages of the young recruits in both the FLMN and the FAES (Salvadoran Armed Forces). The median age for FLMN children recruits is 12 years old, while the FAES reported a median age of 15.8 years. The majority of the children in FMLN guerrilla were in the “less than 10 years-old and between 10 and 14 years old” brackets, which adds up to 93.4 percent. The majority of the children in the FAES were “15 years or older.” Both armed forces recruited children but the FMLN had the younger ages. About 92 percent in the FMLN group reported that they joined voluntarily, compared to the FAES group’s responses that only 47 percent joined on their own volition. Considering all age groups in both armed forces, 60 percent of the children that joined were between 7 and 13 years old. Reportedly, the FMLN had more female soldiers, all ages, than the FAES.
Griselda and Digna
When I didn’t have my family anymore, a friend of my mother, Albertina said, I’m going to take her with me. But- I thought she was taking me to her house, but she brought me here, for the war. She dropped me off here in Las Vueltas, with the guerrilla. I was ten. I was introduced to the comandante who told me: you’re very young but here you will stop growing up. It was around 1987 or 88 and I was here. What was sad for me was that I had to attend this school for 6 months. It was so hard going to that school because we would practice all day long, and then also at night. The exercise was very heavy. It got to the point where I couldn’t bend down to go to the bathroom because I was sore all over. After we finished school in 6 months we had to decide what job we wanted: to cook, to help as a brigadista or a combatant. But since I’ve never been to school I couldn’t sign up to be a radio operator or a medic, so I was either a cook or a combatant. And I don’t like to cook because those poor cooks would walk around with pots on their heads. So, that’s why I decided to become a combatant.
The first time I was in combat to prove myself according to them, they would order us to go fight. No more than 5 of us and I remember that time when I stood by a tree and started to cry. I said, here I’m going to do it, here they’re going to kill me. What should I do? And one of my compañeros told me either you fight or they kill you. He pushed me down to the ground and that’s where I started to feel brave. Time went by. And when I was twelve I started to fight because at 12 years old you are a combatant. When I was twelve we spent days in this little mountain, here in the frontline, looking out all day long. The ‘posta’ we called it. And one day I stepped on a mine. It felt as though something had exploded like I had flown away up in the air. But I acted quickly and I stood up and I couldn’t see any of my compañeros. Then, I saw them come out from hiding in the tall grass, they thought the soldiers had attacked us. They just kept looking at me.
They had to carry me for eight days, then, we came up against the Atlactl battalion and they decided they couldn’t carry me anymore; that they would be killed. So, they found a tunnel nearby and left me there for four days. They left me a bottle of water. After four days I heard my compañeros returning. One of them said that they would probably need to bury me in the tunnel. But then, they saw that I was still alive and were very surprised. They said, she’s alive, she’s alive! But my wounds were like molded cheese with little worms coming out. It was full of worms. They cleaned up my wounds and I felt better after two months,. Then, I went back to the front lines but when they ordered me back to the little mountain I started to tremble. I just couldn’t go back. I was afraid I would step on another mine. They got mad at me because I wouldn’t go there. I was twelve at the time.
WHEN I was 13 my friends would tell me “look now you’re really pretty and it’s time that you find a boyfriend to get together because maybe here we’re going to die. You don’t know if you’ll be alive the next morning. When I had my period for the first time I was 13 yrs. old. I didn’t know what it was. Then, they explained it to me but I didn’t know until then. Well, that happened and then I had a boyfriend who was the father of my daughter and I was with him. Then, my period stopped and I thought maybe it was supposed to come once a year. Then I found out I was going to have a child. I was happy because I felt that I wouldn’t be alone anymore. I was pregnant, I didn’t know how many months. I didn’t know anything. I would still go on patrols with him, fighting even though I was pregnant. He was happy but when I was seven months pregnant he was killed. I had left to go stay at Los Ranchos cabañas. I was seven months pregnant when he was killed. And eight days later, my daughter was born.
I enlisted not because I wanted to, well I did but because I had to. We started to organize ourselves in 1979 because my sisters were killed in 1980. So I was eleven years old when they killed my sisters, After that my father started to organize and I went with him. I was in the guerrilla because I was twelve but afterward I started going with the father of my two daughters. He was a combatant. We were all there with him, then I returned to Chalatenango with him. Then, I was fully enlisted in the guerrilla. I didn’t enlist to fight as a combatant, I joined to work with the militias, preparing their food. My husband organized the militias. It was dangerous because we were with the troops. I helped out taking care of the wounded soldiers because there was a hospital in a tunnel where we could all hide from the aerial bombardment. When they wounded the compañeros I would cover their mouths because they were screaming with pain.
I was a medic. I saw that my compañeros needed the help. Perhaps, God gave me the strength and I learned how to give injections to heal. I would treat the wounded because there were so many accidents here and I ‘m not afraid to treat the wounds. But I don’t like to be in hospitals. I don’t like it. It’s that I suffered because I was a medic in the front lines. But I also worked in communications for several years. But then I went back to being a medic, that’s always been my main function. But I was a combatant first, but then I saw how someone needed help. So being a medic was the most for me. Being a combatant is fine also because you’re defending but maybe being a medic is the most important job because you’re saving a lot of people’s lives. Also a radio operator because if you’re treating a wounded compañero you can use the radio to call for help. The two jobs are the most important because you’re saving lives. But being a combatant is important too. Maybe the best work I did was when I laid down beside a wounded compañero with bullets flying all around us. But maybe God gave me the strength because I was not afraid. What motivated me to stay in the guerrilla, I think like I said, I saw how they killed two of my sisters all at once. I was eleven. And maybe that gave me the strength because its incredible to see that they’re killing your family and there’s nothing you can do at the time. Maybe that’s it. I didn’t feel hatred but I felt so badly because they killed my family. And almost killed me. But maybe that’s what motivated me to keep fighting.
Ana Guadalupe Martinez Menéndez served as ranking member of the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) guerrilla organization. She became involved in politics while a student at the University of El Salvador and after the electoral fraud of 1972, joined the ERP. She was captured by the Salvadoran military in 1976 and spent nine months in clandestine prison, enduring painful, humiliating torture. She chronicles this experience in her book: Las cárceles clandestinas (see below). She was released in a prisoner exchange between the military and the guerrilla. She rejoined the ERP in 1978, and toward the end of the war, travelled throughout Europe on a mission to inform others of the Salvadoran war. After the war, Martínez returned to her medical practice and also, was elected to the National Assembly with the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC). You can listen to an interview conducted by Jean Krasno (translation provided). (Also, Karen Kampwirth interviewed Ana Guadalupe, included in this volume.) Listen to interview by Jean Krasno
Books: Las cárceles clandestinas de El Salvador 1978 and A Woman from the Liberation Front Testifies
Nidia Díaz was studying Psychology at the University of El Salvodr in 1975 when she joined the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos (PTRC) guerrilla organization. She had been part of the social movements opposing the military government, and was influenced by the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (political party). As a commander, she directed guerrilla units between 1981-85 in San Vicente and San Miguel departments. She was captured by the Salvadoran forces in April, 1985 and detained and tortured for six months. In her testimony concerning her detention and torture, she recalls the presence of CIA agent Felix Rodriguez. This information is also documented in the work by researcher/author Ilya Luciak. The matter of CIA agent Felix Rodriguez and his conduct deserves scrutiny, and he should be punished accordingly. Rodriguez took into possession a piece of clothing from Nidia Diaz who at the time she was being detained and tortured; he took her brassiere and displayed it in this home, as if to display a trophy. This reveals Rodriguez’ disrespect, misogynism, and unprofessionalism. FMLN Reflections, 20 Years Later: An Interview with Nidia Díaz by Esther Portillo-Gonzales. Books: Nunca estuve sola and I Was Never Alone.
