Testimony from a Spanish Court: Guatemalan Genocide Hearings
On Monday, May 26, 2008, the proceedings began with the testimony of Jacinta G., who spoke to the judge through an interpreter. Jacinta described the effects of army massacres that swept through the Quiché during 1981 and 1982, which forced thousands of the mostly Maya Quiché residents to flee their homes and hide in the hills and forests surrounding their communities. Jacinta, who married at age 14, had eight children when the conflict began; four of them died in the violence.
I lived in the community El Carrizal of the municipality of Chiché, Quiché. Beginning in 1982, we heard rumors about the army killing people, but we didn’t know anything about it. And then one night the soldiers arrived at my house. They came right into my room and grabbed me, saying they were looking for my husband and asking me where he was. Then they went into his room and my husband tried to escape through the roof of our house but they caught him. They took him off the roof and ordered him to get dressed, and then they killed him on the patio of our house. They beat him with their weapons, fracturing his skull, and then they shot him.
All our children were present. The soldiers forced us outside on the patio and told us to stay there while they searched the other houses in the village. They said if they didn’t find the people in their houses they would come back to kill us. After they left, my children and I ran away. We fled to the forest and hid and came back the next day. We found my husband sprawled dead on the patio, black with the blood pooled in his body from the beating.
We returned to our house because our food was there. But the massacres continued in the villages around us so we decided we had to leave. First we went to the village of Laguna Seca. Then in Laguna Seca the soldiers killed everyone so we fled to Choyomché. I fled with all my children, the tiny ones to the bigger ones, but we left our food behind and had nothing. We went from village to village. Each time we arrived in one place, the soldiers would eventually arrive to kill everyone, so we would have to flee again.
[How did you survive?] When we arrived in a village, if there were still people there they would give us a cup of atole, but if there was no one left, we would starve. That’s how a number of my children died. One was killed by soldiers who shot him with his pistol; three more died from starvation and fear. Finally I left the Quiché for the southern coast to try and make some money picking coffee at the plantations there. I needed to go there to feed my children. That’s where I met my second husband. We returned two and half years later to live in Chupoj, where he was from. But the conflict was over by then.
When we moved to Chupoj, there were rumors going around that soldiers were kidnapping children to force them to join the army. I decided to join with other people who had already started working together in order to defend their children, and that is how I came to be part of CONAVIGUA.
[Question: what base did the soldiers come from who killed your husband?] They came from the base in Quiché. I know this because every time I went I would see the base, and the soldiers gathered there were dressed in the same way as those who came to my house. [Were the soldiers who came to your house accompanied by the PACs?] No, there were only soldiers. When the conflict started and we fled our village, there still weren’t any paramilitaries involved, it was only the army. [When you fled, were there bombings in the mountain?] There wasn’t bombing. But the reason we continued to flee was that the soldiers were killing close to us – they were coming behind us and killing.
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Feliciana M. , a Quiché woman from Chupoj, lives now in Guatemala City with her three children. She told Judge Pedraz about the disintegration of her community in the face of army attacks that displaced her family permanently from their home and land.
At the end of 1981, when I was about 13 years old, I was living with my family. We lived in harmony and everything was fine. Then the military arrived in different communities around us. We began to hear rumors that in communities nearby there had been assassinations, the burning of houses and crops. But the violence hadn’t arrived where we were.
Then on one occasion I was with my family in the market buying things. Suddenly some people in military uniforms came up to one of the vendors, and they killed him right in front of me. That was the first shock I received, because I had never seen that before. It impacted me greatly and left me very frightened. From that point on, I had trouble sleeping. When I wanted to sleep, I would begin thinking about how that man was left lying on the ground, how the blood came out of his head like a river, and it hit me hard. It took me a long time to recover from that.
Time passed. Our community was still very peaceful. Then one afternoon the military came to my house. I don’t remember the date. They arrived and surrounded the house. My three brothers were there, my Papa, my Mama, and two nephews who were living with us. They took my father and brothers out of the house and tied their hands and feet, then threw them on the ground and began to accuse them of being guerrillas. My brothers had constructed a house of cement blocks; it was the first house of cement built in our village. So the soldiers said, how is it possible that in this community there would be a house of cement? It must be a guerrilla house, that’s why it’s made of this material! And they began to search the entire house. They took all our belongings and our clothes out of the house and destroyed them.
My mother and cousins and I were hiding in another little building made from corn stalks. I watched everything, feeling frightened, and I thought they were going to kill my brothers and my Papa. A little while later another group of soldiers arrived, bringing three men with them. The men were tied up in the same way, and they pulled them along as though they were animals, pulling them by the rope. And they said they were going to search for weapons in the houses and if they found any they would kill all of us.
Since there was nothing in our house except our things, which they had destroyed, they left, bringing with them one of my brothers. They kidnapped him. Later, he told us that they had forced him to look for food in the houses of our neighbors. They told him that if he found food, he would be all right, but if not they would kill him. They took him around to all the houses all afternoon, and didn’t finish until 10 at night. That’s when he returned home, at that hour. He told us that after gathering all the food from the neighbors, they had brought him to our school, where there were many soldiers gathered. The food was for them.
At that point our fear began, even though that time they had not killed us. But the fear began there, there was no more tranquility, we were scared. My brothers couldn’t work peacefully, they were always afraid. We were always looking around outside the house to see if the soldiers were coming again.
