Guatemala: The State of Research

28 March, 2008
Oettler Anika

1. Introduction

In Guatemala, mass violence did not fall from a clear sky. Mayans have experienced racism, authoritarianism and repression ever since the earliest days of the conquest1. In the early 1980s, political violence was at its peak, with a wave of state terror sweeping through the western highlands.

In the bourgeoning field of Guatemalan studies, La Violencia has emerged as a key topic. There is a wealth of literature, ranging from testimonial accounts and human rights reports to legal and ethnographic studies. Yet, surprisingly, genocide scholars have paid scant attention to the Guatemalan case. It was not until the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) presented its findings in February 1999 that the “hitherto little-known or long-denied” (Gellately/Kiernan, 2003: 8) Guatemalan case entered public discourse.

The CEH estimated that over 200,000 persons had been killed or disappeared during the ‘internal conflict’ and attributed 93 per cent of these cases to the state and 3 per cent to the guerrilla (the remaining 4 per cent of the killings could not be attributed to either side). In the cases presented to the CEH, 83 per cent of the victims were Mayan. Ninety-one per cent of the crimes documented by the CEH were committed between 1978 and 1984.

As the counterinsurgency reached unprecedented levels in the early 1980s, the CEH analyzed in detail the ‘armed confrontation’ in four geographical regions. Based on the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which had been ratified by Guatemala in 1949, the CEH came to the conclusion,

“that agents of the State of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations carried out, between 1981 and 1983, acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people who lived in the four regions analyzed.” (CEH, 1999: §122, see also Perlin, 2000; Tomuscha, 2001).

The studies reviewed below gravitate around two central questions: (1) Who did what to whom? Was the construction of boundaries between perpetrators and victims based on ethnic differentiations, rather than on power and socio-economic status? (2) Did the massacres occur by order of the highest authorities of the State? How voluntary could the obedience to authority be?

It is crucial to recognize that the “acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people” registered by the CEH were committed by both, non-Mayan and Mayan perpetrators, with non-Mayans dominating the power bloc and, particularly, the higher ranks of the military. Guatemalan mass violence was structured by binary oppositions, being modernity/primitivity and communism/national security the fundamental narratives. In 18 per cent of all cases documented by the CEH, members of the Civil Defense Patrols (PACs) had been involved. Starting in 1981, the military forced the rural male population to form PACs that had to observe and control their communities and participate in ‘scorched earth operations’. In 1984, about 900,000 men were incorporated in the civil patrol system. “In a way, military control over the countryside was being decentralized into the hands of the civil patrols, which were allotted a certain amount of freedom to act as they saw fit” (Remijnse, 2003: 125). A second network of local military control was composed of military commissioners. Since dictator Ubico established them in the 1930s, military commissioners – often ladino military veterans – acted as civilian intermediaries between local urban and rural populations and the Armed Forces, usually in charge of enforcing obligatory draft requirements. Appointed by the military for indefinite periods of time, their responsibilities were expanded in 1976 to include intelligence, surveillance, as well as military recruitment. On a weekly basis, thousands of military commissioners would report to the military on the activities they observed. In rural indigenous communities, the Commissioners at first rivaled and then often replaced more traditional forms of authority (EAFG, 1997: 148-150, 309-310; CEH, 1999, Vol 2: 158-180). In the 1980s, they were often appointed head of civil defense patrols. Moreover, this local structure of violence was reinforced by military recruitment. In rural Guatemala, the military implemented systematic patterns of forced recruitment, with young indigenous peasants being the principal victims of forced recruitment practices. Vol. 2 of “Guatemala – nunca más!” (ODHAG 1998), entitled “The mechanisms of horror”, includes a detailed analysis of military socialization into violence, based on group control, obedience training and complicity in torture, rape and killings. In recent years, ethnographic studies have addressed the methods employed to convert the male indigenous population in rural parts of Guatemala into ‘willing executors’ (for instance, AVANCSO, 2002; Manz, 2004; Remijnse, 2003; Zur, 1998: 92-123). Moreover, forced recruitment was understood as a means to achieve both, the mental metamorphosis of young indigenous soldiers, and the ladinoisation of indigenous communities. According to General Julio Balconi, 80 per cent of Guatemalan soldiers are of Mayan descent (Krujit/van Meurs, 2000: 148). It is crucial to note that thousands of indigenous men evolved into perpetrators through violent ‘us’ – ‘them’ differentiation and devaluation.