Lorena Guadalupe Peña Mendoza enlisted in the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL) guerrilla organization at the age of 17. She was a ranking member of the FPL and directed two fronts between 1980 and 1990. Lorena, also known as “Rebeca,” was part of the Comisión Polítco Diplomática (CPD) between 1990 and 1992, and participated in the peace negotiations of the Peace Accords of 1992. She served as president of the National Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa de El Salvador) in 2015-2016. Known as a feminist, Peña was instrumental in forming the Movimiento de Mujeres Mélida Anaya Montes (Las Mélidas). See Los Retos de la mujer dirigente, interview by Marta Harneker, July 1994. Her book is titled: Fragments from My Life: Testimony of a Salvadorian Revolutionary
“Political activist, mother, ex-guerrilla commander, and architecture student” – is how Lynn Stephen describes Morena Herrera in her interview, a chapter in her book entirely dedicated to Herrera’s life. (“Morena Herrera: Women for Dignity and Life” in Women and Social Movements in Latin America, 1997.) Herrera and other women founded the feminist organization, known as Las Dignas in 1992, right after the war’s demobilization and reintegration process began. Morena was a child when she would go with her mother to political demonstrations such as the teachers’ strike in 1968. As a high school student she participated in Catholic youth group activities and then, joined Revolutionary Action of Secondary Students (ARDES). At this time, the Salvadoran military repression against civilians increased, and Morena witnessed first-hand the brutality. She remembers the shock in learning about the 1977 massacre that took place after a huge demonstration downtown San Salvador.
Then, the first time she was physically involved in a milieu; she and her school mates yelled at the National Guard who chased them with tear gas. She joined the Resistencia Nacional (RN) guerrilla organization and became a leader as a military and political strategist. Her life changed dramatically with Las Dignas. She embarked on a journey of self-discovery, and realized her passion in working with women and feminism. Her participation in the women’s conference in Argentina (1990) was particularly transformative. She enthusiastically shared everything she had learned with women, who in turn, shared their newly found awakening with other women.
Mélida Anaya Montes – 1929 – 1983
Mélida Anaya Montes, known as Comandante Ana María, was second in command, after Salvador Cayetano Carpio, of the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL). She was also a commanding officer in the FMLN. Montes was an educator and is best known as the founder of ANDES-21, the national teacher union that was a powerful force in the social movement during the war. After the 1972 national teacher strike, Anaya, who had witnessed the brutality of the repression against teachers, declared that she would be personally involved in the armed insurgency, since there was no other option. She joined FPL. Anaya was murdered in Managua, Nicaragua on April 6, 1983, and soon afterward, Carpio was accused of ordering her killing, and committed suicide. Her book is Ana María, combatiente de la vida.
Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera – Assassinated in 1989
In 1986, Norma Guirola founded el Instituto para la investigación, capacitación, y desarrollo de mujer (the Institute for Research, Training, and Development of Women, or IMU). Guirola is a pioneer in the feminist movement in El Salvador. IMU provided support and training to women’s organizations in the areas of communication, legal rights, and education. She was killed in 1989, but supporters and family continued her work with the opening of Centro de estudios de la mujer “Norma Guirola de Herrera’ or CEMUJER. The organization is rooted in feminism and continues to support women’s efforts in the areas of technical assistance, legal aid, and training for grassroots organizations.
Febe Elizabeth Velásquez – Killed in 1989
Febe Elizabeth Velásquez, secretary general for the trade union, Federación Nacional Sindical de Trabajadores Salvadoreños (FENASTRAS) was an outspoken leader and advocate for trade union activities, which the Salvadoran military fiercely opposed. The federation had become a very powerful, organized labor front since its inception in 1974. The headquarters were bombed twice in 1989, but the last one, on October 31, claimed the life of Velásquez and nine others. The October bombing occurred under President Cristiani’s watch who at the time was in the middle of peace negotiations with the FMLN. As a consequence of the bombing at FENASTRAS and COMADRES headquarters, the FMLN suspended the peace talks under the protestation that the government was insincere and deceptive. The courage and bravery of Velásquez and her colleagues serve as a testament to the dedication of the federation to protect and advance the rights of the working class, especially the campesinos, in the country.
Alicia Panameno de García – 1945 – 2010
On July 30, 1975, Alicia Panameno de García, a nurse at a maternity ward in a hospital, witnessed the brutal massacre of students peacefully protesting on the street in San Salvador by the National Guard. Afterward, her brother, amongst the student protestors did not return home that day; the family learned that he had been “disappeared.” In the course of searching for her brother, she encountered other families who had also lost their loved ones. She never located the remains of her brother, but she and others organized COMADRES, the Committee of Mothers for People Who Have Disappeared. Her remarkable story is available here (scroll down), in English with a Spanish translation.
Marianella García Villas, an attorney, served in the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly for two years (1974-1976). In 1979, she began to document the human rights abuses and disappearances that were reported by families of the victims. Her documentation included photographs and archival information, which she presented to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She was conducting field work with displaced refugees when she was assassinated by the Salvadoran Armed Forces. She was posthumously awarded the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Services to Human Rights in 1984.
Clara Elisabeth Ramírez (Eva) was born in 1949 into a middle-class family. According to Chávez (2017) Ramírez was a university student activist, who along with two other classmates, José Alejandro Solano and Andrés Torres, were co-editors of the notorious Red Star (Estrella Roja), a publication that advanced the ideology and strategy of the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL) guerrilla organization. The three students were part of the first generation of armed militants (early 1970s) in the FPL to engage in guerrilla warfare in urban sites. They were committed to the armed struggle because, according to Eva’s sister, Victoria, “that was the path; there was no other path” (p.166). On October 10, 1976, the three activist/militants were cornered by the military forces in San Salvador’s neighborhood of Santa Tecla. A gun battle ensued, and clearly outnumbered, the three made a suicide pact rather than face the inevitable capture, detention, and torture.
Lil Milagro Ramírez1946 – 1979
Ramírez was a student at the University of El Salvador when she became involved with a student group of poets and activists. She was one of the few female students involved, but she was committed to the revolution and was willing to risk her life. She was captured, detained, and tortured in a clandestine prison, where she died. You can read about her life and her writing here.
