Who Killed Diego’s Father?

According to his family, the civil patrol captured Diego’s father and the other men, marched them to a ravine, and beat and killed them. The civil patrol was comprised of rural men who the army forcibly conscripted during the Guatemalan civil war. Their main function was ostensibly to report on any suspicious guerrilla activity in their towns to the military authorities, but at times they were obligated to punish and kill.

"CIA's Role in the Overthrow of Arbenz"

Declassified US government document, “CIA’s Role in the Overthrow of Arbenz”

The CIA coup installed Col. Carlos Castillo Armas (next to driver) as president to replace Jacobo Arbenz. AP Photo.

The war had its roots in the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) directed overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. The CIA justified their actions as necessary to fight communism. During the previous ten years, Arbenz and his predecessor had implemented land and other social and economic reforms that threatened US business and political interests. The CIA coup installed the first in a long line of military dictators who reversed those reforms, using fear and repression against those who dissented.

Starting in the 1960s, people from many different backgrounds – small farmers, university students and professors, trade union members and religious workers – became increasingly active in pressing for change, mostly through peaceful protests. As their efforts were met with increased violence, some joined a small but growing movement of armed insurgents or guerrillas, called the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). As the guerrilla movement gained strength, the army response became ever more brutal. Finally, between 1981 and 1983, the army and security forces unleashed a policy of terror that sought to destroy not only the armed insurgents, but anyone the army perceived as a potential supporter, like Diego’s father.

  • Depiction of violence, Comalapa Mural
  • Depiction of violence, Comalapa Mural
  • Depiction of violence, Comalapa Mural
  • Depiction of violence, Comalapa Mural
Civil patrol.

Civil patrol.

By 1982, the year Diego’s father was killed, the civil patrols had grown into a central pillar of the army’s counter-insurgency campaign. Rural men between age 15 and 60 were required to report for duty as often as once a week. They were not paid and the loss of a day’s work was a substantial burden to the many who were subsistence farmers.

Civil patrol duty allowed the army to take a roll call of sorts, of all able-bodied men in rural areas who might join the guerrilla movement. Instead of being a potential base of support for the guerrillas, the civil patrol system forced men into being active participants in the army’s counter-insurgency operations. It also allowed the army to absolve itself of direct involvement in human rights abuses committed by the patrols. By ordering civil patrol members to carry out abuses, and in extreme cases massacres, such as the one in which Diego’s father perished, the army could deny responsibility.


Clip of Diego recounting his grandfather’s capture.

Arguably the worst damage done by the civil patrols was the unraveling of community cohesion. Fear and suspicion wedged between families, friends and neighbors, leaving them unable to know who they could trust. Some people took advantage of the situation to settle personal disputes about land or money. The mere act of denouncing someone as a guerrilla sympathizer to the patrol leader or army could have grave consequences.

The Guatemalan Truth Commission concluded that during the war over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared. Over 600 massacres left the highland region, populated primarily by the Maya, devastated. The army and security forces were found responsible for 93% of the massacres; the guerrillas for 3%. Half of the recorded massacres included the collective murder of children.

Victims of Jan 6, 1982 massacre, Choatalúm, Chimaltenango

Victims of Jan 6, 1982 massacre. Choatalúm, Chimaltenango.

Today, Diego holds no bitterness towards his father’s killers. He says that when his sons are older, he’ll tell them about how their grandfather was killed. They will grow up alongside the descendants of the men who killed their grandfather.  This is an example of how the abstract notion of reconciliation plays out in the concrete aftermath of war.

Sources & Links

Central Intelligence Agency. “CIA’s Role in the Overthrow of Arbenz.” May 12, 1975.

Garrard-Burnett, Virginia. Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala under General Efraín Ríos Montt 1982 – 1983. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Manz, Beatriz. Refugees of A Hidden War: The Aftermath of Counterinsurgency in Guatemala. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

ODHAG (Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala).  Guatemala Never Again! (REMHI Report). New York: Orbis Books, 1999.

US Institute of Peace

Who is Digging?

The people overseeing the digging or exhumation are called forensic anthropologists.  They are trained to recover human remains, analyze them to determine cause of death, and when possible, identify the deceased. Forensic anthropologists are crucial to human rights investigations of massacres and assassinations. Their reports are submitted as evidence and they often testify in trials related to war crimes. They regularly work in dangerous situations where government forces have turned against their own citizens.

Diego and his grandmother

Diego and his grandmother

What’s significant about the 1992 exhumation near Diego’s village is that it was the first court ordered exhumation of victims of the Guatemalan civil war. It was an extraordinary achievement of a small group of widows and mothers, including Diego’s grandmother, who petitioned the authorities for several years. In spite of the risks involved, they persisted in seeking to have the remains of their loved ones recovered. That exhumation was the beginning of a massive endeavor which continues to this day: the attempt to locate and identify the remains of tens of thousands of people whose bodies were dumped into hundreds of clandestine graves during the 36 years (1960-1996) of civil war.

