Why Were Civilians Hit the Hardest?

Guatemalan guerrilla combatant, Ixcán region, 1988.

The Guatemalan civil war (1960 -1996) pitted the guerrillas or insurgents against a series of oppressive military regimes they sought to overthrow. The government army and security forces, in turn, launched a counter-insurgency campaign to defeat the guerrillas, who they labeled “subversives.” In order to win the war, the army not only turned their sights on the armed combatants, but went after the actual or perceived civilian base of support as well, including men, women and children.

The army deliberately magnified the military threat of the guerrillas in order to rationalize their response, which was to terrorize and destroy all opposition. In “Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” members of a United Nations sponsored Truth Commission wrote: “The inclusion of all opponents under one banner, democratic or otherwise, pacifist or guerrilla, legal or illegal, communist or non-communist, served to justify numerous and serious crimes.” That helps explain why the vast majority of victims were civilians, not combatants.

A key element of the counter-insurgency campaign was gaining control of the civilian population, whether in Guatemala City where uprisings of peasant, student, labor and other social movements challenged the regimes, or in the predominantly Maya highland region where the guerrillas were most active. People’s daily activities were monitored through surveillance and military checkpoints. The creation of a system of civil patrols allowed the army to forcibly engage much of the rural male population in the fight against the guerrillas. (See Diego:  “Who Killed Diego’s Father?”)

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Clip of Dora recounting the fear she felt during the war.

Violence and fear were potent weapons that the army used to obtain control. The Catholic Church’s Historical Memory Project (REMHI) concluded: “During the early eighties, a climate of terror spread across the country, characterized by extreme violence against communities and organized movements against which the people were completely defenseless. An atmosphere of constant danger totally disrupted the daily life of many families. Whether in the form of mass killings or the appearance of corpses bearing signs of torture, the horror was so massive and so flagrant that it defied the imagination.”

Former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who ruled in the early 1980s during one of the bloodiest periods of the war, justified the military’s actions toward the civilian population by paraphrasing Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong: “The guerrillas are the fish; the people are the sea. If you want to catch the fish, you have to drain the sea.” Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide against the Ixil-Maya people in a landmark lawsuit in Guatemala in 2013. (See Sebastián: “Was Anyone Punished for the Massacre?”)

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Clip of Dora commenting on the massacres carried out during the war.

“Draining the sea” was the objective of the scorched earth policy implemented by Ríos Montt in the highlands that resulted in the obliteration of entire Maya villages and their inhabitants (over 600 massacres). This is why Dora says the indigenous communities were the most persecuted and “left the most dead along the way.” The Truth Commission reported that 83% of the victims in the war were Maya and attributed 93% of overall human rights violations and acts of violence to state forces and paramilitary groups and 3% to the guerrillas.

The United States government bears some responsibility for the terror unleashed against the Guatemalan people. They had intervened in Guatemala’s affairs over many decades, often doing so covertly through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and justifying their actions in the name of anti-communism. Funds for military aid and training flowed to Guatemala as well, in addition to economic aid, although the US Congress at times placed some restrictions due to the grave violations of human rights.

“It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.”  President Bill Clinton speaking in Guatemala, 1999.

“It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.” President Bill Clinton speaking in Guatemala, 1999.

The Truth Commission report concluded that the “vital support” that the US gave to the military regimes had a “significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation.” A month after the report’s release, in March, 1999, during a visit to Guatemala, US president Bill Clinton apologized for the US actions.

SOURCES & LINKS

Broder, John. “Clinton Offers His Apologies to Guatemala.” New York Times, March 11, 1999.
http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/11/world/clinton-offers-his-apologies-to-guatemala.html

Center for Justice and Accountability. “Guatemala, ‘Silent Holocaust’: The Mayan Genocide.”
http://www.cja.org/article.php?list=type&type=294

Navarro, Mireya. “Guatemalan Army Waged ‘Genocide,’ New Report Finds.” New York Times, February 26, 1999.
http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/26/world/guatemalan-army-waged-genocide-new-report-finds.html?pagewanted=all

ODHAG (Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala). Guatemala: Never Again! REMHI: Recovery of Historical Memory Project. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.

Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification. “Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” Conclusions and Recommendations. 1999.
https://hrdag.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/CEHreport-english.pdf

Reynolds, Louisa. “Why did war-torn areas vote for Pérez Molina?” Latinamerica Press, December 7, 2011.
http://lapress.org/articles.asp?art=6531

What Does It Mean To Be Displaced?