More time passed, and the soldiers were arriving constantly in our community – not only in ours, but in surrounding communities too. This time they weren’t killing just one or two people at a time. They began the massacres. They attacked to Chupoj several times, but the fourth time they started shooting at everyone. There were so many shots they sounded like Christmas fireworks.
We never knew why they were killing us, whether there was a reason, or if the community had committed some crime. They never told us anything. The only thing we knew is that the soldiers would arrive, and they would begin to kill everyone they saw. This went on for a long time. They kept coming, and they would chase us, sometimes for weeks. I remember two different times in particular when they chased us for more than a week, from mountain to mountain, from village to village. We would walk at night time and we couldn’t stop because they were still pursuing us. They would chase us until they got tired and gave up, and then we would go back into our village, dying of hunger and illness.
When we went to the mountains we didn’t have food or blankets. We spent time under the hot sun, in the rain, during nights. Whatever we left behind in the houses, the soldiers would steal.
On the 28 th of August 1982, we went to Guatemala City to get away from the repression. It was difficult. In the first place, we didn’t know the city. In the second place, we didn’t have any money and we didn’t know how to survive. We were obliged to take off our traditional dress there, which is part of our identity, for fear of being harassed. People would ask us questions: why are you here, why did you have to flee? Even though we didn’t tell them what had happened, they would point at us and say, oh there are the fugitives! That was very hard for us.
[Where do you work now?] Now I am part of CONAVIGUA. It is an organization that was created as a consequence of the armed conflict, made up of widows and young people. The work is in defense of the right to life, the rights of children and human rights. We have between 13,000-15,000 members, most of them people who lost relatives during the conflict. We are trying to honor the memory of our families, especially by exhuming their bodies so we can bury them with dignity.
María C. G. was the first witness on Tuesday, May 27. She was born in Choyomché, the eldest of six siblings, and married at 15 to Gaspar C., with whom she had 10 children. She spoke through an interpreter, describing the army sweeps through the Quiché and the arrival of the PACs.
First of all I would like to thank you for permitting us to come here and for listening to us. Today in Guatemala where I live there are still so many problems and it means a lot to be able to come give testimony in Spain. You have given us a kind welcome, which stands in contrast to the way we are treated in Guatemala.
During the armed conflict my community in Laguna Seca and all the communities nearby were constantly harassed and attacked by the military, beginning in 1981. We had to leave our house and all our belongings and hide in the mountains. We had nothing eat; one of my daughters died of hunger when she was two years old. For one year I was hiding in the mountain and sneaking back into the village to look for food, but it was hard because the soldiers kept coming after us, there was bombing from planes and helicopters.
After the soldiers massacred our villages in 1981 and 1982, the army sent the patrollers to control the communities. They stayed among us day after day, accusing us and harassing us. They wouldn’t permit us to leave to buy our food. They constantly threatened to kill the male children in our village, saying they should die because they were bad people: “semillas del mal” [seeds of the guerrillas]. My family scattered. I had to send away all my sons, because if the military caught them they would be killed.
In order to find food, we had to go to the Chiché market. But once the patrollers were installed, we could no longer travel to Chiché to buy anything because along the way there were groups of patrollers watching the roads and if they caught you travelling they would cut your throat. Since we couldn’t find food, we began to starve. The man who controlled and coordinated the Chiché PACs, Don Guicho, would not permit us to travel. We found some food in the mountain, such as wild berries, but we suffered a lot because we had nothing to eat. I was with my two of my children in the mountain and it was terrible. Thinking about it now makes me want to cry. They were both starving. They were nothing but bones.
[Were you ever able to go back to your home?] The first time I fled the violence, I ran to various communities in the Quiché but everywhere we went the soldiers would eventually come to kill the people and burn the village. And when the soldiers realized they were chasing the same group from village to village, on one occasion they encircled the communities and gathered the people together at the edge of a ravine, so that they had nowhere to run. The soldiers killed them all there and threw their bodies over the edge. Very few people survived; only those who were able to hide behind some trees. Everyone else died – children, old people, men and women. I witnessed this massacre. After that, we could not go back to our villages.
We realized we had to organize ourselves. So many people had died, there was no food left, no clothes. That was when we began to organize. We joined together from a lot of communities from around my area and other parts of Quiché, thousands of people from all the communities that the soldiers burned.
Once we were organized, some of us decided to go to the market of Chiché to try and buy some necessities. But when we arrived, the people of the area closed their doors on us and called us bad people, asking, why had we come down from the mountains? They said we were devils, and they didn’t receive us.
Two years later I was able to return to my own house. We had all fled, but little by little we were able to get back to our village. We would send one or two of the people who had fled to see how the situation was there and they would creep in and take some food and then run back to the mountains. I finally got back to my village in 1983.
But we were still hungry. I decided to try to pass through various ravines and reach the market in Chichicastenango so I could buy food for my children. We always had to find secret ways to get to the market, because if we travelled along the normal roads we would bump into groups of patrollers. And when they saw us they would speak into a machine, I don’t know the name, they would call the soldiers and the soldiers would come right away and start shooting at us. I went six times to the market. Each time there were patrollers and soldiers there who would grab my arms, grab my huipíl and call me a donkey, maltreating me in this way. They would question me, what village are you from? What are you doing here? They asked me why I was buying so much food, is it for the compañeros [guerrillas]? And they would threaten to kill me, though I told them I was just buying food for my children.