Sister Maura John Clarke 1931 – 1980
Sister Maura was 19 years old when she joined the Maryknoll Order. After graduation from the Teachers College and teaching in the Bronx for five years, Sr. Maura was assigned to Nicaragua on a mission to help people in the aftermath of the 1972 earthquake. She left in 1976, and after an absence of three years, she returned to Nicaragua. After Sr. Carla’s death she decided to join Sr. Ita in her ministry in El Salvador. The two sisters had attended a regional meeting in Nicaragua, and upon returning to El Salvador were met at the airport in San Salvador by Sr. Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan.
Jean Donovan 1953 – 1980
Jean Donovan was 26 years old when she traveled to La Libertad, El Salvador (1979) to work as a Caritas Coordinator, in the distribution of food for the needy. Her passion for working as a humanitarian was noteworthy since she gave up her (well-paid) accountant job in Cleveland to dedicate her life to helping others. One of her dreams, along with Sr. Dorothy Kazel, was to open up an orphanage/clinic to care for the children victimized by the war.
Sister Ita Ford 1940-1980
Sister Ita Ford was 21 years old when she joined the Maryknoll community in 1961. Sr. Ita worked in Chile from 1973 to 1980, then, responded to Archbishop Romero’s call to serve in El Salvador. She arrived in El Salvador in 1980 shortly after his assassination, and worked with the Emergency Refugee Committee in Chalatenango with her colleague, Sr. Carla Piette. In a tragic accident, Sr. Carla Piette died in August, and four months later, Sr. Ita was killed.
Sister Dorothy Kazel 1939 – 1980
Sister Dorothy Kazel joined the Ursuline Sisters Order in 1960 in Cleveland, Ohio, where she was born. In 1974, she joined the Cleveland Diocese’s mission team in El Salvador where she participated in the development of CEBs (Christian Base Communities).
Madeleine Lagadec – Killed in 1989
Madeleine Lagadec was an international volunteer (French) working as a nurse for three years at a mobile FMLN hospital in the eastern El Salvador front. Celia Díaz was a radio operator and literacy instructor, María Cristina Hernández was a radio operator and nurse, and José Ignacio Isla Cásares was a doctor from Argentina. When the air strikes began, everyone evacuated except for the individuals including Lagadec who refused to leave their patients behind. All five were killed including one of their patients, Juan Antonio. The Truth Commission report details the attack and includes an autopsy summary report on Madeleine Lagadec, probably because it was demanded by her family in France.
The Truth Commission report indicates that on April 15, 1989, two U.S. made A-37 aircrafts bombarded the hospital, which initiated the evacuation of the area. In addition to the A-37, the following military vehicles participated in the attack, all made available by the United States: three UH IM helicopter gunships, a Hughes-500 helicopter and a “Push-Pull” light aeroplane. The bombardment lasted for 15 minutes. Then, six helicopters carrying unknown number of paratroopers armed with M-16 rifles arrived on the ground. Lagadec was shot six times, twice in the head, two in the torso area and one bullet in each thigh. Her left hand was amputated, probably while she was alive. The report concludes that the State failed in its responsibility to investigate the case and punish those responsible for the heinous killings.
Dra. Begoña García Arandigoyen Killed in 1990.
At 24 years old, Dra. García had worked as a doctor for the FMLN for a year. According to the Truth Commission report, Begoña García Arandigoyen, a medical doctor from Spain, was captured along with other survivors of a unit of the ERP guerrilla. The circumstances surrounding how she was among the guerrilla is unknown but she was unarmed and not in uniform. In fact, the report states that the Salvadoran military soldiers that captured her and others knew that she was a “foreigner” and a non-combatant. The autopsy performed by the Salvadoran forensic doctor omitted in its findings that Begoña had been shot close-range in the head. The military report had falsely concluded that she had been shot from a distance as if to suggest that she was caught in the cross-fire as the soldiers and the guerrilla engaged in a gun battle. The cover-up of Begoña’s death was part of a pattern that the Salvadoran military devised to obfuscate their problems with human rights, which they frequently violated.
1. Pierre Bourdieu, In other words: Essays towards a reflective sociology. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 137.
2. Julia Denise Shayne, “Gendered Revolutionary Bridges: A Feminist Theory of Revolution,” (Prepared for delivery at the 1998 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, The Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL, September 24-26, 1998), p. 32.
3. The quote was originally published in Omar Costa, “Los Tupamaros,” (México: Colección de Ancho Mundo, 1971), re-quoted in Jane S. Jaquette, “Women in Revolutionary Movements in Latin America,” (Journal of Family and Marriage Vol. 35, No. 2 [May 1973]), p. 351.
4. Thomas W. Walker, Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. (Boulder: Westview, 2003).
5. John Foran, Taking power: On origins of third world revolutions. (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
6. Ilja Luciak, After the revolution: Gender and democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua,
Guatemala. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
8. David Carey, Oral history in Latin America: Unlocking the spoken archive. (NY: Routledge, 2017).
9. Joaquín M. Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (NY: Routledge, 2017).
10. See Jeff Goodwin, No other way out. (UK: Cambridge, 2001).
11. Armed conflicts have erupted in the following: Chile, 1973; Argentina, 1966; Bolivia, 1969; Peru, 1968.
12. Cate Buchanan and Joaquín Chávez, Negotiating disarmament: Guns and violence in El Salvador peace negotiations (Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2008); Raymond
Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. (NY: Times Books, 1984) .
13. Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017).
14. Marti was born on May 5, 1893 and died on Feb. 1, 1932; Sandino was born on May 18, 1895 and died Feb 21,1934; both were assassinated.
15. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), p. 37.
16. See “Scar of Memory,” Documentary (Cicatriz de la memoria), (San Salvador: Museo de la Palabra y de la Imágen).
17. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), chapters one and two.
18. Jeffrey Gould and Aldo Lauria-Santiago, To rise in darkness: Revolution, repression, and memory in El Salvador 1920-1931. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 219.
19. See discussion on Rappaport’s research in Jeffrey Gould and Aldo Lauria-Santiago, To rise in darkness; Revolution, repression, and memory in El Salvador 1920-1931.(Durham, NC: Duke University Press), p. 258: (“What is unique about the Salvadoran experience is that the decisive cultural changes took place against the backdrop of the massacres of 1932.”); and Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), p.37: (“Anyone in Indian dress or anyone running from the security forces was fair game.”).
21. See Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador (NY: Times Books, 1984), p.52.For example: 90 percent of the wealth of the country is held by about one half of one percent of the population. Thirty or 40 families own nearly everything in the country.
22. Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017)p. 84.
24. Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 162.
25. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995),p. 54.
26. See Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. (NY: Times Books, 1984). In 1960 adult literacy was at 49 percent and 30 percent in rural areas; World Bank reported that only 8 percent of rural children, ages 13-15, were in school in 1970s.