This review is divided into six parts. The following part offers a short overview of subsequent stages of scholarship, following subsequent waves of violence. It describes the interconnectedness of scholarship and political transition, and indicates central epistemological and methodological issues. Sources on the origins of Guatemalan mass violence are extensive. Part three deals with studies covering “ethnicity” and “the armed struggle and counterinsurgency”. Part four focuses on quantitative and qualitative macro-attempts to investigate human rights violations and acts of violence. Part five describes two central scholarly controversies that concern the value of subaltern testimonios and the relationship between indigenous communities and guerrilla groups. Part six focuses on studies dealing with the military discourse on insurgency, annihilation and otherness.

The studies reviewed below were selected because they illustrate the most important debates among “Guatemalanists”. Many important Mayan, Spanish, French and German studies are not discussed.

2. Exploring Guatemalan Mass Violence

The so-called armed confrontation (or ‘internal conflict’), fought between several guerrilla groups and the State, lasted for 35 years. As the CEH described, the dominant patterns of conflict evolved through successive stages:

“In the period from 1962 to 1970, operations were concentrated in the eastern part of the country, Guatemala City and the south coast, the victims being mainly peasants, members of rural union organizations, university and secondary school teachers and students and guerrilla sympathizers. In the years from 1971 to 1977, the repressive operations were more selective and geographically dispersed. Victims included community and union leaders, catechists and students. During the most violent and bloody period of the entire armed confrontation, 1978-1985, military operations were concentrated in Quiché, Huehuetenango, Chimaltenango, Alta and Baja Verapaz, the south coast and the capital, the victims being principally Mayan and to a lesser extent Ladino. During the final period, 1986-1996, repressive action was selective, affecting the Mayan and Ladino population to a similar extent” (CEH, 1999: Vol.V26-7).

Following these different waves of repression, the scholarship examining Guatemalan mass violence and – especially, the period from 1978 to 1985 – evolved through successive stages. During the early 1980s, anthropologists, social scientists and historians dealing with Guatemalan affairs had to face both, the ethical dilemmas and practical constraints of doing research in zones of conflict and mass violence. As Cleary (2002: 231) noted, “many academics with close ties to Guatemala were unwilling to put their observations into print. […] Academic and other observers were reluctant to endanger in any way those whose lives had become intertwined with outsiders”. On the other hand, social scientists tended to address Guatemala’s socio-economic formation, revolutionary processes, counterinsurgency policies, and the labor movement (Black, 1984; Figueroa Ibarra, 1980; Fried,. 1983). During the Reagan administration, scholarship particularly dealt with U.S. policies in Central America (Pearce, 1982; Diskin, 1983; Graham/Schulz, 1984). NGOs such as NACLA (the North American Congress on Latin America), Americas Watch and Amnesty International provided the platform that brought together political activists, and scholars as well as Guatemalan civil society. (see, for instance Amnesty International, 1981; Davis/Hodson, 1982; Nelson/Taylor, 1983). In May 1982, the Guatemalan Episcopal Conference released a letter in which the bishops stated: “Never in our national history have we reached such serious extremes. These assassinations are already in the genocide category”.2 Few anthropologists publicly denounced counterinsurgency practices, and even less tried to open an academic debate on the nature of Guatemalan State terror. In 1983, the Boletín de Antropología Americana published an article written by Arturo Arias, who stated that counterinsurgency had reached an unprecedented level, “truly becoming a cultural policy of genocide and ethnocide” (Arias, 1983: 8). It is important to note, however, that there was scant evidence: the article was principally based on a five-pages report on Guatemalan counterinsurgency and extermination strategies. Furthermore, it would appear that such denunciations at the time had little impact on the Reagan administration (Carmack, 1988: xii).

That same year, 1983, the book I, Rigoberta Menchú (Burgos-Debray, 1983) brought Guatemalan atrocities to wider attention. A second influential testimonial account was given by guerrilla writer Mario Payeras (EGP comandante Benedicto) in 1983. In Days of the Jungle, Payeras portrayed guerrilla activity as well as violent state responses in the Ixcán region. It is, thus, crucial to recognize that the Guatemalan state terror received international attention. In its reports on the human rights situation in Guatemala, the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights, for instance, provided detailed accounts of massacres carried out in rural parts of the country and noted the increasingly frequent discovery of clandestine cemeteries. (CIDH, 1981, 1983).