A central experience of the Guatemalan people during the war was being displaced. Dora and her family were just a few of the estimated one million people (out of about 7 million total population at that time) who left their communities but stayed inside the country, called the internally displaced. Approximately 350,000 other people found their way to either Mexico or the US, most without legal documentation. Estimates suggest that up to 80% of people in areas most affected by the war – which includes Dora’s hometown – were displaced. “It was a veritable exodus of the population,” concluded the Catholic Church’s Historical Memory Project (REMHI) report.

Like Dora’s family, most people fled their homes and communities as they felt direct or indirect threats to their safety. In 1980, when Dora was just four months old, her parents left their small village to go to Guatemala City, leaving behind their house, crops, land, extended family and community. It would be over a decade before they dared to return just for a visit.

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Many displaced people who fled to Guatemala City lived in makeshift houses and unsafe conditions.

Fear and suffering characterized displaced people’s lives, as they were forced to live in substandard conditions, while they tried to find work to sustain them. Many lost their identification documents and were unable to replace them, making their access to work, schools and health care all the more difficult. People from the most conflictive areas, especially the Maya like Dora’s family, often hid their real identity because the government and media painted them as being “subversive.” Dora’s mother changed her Maya clothing – the designs often identify one’s place of origin – and her parents told others they’d moved to the city to seek work. Perhaps that is why twelve year old Dora says, “The Maya here are afraid to say who they really are.”

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CONDEG brochure.

After their initial difficulties, Dora’s family fared better than many others who were displaced. Her father was a lay religious instructor and leader and their involvement with the local Catholic church helped integrate them into the larger community. He also was active in CONDEG, the National Council of Displaced Guatemalans, a grassroots organization that worked to heal the “open wounds” of those forcibly displaced by validating their experiences and advocating on their behalf in obtaining identity documents, land and work. Dora accompanied her father to many meetings, where she met a diverse group of people, and began to understand the larger context in which her family’s personal experience of displacement had taken place.

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Clip of Dora talking about her education and having a family.

Moving to the city also gave Dora and her siblings greater access to education than they would have had living in a small rural village. All of them have earned university degrees.

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Clip of Dora sharing her goals for the future.

Dora always seems to be in motion. She teaches in the morning and after returning home, she often helps out at the small store her family runs out of their house. In mid-afternoon, she boards a bus for the two hour ride to the university, where she’s studying for a second degree at night.

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Clip of Dora commenting on the violence in Guatemala today.

Dora is ever optimistic about not only her own future but also that of Guatemala, while acknowledging the serious problems that confront the country.

Guatemala is tarnished by gangs, drug traffickers, crime and corruption, which have been a major force driving a new wave of displaced people who – like those who fled during the war – believe they must leave their homes and communities in order to be safe. Some find another home within the country, but many thousands have also come to the US in recent years. Like Dora and her family, most people stay and go about their lives as best they can.

SOURCES & LINKS

CONDEG (National Council of Displaced of Guatemala)
http://condegguatemala.blogspot.com/

Costello, Patrick. “Guatemala: Displacement, Return and the Peace Process.” WRITENET,  April 1, 1995.
http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a6b98.html

ODHAG (Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala). Guatemala: Never Again! REMHI: Recovery of Historical Memory Project, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999

What Is A Disappeared Person?

Photographs of disappeared relatives of members of the Mutual Support Group (GAM).

Photographs of disappeared relatives of members of the Mutual Support Group (GAM).

In the context of the Guatemalan (and Salvadoran) war, to “be disappeared” meant to be kidnapped, interrogated, tortured and executed. Military forces, police or death squads carried out the disappearances. Victims were forcibly captured, often in broad daylight from city streets or rural villages as they went about their daily lives. Some were dragged out of their homes or workplaces. They were never formally arrested nor charged with any crime. The authorities simply denied they were involved, leaving family members without legal recourse to search for their loved one.

Amnesty International estimates that approximately 45,000 Guatemalans were disappeared during the civil war, the vast majority between 1978 -1983. They were students, teachers, peasant and labor leaders, health workers (like Dora’s uncles), lawyers, journalists, religious and community leaders. Some supported the armed struggle; many were involved in political organizations opposing the government or in social movements seeking economic and political reforms, which brought them to the attention of authorities. Others might simply have been denounced by a neighbor as being “subversive,” which was enough to insure their fate. Some had been followed for years before being picked up. They were simply made to vanish.