The sixth time I went, some soldiers caught me in one of the ravines and raped me. I was coming back from the market, with my food bundled on my back and one child at my breast when a group of soldiers found me walking and said, oh you are always passing here, are you buying food for the guerrillas? I was frightened and didn’t say anything and they got mad. They took my food from me and threw it on the ground. They grabbed my child and threatened to throw him in the river but I begged them not to hurt him and so they tossed him on the ground instead. And then they pushed me down and a soldier held my arms while another two raped me. The third didn’t do anything to me because he saw I was practically dead, so they left. I grabbed my child and ran, leaving all the food behind.
I went home and told my husband what had happened, and he said I was to blame for having left the house instead of staying with the children. I said, how can I stay here when my children are dying from hunger? He said that it was only because we were living in such a difficult situation that he pardoned me; otherwise he would have slit my throat for putting myself in a situation where I could be raped. I answered, why don’t you stop being a coward and go to find food for our children yourself? Afterwards I left again and found a way to get to Chichi by crossing several rivers.
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Dr. Charles R. Hale gave the second testimony of the day, appearing as an expert witness to address the relationship between ethnicity and state violence during the Guatemalan conflict. Hale is a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has taught since 1996. He has conducted extensive field research in Latin America, first in Bolivia (1978-80), then Nicaragua (1981-90), then Guatemala (1996-2004). He is the author of numerous books and articles on identity politics, racism, neoliberalism and resistance among indigenous peoples of Latin America, including Racial Ambivalence and Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala (SAR, 2006).
The purpose of my declaration is to give my professional opinion on a series of issues concerning inter-ethnic relations in Guatemala. My field research in the department of Chimaltenango focused on the Ladino population and their perceptions of the Maya in the context of rising Maya demands for rights, empowerment, and an end to racism. I interviewed over 100 Ladinos, ranging from lower class to power holders, including political actors and in a few cases, high ranking officers in the Guatemalan Army. I also conducted extensive research on the history of Chimaltenango before and during the period of armed conflict.
The research finds a history of profound inequality between the Mayan community and Ladinos, or Euro-Guatemalans, who have monopolized political and economic power for such a long time. In the context of the armed conflict, this inequality is expressed through state violence that has certain generalized characteristics but has very specific characteristics when confronted with the indigenous.
We begin with an understanding of “ethnic group” as a group of individuals with social and cultural characteristics in common that enacts and recognizes boundaries defining the group. In the case of Guatemala, indigenous ethnic groups have common social characteristics that have to do with birthplace, mother tongue, cultural practices, cosmology or spiritual values – and also designated boundaries between themselves as indigenous and the rest of society as non-indigenous. These boundaries have been perceived and strengthened by dominant groups in Guatemala to relegate indigenous as culturally different and inferior and to reinforce inequality.
If we look at Guatemala’s history during the colonial period, regimes clearly differentiated the indigenous, imposing conditions of inferiority both informal and legal. The dominant Ladinos used the term “Republic of the Indians,” to differentiate the indigenous space. Once the country became a republic, all Guatemalans were considered citizens. But the economic, political and social conditions of the indigenous continued to be strongly limited. There were laws that compelled the indigenous to work in fincas [plantations] in order to avoid being considered criminals or vagrants. Their access to education was severely limited. Their political participation was inconceivable even at the local level. These conditions reflected the deep racism that ran through the Ladino sector. The indigenous group was considered inferior in a cultural sense, but biologically also. The only real way for a member of the indigenous community to advance would be to change his identity and leave his community and its customs behind altogether.
These conditions began to change during the decade of economic reform (1944-54), although certain limits still existed. But with the coup in 1954, there was a regression to the status quo so that when conflict started, the indigenous lived in conditions very similar to the past.
The Maya are pan-ethnic. They come from different regions in Guatemala and Mexico, are made up of diverse groups and speak numerous languages. But from the point of view of the Ladino, they represent a homogenous group, undifferentiated, with an “Indian” perspective. In essence, Ladinos consider the Mayan culture traditional and static, which does not change over time; it is an inferior culture, which doesn’t have the capacity to adapt to modernity; and it is an organic and unthinking culture, whose members blindly follow their traditional precepts.
So if we apply these generalities to the facts of the conflict, we can see that the first phase of the massacres and their characteristics rise out of this consideration that the indigenous are a mass of undifferentiated groups. If some individuals are guilty by association with the guerrillas, all must be guilty. It is also important to note the spatial configuration in the Guatemalan countryside. Counties are divided into a county seat, which is where the Ladinos live, and the outlying villages, which are overwhelmingly indigenous. Thus, when the military attacked these villages, they could be fairly sure that all the inhabitants were indigenous. And indeed, we see a pattern of selective repression in the county seats, but indiscriminate repression in the outlying village areas.
In the second phase, when the amnesty was passed and model villages built, state policy was no longer to destroy but instead to change the culture – to domesticate it, to subjugate it to national authority. The idea was to control the indigenous rather than eliminate him.
In Chimaltenango, there are notable patterns of state response to any sign of collective organization and the desire for social change.
In the mid-1970s, there were a number of new organizations starting to try and affect local conditions in Chimaltenango and improve indigenous rights. Little by little the 16 municipalities of Chimaltenango began electing indigenous mayors. The state’s response again was violence, as the mayors were killed off by death squads or other state-directed groups. In this context, a desire grew up for another path to change; there was sympathy with the guerrilla, but also a lot of social mobilization.