However, it was not until the second half of the 1980s that scholarly silence was broken. In 1988, Harvest of Violence (Carmack, 1988) offered the first detailed and systematic account of political violence in Guatemala. The book is a work of advocacy, with the goal of raising the level of public awareness: “It is our hope that once the American public realizes the true nature of the Guatemalan crisis it will pressure its government to alter U.S. policy [...]” (Carmack, 1988: xiv). The papers presented in the volume reflect the discussions at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in 1982, 1983, and 1984. The papers share an emphasis on long-term changes, whether at the community level or at the regional level. Of particular concern are the issues of Indian-ladino relations and socio-economic conditions of integration or division. In addition to providing a detailed insight into local histories of violence, the material presented in Harvest of Violence shows how military strategies as well as the consequences of counterinsurgency violence had been extremely varied. Robert M. Carmack (Santa Cruz, Quiché), Beatriz Manz (La Esperanze, Ixcán) and David Stoll (Ixil Triangle) describe the unspeakable experience of terror in communities affected by ‘scorched earth operations’. The papers presented in Part Two (Benjamin D. Paul and William J. Demarest on San Pedro La Laguna; Sheldon Annis on San Antonio Aguas Calientes; and Roland H. Ebel on San Juan Ostuncalco) focus on indigenous communities affected by rather selective repression. Robert E. Hinshaw (Panajachel) and Carol A. Smith (Totonicapán) analyze the profound social and economic consequences in areas that were more affected by indirect violence. The final chapter provides a preliminary contextual analysis, drawing on affective identities and the psychological disposition to collective violence. In his concluding remarks, Adams stated that the “genocidal policies of the Guatemalan government have viciously exacerbated the discriminatory characteristics of the ladino-Indian relationship” (Adams, 1988: 283). Fundamental questions highlighted in the final part of the volume remained open to debate, such as the relationship between indigenous communities and guerrilla groups. The following statement has proven to be the prelude to one of the most important subsequent debates (as discussed below): “Given the increasing threat from the army, this [revolutionary] pressure forced Indian communities to try to appear loyal to both ‘states’.” (Adams, 1988: 286)

Two of the papers presented in Harvest of Violence deal with the situation of refugees. In his article, originally written for the United Nations special rapporteur to Guatemala, Ricardo Falla describes both, the survival strategies of internal refugees in the Guatemalan mountains, and the systematic use of privations such as hunger, illness and lack of housing as military instruments. Ricardo Duncan’s paper deals with the living conditions of external refugees in Chiapas. Betriz Manz (1988) carefully described the situation of those who had survived. In Refugees of a Hidden War, she focused on “a dual legacy of this period: the direct scars inflicted on individuals, families, and communities, and the nature and consequences of the continuing militarization of the countryside.” (Manz, 1988: 7) The book provides an excellent account of displacement and human rights violations, consisting of diverse case studies. Manz addresses the devastating consequences of militarization in the ‘development poles’ in the Ixil and Ixcán regions as well as the effects of the civil patrol system in the municipio San Mateo Ixtatán, Huehuetenango. In 1988, AVANCSO published a book written by Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack, describing military control over the displaced population (Mack/AVANCSO, 1988). As Mack continued to document human rights abuses and the situation of rural refugees, the intelligence apparatus perceived her as being a threat to the peace negotiations (CEH, 1999, Vol. VI: 235 [caso ilustrativo N° 85], Fundación Myrna Mack 2004). On September 11, 1990, she was assassinated as she left her office in Guatemala City.

Though the ‘armed conflict’ had entered its final stage in the late 1980s, anthropologists, social scientists and human rights activists nonetheless ran risks whenever they exposed the mechanisms of state terror. The brutal murder “and the cynical evasions by the authorities had the familiar, chilling effect of paralyzing all independent investigation in the social sciences, at least temporarily” (Perera, 1993: 47).