27. See Richard C. Haggarty, El Salvador: A country study, (Library of Congress, [November, 1988]). The Anticommunist Wars of Elimination Liberation of Armed Forces (FALANGE) emerged in 1975. The exact number of death squads is unclear, but one group took the name of the former dictator/president, General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Anticommunist Brigade. The General admired the fascist leaders of his era and sent his officers for training in Germany, Italy, and Spain. The consequences of this alliance could not have been more tragic: twenty years later when, between 1979 and 1983, the U.S. supported the Salvadoran military’s brutal crackdown on mostly non-combatant civilians, and was largely responsible for the killing of 30,000 people,. The right-wing, death squad terrorism peaked during 1980-1982 when murders numbered about 700-800 a month. (pp. 32-36; and p. 235).
28. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995).The most notable assassinations were Catholic priests Nicolás Rodríguez, Rutilio Grande, and Alfonso Navarro; Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980.
29. For example, see Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote. (NY: Vintage Books, 1994).
39. Karen Kampwirth, Women in guerrilla movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).
40. Ibid., Kampwirth notes that 25.5 percent of her respondents were students.
41. Julia Denise Shayne, “Gendered Revolutionary Bridges: A Feminist Theory of Revolution,” (Prepared for delivery at the 1998 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, The Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL, September 24-26, 1998), p. 24.
42. Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 63.
43. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995),p. 60.
64. Mélida Anaya Montes was murdered on April 6, 1979 in Managua, Nicaragua. The “war economy” consequences included: Between 1980 and 1984, 4,500 teachers left El Salvador; over 1,200 primary schools were shuttered; illiteracy rate grew to 65 percent and in some rural areas – 90 percent. See Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From
civil strife tocivil peace (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995),p. 169 and p. 190.
65. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace.
79. See Cate Buchanan and Joaquín Chávez, Negotiating disarmament: Guns and violence in El Salvador peace negotiations. (Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2008).
Approximately six billion USD spent by the United States on the Salvadoran Civil War.
80. It was known as “Operación Rescate” and the Atlacatl Battalion, the elite, highly trained and equipped by the United States with machine-gun helicopters and heavy artillery, stormed into the area, destroying everything in their path.
81. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace.
(Boulder: Westview Press, 1995),p. 149.
82. See “Madness to Hope: Report on the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador.”
83. Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. (NY: Times Books, 1984), p. 478.
115. Norma Vásquez, Cristina Ibañez, Clara Murguialdy, Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y colaboradoras de FMLN. (San Salvador: Centro Cultural de España en El Salvador, 2020). NOTE: In their analysis, 60,000 women participated in the war; out of the 13,000 men and women mobilized in the guerrillas, 30 percent were women. The number of women reportedly killed in the war is a staggering 5,293.
116. Alan Marcelo Henríquez Chávez, “De la locura a las esperanza truncada: Memorias de desarme, desmovilización, y reinserción de excombatientes en El Salvador posconflicto.” (México: Instituto Mora, 2018), Tesis.
117. Beth Verhey, “The demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers: El Salvador case study.” (World Bank, 2001). Verhey acknowledges gratitude to José Simeón Cañas Universidad Centroamericana, UCA, specifically José Miquel Cruz, Rubi Esmeralda Arana and María Santacruz Giralt. Also, UNICEF El Salvador, Ximena de la Barra and Jean Gough, and Rädda Barnen, and Jon Skurdal; and ACISAM, Ernestina Chávez, Ilene Cohn, Father Jon Cortina, Suleyna Durán, Marcelo Fabre, Homies Unidos and Andrew Russell.
118. Alan Marcelo Henríquez Chávez, “De la locura a las esperanza truncada: Memorias de desarme, desmovilización, y reinserción de excombatientes en El Salvador posconflicto” (México: Instituto Mora, 2018), Thesis.Author conducted interviews in 2017 and 2018.
1. Alvarez, S., et al. 2002. “Encountering Latin American and Caribbean Feminisms.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28(2): 537-579.
2. Baldez, L. 2004. Why women protest: Women’s movements in Chile. UK: Cambridge University Press.
3. Binfold, L. 1999. “Hegemony in the Interior of Salvadoran Revolution: The ERP in Northern Morazán.” Journal of Latin American Anthropology 4(1): 2-45.
4. Bonner, R. 1984. Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. NY: Times Books.
5. Bourdieu, P. 1990. In other words: Essays towards a reflective sociology. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
6. Buchanan, C., and Joaquín Chávez. 2008. Negotiating disarmament: Guns and violence in El Salvador peace negotiations. Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.
7. Carey, D. 2017. Oral history in Latin America: Unlocking the spoken archive. NY: Routledge.
9. Chavez, J. 2017. Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press.
10. Danner, M. 1994. The massacre at El Mozote. NY: Vintage Books.
11. Foran, J. 2005. Taking power: On origins of third world revolutions. UK: Cambridge University Press.
12. Goodwin, J. 2001. No other way out. UK: Cambridge, 2001.
13. Gould, J., and A. Lauria-Santiago. 2008. To rise in darkness: Revolution, repression, and memory in El Salvador 1920-1931. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
14. Haggarty, R.C. 1988. El Salvador: A country study. Library of Congress.
15. Henríquez Chavez, A.M. “De la locura a las esperanza truncada: Memorias de desarme, desmovilización, y reinserción de excombatientes en El Salvador posconflicto,” Thesis, Instituto Mora, México City, 2018.
16. Jaquette, J. 1973. “Women in Revolutionary Movements in Latin America,” Journal of Family and Marriage35(2):351.
17. Kampwirth, K. 2002. Women in guerrilla movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba.University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
19. Las Dignas. 2000. “Una década construyendo feminismo.” El Salvador: Las Dignas. http://www.lasdignas.org.sv Web page accessed on January 1, 2021.
20. Luciak, I. 2001. After the revolution: Gender and democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
21. Manewal, B., and D. Stark. 2007. “Religion in the Trenches: Liberation Theology and Evangelical Protestantism as Tools of Social Control in the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996).” McNair Scholars Journal 11(1):49-62.
22. Martín Alvarez, A., and E. Cortina Orero. 2014. “The Genesis and Internal Dynamics ofEl Salvador’s People’s Revolutionary Army, 1970-1976.” Journal of Latin AmericanStudies 46(4):663-689.
23. Montgomery, T.S. 1995. Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. Boulder: Westview Press.
24. Pedraza Fariña, L., S. Miller, and J. Cavallaro. 2010. No place to hide: Gang, state, and clandestine violence in El Salvador. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
25. Shayne, J.D. 1998. “Gendered Revolutionary Bridges: A Feminist Theory of Revolution,” Prepared for delivery at the 1998 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, The Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL, September 24-26.
26. Stephen, L. 1994. Hear my testimony: María Teresa Tula, human rights activist of El Salvador. Boston: South End Press.
27. ____ . 1997. Women and social movements in Latin America: Power from below. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
28. Vásquez, N., C. Ibañez, and C. Murguialdy. 2020. Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y colaboradoras de FMLN. San Salvador: Centro Cultural de España en El Salvador.