When the insurgency grew stronger in 1981, Chimaltenango didn’t have big guerrilla presence. Indeed, the pattern of massacres in the department – there were 63 documented massacres – showed that most were carried out after the guerrillas were gone. So there was a distinct logic of repression applied to the indigenous that didn’t necessarily coincide with the greater counterinsurgency logic.
One of the most striking findings in my research had to do with the way in which the Ladinos perceive the indigenous. In the Ladino mentality, the majority indigenous community is a threat. There is an ever-present fear of retribution by the indigenous against the Ladino: one day, they will collectively rise up and kill all our men and rape our women. They will do massive damage. It is the reverse of what has actually happened historically. We have a notorious case in Chimaltenango in 1944, when a group of indigenous took control of their municipal seat, and 14 Ladinos died. The army sent massive response to put down the rebellion and then, in order to teach a lesson not just to them but to indigenous communities in general, they slaughtered hundreds of Indians; the figures suggest that between 300 and 500 people died. The retaliation was a demonstration of state power, and had similar traits to the later massacres in the refusal of Ladino elites to differentiate between individuals, treating all indigenous as a homogeneous group instead.
So when the military respond to the threat of insurgency, they are also responding according to this historical racism, with the idea that the indigenous traditionally act as a group and could at any time rise up against the Ladinos. The counterinsurgency was a marriage of the response against the guerrilla and the deep perception of the threat of the indigenous. Understanding that helps explain the logic of violence that was so much greater than what was necessary. It was a level of violence that had the clear intention to physically destroy or inflict crippling pain on members of specific indigenous communities, or groups of communities, without distinction. This partial destruction had a demonstration effect on the rest of the Mayan population.
Guatemalan anthropologist, author and Jesuit priest Ricardo Falla presented the first testimony before Judge Pedraz on Wednesday, May 28, describing the genocidal campaigns of the Guatemalan army in the Ixcán during the early 1980s and the communities of popular resistance (CPRs) formed in response by those who escaped. Falla’s account was based on years of interviewing massacre survivors living in the CPRs and in the Mexican refugee camps along the border with Guatemala. His research and analysis has been published in many articles and books, including Massacres in the Jungle: Ixcán, Guatemala, 1975-1982. He began his testimony by telling how he learned of the 1982 San Francisco massacre. On July 17, 1982, soldiers entered the hamlet of San Francisco Nentón in Huehuetenango. They called all of the villagers to a meeting, then locked the men and women into two buildings. By the end of the day they had killed more than 300 people. One survivor told the story to Falla in a refugee camp in Mexico.
The first massacre that I documented was the massacre at the Finca San Francisco. I met the principal witness in La Gloria refugee camp in Mexico, on the border with Guatemala, at the beginning of September 1982 – two months after the massacre. He told us what happened and I taped his testimony. We also taped Monsignor Samuel Ruiz, the bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, who described seeing the Guatemalans arrive in Mexico after fleeing the massacre. They were in a complete panic, carrying their children with them, their bundles, their chickens, and anything else they could take out of Guatemala.
The witness told me how the military arrived in the village on Saturday, July 17, 1982. They came in helicopters, so the witness knew they were not guerrillas. The men were working in the fields and the women were inside their houses. There were hundreds of soldiers. They gathered the men and brought them to the courthouse, where they locked them inside. The women and children were locked inside a church. The men could hear the rattle of machine gun fire and the screams of the women. The women were being raped. (I asked him, “How did you know?” He said because he and other survivors went to see later and found the women’s bodies with their skirts pushed up.) The soldiers took the children and smashed their heads against the ground.
Then the soldiers rested. The massacre was a lot of work. The soldiers closed the door on the building and chatted, played guitar. Later they would kill everyone inside. The eyewitness escaped out of a window while the soldiers were resting.
The hamlet was razed. It was never reconstructed. I realized that this testimony was precious – and a responsibility. I wanted to understand, how did this happen? How did this come about?
In 1983, I went into the jungles of the Ixcán to speak with the people fleeing the massacres. I stayed with a group of people and moved around with them while they hid. We talked – I filled 5 notebooks with the interviews. Bit by bit, each interview gave me more until I was able to create a map of how the massacres took place. It was difficult work; we were in the mountain, and there were soldiers, guerrillas, there was a war going on. Later I went to refugee camp that was nearby, maybe three or four hours walking from where we were hiding. To be in the camp was like being in a Hilton hotel. There was milk, cheese. You didn’t have to worry about being chased by the army. I had the opportunity to take many declarations. And the people talked and talked. They told me what they had suffered. They told me their life stories.
I never stopped being a priest. And the people were glad to be able to tell me their stories.
In the map I made, I documented what had happened between the Rio Ixcán y Rio Xalbal – those were the best documented massacres, because there were more people there. But I also heard about massacres in Santa María Tzeja and other places. I interviewed survivors of the massacre of Cuarto Pueblos, which happened in two different places. Then the soldiers went to Los Angeles. They didn’t massacre. Why not? I think it was the day that Rios Montt took over in a coup. So they didn’t massacre because there was no high command to give the orders. Then the Xalbal massacre took place. In June came the amnesty, and there were no massacres. There was only one massacre then, and it was by the guerrillas, one of the few by them.