The global paradigm shifts that occurred once the Cold War was over were also evident in the scholarship on Guatemalan political violence. Many ‘Guatemalanists’, however, continued along former lines of research, addressing basic research questions from new angles and exploring new frames of reference. During the 1990s, three interconnected research streams contributed to the growing field of violence studies. First, Political Economy situated mass violence within the broader context of social relations. The scholars who came together for Guatemalan Indians and the State (Smith, 1990) engaged in the debate about the specificity of Guatemalan cultural patterns, the continued existence of a coercive state and the class-ethnic situation. In recent years, many scholars ‘took the pulse of globalization’, focusing on changing Indian identities and multiple economic, political and social relations between and among global and local actors (Fischer, 2001; Smith, 1993). Second, scholarship focused on the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of mass violence. Using statistical data, news reports and testimonial accounts, important efforts were made to analyze patterns of violence (Ball/Kobrak/Spirer, 1999; CEH, 1999; EAFG, 1997; Falla, 1993; ODHAG, 1998). A third group of scholars adopted an ex-post perspective, addressing the question how victims and perpetrators deal with violent experiences. These scholars followed the emergence of a transnational human rights movement which brought global norms of ‘transitional justice’ into being. Moreover, scholarship on violence and collective memory was part of an enormous international body of literature on these issues. The volumes Kritz (1995), Barahona de Brito (2001) and Hayner (2001) provide a good overview of subsequent stages of international discussion. Beyond offering accounts of local history, various studies on the Guatemalan case contributed to the international debate on violence, identity and memory (AVANCSO, 2002; Esparza, 2005; Green, 1999; Remijnse, 2003; Sanford, 2003; Wilson, 1999; Zur, 1998). In a related vein of inquiry, various scholars examined how cultural (Mayan) identity had transformed at subsequent stages of flight, exile and return (see Bastos/Camus, 1994; Montejo, 1999; North/Simmons, 1999; Salvado/González, 1997). In general, this generation of scholarship situated issues of memory and violence in an analytical framework that explains and addresses gendered history. Contributions to this line of inquiry reinserted women as important actors into the larger narratives on Guatemalan history. It is important to note that CEH (1999) and ODHAG (1998) were among the first ‘truth finding institutions’ to describe the gendered brutality of counterinsurgency operations. Apart from analyzing patterns of torture, rape and murder of women, CEH and ODHAG explored the devastating long-term effects of violence against women. Green (1999) and Zur (1998) explored women’s lived experience of violence, focusing on “the various cultural exegeses available to the widows” (Zur, 1998: 22) as well as on the individual and collective reconstruction of meaning. These excellent studies are goldmines, asking and answering old questions in new ways.

3. Origins of Mass Violence

3.1 Ethnicity

The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) did not restrict itself to merely documenting human rights violations and acts of violence (Oettler, 2006a). As Greg Grandin (2002: 397) stated, the “report, in contrast to previous truth commissions, dedicates most of its first volume to the ‘causes and origins of the internal armed conflict’. It is a damning narrative that indicts not just the nation’s ruling elite, but its culture and history as well.” The narrative presented by the Guatemalan Truth Commission focused on the formation of ethnic boundaries as a main driving force behind mass violence. “Memory of Silence,” then, reflected state of the art historical and sociological analysis as it stood in the late 1990s.

In general, Guatemala’s population of 12 million is considered to be divided into two principle groups: Indians and ladinos. Indigenous people represent approximately 60 percent of the population. There are more that 20 separate Mayan languages spoken, being K´iche´, Mam Q´eqchi´ and Kaqchiquel the biggest Mayan language groups. Moreover, there are small garífuna and Xinca language groups. On the other hand, the ladinos are defined as the non-indigenous population. In general, the social category “ladino” does not refer to color, but to cultural identities. The ethnic dichotomy is perceived by most Guatemalans as the main ethnic border. Nevertheless, there is an underlying “socioracial” system, which dominates social stratification. The ideology of blanqueamiento (“whitening”) plays an important role in social life. Members of the elite tend to distinguish themselves as “Europeans” or “Caucasians” (Casaús Arzú, 2002).

For decades, there has been an intense debate over the best approach to explaining ethnic relations in Guatemala. Early ethnographies, such as Sol Tax´s studies on the Panajachel (Lake Atitlan) region, focused on patterns of economic and cultural organization. When revolutionary movements grew rapidly throughout the 1970s, however, a generation of politically committed scholars conducted fieldwork in Guatemala, focussing on issues of political economy (Smith/ Boyer,1987). With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-emergence of politicized ethnicity, interest in work on nation-building and ethnicity in the post-Cold War era grew. Not surprisingly, thus, recent anthropological work on Guatemala was concerned with ethnicity and the cultural meanings that have changed dramatically over the last decades (see, for instance, Nelson, 1999; Warren, 1998; Wilson, 1995). Indigenous Mayanists practiced “strategic essentialism” (Warren, 1998: 29) in the 1990s, referring to language and worldview as essential themes of Mayan culture (Cojtí, 1997). Many North American and European scholars, on the other hand, rejected essentialist approaches and offered rather constructionalist explanations. Carol Smith stated that “what has distinguished Indians and non-Indians over time has not been biological heritage, but a changing system of social classification, based on ideologies of race, class, language, and culture, which ideologies have also taken on different meanings over time” (Smith, 1990: 3).