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Excerpt from “Dirty Secrets: Jennifer, Everardo & the CIA in Guatemala” about having a disappeared loved one.

The Guatemalan regimes used disappearances as a weapon of terror. Their objective was to keep people frozen in fear. Had they simply wanted to control people they claimed were involved in “subversive” activities, they could have arrested and jailed them. Instead, their actions were designed to be a kind of slow torture for the family and friends of the disappeared, who were kept in a state of extreme fear and anxiety, wondering who would be next, or if they could be doing more to find their loved one, and never being able to fully grieve their loss nor give the person a proper burial.

Ester Herrarte stands in the living room where her son Jorge, in the photograph, was abducted in 1983.

Ester Herrarte stands in the living room where her son Jorge, in the photograph, was abducted in 1983.

In 1984, a small group of relatives of disappeared people, who became acquainted while searching for their loved ones, formed the Mutual Support Group, known as GAM (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo). They began to denounce the disappearances in press conferences and newspapers. As their numbers grew they demonstrated in the streets, shouting “You took them alive, we want them back alive.” The GAM was one of the first human rights organizations in Guatemala. At times, Guatemalan government officials reluctantly agreed to meet with them, but none gave them any real information.

Members of the GAM took great risks coming out in public to denounce the disappearances and point a finger at the government. GAM members often received death threats. In the spring of 1985 two GAM leaders (and the brother and two year old son of one of them) were tortured and killed in separate incidents. Shocked and grieving, the GAM carried on, and more people than ever, including many peasants who had traveled from distant towns in the countryside, peacefully marched through Guatemala City two weeks later.

  • GAM protest at the Public Ministry, two months before the assassination of Héctor Gómez (holding the sign) and Rosario Godoy de Cuevas (woman with her hand on her face). Guatemala City, January, 1985.
  • Rosario Godoy de Cuevas, one of the GAM founders, testifying at a Congressional Assembly. Her husband, a university student, was disappeared in 1984. Guatemala City, 1985.
  • Rosario Godoy de Cuevas testifying at a Congressional Assembly. A few months later she, her brother and two year old son were tortured and killed. Guatemala City, 1985.
  • Following the deaths of Héctor and Rosario, the GAM led a massive protest through the streets of Guatemala City. April 13, 1985.
  • Nineth de García, one of the founders of GAM, leads the chanting. Her husband, a university student and union leader, was disappeared in 1984. Guatemala City, April 13, 1985.
  • Héctor Gómez was a baker who had often been a spokesperson for the GAM. His brother had been abducted in 1983. His wife and three children held his photograph during the march. Guatemala City, April 13, 1985.
  • Eva Morales, age 16, was one of the youngest GAM members. Over a dozen of her family members had been disappeared, including her father, brothers, uncles, aunts and cousins. Guatemala City, April 13, 1985.
  • GAM march, Guatemala City, April 13, 1985.
  • GAM march, Guatemala City, April 13, 1985.
  • GAM march, Guatemala City, April 13, 1985.
  • GAM march passes in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral, Guatemala City, January 10, 1986.
  • GAM March, Guatemala City, January 10, 1986.
  • Children speak out about losing their fathers during GAM protest on Father's Day, Guatemala City, 1985.
  • GAM members holding blown-up photographs of their disappeared loved ones gather before marching on Independence Day, Guatemala City, September 15, 1985.
  • GAM members during Independence Day march, Guatemala City, September 15, 1985.
  • GAM members during Independence Day march, Guatemala City, September 15, 1985.

Over the years, GAM and a sister organization called Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared of Guatemala or FAMDEGUA (Asociación Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos de Guatemala) have kept up the pressure on the government to acknowledge the truth about what happened to their loved ones and bring the perpetrators of the disappearances to justice. Both organizations have lobbied for exhumations, declassification of government documents and helped bring lawsuits in Guatemalan courts and international tribunals to hold those responsible accountable.

Millions of documents were discovered in a warehouse belonging to the police in 2005. They have been painstakingly cleaned and organized into the Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN). Photo courtesy of AHPN.

A few of the millions of documents that were later painstakingly cleaned and organized into the Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN). Photo courtesy of AHPN.