All of these massacres were part of a plan and followed the same pattern: the soldiers would surround a town, divide the men and women, rape the women, kill the women and children and then the men, and burn the town. One witness told me how the officers had to encourage the soldiers to keep working, that they were fighting communism. They thought these villages were supporting the guerrilla and so had to be destroyed “down to the last seed.” According to some news reports at the time, the army had in their headquarters a map with little red flags marking the villages. They had a plan to destroy the people because of their belief that they were behind the guerrilla. Of course most of the villagers didn’t have anything to do with guerrillas.
I am not an eyewitness to the massacres. But I am a witness of the persecution that the soldiers carried out against the people: the people who were resisting. At first we didn’t know or use this word, “resisting.” We were holding on. We would be in little groups of 7 or 8 households, maybe 50 people. And a group of soldiers would surprise us in the mountain. What would we do? We would flee: running, running through streams so we wouldn’t leave footprints. We would have already agreed a place to meet later. And so we would scatter, running, and then meet later in the place.
And God, it would rain – such tremendous rain. There were at one point about 450 people hiding up there in tiny groups. Because there was food at that time – it was hard to find, but it was there. Sometimes you had to go for a day or two without eating, but then you could eat, because there were hidden crops and other sources of food that we would forage.
Later I went to Mexico. I shut myself up in a room and wrote for two years. I wrote – and I cried. You know when there is something fresh and you are motivated? I wrote down everything I could – 1,400 pages. It was two volumes, too much.
In 1984, Mexico took everyone gathered in the refugee camps by the border, and dispersed them in Campeche and Quintana Roo. Many people refused to go to the new camps and resettle away from the border, so some of them decided to return and resist. They joined the organized people in the mountain. We always talk about people as victims, but not about all the amazing things they did to resist and survive. The people were much more organized by then. They could stay for up to three months in one place without moving. The army was bombing them with huge bombs that would leave gigantic craters. But they didn’t actually kill that many people. The people just hid from the bombs. So, they were victims, but in resistance – a resistance that began with the massacres.
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The second person to testify was María T. Now 67 years old, María was born in El Caserio Tunajá, a community between Chiché and Joyabaj, municipality of Zacualpa. She spoke to Judge Pedraz in the Quiché language through an interpreter.
In December 1983, soldiers and civil defense patrollers (PACs) came to our village. I was inside our house. The army went from house to house looking for people. They took four women and found my husband working in the field and took him too, to the military base in Joyabaj. Two of the women taken were my neighbors; when they returned from the base they told me they had seen my husband bound and badly beaten. His hands were swollen from being tied together so tightly.
When the soldiers took my husband, he protested that he had served in the patrols and my children and I ran out to defend him but they hit us and took him away anyway. He was kept at the base for eight days. Then they took him to Zacualpa and I went to find him. I saw him tied up on the back of a military truck on top of a pile of wood, and I begged the lieutenant there to let him go but he said no. I went back home to my children, feeling very sad. Later another person who had been held with my husband was released and came to me to tell me they had killed him.
After that, the patrollers and soldiers kept coming to our house, every few days, so I had to hide during the daytime from them. They would come into the village shooting at people and telling them to turn over all the bad people to them or they would kill everyone. They registered all the houses of the village. First they were from the Joyabaj patrol, then from Zacualpa. They told me my son had to join the patrols, that there were orders from the lieutenant, but my children were gone, working on the south coast. The first chief of the PACs wasn’t so bad. He said everyone had to be part of the patrols in order to protect their community. But the second one threatened to kill the whole family.
In this time no one could leave the place where they lived without permission from the patrollers. A friend of mine tried to leave to go into town – she went to the patrollers and asked permission – but they denied her permission and told her to return to her house.
One night a big group of soldiers arrived at 11 pm at my house and pounded on my door, shouting at me, was I a good person or a bad person? I said through the door, “What do you want?” and they told me, “If you don’t open door we will break it down.” So I opened it and they entered the house. They registered everything, how much furniture I had, who was living there, and they stole all my food. They asked me, have there been strange people passing here? “No there haven’t.” They didn’t find anything suspicious in the house so they left.
When they returned they showed me photos, saying “these are bad people,” but I said I did not know them. They threatened to take me to the army base since I was not talking. They were threatening me and one of my daughters, who was 8 years old, asked the soldiers, why are you bothering my mother? Go to the mountains and look for guerrillas, because here in the houses are only good people. The soldiers had to use a translator to understand my child because they didn’t speak Quiché.
The soldiers then surrounded the house of my neighbor and told her to turn her husband over to them. She said he wasn’t there. “Why do you have children inside, if there is no husband?” She said he was away working. “If you don’t turn him over, we will take your 5-year-old child away.” The military commissioner asked my neighbor, “Do you have good or bad thoughts?” And she said, “I don’t think anything bad.” But they took her away. I could hear her screaming as they took her away.
On Thursday, May 29, Domingo L. gave his testimony. Domingo was born in the Cantón Xecnub, in the municipality of Joyabaj, department of Quiché. One of seven children, he grew up learning to farm with his father and brothers. The massacres arrived in his village in 1981; for two years his family ran from community to community, trying to escape the violence. Domingo lost his parents and five of his siblings as a result of the conflict. Later he would become a member and organizer in the Comité de Unidad Campesina (Committee of Campesino Unity—CUC).
