from What War? Testimonies of Maya Survivors

To understand the devastating civil war, referred to in Guatemala as la violencia or the “internal armed conflict,” it is necessary to go back to the invasion by Spanish conquistadors in 1521. The Spanish colonization of Central America was driven by the quest for gold and by the desire to “save souls” by converting the “heathen” to Catholicism.The lives of the Maya and other, smaller indigenous groups in what would become modern Guatemala, were irrevocably transformed by the Spanish conquest. Since that time, the history of the indigenous people of Guatemala has been marked by subjugation, colonialization and foreign intervention. These events, although occurring almost 500 years ago, are still referred to as “the conquest,” clear evidence of the effect that this history continues to have on present-day Guatemala.

As in other countries in Latin America, Guatemalan civil institutions have been fragile and unstable.What distinguishes Guatemala, however, is the length of time and the extent to which the military has remained so deeply entrenched in power since independence from Spain in 1821. And, in fact, independence from Spain did little to liberate the indigenous people, as Ronald Wright observes in Stolen Continents:“It soon became clear that independence from the Spanish Empire did not mean independence for the Maya. For them…the so-called liberation was merely a white settler takeover…”

The notable exception to this military domination was the ten years from 1944–1954,called the“Decade of Spring.”The governments of Juan José Arévalo (1944–1951) and Jacobo Arbenz (1951–1954) were democatically elected. Arévalo referred to his government as“spiritual socialism,” declaring,“We are socialists because we live in the 20th century.” Later, the Arbenz government attempted significant land reforms that challenged business interests of the United States, particularly those of the United Fruit Company. In response, United Fruit exerted political influence on the Eisenhower administration, resulting in the 1954 CIA-backed invasion which overthrew Arbenz, and installed a puppet government.

What followed was a half century of U.S. involvement in the internal affairs of Guatemala, during which right-wing military governments were supported. Military dictators Lucas García (1978–1982) and Efraín Ríos Montt (1982–1983) were trained in contra-insurgency warfare and torture techniques at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. Under their jurisdiction state-sponsored terror became a reality, and the “scorched earth” (la tierra arrasada) policy was implemented in the highlands against rural Maya villages.The Official Report of the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, (hereinafter referred to as the REHMI Report for its Spanish acronym) describes this as…“a grisly holocaust for people living in the so-called conflictive areas.”(REHMI,Volume 3, page 112). I first heard la tierra arrasada mentioned by Fernando who described this policy:“In the 1980s, during the rule of General Efraín Ríos Montt, brutal practices were used against the guerrilleros, anyone they thought were communists or who they thought were supporting them. La tierra arrasadara was the practice, that is burning the land, killing everyone in the villages who the army suspected of having anything to do with the guerrillas.”

In June 1994, Guatemala’s Truth Commission was established. The three members of the Commission were charged with the task of clarifying “with objectivity, equity, and impartiality, the human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed confrontation that caused suffering among the Guatemalan people.” (Prologue, CEH Report).The Truth Commission was mandated to “issue a report…containing the results of its investigations and its recommendations for national reconciliation and promotion of a culture of tolerance…The report would not individualize responsibilities for specific human rights violations or have judicial objectives or consequences.”2

On December 29, 1996, peace accords were signed ending 36 years of civil war. In 1997, the Truth Commission began taking testimonies from over 9,000 war victims. And on April 24, 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi presented the final report of The Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, Guatemala, ¡Nunca más! Two days later, Bishop Gerardi was brutally murdered outside his residence in Guatemala City.

In February, 1999, an audience of more than 10,000 people gathered to hear the Truth Commission present its report, which revealed these staggering facts:

“During the internal armed confrontation there were 626 massacres, 1.5 million people were displaced, 150,000 became refugees, and more than 200,000 were dead or disappeared. In the Ixil region alone between 70% and 90% of the villages were burned to the ground. [These were]…acts committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part, numerous groups of Mayans. [They] were not isolated acts or excesses committed by soldiers who were out of control, nor were they the result of possible improvisation by midlevel Army command.With great consternation, the Commission concludes that many massacres and other human rights violations com- mitted against these groups obeyed a higher, strategically planned policy….”

The CEH Report documented that “State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations” (page 20) and that “83% of the victims were Mayans”.The Report stated, unequivocally, that the army had conducted acts of genocide against the Maya people, acts committed “with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, groups identified by their common ethnicity.”

In the chapter entitled “Peace and Reconciliation,” the CEH Report “dedicates its work to the memory of the dead and other victims of over three decades of fratricidal violence in Guatemala” concluding that:

“To achieve true reconciliation and construct a new democratic and participatory nation which values its multiethnic and pluricultural nature, the whole of society must…assume the commitments of the peace process.This…requires a profound and complex effort, which Guatemalan society owes to the thousands of brave men and women who sought to obtain full respect for human rights and the democratic rule of law and so laid the foundation for this new nation. Among these, Monsignor Juan Gerardi Conedera remains at the forefront.”

If memory is the soul of history, as Elie Wiesel declares, then all Guatemalans must be allowed, in fact encouraged, to speak out about the past in order to “construct a new democratic and participatory nation,” a new Guatemala.

For more information on the civil war in Guatemala, we include this article, a geographic analysis of the massacres and human rights violations during the conflict.

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