The work of forensic anthropologists can be painfully slow as they seek to carefully uncover bones long buried. They interview family members to collect specific information about their loved one that could help with the identification as well as to learn about the general circumstances of how the person may have died. Dental records are often used to identify victims, but few people have those in rural Guatemala. DNA extracted from tissue or hair – if available – can be matched with that provided by relatives of victims. Great technological strides were made in extracting DNA from bones following the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. This innovation had a big impact on the work in Guatemala, given the age and consequent deterioration of many of the remains.

  • FAFG staff member interviews woman to obtain history of her disappeared relatives.
  • FAFG staff member creates a family tree.
  • A swab of saliva is taken from which her DNA will be extracted.
  • Saliva being prepared to send to the laboratory.

The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropological Foundation (FAFG) has played a key role in post-war Guatemala. Their work not only brings dignity to victims and their families, but the evidence gathered from exhumations can be invaluable in seeking justice for those who perpetrated the atrocities. As of 2014, FAFG has conducted over 1500 exhumations, recovering some 6900 remains. They encourage anyone with a missing or disappeared family member to give their testimony and add their DNA to the FAFG genetic databank. Their staff travels around the country and has even come to the US to collect DNA samples from people with missing relatives. The work of FAFG over the years has been instrumental in a number of high profile trials brought against former military officers, including the landmark case against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in 2013 for genocide.

Stefan Schmitt at work during exhumation of Diego’s father’s remains, 1992

“A clandestine grave is not so much hidden as it is officially nonexistent,” writes Stefan Schmitt, one of the founders of the Guatemalan team. “There is therefore no possibility for the families and their communities to ritualize death, as is done in any society. The mere existence of these mass graves terrorizes and oppresses the communities which have to live with them. The official exhumation of the victims is the first step toward peace for these communities. It is then that the survivors and victims of this mechanism of terror finally become activists for their rights.”

Watch short video of Clyde Snow identifying Diego's father's remains

Clip of Clyde Snow identifying Diego’s father’s remains.

Clyde Snow (1928-2014) was a pioneer in forensic anthropology who was one of the leaders in the exhumation of Diego’s father’s remains. Writing about the use of forensic anthropology in court trials, Snow remarked, “Bones are good witnesses. Even though they speak softly, they never lie and they never forget.”

Stop the Impunity

Marker in cemetery where Diego’s father and other victims are buried.

“Stop the Impunity – These tombs preserve the 26 martyrs massacred and buried in clandestine cemeteries in 1981 and 1982 in San Jose Pachó who gave their lives for peace. Their blood fertilizes our land. Brothers and friends, let us not permit impunity to continue. No more clandestine cemeteries. Aldea Lemoa, November 22, 1992.”


Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala

Open Society Foundations, “Accountability in Guatemala: The Role of Forensic Anthropology,” talk by Freddy Peccerelli, March 26, 2014.

Open Society Justice Initiative. “Eighteen Months After Initial Conviction, Historic Guatemalan Genocide Trial Reopens but is Ultimately Suspended.” International Justice Monitor, January 6, 2015.

Sanford, Victoria. Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.

Diego’s Maya Heritage

Diego and family

Diego and family

Diego and his family are Maya, an indigenous people who live throughout Guatemala. There are 22 distinct Mayan languages; Diego and his family speak K’iche’. The Maya civilization can be traced back to at least 1800 BCE, when it spread across southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.

Temple II, Tikal

The ancient Maya civilization was remarkably advanced for its time. The Maya understood the concept of zero before any other culture. Their sophisticated calendar allowed them to predict eclipses of the sun and moon to the nearest second. They used engineering skill to build great cities like Tikal, with terraced plazas and giant pyramids.  The ancient Maya also created beautiful paintings and sculpture, and they invented a writing system and produced thousands of books.

Historians still speculate about the causes of the decline of the Maya civilization. Environmental degradation, drought, overpopulation and warfare all may have played a role. By the time the Spaniards invaded in 1524, the Maya lived in scattered villages with the ruins of their once great cities lying under dense jungle cover. The Spanish conquest sought to destroy the Maya culture as well as force the people to embrace Spanish rule and Christianity.


Clip of Dora talking about identity and discrimination.

Today, the Guatemalan population is comprised of two major groups: the Maya, considered the majority, and the Ladinos, who have a mix of both Maya and European ancestry. The Maya have suffered tremendous prejudice and racism as Ladinos have held vastly more political and economic power over the years. Defining who is Maya – and who is not – in modern Guatemala is a complex matter. Concepts of both race and ethnicity (language, dress and cultural customs) come into play.

There is still lively debate about the overlapping roles that class and culture played in the revolutionary movement and the war. In the end, it was the Maya who suffered the greatest loss of life and community during the conflict. Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize that the vast majority of both Maya and Ladino people in Guatemala share one thing in common: their lives are circumscribed by poverty, which is often extreme.

Sources & Links

Grandin, Greg, Deborah T. Levenson and Elizabeth Oglesby, eds. The Guatemala Reader. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011.

The History Channel http://www.history.com/topics/maya

Konefal, Betsy. For Every Indio Who Falls: A History of Maya Activism in Guatemala, 1960–1990. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010.

Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. London: Verso, 1985.