We lived near Joyabaj, in the Quiché. Before, we had a better life – it was a difficult one because we had to work on the coast every year picking coffee, but it was peaceful. In August 1981 the trouble began. During a fiesta, 5 or 6 persons were kidnapped and found dead later. We didn’t know why. But that’s where it began.
On 24 December the Army arrived in Xecnub and started to kill people. My mother and father lived in that place – we were eight people. The army was killing us. We got together and fled to the mountain. We went back down to try to get our things later but found everything gone and burned. Everything was burned. So we never went back to live in that house.
We hid as refugees in another place, in Alta Verapaz. One of my sisters lived there, recently married. We thought, Oh in 10 or 15 days this problem will be over. But no, it lasted for much longer. More and more people left their villages and went into the mountains. While we were there the army attacked the people and about 80 people were killed in the mountains.
The Xecnub civil defense patrol worked with the soldiers. They chased us no matter where we went, hunting down all the people from Xecnub so that no one could work or return home. We moved on to Churexa to escape them.
In May 1982 my father and two brothers and I left the hamlet to plant our crops. We were sowing our field for three days. We came back to our house and found that the rest of the family was gone. Five people from my family were kidnapped and taken away: my mother, three of my sisters and a niece. I learned later from two patrollers that they were killed. We don’t know where they are buried; some people say the cemetery, some the military barracks. So there were only four of us left. We stayed alone, fleeing the patrollers.
In August there was nothing left to do in this area. The patrollers were well organized in the two cantons to hunt and kill the people. So, in this month all of us who were left in the area fled together to find another place to hide, in Zacualpa. We were there for three days. But the patrollers and army chased us, and they grabbed us one day by surprise. They killed about 60 people – men, women and children. I was together with my papa and two brothers. We were able to run away more quickly because we were men, but the women and small children lagged behind and they were killed. We snuck back after we were sure the soldiers were gone. We saw the dead people. Some of them had no heads, others lay there with their throats cut.
In April 1983, soldiers and patrollers surrounded and attacked Xolbalchaj, where we had gone to hide and live. They took everyone in that area away and killed them. About 45 people died in that action. In the morning before they came we had heard that there would be an army sweep. My father went to investigate but I stayed working in the field. Then I saw around 100 patrollers approaching, and I immediately hid under a pile of leaves. Five minutes later I heard the sound of the patrollers shouting and feet running. They killed my father and one of my brothers, then my other brother. So only my sister and I were left from a family of nine.
Before, there was no military base in Joyabaj. But when the troubles began they created this army base in Joyabaj. In the Cantón Xeabaj there was a base for the patrollers. In every place the patrollers had the bases. The patrollers would threaten us all the time. They would say, “You are bad people. You are going to die.”
We never found out where they took my mother. My father’s body and one brother were exhumed in the place where 45 people died and we reburied them.
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Beatriz Manz spoke after Domingo. Manz is a professor of Geography and Ethnic Studies at the University of California Berkeley whose research has focused on Mayan communities in rural Guatemala. Her first book, Refugees of a Hidden War: The Aftermath of Counterinsurgency in Guatemala (State University of New York Press, 1988), examined the human rights abuses committed by the military against indigenous rural communities, and the resulting mass displacement that affected over a million Guatemalans. Her most recent book, Paradise in Ashes: A Guatemalan Journey of Terror, Courage and Hope (University of California Press, 2004), recounts the experiences of one village deep in the heart of the rainforest in northern Guatemala, near the Mexican border.
I am here to speak about my work as an anthropologist in Guatemala and in the refugee camps in Mexico.
The army’s counterinsurgency campaign caused massacres. According to the Catholic Church, some one and a half million people were displaced. The army pursued and persecuted the displaced people, capturing or killing them, destroying their fields, their trees, and fruits. The constant persecution created insupportable conditions that caused the deaths of many more people, especially children. The constant surveillance of the displaced people by airplane also created terrible conditions for them. They had to cook in the middle of night. They had to wear wet clothes because they couldn’t wait for them to dry after a rain; they had to kill their dogs so they wouldn’t bark, and silence their own children. When they couldn’t bear it any more, they crossed into Mexico.
The first time I learned about the massacres was when I was in Mexican camps. I had read something about them in the press in 1981, but it wasn’t until I was conducting interviews in the camps in 1982 that I realized the immensity of these massacres. In the 1970s the government had carried out selective persecution targeting certain sectors, such as activist Catholics, teachers, union leaders. But the people did not flee the areas where they lived, they stayed in their villages.
In 1982, what the refugees described was a much higher level of persecution. It was something completely different. I carried out about 100 interviews with them. When I got to the Puerto Rico refugee camp, people were pouring over the border – in one day some 600-800 came in. It’s difficult to describe the conditions in which these people arrived. To get to the camp you had to walk through the dense jungle. Their physical condition when they arrived was very poor: some had no shoes, they arrived in a state of malnutrition, sick, cold, etc. They had only herbs in the forest to eat, with very little water. Several women gave birth in the forest.
Already in 1982 we were hearing about many deaths. Those who left were the ones who were able to escape the army’s attacks. It was hard to get from the Altiplano to Mexico. They left from all over that area: from Huehuetenango, the Petén, Ixcán. They told similar stories. The army surrounded an aldea. If they found people there, they killed them and then they destroyed the village: burned the houses, killed the animals, and destroyed the crops. The people who managed to hide fled to the jungle and lived in horrible conditions, and those that survived displacement fled to Mexico.