Little by little, the truth is coming out. In 1999, a “Death Squad Diary” (Diario Militar) was smuggled out of the country detailing the fate of 183 disappeared people (see excerpts below). Revelations contained in the millions of documents recovered from the National Police Archives in 2005 shed light on hundreds of individual cases of disappeared people, as well as on the overall practice. Identifying human remains exhumed from hundreds of clandestine cemeteries, many on or near former military bases, also has proven the fate of many disappeared people, through DNA matches, allowing their families to properly bury their loved ones. (See Diego: Who Is Digging?)

  • Exhibit of the "Death Squad Diary" ("Diario Militar") at the office of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), Guatemala City. On the left is a list of terms used to designate the final decision taken regarding the fate of each person.
  • Alleged member of the urban front of the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (Organización Revolucionaria del Pueblo en Armas – ORPA). Traveled to Cuba. August 29, 1983: Captured in Zone 7, Guatemala City. November 7, 1983: Turned over to the D.I., the intelligence section of the Guatemalan army (Dirección de Intelegencia).
  • Alleged member of Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (Organización Revolucionaria del Pueblo en Armas – ORPA). September 9, 1983: Captured in Zone 12, Guatemala City. September 22, 1983: Turned over to the D.I., the intelligence section of the Guatemalan army (Dirección de Intelegencia).
  • Alleged member of the Rebel Armed Forces (Fuezas Armadas Rebeldes – FAR) and coordinator of the National Workers Central (Central Nacional de Trabajadores – CNT), a labor federation. January 30, 1984: Captured in Zone 1, Guatemala City. March 29, 1984: Executed (“300”). Villatoro’s remains were identified in 2011 as being among the 220 bodies recovered from a former military base in Comalapa, Chimaltenango during a 2003 exhumation.
  • Alleged member of the Guatemalan Communist Party (Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo – PGT). February 23, 1984: Captured in Zone 9, Guatemala City March 29, 1984: Executed (“300”). Linares Morales’ remains were identified in 2011 as being among the 220 bodies recovered from a former military base in Comalapa, Chimaltenango during a 2003 exhumation.
  • Alleged member of the Guatemalan Communist Party (Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo – PGT). March 2, 1984: Captured in Zone 6, Guatemala City. March 29, 1984: Executed (“300”). Samayoa Velásquez’s remains were identified in 2012 as being among the 220 bodies recovered from a former military base in Comalapa, Chimaltenango during a 2003 exhumation.
  • Alleged member of the Guatemalan Communist Party (Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo – PGT). March 5, 1984: Captured in front of a large shopping mall, Zone 7, Guatemala City. March 29, 1984: Executed (“300”). Navarro Mérida’s remains were identified in 2012 as being among the 220 bodies recovered from a former military base in Comalapa, Chimaltenango during a 2003 exhumation.
  • Alleged member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuezas Armadas Revolucionarias – FAR). March 11, 1984: Captured in a house in Zone 11, Guatemala City. March 29, 1984: Executed (“300”). Saravia López’ remains were identified in 2012 as being among the 220 bodies recovered from a former military base in Comalapa, Chimaltenango during a 2003 exhumation.

As the truth slowly emerges, justice has been achieved in a handful of notable court cases. FAMDEGUA worked for a decade to bring the perpetrators of a 1982 massacre in the town of Dos Erres to justice. Finally, in 2011, four former soldiers from an elite Army contingent were found guilty in the murder of 201 people. They each received prison sentences for over 6000 years. It was the first time in the Guatemalan courts that anyone was held responsible for a massacre.

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Alejandra García as a child with her mother, Nineth Montenegro de García. Guatemala City, 1985.

In October, 2010, a Guatemalan court sentenced two former low ranking National Police officers to 40 years in prison each for the disappearance of Edgar Fernando García, a trade union leader, in 1984. (His wife, Nineth Montenegro, was one of the founders of GAM.) García’s daughter Alejandra, who was an infant when he was disappeared, read the following statement at his trial: “I do not seek revenge, neither would my dad have, but I do seek the truth, I want to know where he was taken, I want to know why he wasn’t formally charged, I want to know who gave the order, I want to know … who he was handed over to, I want to know what happened to him. My heart cannot rest and be at peace without the truth, as harsh as it may be, the truth always heals the soul.”