The Guatemalan ethnic landscape is extraordinarily complex. During the last decades of the 19th century, “various regions of Guatemala found themselves drawn into the coffee economy at different times and under different conditions” (McCreery 1990: 112, see also Cambranes 1996). In general, the coffee economy was based on latifundios (large-estates) as well as on forced seasonal labor. Economic and social differences between and within indigenous communities, however, were not absorbed. According to Smith, “class, ethnic, community, and state relations in Guatemala have always and everywhere vastly complicated each other so that no general or singular analysis will do” (Smith, 1990: 26). In recent years, many anthropologists and historians have been engaged in research in local contexts, in which the complex matrix of social relations is grounded (for instance, AVANCSO, 2002; Velásquez Nimatuj, 2002; Watanabe, 2000). Arturo Taracena focused on transformation processes in the Los Altos region, located in western Guatemala: According to Taracena, the Liberalist coffee-grower elite in the western highlands consolidated and imposed the dichotomy of ladino domination and indigenous subordination after the uprising in 1873 (Taracena, 2000). Greg Grandin (2000) studied the history of nineteenth and twentieth-century Quetzaltenango, concluding that the indigenous elites – principales (notables) – figured prominently in the process of imposing and consolidating labor relations and the distribution of power.

Marta Casaus Arzú (2002) explored the formation as well as patterns of racist attitudes of Guatemala´s oligarchy. In general, recent scholarship has questioned the bipolarity of Guatemalan ethnic relations (Arenas/Hale/Palma, 2004; Adams/Bastos, 2003; Taracena, 2002, 2004). Although the ethnic bipolarity is perceived by most Guatemalans as the main ethnic boundary, there is an underlying pigmentocratic system, which dominates social stratification (Casaús Arzú, 2002). In general, people recognize themselves as ladinos, Indians, Maya, whites, ladinos blancos, ladinos pardos, Europeans, mestizos. While many Guatemalans distinguish themselves as members of Guatemalan communities or municipios, others recognize themselves as members of transnational communities (Oettler, 2006c), re-inventing the term “chapin”.

3.2 Guatemala and the Cold War

The first successful covert U.S. overthrow of an elected Latin American government during the Cold War occurred in Guatemala in 1954 (Schlesinger/Kinzer, 1983; Immerman, 1982; Gleijeses, 1991; Streeter, 2000). CIA agents, who “had only a dim idea of what had occurred in Guatemala before Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán came to power in 1950” (Cullather, 1999: 8), qualified political liberalization and social reforms as part of global communist activity. With the ascent of Castillo Armas to power, from 1954 on the Guatemalan military figured prominently in the crusade against communism and internal subversion.3 After the coup d’etat, the institutional and legal basis for authoritarian rule and systematic repression was established, and all domestic opponents were branded as communists. The Truth Commission concluded that:

“The National Security Doctrine fell on fertile ground in Guatemala where anti-communist thinking had already taken root and from the 1930s, had merged with the defense of religion, tradition and conservative values, all of which were allegedly threatened by the world-wide expansion of atheistic communism. Until the 1950s, these views were strongly supported by the Catholic Church, which qualified as communist any position that contradicted its philosophy, thus contributing even further to division and confusion in Guatemalan society.” (CEH, 1999: 14)