The people would hide deep, deep in the jungle and the patrollers would chase them. They would find their little milpas inside the jungle, small and dispersed so they couldn’t be found by air. When the soldiers destroyed those, the people would lose hope.
Sometimes 6 or 7 families would hide together, sometimes huge groups of 700 people. It was much more difficult to survive that way. They couldn’t walk on the paths together. They had to move toward the border in the north by cutting a path through the dense jungle in the middle of the night. During the day they had to stop and be silent. If they were a big group it was even more complicated – hundreds of people trying to walk through the dense jungle.
The army’s goal was to clean the region. The soldiers were responding to orders to control everything and everyone in the zone of Ixcán. “Plan Victoria 82” was focused on total victory--which meant control by the military of the area – not only about control of the guerrillas or of persecution of certain activist Catholics. The army took over the churches, the schools. Never before did the Catholic Church have to shut down an entire diocese, as they did in El Quiché. But that wasn’t sufficient. That wasn’t enough. The army had to continue with their campaign to control everything and everyone, alive or dead.
In Mexico, the government created COMAR (the Mexican Commission for Refugees). The UN agency to aid refugees, ACNUR, opened offices in Mexico also – it was a recognition of the disaster of refugees from Guatemala. These new institutions helped address the crisis. Nevertheless, the incursions of the Guatemalan army into Mexico created panic among the refugees in the camp. The incursions had to be very small; the Guatemalans knew they were violating the sovereignty of the Mexican government. I remember one incident in particular when 7 people were killed by Guatemalan soldiers. So they were able to get in and attack people.
Before all this happened, the people of Ixcán were well organized by the Maryknolls and the diocese of El Quiche to settle in the area. They belonged to cooperatives, took classes, it was a democratic organization of the aldeas. When the villages were destroyed and people displaced, the villagers maintained this level of organization. And it was an important form of survival. In the refugee camps, the leaders of communities would go from house to house and make sure everyone had a tarp over their family’s head, that they knew where to get food, how to build a place to cook, and so on. Of course, the conditions in the camp were terrible. These people were already poor campesinos. Now they had to live in awful conditions, and many people died as a result.
In 1983, I went into Guatemala to see what was happening in the Altiplano. I went into the model villages, where the population that had been captured or turned over to the army now lived. The way the army talked about the civilians was to turn them into prisoners, criminals. They “captured” them, they “detained” them, they “interrogated” them, and they talked of “pardoning” them. They tortured them so that the people had to say something, “accuse” others. They had to turn others in, give names; it was not possible to be silent. The Army would take groups of people, prisoners they had interrogated, away from the large army base in Playa Grande in trucks. The trucks would leave the base, and would come back empty. Everyone left in the army base was apprehensive that they would be put in those trucks and also be taken away to be killed. You didn’t have to tell the interrogators the names of guerrilla collaborators – they knew. They knew which person’s brother was involved in the guerrilla. But they interrogated everyone anyhow to see if they would be willing to cooperate with the army and accuse others. It was a way of involving the population psychologically in a very difficult situation. They created a terrible feeling of guilt among the people.
In the first phase of army counterinsurgency sweeps, they would kill everyone. Later the tactics changed, and they would kill those who fled but the ones who stayed would be rounded up and taken to the military base. They were interrogated there and eventually taken to model villages.
The village I knew best, since 1973, was Santa María Tzejá, which became a model village. The model villages represented a new organization of space, so that army could control the people better. New residents who had been brought in by the army changed the village as well. Originally, the people who came to Ixcán were Catholics, and in Santa María Tzejá they were all from El Quiche and K’iche’ speakers. But when Santa Maria Tzeja became a “model village” the army brought in evangelicals and people from different parts of country. So in Sta. María Tzeja, for example, there were 116 families and they spoke 7 languages. The army’s strategic plan was to mix the people that way so that it would be impossible for the people to unify themselves.
In the villages, the army carried out re-education programs. After the horrors these people had seen, the people were more vulnerable to psychological pressure from the army. The army would say: this is the Guatemalan flag! You have to honor it! You are manipulated by foreigners! So the ideological re-education was intense. “You are bad people, with bad ideas, but we pardon you.”
International groups would send food to be distributed (presumably by civilians) to the people. But the army would always distribute the food and the medical assistance. The community leaders would be named by the army. How many tortillas you were allowed to carry, how much salt, it was all controlled by army. You couldn’t just come and go as you pleased, all movements were controlled by army. If a man wanted to leave and miss his patrol service, he had to pay a replacement. You had to show your cédula (ID card) everywhere. The military took down all of this in their notebooks by hand. If you lost your cédula, you were in trouble.
The Army is very hierarchal and very disciplined. The officers were well trained, often in United States. The idea that a group of low-ranking soldiers would arrive in a village and commit a massacre based on their own decision was not sustainable, not possible. They always had lists of suspects by names when they arrived. Their level of control and the organization of their campaign were such that it was clearly designed by superiors.