29. Verhey, B. 2001. “The demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers: El Salvador case study.” World Bank Org.
30. Walker, W.W. 2003. Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. Boulder: Westview.
31. Wood, E.J. 2003. Insurgent collective action and civil war in El Salvador. UK: Cambridge University Press.
“It is El Salvador, 1989, three years before the end of a brutal civil war that took 75,000 lives. María Serrano, wife, mother, and guerrilla leader is on the front lines of the battle for her people and her country. With unprecedented access to the FMLN guerrilla camps, the filmmakers dramatically chronicle María’s daily life in the war.”
María Ofelia Navarrete, aka María Chichilco, currently the Minister of Local Development, spent 12 years in the guerrilla. She was a labor union organizer prior to joining the FMLN in 1980.
A Cultural Spaceis where we grow up: our life experiences, identities, languages, the social spaces we inhabit – our ROOTS; and in my story, my heart and soulareNOT FAR FROM THE BORDER; it’s a life from cradle to grave.
A Cultural Spaceis where we grow up: our life experiences, identities, languages, the social spaces we inhabit – our ROOTS; and in my story, my heart and soulareNOT FAR FROM THE BORDER; it’s a life from cradle to grave.
Introduction: Circles of Cultural Knowledge
Not Far from the Border: My Bilingual Journey is a collection of songs and poems combined with a reflective narrative to describe certain life-changing moments in my life, and how being bilingual and bicultural shaped my identity and guided my work and study.
In a large state such as Texas, communities are diverse in multiple ways. While some community members relish experiences with people in culturally diverse environments, others favor a less connected life with folks that they perceive as starkly different. Within our democracy that allows extraordinary freedoms and liberties, so many of us choose to live exclusively within the barriers of our cultural norms. Of course, economics and social attitudes are some of the factors that constitute our reality, and only a few expect any major changes to the issues that address the myriad of social and economic inequalities. Based on my personal experience, it seems that as we engage with others, in dialogue and interaction, for instance, we learn about others’ cultures, and in the process, we tend to acquire a perspective, not only of understanding, but also of self-awareness. This “circle of cultural knowledge” strengthens our perspective of the uniqueness of culture, and how as a society we shape our community, in the most profound, authentic, and essential sense of the concept.
The circle of cultural knowledge is not only about keeping our culture alive in our own particular way(s), but it is also about participating in sharedcultural experiences, or what some individuals would say, “giving back to your own culture.”
My parents were born in México and they met in Nuevo Laredo (across from Laredo, Texas), where my mother had lived for most of her life. I was born in 1949 in Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, Texas. I was number three and the first daughter in a family of five brothers and a sister. My parents migrated to Texas when I was five; we lived in Alice, El Campo, and Lampasas before eventually settling in Fort Worth, Texas when I was in the sixth grade. Prior to crossing the border we lived in three border towns or cities: Juárez, Reynosa (across from McAllen), and Nuevo Laredo. My father was an experienced bootmaker and was employed by a boot company in the “Cowtown” center of North Fort Worth. My parents and three siblings born in México received naturalization or citizenship papers in 1967, the year I graduated from Northside High School.
My father specialized in custom-made boots, but he held his job mainly to bring food to the table to feed a large family. His real passion was music. He could play the saxophone and piano (and probably other instruments); he taught my two older brothers everything about music, and they each learned to play an instrument, saxophone and trumpet. I wasn’t included in his “band,” but I was a very attentive observer. I learned to appreciate and love music in a profound way at a very young age, as if it were a third language added to my Spanish and English.
I wanted to pursue an education but I was undecided on my major. I didn’t pursue a music degree. I don’t have any professional music training, although I have a deep respect for others that have dedicated their lives to the study of music. I learned to play violin in a school orchestra when I was fifteen, and soon afterward, I “picked up” the guitar. I started writing songs out of frustration, both because I couldn’t play very well and I wasn’t satisfied with the songs I was trying to learn. The guitar became my constant companion throughout the years, in the best and worst of times.
The song, This Train Wreck, is based on a poem, Along the Border, which I wrote about living in a fusion of two worlds – two languages, two cultures. I was living in Edinburg, working at the University of Texas Pan American. After being there for a couple of years, I began to acquire a different perspective of the “border.” What was once a blur in my understanding of the dynamics of a river boundary, became the focus of an epiphany that led to an exploration of identity, in self and as a community member. Most importantly I realized that I wasn’t alone, that there was a world of people that had distinct commonalities and differences, but all living a life in two worlds. But, it is the manner by which each person combines the worlds, and then, navigates through the diverse complex situations, that presents a uniqueness in the expressions of culture and language. I often wonder to what extent border-life duality attributes to authentic creative expression, and thus, one of the reasons why so many inspirational poets in Texas come from “el valle” or the “border,” regardless of where they live today.
In the poem, Along the Border, I juxtapose the sentiments of happiness in living in a Spanish and English language world, with the uncertainty and anxiety of border life. People live and work on either side of the border and the act of crossing is the only reminder that there are two immense countries that share a river, the Río Grande, which serves as the border. There are many differences between the two countries, but the people that live along the border share certain similarities, as expressed in the last lines of the poem:
In El cruce conmigo, the lyric’s voice is that of a parent of a young child on the eve of his/her departure, reassuring the child that crossing the border (from México to the U.S.) is a sacrifice for the benefit of the his/her future. I know this voice from my childhood experience of migrating to the United States and since the time I was teaching third and fourth graders in early 1970s in Edgewood ISD, in San Antonio. I chose to teach in Edgewood, one of the poorest school districts in Texas, because I felt I would be needed there, mainly because I was bilingual and I would be able teach children in both English and Spanish, and because I could relate to the children’s experiences as first-time English learners. This elementary school teaching profession was not one of my original choices when I attended college.
When I transferred to Texas Woman’s University (TWU) in Denton from a community college in Fort Worth, I had chosen the Performing Arts in Theater as my major. However, my life took on a very different turn when I met a professor, Dr. John Reilly, from TWU, at the grocery store in Denton where I was working as a part-time cashier. He was on a mission to recruit students for a new program, the Teacher Corps, specifically to teach in bilingual education. The program included tuition and salary for part-time work as a teacher aide. I accepted the offer mostly out of convenience. Upon graduation, our Teacher Corps was one of the few undergraduate level programs in the country. Dr. Reilly recruited me in the summer of 1969 and in the fall he was killed in an automobile accident. His memory lives forever in my heart. He was the first person that I’ve ever known to utter the words, bilingual education.
After graduating from Texas Christian College (part of the TWU-TCU Consortium), I started teaching at Gardendale Elementary School in Edgewood, and after a year of teaching, I knew that I had made the right choice, not only because of the joy and intrigue in working with young children, but also for the opportunity to teach exclusively in Spanish, along with ESL. I saw myself in the children I taught: their first language was Spanish like in my case, and school was their only resource for learning English. As their teacher, my immediate reaction was one of pride and determination. I wanted to make a difference in their lives and teach them in ways that they could feel proud of their language and heritage, and of course, conquer the world. I barely made enough money to pay for rent and expenses, but nevertheless, I felt incredibly fortunate.