In the early 1960s, Yon Sosa´s MR-13 (Movimiento Revolucionario 13 de Noviembre) – and later Turcios Lima´s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) – came to pose the first armed challenge to the political order. The group of young nationalist military officers founding the first generation of Guatemalan guerilla movements, proclaimed to protect national interests. Moreover, they were inspired by foco theory and, in the case of MR-13, by the Trotskyist theory of mass insurrection. During its first decade, insurgent action and state repression were concentrated in the capital as well as in the eastern departments of Zacapa and Izabal, a largely non-indigenous part of the country (Ball/Kobrak/Spirer, 1999). After the military defeat of the FAR in the late 1960s, a nucleus group of survivors retreated to Mexico and the capital to regroup. In the 1970s, a second generation of guerilla groups emerged and moved its operations to the indigenous regions of the country. The Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) began to operate in the lowland jungles of northern El Quiché and the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA) began to organize in the isolated mountains in the southwestern coastal part of Guatemala. Both guerrilla organizations tried to gain indigenous support (CEH, 1999; Bastos 2004). While regrouped FAR concentrated its operations in the jungle area of Petén, the military wing of the communist party PGT launched armed actions in the urban centers. Surprisingly few scholars examined guerilla tactics, action and mobilization in detail. During the 1980s, few scholars, mostly sympathetic, dealt with the ideological and strategic foundations of the Guatemalan guerrilla movement (Black, 1984; Mc Clintock, 1985). Paige offered a theoretical explanation, based on his theory of agrarian revolution. According to him, the conflict between “military agrobusinessmen and migratory proletarians” generated “revolutionary conflict of explosive power (Paige, 1983: 737). Le Bot (1995) provided an excellent overview of the Guatemalan guerilla movement, focusing on the interconnectedness of liberation theology, campesino movements and indigenous struggles. Recently, both CEH (1999) and REMHI (1998) provided some details on the ideological and strategic foundations of the guerrilla movement. It is important to note, however, that the authors heavily relied on testimonios, papers and speeches delivered by the guerrilla movement. Gramajo Morales (1995, 2003) offered a first-hand description of how the military perceived guerrilla activity.

4. Mapping human rights violations and acts of violence

The number of victims during the thirty-five years of ‘armed confrontation’ has been and is still subject to dispute. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International, The Americas Watch Committee and other NGOs published numerous reports on the human rights situation in Guatemala. Nevertheless, estimated numbers of human rights violations remained tentative for a long time. The literature on the macro-dimensions of mass violence is of two basic kinds: First, there are important accounts of sub-national cases. Forensic anthropologists, social scientists and human rights activists contributed to a growing body of studies. Falla (1993), EAFG (1997), Museo Comunitario Rabinal Achi (2003) offer deep insights into the history of mass violence. These books bring together accurate data on human rights violations, thorough historical analysis and in-depth descriptions of regional developments. Based on testimonial accounts and exhumation data, these works attempt to identify and name all victims of massacres. In contrast to the studies discussed above, the second kind of literature on the macro-dimensions of mass-violence focuses on the national level. The main works to refer to are Ball/Kobrak/Spirer (1999), ODHAG (1998) and CEH (1999). Ball, Kobrak and Spirer (1999) offered a comprehensive analysis of the incidence of state terror, based on quantitative data. In 1994, Guatemalan human rights organizations initiated a project called Convergencia por la Verdad in order to hand over to the CEH a systematized data bank of human rights violations documented by their member organizations. State Violence in Guatemala provides an excellent overview of the entire ‘internal conflict’. Moreover, it attempts to establish the Guatemalan state’s responsibility for the overwhelming majority of human rights violations, stating that less than one percent of the 37,255 documented killings and disappearances are attributed to the armed opposition. In 1995, the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala initiated a second project to support the work of the CEH. The report Guatemala – nunca más! (never again!), based on approximately 6.500 individual and collective testimonios, concentrated on revealing the mechanisms of terror and explaining the human experience. The Project for the Recovery of Historical Memory attributed more than 90 percent of the killings to the military and hinted at the genocidal dimension of state terror (ODHAG, Vol IV: 490). Two days after the report was published, the co-ordinator of the project, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was murdered.

On February 25, 1999, the CEH issued a report that analysed 7.338 individual and collective interviews. The commission provided both, a documentation of terror, oppression and human experience, and a historical narrative (Oettler, 2006a).According to O´Neill (2005), Christian images and concepts affected the content and rhetorical nature of both reports.

Both reports, CEH and ODHAG, consist of a variety of studies dealing with issues such as gendered violence, the mechanisms of terror and the historic roots and stages of the ‘internal conflict’. The reports represent a sampling of recent scholarship, placing the massacres at the centre of the analysis. “Among acts aimed at the destruction of Mayan groups, identified by the Army as the enemy, ‘killings’ deserve special mention (Article II.a of the Convention [on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide]), the most significant of which were the massacres” (CEH, 1999: Vol.V, §112). But how to define a massacre? This was a question of ongoing concern in the Project for the Recovery of Historical Memory. Initially, the term massacre was defined as the killing of more than three people – and 1.570 of 5.238 cases of documented human rights violations classified as a massacre. Later, the project referred to the killing of more than three people under circumstances of community destruction. Testimonial evidence corroborated that 410 massacres had been committed (ODHAG, 1998: Vol.II, 3). The CEH used different definition criteria: “A massacre shall be considered the execution of five or more people, in the same place, as part of the same operation and whose victims were in an indefensible state.” (see Mezquita, 2000). The CEH documented a total of 669 massacres committed between 1962 and 1996, 626 of which were attributed to State forces.