The consequences of the massacres are very long term: first, many people were left with deep psychological problems and social problems. Second, the deep fear caused by the military violence, the mayhem, and the destruction of the economy has produced waves of illegal immigrants over US border. Third, the economic setback in the rural areas, already dismally poor, is and will continue to have deep consequences. No one has reimbursed the campesino families for the land they lost, for their houses, their animals. So if they were poor to begin with, imagine their condition now. Fourth, in the past farmers in the Ixcán for example, were well organized in cooperatives. Now everyone is isolated – you plant your little plot of cardamom or whatever you are growing and sell it on your own. Finally Guatemala is faced with the legacy of the brutal violence, the lynching – adults and young people alike only know violence. There were and are no laws. There is chaos. The people are very apathetic. Why should they act? They know the consequences. This combination of malaise is not a recipe for success, for social and economic development. How can you have social progress when you have a society that is pessimistic about the future because of what they experienced in the past, and have no reason or assurance that what happened will not reoccur again?
We realize that the dead will not come back to us. The disappeared will never return. I will not see my colleague Myrna Mack, who was killed by the army for her work, again. But the world needs to render a judgment. To judge those responsible! In the 21 st century we cannot continue to keep these horrors hidden, we cannot continue being silent about what happened in Guatemala. At least through this case, the world will hear, the world will know, and the Guatemalan society, especially the survivors, will know that it was judged to have been a crime against humanity. So that this damaged society can become a dignified society again.
One expert witness testified before Judge Pedraz on Friday, May 30, completing the second round of hearings in the international Guatemala genocide case. Marta Elena Casaús Arzú holds a doctorate in Political Science and Sociology and is professor of the History of the Americas at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM). She has been the principal researcher on numerous studies concerning racism and intellectual development in Central America. Among her most recent publications are Guatemala: linaje y racismo (Guatemala: F&G Editores, 2007); Las redes intelectuales centroamericanas: un siglo de imaginarios nacionales (1820-1920) (Guatemala: F&G Editores, 2005); and La metamorfosis del racismo en Guatemala (Guatemala: Cholsamaj, 2002).
My studies have been focused on racism; I study the racist nature of the Guatemalan state. Racism is a historical and structural element of Guatemala. The racist state was constructed based on the exclusion of the indigenous. Within this construct, the indigenous was not considered a citizen.
How has racism evolved? Racism began in service of a caste society, which held an image of the Indian as a savage. Since the 19 th century, the Guatemalan state has used violence to control indigenous communities. Instead of doing what other American states, like Mexico, did in celebrating mestizaje (citizens of mixed race) and incorporating this wider group into nationhood, the Guatemalan state defined itself as a white state. The idea was never to mix with Indians, but rather to keep them in their place. The whites were considered superior. In this sense, Guatemalans looked to Argentina as a model during the 1920s. In the press, editorials would call for migration from Argentina and other countries in order to improve the Guatemalan race.
There was never an agrarian reform, as there was in many other countries in Latin America, at least not after 1954. But during the brief, democratic period from 1944-1954, the indigenous consolidated their position as campesinos. They became the authors of their own story and began to incorporate themselves into political life, which was troubling to the elite. In the collective Ladino imagination there was a permanent fear that if the “Indians” gained power, they would rise up and take revenge on the whites. This fear persists today.
In the 1970s, the indigenous began to incorporate into the armed conflict. The response of the state was the massacre of Panzós in 1978, one of the first powerful signs of the attack to come and the dehumanization of the indio by the military.
Two years later, in 1980, when the Indians took over the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City, it was an invasion of urban space by campesinos who didn’t “belong” there. The Spanish embassy massacre was a turning point. The elites blamed [Ambassador Maximo] Cajal for siding with the wrong people – he was considered a traitor to his race. It was the only way they could explain what happened, consistent with their world view. And when the government lost international face over the massacre, it had nothing left to lose by moving to indiscriminate killing.
The state and the power elites perceived a threat from the indigenous, and society accepted that it was the right moment to act against them. The fear of rebellion and the overlapping desire to exterminate the “Indians” united in a historical-political moment that would lead to ethnocide. The elites believed that there was no other form to address the conflict than with systematic violence and genocide, and the racist attitudes of the army high command contributed to the execution of the genocidal acts.
I wanted to look more closely at this question of racism within the dominant culture. I interviewed 110 elite Guatemalans, many of whom graduated from top schools in the United States, in order to understand their attitudes about race. One of the questions I asked was, “What is the solution that you would propose to better integrate the indigenous communities into national life?” The answer of one businessman, aged 49, was typical of others interviewed. He said, “The only solution for those people would be a strong dictatorship, a Mussolini or a Hitler that would force them to work or to educate themselves. Either that or wipe them out altogether.”
That is the kind of thinking that leads to genocide.
When the Ríos Montt government took over in 1982, many of the people in the elite who shared these views became part of the government and its major backers. Combined with this attitude was a variant of Pentecostalism that held that the Indians who did not accept the Pentecostal view were damned and did not really have souls. So it was easy to dehumanize them.
And even after there was no longer any threat from the guerrilla, why did the state continue massacring the indigenous population? Because the political and military elite wanted to teach them a lesson, to make sure they never even thought about rising up again.
If we look at Guatemala today we find that not much has changed, to the extent that the underlying economic conditions and the underlying racism are very similar to what they were during the conflict. The structure of the racist state remains intact and there has not been real legislative change, nor change in the justice system nor in the economic structure. The racist state continues functioning with the same logics of exclusion, discrimination and extermination, and generalized violence continues being one of the principle evils of the country.
And if all that is true, then why should we not seriously consider the possibility of a revival of genocide in Guatemala?