SOURCES & LINKS

Amnesty International News. “City of the Disappeared – three decades of searching for Guatemala’s missing.” November 19, 2012.
http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/city-disappeared-three-decades-searching-guatemalas-missing-2012-11-19

Asociación Familiares de Detenidos – Desaparecidos de Guatemala – FAMDEGUA
https://www.facebook.com/famdegua.guatemala

Blue, Victor. “The Lost: Guatemala’s Disappeared.” Photo Essay.
http://victorblue.com/stories/lost.html

Digital Archive of the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive.
https://ahpn.lib.utexas.edu/

Doyle, Kate. “Death Squad Diary.” Harper’s Magazine, June 1999.
http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB15/death_squad_harpers.pdf

García, Alejandra. Statement at the close of her father’s trial.
http://casofernandogarcia.tumblr.com/post/1454795096/statement-from-alejandra-garcia-at-the-close-of

Goudvis, Patricia. “Dirty Secrets: Jennifer, Everardo & the CIA in Guatemala.” New Day Films, 1995.
https://www.newday.com/film/dirty-secrets-jennifer-everardo-cia-guatemala

Grandin, Greg. “Death Squads, Disappearances and Torture From Latin America to Iraq.” Truthout, December 11, 2007.
http://truth-out.org/archive/component/k2/item/74962:greg-grandin–death-squads-disappearances-and-torture-from-latin-america-to-iraq

Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo – GAM
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Grupo-de-Apoyo-Mutuo-GAM/147276682035345?sk=timeline

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. “GHRC Congratulates FAMDEGUA on 22 Years of Searching for Truth, Justice, and Memory.” Monitoring Guatemala, June 18, 2014.
https://ghrcusa.wordpress.com/2014/06/18/ghrc-congratulates-famdegua-on-22-years-of-searching-for-truth-justice-and-memory/

––––––. “Dos Erres Massacre.”
http://www.ghrc-usa.org/our-work/important-cases/dos-erres-massacre/

National Security Archive. “Guatemalan Death Squad Dossier.”
http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB15/

ODHAG (Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala). Guatemala: Never Again! REMHI: Recovery of Historical Memory Project, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.

United Nations: International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.
http://www.un.org/en/events/disappearancesday/background.shtml

Watch More of Dora

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Visiting Grandmother’s Grave

CrossesPlayThumb

Crosses, Massacres, Genocide

GratitudePlayThumb

Dora’s Gratitude

FutureAmbitionsPlayThumb

“Let’s Do This Together”

DrugTraffickingPlayThumb

Violence in Guatemala Today

Guatemala Maps & Facts

Map of Guatemala ©Nations Online Project

Size: 41,699 sq. miles, size of Tennessee

Population: 15,470,000 (2013)

Capital: Guatemala City

People: Over half are indigenous Maya; the rest are primarily of mixed Maya and Hispanic heritage, called Ladinos; small population of African descendents (including Garifuna) along Atlantic Coast

Languages: Spanish is the official language; there are 22 Mayan languages spoken as well as Xinca and Garifuna

Flag of Guatemala

Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant (primarily evangelical) and Maya

Independence: 1821 (from Spain)

  • Over half the population lives below poverty level.
  • Illiteracy, infant mortality and malnutrition rates are among the highest in Latin America.
  • Life expectancy is among the lowest in Latin America.
  • Nearly one third of all children do not complete primary school.
  • All social indicators are worse for the Maya population than for the Ladino.
  • The country is plagued by gang and drug related violence and organized crime. It serves as a major corridor for drugs coming to the US from South America.

Quick Facts About the War

Dates: 1960 – 1996 (36 years)

In 1982, the four most important Guatemalan revolutionary organizations fighting against the military regimes and paramilitary right-wing groups created the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG).

Over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared

1.5 million were displaced

669 massacres

83% of victims were Maya & 17% of victims were Ladino

Army and security forces were found responsible for 93% of atrocities; the insurgency (guerrillas) for 3%; the remaining 4% were undetermined.

Sources & Links

BBC:http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-19635877

CIA World Factbook: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gt.html

New York Times: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/guatemala/index.html

UN Data: http://data.un.org/CountryProfile.aspx?crName=Guatemala

US Institute of Peacehttp://www.usip.org/publications/truth-commission-guatemala

World Bankhttp://www.worldbank.org/en/country/guatemala