A number of studies have explored how the decision to annihilate ‘them’ was applied, that means: how massacres were carried out. Both ‘truth finding institutions’, CEH and ODHAG, provided in-depth analyses of the organization of massacres, focusing on two levels. Both reports explore decision-making structures (ODHAG, 1998: Vol.II, 65-112; CEH, 1999: Vol.II, 13-300). On the other hand, they examine the preparation, organization and performance of massacres by local actors. Building on testimonial evidence as well as scholarship, both reports described how the decision to annihilate the enemy was taken up by civil defense patrols. With regard to the local organization of massacres, both reports highlighted the extreme acting out of violent fantasies in prolonged periods of time. Massacres tended to be more than mere crimes of obedience. Both CEH and ODHAG described how members of civil defense patrols were engaged in taboo behaviors such as slaughtering children. A massacre was a public act of rape, torture, killing and, in many cases, postmortem mutilation. ODHAG stated that some PACs made their own cruel decisions rather than acting on direct orders from above. According to survivors, the PACs in Rabinal (Xococ, Vegas de Santo Domingo, Ptaixlán, Chauperol, Nimacabaj, Panacal, La Ceiba, Pichec), Huehuetenango (Pojom, Chiantla) and Quiché (Chacalté) had demonstrated the highest level of creativity in its destructive sense (ODHAG, 1998: Vol. II, 135). Unquestionably, both reports are important in terms of documenting patterns of human rights violations. It should be recognized, however, that all testimonial accounts had been processed (see, for instance, Mezquita, 2000). All cases had been made in the sense that data analysts applied techniques of qualitative data analysis such as sampling, coding, constructing and testing models. Even though fragments of the testimonios given to CEH and ODHAG provide a certain degree of immediacy, it is important to note that they were rendered into reportable form by another participant in the ‘truth finding’ process. If the three reports considered thus far made use of a variety of approaches, additional studies focused more specifically on the organization of violence. Sanford (1997) demonstrates that the experience of massacre is embedded and tied to a continuum of experiences of violence. She distinguishes seven phases in the “phenomenology of terror”: (1) premassacre community organization and experiences with violence; (2) the massacre; (3) postmassacre life in flight in the mountains; (4) return from the mountains and surrender; (5) army-directed return to the villages and life in ‘model villages’; (6) militarization of community life; and (7) living memory of terror (Sanford, 1997: 123)

5. Main Controversies

5.1 Testimonial Truths

“My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I am twenty-three years old. This is my testimony. I didn't learn it from a book and I didn't learn it alone. I'd like to stress that it's not only my life, it's also the testimony of my people. It's hard for me to remember everything that's happened to me in my life since there have been many very bad times, but, yes, moments of joy as well. The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too: My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.” (Burgos, 1984: 1)

In 1992, Rigoberta Menchú Tum was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, “in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples”. In his presentation speech, Francis Sejersted, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Commmittee, stated that her autobiography “is an extraordinary human document. It describes cruelty in sober and matter-of-fact terms. Its driving force is moral indignation”.

Since Menchú’s testimonio was published, doubts have been raised about details of her story. I, Rigoberta Menchú has been amply discussed as a book that can have different readings. The debate over the “truth content” of the book has been going on for over two decades. At its core, is a debate on Menchu´s representativity. In the early 1990s, Zimmerman stated: “The act of testimonio for Rigoberta is a culminating life ceremony, as imbedded in the life of the community, just as her ‘I’ is embedded and absolutely tied to a ‘we’” (Zimmerman, 1991: 32).

