When I joined them the guerilla I did it totally, I could not leave, because I realized what poverty and injustice can do in real life. But in theory I also realized some other things, like the United States intervention in the war and the overthrow of Arbenz. This is back in the year 1952 when he was overthrown… At that time, The United Fruit Company intervened with their exploitation since they would pay $1 dollar for a whole bunch of plantains, bananas, and they’ll take it to the US to sell for 1 dollar each banana. And then, the exploitation of nickel and any riches that Guatemala had. So, I started to realize all of that and so the objective was not to overthrow the Army, but to get rid of the foreign intervention. And we also realized that at the time of John F. Kennedy people were also sent from the Peace Corps but with the purpose of finding out who were the insurgents who were against the government. According to the US wishes, they wanted a totalitarian, military government, while we wanted a civil government, a democratic government. Our goal was to overthrow the Guatemalan government and get rid of the intervention from gringos. That’s why I had to stay for 4 1/2 years in the…
The guerrilla simply fought, with arms in their hands the Guatemalan Army. We tried to fight against the Army with their same weapons, trying to save the civil population because the Army would arrive to kill, to massacre. At first, I was in the south but the Army didn’t get there much because the people were more organized and they had more businesses, so the Army wasn’t as interested in them. They concentrated more in Quiche, Quetzaltenalgo, San Marcos, Huehuetenango and the middle part, the Altiplano Central, Chimaltenango but at its northern part, the part by the Motagua River. Those are places that were taken by the Army. They would arrive and just because someone was a cathequist, or the president of a co-op, or had a religious position, they were accused of being a guerrilla. While us, the ones in the mountains were not as affected because they knew we were going to fight them with the same weapons. So I was 4 years, or more exactly, 3 years around the Quiche area.
Do you feel that the villagers, the people in the towns, supported the guerrillas? Some people say that the villagers were with the Army. But, the Army say that the villagers were supporting the guerrillas.
Yes, the townspeople suffered. In the first place, they suffered. Of course when we reached a town, not everybody wanted to become involved in the fighting. Some said that they did not want to get involved in anything, while others, young people of 18, 15, 14, 20 years of age up to 25, that had their family, father, mother, children killed, they were very angry. So they came with us. But it is also true that we also attacked the army. We tried to leave some resistance in the towns. Unfortunately, the Army would come with more sophisticated weapons like airplanes, tanks and kill everyone. So even when the guerrilla tried to take over the Altiplano Central, including Quiche, we couldn’t do it because the US intervened military and financially. They sent military advisors to the Guatemalan Army. And they advised them against the guerrilla, the insurgents and so Rios Montt started to kill anybody. We also felt the consequences. We were in the mountains, in the open, without houses, and sometimes we’d run out of weapons so we had to quit.
How many guerrilla you think there were?
Guatemalan guerrillas? About 15,000 total.
And there were international guerrillas, from many countries. Spanish, gringos, Mexicans, I never saw Cubans. They were internationalists. They could fight here as well as in any country that needed them, as long as they didn’t die (laughing).
And, of the fifteen thousand nationals, were most of them ladino or Maya?
I could say that about 99.5 were indigenous and only .5 ladinos.
And were the leaders ladinos or Maya or both?
That’s the major problem. The leader was Guatemalan, you knew about him, the one that just died, Gasparilon. And there is the other one called Roland something. They were all ladinos. The leaders were ladinos. Yes, they were all intellectuals.
Possibly, there were many internationalists. Since there wasn’t only one battlefront and I was in the John Sosa one. A battlefront is composed of more than 250 guerrillas. It can be up to 500, 1,000, even 2,000, 5,000. So, there were many battlefronts.
How did you hear about your brothers’ disappearance?
Before that, I want to clarify something. There were many fewer ladinos in each battlefront. So we interchanged through more than one group. We belonged to the Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo , PGT, (Guatemalan Labor Party). Our commandant was Cardosa and he died already. So, the 4 commandants got together to discuss the strategies of war. And we realized that the indigenous were the majority in the guerrilla and in the Army… we were killing each other. But one was working with a group and the other with another one with different ideas. So, that’s why we decided to call the 4 commandants to a meeting in Nicaragua. The Frente Sandinista de Liberacion gave us access to Nicaragua. It was around October or November ’81. In Nicaragua, us, a group of Mayans, asked what was the role of the indigenous in the taking over the power, since we realized that the indigenous were the majority, in any factory, industry, workers. They said that they’ll take care of that after the war. So we said that if a decision is not made before, the war will be a failure. “We will continue if you give us an answer now to that question.”
“Why?” they asked.
“Because we claim justice and you are a minority in all parties.” In the battlefront that I was there were about 50-60 ladinos, while we were about 500.
They realized that the way …. our efforts is vain, they asked the question, where is going to go this if they don’t give them assurance that… They went to Nicaragua and they questioned them. We want concrete assurance. They questioned the leaders….
If it had only been the Guatemalan Army, we had an advantage, we could have won. But when there was intervention from Chile and the US, Argentina, all of the… we started to lose power. I remember when we were bombarded in March, it lasted for 3 months, and our strategists could not anticipate all of that. And also when we had that meeting with the commandants, many of our fellows started to give up, since they realized that the power will be again in the hands of the ladinos.
It was happening towards the end of ’82. We started to get discouraged, we stayed in the battlefront, but there wasn’t an answer to our petition. And then ’82, ’83 went by, and at the beginning of ’84 the Army attacked us with international help. Then, when they attacked us completely it was ’84, March, April, May, and in June the Mexican government caught us and we had no other option but to ask for political asylum in Mexico.