When I attended elementary school in Alice, Lampasas, and El Campo, I had to learn English on my own, without any kind of second language instruction. I learned to read and write in Spanish when at fifteen I attended a Catholic boarding school and convent close to Chicago, and the only way to communicate with my mother was through letter-writing. And, with my mother, our communication was completely in Spanish. Fortunately, the Spanish language has a fairly strict letter/sound association, even so, I imagined my mother’s amused expression when reading my letters. I went to the school with my dear friend, Cruz Villanueva, for whom I’m forever grateful for being so kind to me. We had to take Latin courses.
After four years of teaching at Edgewood, I decided to leave the classroom and pursue advanced degrees, mostly because as bilingual teachers, we were in constant need of resources and assistance in improving our programs. Bilingual education was practically brand new since the passage of the Bilingual Education Act in 1968. My focus shifted from teaching children to educating the community and training future bilingual educators. I knew I had a lifetime of work in front of me, and after my Master’s degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio, I continued at the University of Texas at Austin where I received my doctorate’s degree. The move from San Anto to Austin was a huge leap of faith; my heart was both sad and content. San Antonio was a cultural arts haven (and still is) where my creativity blossomed in full, and I felt a strong sense of belonging. But I loved teaching, and I continued to work in my profession for the next forty-five years. I believe that I learned so much from my children; we learned from each other. The bond between and amongst us was strong; we seem to instinctively understand the challenges we face today and for the rest of our lives; we shared this common understanding to the core.
This sentiment is expressed in the refrain ofEl cruce conmigo:
Una tristeza se vuelve a un llanto
Cada vez que cruzo al Río Bravo
Si es el infierno o el cielo, no importa
El cruce es una infinita tormenta.
Ya no se ni pa’ donde me voy
Porque tengo el cruce conmigo.
A sadness turns into madness
Each time I cross the Río Bravo (the Rio Grande)
It may be difficult or easy, it doesn’t matter
The crossing is always an infinite torture
I don’t know if I’m coming or going
‘Cause I have the border within me
Related poems:Their Dreams, Chameleon at the Border, For Every Bridge There’s a Wall, River Rain
3. El Sentido (Desnudar)
The double title of the song, El Sentido or Desnudar, reflects an English/Spanish language issue. The original title, Desnudar, was meant to describe in multiple meanings the process of “becoming,” one who is in a state of loss and hopelessness, and vulnerability, which is implicit in the description: “corazón desnudo” (literally, a naked heart). However, El sentido, (the purpose), seems to better describe the song through a Spanish language filter. Additionally, the song includes lyrics “borrowed” or influenced from English language songs, such as “el movimiento de la tierra,” from Carole King’s song lyrics, “I feel the earth move under my feet,” and “lágrimas de ríos,” from the song, Cry Me a River (“I cried a river over you”) by Arthur Hamilton.
The song refers to a period of time when, as a young adult I felt pressured to find purpose or meaning in life, and to make life-long decisions that I had very little understanding about. I was in middle school, high school and college during the social revolution of the 1960s, and the little that I understood about life was turned on its head.
My parents were struggling to keep their marriage together, and my two older brothers enlisted in the military and fought in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War. There were many circles of our friends that were soldiers in the battlefields of Vietnam, a country we knew nothing about, and were clueless as to what they were fighting for and what they were enduring. Many young men from our community were killed in the war, but both my brothers survived. But my brother, Beto, had injuries from exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant chemical, which complicated his health that led to a premature death in 1996. He wasn’t yet 50. The poem I wrote, the Warrior Planet, was meant to honor his memory and say good-bye to my brother, whom had been my closest sibling when we were children, and who had faced the monster of war, and fought bravely:
Where you died a thousand deaths,
And you came back on borrowed time,
For one more look, one more sigh, one more kiss.
While the Vietnam War raged on like a burning house, on this side of the planet, I felt I was fighting my own war. I had so many questions about life in general and specific to being female, as in the expression in this line of the lyrics: “Buscando señas de verdad, detrás la pared de la vida.” (“Looking for signs of truth/meaning behind the walls of life.”) On the one hand, I had a strong desire to be a mother, a sentiment acquired from age 12 when I took on the role of my mother’s helper, taking care of my siblings, fraternal twins, Johnny and Annie. But I also realized that motherhood alone could not fulfill my other dreams or aspirations. I watched as my mother struggled to find contentment and happiness in her role as a wife and mother. She had completed six years of school in Nuevo Laredo, and had yet to learn English. My father had a basic English competency. They had been married for about 23 years and had struggled continuously to stay afloat economically, and deal with changes that they never anticipated, at least not in the U.S. One day I arrived home from either work or school. I was nineteen. When I entered the house I found my mother sitting on chair, crying unconsolably, holding her hand over what seemed to be a cut on her head. I noticed a broken rolling pin on the floor. All I could do was to hug her as tightly as I could. I felt like I knew what had happened. I never saw my father again. He left without saying good-bye; I didn’t realize the true nature of grief until months and years after he had left. To this day I don’t know why they had such a fierce argument, perhaps, my father wanted to leave but my mother didn’t. It was a very emotional time for my mother.
I felt as though my father abandoned me and my siblings; I try to express the sentiment in the last lines of the song:
Y tú, desapareciéndote con una bolsa, llena de corajes,
Pasión,y mi corazón, mi corazón
Corazón desnudo, desnudo
And you, disappearing with a bag full of anger,
Passion, and my heart, my heart
My innocent and hurting heart.
My father’s departure was a constant reminder that I alone am responsible for the choices I make in life, and in many situations my decisions were based on the desire to follow my instinct, urging me to stay on course, and look forward.
These are some of the lines in a poem (Papá) I wrote for my father:
I can’t feel your pain, Papá
Your falling curtains shut me off,
And I’m left with your soulful fears
That burden you in the cloudiest nights,
That hurt you without telling you,
That silence you to a wailing, yelling mess.
If you could talk to me from your cold and
I would hear your anger forever gnawing at my heels,
I would feel all over again what I see in my dreams,
A young girl crying to her father that
She is the orphan and he, the ruler of her life.
Although I believed that having a family was a tangible option, I also saw myself as part of the Women’s Liberation Movement. At the time, women of color were mostly silent as White women took the center stage, demanding rights for equality in the workplace. It was in the 1970s, and the role of women was changing, and I believed that I could be part of that movement, even though I realized that as a woman of color, I had to over-achieve and work as hard as possible to fulfill the roles of a mother, wife and a career woman. Throughout the history of this country, women have always been at the forefront for change in our democracy, and this time the groundswell for support was broad and deep-rooted. I realized the challenges in overcoming the obstacles, even so I wasn’t deterred; I had more to lose if I didn’t make the effort.