Watch More of Diego


Diego Makes A Hard Choice


Diego’s Grandfather Is Captured


Diego Talks About the War


Day of Dead Celebration

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
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

Flag of Guatemala

Flag of Guatemala.

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

Historical Timeline

2500 BCE – 1501 CE - Maya civilization begins around 2500 BCE and reaches its peak of development beginning around 200 CE. Maya achievements in mathematics, astronomy, architecture, engineering, art, language and agriculture are notable. Around 900 CE Maya cities suffer a decline.
1501 – 1821 – Spanish conquerors began sweeping through the continent. Between 1524 and 1650, about 85% of Maya are killed by weapons and diseases. Many survivors are enslaved, but some flee to the higher mountains. Ceremonial centers are torn down and replaced with Christian churches. Maya leaders and scholars are killed, writings are destroyed.
1821 – 1900 – On September 15, 1821, Guatemala declares independence from Spain. From 1823 -1840, it is part of the United Provinces of Central America (along with El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica). In 1947, Guatemala declares itself an independent republic. Conservatives and Liberals dominate Guatemalan (and Central American) politics. Conservatives represent the interests of wealthy landowners and the Catholic Church, favoring strong central government and a regulated economy. Liberals represent mainly the middle class and merchants, favoring decentralized government, free trade and greater separation of church and state. During the mid-1800s, cultivation and export of coffee creates a new oligarchy of wealthy families.
1900 – 1944 – By 1900, the United States is the dominant economic force in Guatemala. The United Fruit Company becomes the largest landowner, employer and exporter in Guatemala, persuading the government to provide them with land, low taxes and cheap labor. While United Fruit’s profits flourish, most the population suffers malnutrition, high rates of infant mortality, limited access to health care and education and violations of human rights. This leads to wide-scale discontent. The middle class also is frustrated with its own limited economic growth and political power.
1944 – 1954 – Ten-year period of social and democratic reforms, including establishment of a social security system, minimum wage, the legalization of unions, laws to protect workers and national health care. The United Fruit Company and other large landowners threatened by land reform which redistributes their unused lands to landless peasants.
1954 – CIA led coup, promoted by United Fruit and “justified” with Cold War rhetoric, replaces freely elected President Jacobo Arbenz with Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. The coup is a turning point in modern Guatemalan history, paving the way for decades of repressive military dictators. Castillo repeals the land reform law, represses labor unions and reverses most other social reforms. Widespread crackdown on labor leaders and peasants.
1960 – The beginning of Guatemala’s civil war between government military forces and primarily left-wing insurgents. Peasant, student, community, labor, church and other groups organize and protest nonviolently in the streets. The government responds with increasing repression, using military as well as paramilitary forces, that become known as death squads. In the following two decades, as repression continues, armed insurgents known as guerrillas gain strength, especially in the Maya highland region.
1976 – A severe earthquake kills over 25,000 people and leaves a million homeless, exposing massive social inequities. Anti-government organizing activities increase.
1978 – General Romeo Lucas García becomes president in openly rigged election. Protests and strikes erupt and student and labor leaders, even priests, are assassinated. Peasant groups are massacred.
1982 – Four guerrilla organizations form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG).
General Efraín Ríos Montt seizes power in a coup and escalates the repression into a “scorched earth” campaign, aimed primarily at certain Maya highland regions where the guerrillas are active.
1983 – Ríos Montt is ousted by General Oscar Mejía Víctores but the bloodshed continues. Terror is everywhere as thousands of people are killed or disappeared. Entire villages are massacred, including men, women and children.
1986 – Vinicio Cerezo, a civilian, assumes the presidency following a legitimate election. The violence diminishes, but does not stop, as the military still wields great power.
1992 – Rigoberta Menchú, a defender of human and Maya rights, wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
1996 – The 36-year long civil war formally ends with a Peace Agreement.
1998 – Bishop Juan Gerardi is assassinated two days after presenting “Guatemala: Never Again!” a report by the Catholic Church on human rights violations during the war, which concludes that 90% were committed by government forces and their paramilitary bands.
1999 – The United Nations sponsored Truth Commission report states that 93% of all human rights violations during the civil war were committed by government security forces; that approximately 200,000 people were killed or disappeared; and that over 600 massacres were carried out.
2006 – Government and UN set up a commission known as CICIG to fight impunity by prosecuting high level criminals. Crime, social injustice and human rights violations continue to afflict Guatemala.
2009 – An ex-military officer and a retired colonel are the first people convicted of crimes committed during the civil war.
2013 – Following an historic trial, former President Ríos Montt is found guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide. Shortly thereafter, the Guatemala Constitutional Court annuls the judgment and orders a new trial.
2015 – Revelations by CICIG of governmental corruption provoke massive protests and demonstrations, resulting in the resignation of both the president and vice president, who are sent to prison. Former comedian Jimmy Morales, whose slogan is “not corrupt nor a thief,” is elected President.
2016 – Former military soldiers are convicted of sexual violence toward and enslaving 15 Maya women during the civil war.

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/en/iso/gt.html

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

World Bankhttps://data.worldbank.org/country/guatemala?view=chart