So, you did go into Mexican territory?
Yes, we got there without knowing it.
What did they say to you when they captured you?
They asked us to hand in the arms, raise our hands, and identify ourselves. We told them that we would not give up the arms since we were Guatemalan patriots (citizens) and we were revolutionary soldiers. “We are going to shoot you” they said.
“So, we will all shoot each other here. You die with us.”
They asked the leader to come forward. Someone raised his hand and said, “Let’s talk, we are Guatemalan guerrilla, we are in the middle of an armed fight against the regime, and we didn’t noticed that we had trespassed into Mexican territory.” We asked for a high Army and government authority.
Did you stop being a guerrilla at that point?
Yes, definitely, because after a few days of talks, and after the United Nations Commissioner and Amnesty International got there, they asked where we wanted to go. “You want to go back to Guatemala or you want political asylum? You can go to Canada, Italy, Panama? Or you want to stay in Mexico?” I stayed in Mexico.
So, were you in Mexico when you heard that Carlos had disappeared?
I had been in Mexico for about a year when I heard the news about my brothers being caught.
How did you hear that Carlos and your other brother had disappeared?
There was a newspaper there, El Dia.
So the people that disappear, their names appeared in the newspaper?
I still have the article from the newspaper that I brought from Mexico.
How did you feel when you found out about your brothers and did you feel like you should come back to your family?
Of course I felt the need to come back. I couldn’t believe it. What happened? So I called a friend, a Catholic priest. And I asked him. He said yes. I said it couldn’t be true because I was making an effort for Esteban to go. I had spoken with him on the phone and by letter and he had told me that they were being persecuted. But I never thought that Carlos will be the first to go. He was working at the Universidad Rafael Antigua. As I told you at the beginning, their only fault was to help the people that came from other towns, but they didn’t join the armed groups like me.
Yes, definitely, it was very dangerous. Even in ’85, before my brothers were kidnapped, I met a Guatemalan that was there in Mexico looking for better opportunities and he told me not to go to Guatemala, or not even try to contact my family. He said “Every week, every 2 weeks, the Army is patrolling your father’s house. They are not uniformed, they dress normal, but they are around the house because there are rumors of you going there and they may get you. Even the photography in your civil registry at age 18 when you got your I.D. card, is not there”. Well, maybe because I’m so handsome… (laughing).
How did you finally decide to come back to Guatemala after all those years in Mexico?
Well, the family. My purpose may not be very well taken. When I joined the war, my purpose wasn’t just for my family. I wanted a better life for a whole population, a whole republic, a country. And I didn’t realize how I was endangering my family. Only the general purpose.
And now that you are older would you do it differently?
If I had physical strength, I would join the fight again.
You said you came home to see your family. You were married, you had a wife here with children. You didn’t see them for 14 years?
4 1/2 years with the guerrilla and then 18 years in Mexico. Twenty-two years.
My wife and children were here, they studied, their mother worked for them, and I couldn’t return until the peace was signed in ’97, so I came back but went back because I could not find a way here to fit in.
Did your family go to see you in Mexico?
Yes, my family went. I saw them not more than 2, 3 times.
What did you do for work in Mexico?
I know how to be a tailor, so I made a living with it.
Later, I worked making clothes, shirts, and I started to sell them in a town called Morrolion, Guanajuato, so I was traveling a lot. It was 10 hours away from the capital, and I will travel to take the clothes and return to make more. I managed to buy 14 industrial sewing machines, I also have my factory. I rented it now.
After the peace was signed At the end of ’96, I came back to see my mother and father.
But I wish I could be in Mexico, I won’t deny it, because they gave me a hand. Not only the people who helped me when they found out that I was Guatemalan and guerrilla, and I was politically persecuted, but also in the sense of work. I had work, whatever I wanted.
Now I’m trying to get settled here, to find financial stability. Because in Mexico I had it, but here…
One last question, there were women who were guerrilla fighters. What was it like for the men and the women working together?
Very interesting question. The relationship was one of mutual respect. They, as well as us, had to help each other like human beings. There were jobs that here in the family are specific to the women. There, the men had to do that job, learn the work of women, and we all did it equally.
The problem here is that even the husband marginalizes his wife. We see that tiring work of women: do the laundry, clean, cook, work that is not seen but is tiring, and in the mountain men and women had to cook, both had to carry their bags in the back with their arms. Men or women that were sick were taken care of as human beings. There wasn’t that aspect like “Hey, since you are a woman, bring me that”. No, the men and women were worth the same. But women exaggerated a little because later on in Mexico, not all but many of our women fellows became more liberal, and that they didn’t learned in the mountain, they did whatever they wanted to in their particular life after.
There was an occasion in which a woman was shot in her leg and couldn’t walk. She couldn’t take care of her chores in the mountain and there were other 4 or 5 women but they were far away. So, the political fellow asked us who could wash her clothes, her underwear, and we all raised our hands. It’s a sign of solidarity, that there wasn’t any prejudice because around here we think that if we help a woman with laundry, that man is not manly. And we wanted that, to reach equality between women and men. We did not expect to fight just for power in government, but also for liberation, in the financial aspects and the women’s marginal role.
Thank you for time and for sharing your story. I appreciate you sharing it with me.
It is worth with me and others you can interview, and they may have better things to tell you that the world should know.