At the same time, the Chicano Movement was gradually gaining strength and momentum, where community leaders rallied support to demand justice and equality, in tandem with the protestations and demands of the civil rights movement. I was a Chicana in the movement and wholeheartedly supported the main principles that guided our struggle against inequality and for action to change. But, within the Chicano Movement structure, women played secondary roles that I felt were relegated to the kinds of inferior treatment that the Women’s Movement was fighting against. My priorities were different, and I believed then (as I do today) that I wanted to be part of a wider struggle against injustices for all kinds of people.
In the song, La luna está de luto, the moon is a metaphor that describes a grieving widow that has lost the “night” because of the gang violence and killings of so many innocent people on the Mexican side of the US/Mexico border. I wrote the song during the time between 2008 and 2012 when I was living and working in Edinburg, a border city, close to McAllen and Reynosa on the other side of the border. Just a few miles further west, the border town of Cd. Mier, once a beautiful city that had been drastically transformed due to the damages from horrific gun battles, some of these shown on local news stations. I also heard these kinds of stories from my students at the university (UTPA) where I was teaching education classes. The University of Texas at Pan American (UTPA) is now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Another incident occurred south of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, that struck terror in the hearts of those affected. One of my students and her family were trapped during a gun fight on a trip to visit a doctor. Terrified and confused, they were able to escape the area during a lull in the fight. I wrote about it in the poem, Close Your Eyes. I also visited Nuevo Progreso, a border town known for its high attendance of tourists, on the day after a fierce gun battle where at least two persons were killed. Most of the people were unwilling to talk about the incident, and most seem unnerved by it as if they had become accustomed to these violent outbursts. There was one man, a food vendor that told me his story, which I retold in a poem, ¡Qué viva la paz!
The Mexican newspapers published other stories, at least as much as they could since journalists were under the constant threat of being killed by the drug cartels. One story was about a young couple going home one Friday evening when they inadvertently drove their car into the crossfire of a gun fight. The song lyrics expresses what I imagined happened when the husband, who was driving the car, was shot and killed. His wife in the passenger seat, reached over to him and touched the blood on his body:
Esa noche te dije adiós
Como nunca lo esperaba
Tu sangre quedó en mis manos
Y sentí tu vida dentro la mía
That night I said good-bye to you
I never would have expected;
Your blood was on my hands
And I felt your life inside of mine
Related poems:The Children of Porvenir, Cierren los ojos, The Red Book, ¡Qué viva la paz!, A Different World
5. La iguana
The song, La iguana, begins with the general voice of a migrant attempting to illegally cross into the United States. The background is part of a vast, semi-desert brush area in South Texas (“bajo el sol imperdonable, espinas de sangre, piedras de fuego“). Thousands of undocumented or irregular migrants have attempted to make the dangerous journey, seeking a new life. Although many originate from México, the majority of undocumented migrants in recent years have come from the three countries, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, also known as the Northern Triangle Countries in Central America. The lyrics speak to the harshness of their journey, and that even as they leave their old lives behind, in reality, their dreams for the new life may not be as fruitful as they believe. Many migrants perish in the South Texas labyrinth of death, yet very little if anything is done by the federal government to address this tragedy.
Bajo el sol imperdonable
Espinas de sangre
Piedras de fuego
Trás las huellas de sueños rotos
Under the suffering hot sun
Thorns of blood
Stones of fire
Leaving behind memories of shattered dreams
The next lines refer to the migrant experiences of violence, frustration and indignities that have compelled them to make the decision to leave and journey northward, despite their understanding of the difficulties and the possibility of losing their lives.
Te dejo mis anhelos
Ya no los quiero
Aquí el camino termina
Los ojos cerrados, los oídos no quieren oir
I leave you (referring to their home country) everything I’ve ever dreamed about
This is the end for me,
I accept my destiny, my eyes are closed, my ears cannot hear
The line about the “eyes closed, ears deaf,” also refers to the common expression used by gang members in their pursuit to extort, control and manipulate the residents that live in the gang-controlled neighborhoods. Gang violence that contributes to extremely high number of deaths among inhabitants in the Northern Triangle countries is one of the major reasons for the migration waves. Many migrants with irregular documentation (no passport) make the decision to leave their homes because they believe that their lives are at risk, and that they don’t have other options.
In the final lines, the lyric’s voice shifts to an expression of protest: for the inhumane treatment of undocumented migrants by U.S. government officials, for the lack of compassion and understanding on behalf of many Americans, for lack of policies or decisions that address the root causes of migration, and the unwillingness by our government to develop an effective comprehensive immigration policy to eliminate undue suffering and deaths among migrants.
Ya me voy, ya me voy
Con la iguana al cima de la montaña
En busca de las palabras
Que me dejastes en llamas
Me quemastes las palabras
Y me dejastes nada
I’ll take this injustice to the top of the mountain
Wherever I need to go
To continue the fight toward justice
No matter how long it takes
Even if my protest falls on deaf ears
I will keep fighting,
I have nothing else to lose.
Related poems:No Picnic, Water (The River of Life in a Desert of Hell)
This song is based on a story of women during the armed conflict in Guatemala, and how they struggled to survive. It was known as the 36-year Internal Armed Conflict between the State military and the counterinsurgent forces, which caused the lives of 200,000 people and some of the generals were charged and convicted in crimes against humanity and the act of genocide. The most affected groups of people during 1980-83 massacres and assassinations were the indigenous groups from the northern regions in the states of Quiché and Huehuetenango. The Maya Ixil suffered the most casualties and were subjected to horrendous torture and death, where 90 villages where they lived were completely destroyed, and at least 80,000 men, women, and children were killed or died while hiding in the mountains from starvation, the cold, or sickness.
Stories of survival amongst the refugees surfaced after their return from the places of refuge in the mountains. Some families had been in hiding there for years. In the lyrics of this song, expressions of the bravery and strength against all odds speak to the harrowing journey of how women were able to survive and keep their children and others alive. What they experienced as victims is beyond comprehension because they were treated inhumanely, having to endure the most abominable, evil, and heinous torture. The army used violence against the women as part of their arsenal of weapons. The horrendous violence against the women was reprehensible, but the torture didn’t stop there. They saw their children being tortured and killed, and they were completely helpless.
I’ve reported on the history, experiences, and challenges of the Maya Ixil and others in Guatemala as a volunteer/writer since 2012. My experiences and expertise as a bilingual educator have opened up a world of diverse perspectives, languages and cultures. The unique way(s) of becoming bilingual and bicultural is as complex as it is fascinating. I’ve gained an enormous respect for people across different borderlands; and for every learning moment that I experience in their presence, I gain a life time of joy and gratitude.
This song is written from my mother’s point of view; from what I imagined she was thinking during the final phase of the debilitating effects due to the Alzheimer’s disease. The title is in reference to the simplest sensation, “to feel the heat of the sun,” which I noticed in my last visits with her. She couldn’t see or hear me; she was in another world. I wasn’t emotional then because I was too engrossed in her world and in trying to put myself inside of it. I recall several years before the complete onset of the disease that she was aware of the loss of memory, and would tell me that her time to die was near, which I try to express in the line: “donde el círculo comienza mi vida termina.” Writing and singing the song is a way of re-visiting my mother’s memory without the emotional strain that usually follows in moments of remembrance. She is with me, always.
Donde el círculo comienza
Mi vida termina
Donde la luz despierta es ciertamente el sol
El sol intento en quemar
Where the circle (of life) begins
So my life ends
The light that shines (on us) is the sun
The sun that radiates heat
Los recuerdos de ayer son como
Fantasía de una mirada cristalina
Tu voz, tu voz, que antes la escuchaba
Es solamente un sonido en la distancia
The memories of the past are
Like fantasies through a crystal ball
Your voice, your voice that I once knew
Is now a sound from the distance
Cuando me pongo los aretes
Que vi en una fotografía
Me hace sentir quien era esa mujer
Quien solo quería vivir.
When I put on my earrings
The ones I saw in a photograph,
It reminds me of a woman like me
That just wants to live
Si vivir es matar
Será como el agua en mis labios
Si vivir es matar
Será como el arma que disparo
If living is dying
It’s like water on my lips
If living is dying
It’s like killing with a gun
Para poder correr y llorar
Y sentir de nuevo el sol que me quema
Y sentir el sol que me quema
Then, I can run, and cry
And feel the heat of the sun again
The sun that radiates heat
In the poem, My Mother’s House, what stands out as “remembering her house,” is not so much about the physical contents, but it was the way we shared love: the indescribable mother-daughter kind of love:
Every love you leave behind
Intensifies within me a raging fire.
The love you have to teach me is worth more than this earth;
That the only thing living for is to live only once,
Soñando (Dreaming) is a song about following your heart and dreams. I think about my own dreams and how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to realize some of these, even if they were short-lived. When we were growing up in Lampasas, Texas, we didn’t have many role models to follow. I remember wanting to be an actress or a nun because we watched television and went to church. I was intrigued by the idea of being an actor and pretending to be someone else. I’m very fortunate in that I loved reading as a child and would often prefer to get lost in my book rather than play with my friends.
As a budding actress, I had a bit part in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was staged at the Casa Mañana Theater in Fort Worth. I was somewhat bored because I was sidelined during rehearsals but I used my off-time to prepare lessons for my students in the Teacher Corps program. In San Antonio, I was a member of the Teatro Chicano. We staged a street theater version of the Alamo, a play that centered on the ”truth” behind the siege of the Alamo, which is one of San Antonio’s main tourist attraction. In Austin, I had a pretty good major role in a play with the Austin Community Theater.
We started the Teatro Reflexiones group in San Antonio in the early 1970s, and chose to perform Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll House because of its gender inequality theme. However, to improve on its relevancy for our community we had to adapt it and translate it into Spanish. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center wasn’t yet around so the Our Lady of the Lake University allowed us to use their theater-in-the-round stage. The play became La casa de la muñeca; I played the role of Nora and directed it. The poster was made by César A. Martínez.
The lyrics in Soñando express how inspiration can be acquired by believing in yourself and staying focused on your dreams and passions. This truly is not so easy to accomplish. But it’s the creative process that is the most important. Fulfillment is achieved when you’re sufficiently satisfied and have no regrets for what you accomplished, as in the last lines of the song:
La canción romántica follows a traditional, old-fashion Mexican song style. As in many of these kinds of songs, there is a message or lesson about life. At some point in life, we are inclined to make difficult choices and in most cases, these are guided by the most practical reasons, the kind that have the best consequences on the long-run. The lyrics in La canción romántica emphasize that to achieve our life-long goals, we alone must own our journey; we are solely responsible for the outcomes.
Y vivir la vida,
Y seguír con corazón
El camino solitario
Como solo entré en este mundo
I realized that to live my life
I had to follow my heart
And take the solitary path
Like I came into this world
The lyrics in the refrain reflect a reverential perspective of our world and by being humble and compassionate, we recognize that the simplest gifts in life give us the most fulfillment.
I’ve tried to express in my writings the ways that music has played an important role in my life. All I Want to Hear is my latest piece, and the same or similar message seems to emerge: that no matter the chaos or conflicts that we live in life, music is the salve that relieves the pain, no matter where it comes from. I owe my passion for music to my father, and although I didn’t get to know him as an adult, my childhood memories of love remain strong.
Finally, Cuánto cuesta la memoria is a torch song in the Mexican tradition. It’s not a “ranchera” or “mariachi” but it has a familiar theme: falling in love and out of love, cheating, and picking up the pieces, etc. As in most cases with song lyrics, the meaning is lost in the literal translation. The awkwardness in the English translation points out how this song, and frankly, any Spanish language song, is meant to be sung onlyin Spanish.
Cuánto cuesta la memoria de tu amor
Si todo lo que he soñado fue un error
Cuánto cuesta las lágrimas que perdí
Y las noches que pasé sin tí
Sin saber de la maldita razón
El fracaso me costó todito mi corazón
How much does the memory of love cost
When everything that I’ve dreamt about has been a mistake
How much do the lost tears cost
And all the nights I’ve spent alone without you
Without knowing the reason why you betrayed me
The mistake cost me all of my heart
En un descuido tu amor se desapareció
Sin darme cuenta te alejastes de mi
Tenías que saber que estaba ciega
Tenías que ver el dolor que me causabas
In a fleeting moment your love disappeared from me
Before I realized it you were gone from my life
You’ve had to have known that I was blind to what you were doing
You’ve had to have known the pain that you caused me
Ahora el tiempo sigue como un buen amigo
La memoria firme de los engaños que me hiciste
Al fin de cuentas yo te amé
Mucho más de que tu tuvistes la fé
Now, time is on my side like a good friend
But I won’t forget that you betrayed me
At the end I think I loved you more
Than the faith you had in our love
Cuánto cuesta la memoria de un amor
Si todo lo que he soñado fue un error
Sólo la vida tendrá que mostrar
Que el amor nunca se puede olvidar
How much does the memory of love cost
When everything that I’ve dreamt about has been a mistake
Only time will tell
Whether love truly cannot be forgotten
For the broken-hearted, this is the kind of song that is easier to listen to over a glass of wine or shot of tequila. ¡Salud! Cheers!
This video is a continuation of the previous work: Who are the Maya Ixil? In this photo essay, the central questions are: Why do the Maya Ixil, especially the young men, migrate to the United States in such large numbers. In the Nebaj municipality, 1,465 people, mostly young men were deported within a two-year period: 2018 – 790: 2019 – 675. Total of 1,465 is 1.3 percent of the total population of Nebaj. The video points out the economy in crisis, which has been deteriorating for decades. Several factors are examined, but clearly, the Guatemalan government has failed to step up in crucial ways, allowing the problem to worsen.
The video: The Maya Ixil School of Life: Ways of Knowing and Learning:
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
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.
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