On December 15, 1998, a New York Times article incited another wave of intense and long-lasting debate over the testimonio genre, a debate that involved many prominent non-Guatemalan ‘Guatemalanists’. The debate arose when the New York Times published the front-page article “Tarnished Lauerate. A Special Report. Nobel Winner Finds her Story Challenged”. The author, Larry Rohter, summed up the main conclusions of David Stoll´s forthcoming book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of all poor Guatemalans. In his book, Stoll questioned the veracity of events and narrative representation in Menchu´s autobiography. According to Stoll, “identifying factual shortcomings is only a means to an end.” (Stoll, 1998: xiv) It is important to note that Stoll did not only question the reliability of I, Rigoberta Menchú, but rather accused foreign scholars and activists of making Menchú a revolutionary icon. “The result [of Menchú’s story] was to mystify the conditions facing peasants, what they thought their problems were, how the killing started, and how they reacted to it” (Stoll, 1998: x). The various issues mentioned here were, of course, at the centre of initial attention as well as subsequent debate. Numerous scholarly papers have been and continue to be published, being Arias (2001, 2006), Bamberger (1999), Craft (2000), Gugelberger (1999), Haley (1999), Nelson (2001), Patai (1999), Sanford (1999), Schirmer (2003) and Smith (2001) some of the most important. Moreover, there are two edited volumes, both published in 2001. “The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy”, edited by Arturo Arias and published in the United States, presents non-scholarly documents such as Guatemalan and foreign newspaper articles as well as 15 scholarly papers that address a variety of issues: The context of the ‘culture wars’ in U.S. universities, the value of subaltern testimonios, ethnographic authority and political propaganda and, finally, the relationship between indigenous peasants and guerrillas. A second compilation on the topic was edited by Roberto Morales and published in Guatemala. “Stoll Menchú: La invención de la memoria [the invention of memory]” collects seven essays written by international scholars, being the article written by Elizabeth Burgos-Debray the most interesting. In sum, a faction of ‘Guatemalanists’ mainly criticized Stoll´s book as a “way of […] resubalternizing a narrative that aspired to (and achieved) hegemony” (Beverley, 2001: 223). For most Guatemalans, the academic firestorm ignited by David Stoll, was a meta-theoretical debate with little importance to their life. The controversy took place in the United States, and merely was a debate on testimonial literature and “Rigoberta Menchú´s Credibility in the North American Classroom“ (Carey-Webb, 2001).

On the other hand, the controversy refers to certain limits of knowledge or to experiences that may be beyond academic grasp. Personal accounts have been and continue to be one of the most important historiographic sources on Guatemalan mass violence to be considered. But how could testimonial evidence be sufficient to corroborate genocidal acts if memory reconstructs and distorts rather than represents? (see, for instance, Schacter, 1995). There are thousands of testimonies that have been gathered over the years, and many researchers have listened to massacre survivors who were trying to make sense of inconceivable experiences. As the work of, for instance, Falla (1992), ODHAG (1998), CEH (1999) and Sanford (2003) demonstrates, testimonies contain ‘historical facts’ including names of victims and perpetrators, dates and places, circumstances and acts of violence. On the other hand, testimonies represent multiple, and often contradictory meanings of violent experience. As such, they are highly shaped by social and cultural forces. When survivors of massacres talk about the past, the experience of violence continues to influence their life. And at the same time, experience itself is highly influenced by social practices and discourses. In the Guatemalan case, Stoll´s book placed him and Rigoberta Menchú in the middle of an academic battle that corroborated the existence of antagonistic academic and political paradigms in U.S. universities as well as ambivalent meanings of violent experiences for survivors of massacres.

In general, however, testimonial accounts have complemented other sources such as quantitative data on massacres. As mentioned above, the second influential testimonial account was written by Mario Payeras, decribing how the guerrillero returns to the jungle, comes to understand the indigenous population and begins once again his revolutionary struggle. Other testimonial accounts and first person tending documents include Montejo (1987), AVANCSO (2002: Vol.II), Harbury (1997), Lovell (2001) and Perera (1993). The ensemble of testimonial accounts brought a special kind of sensitivity to the debate on Guatemalan mass violence. It is crucial to note, however, that some memories and justifications of perpetrators have also been published (for instance, Gramajo Morales, 2003; Krujit/Van Meurs, 2000).

5.2 Indigenous communities, guerrilla and counterinsurgency

The CEH concluded that the military identified Mayan groups as guerrilla allies. “Occasionally this was the result of the effective existence of support for the insurgent groups and of pre-insurrectional conditions in the country’s interior” (CEH, 1999: Vol. V, § 33). What does “occasionally” mean? Actually, the question how indigenous communities were (re-)acting during the ‘armed confrontation’ still remains open to debate. Stoll’s view certainly represents one pole in the whole controversy. In Between two Armies, he attempts to reinterpret the recent history of the Ixil region. “First, I stress the role of the guerrillas in provoking repression, in order to dispel the aura of an indigenous revolutionary movement. Second, I stress how Ixils were under pressure from both sides, not just the army” (Stoll 1993: 95). In the book, the Ixil population is portrayed as being caught in the middle of an overall military conflict. Later, Hale (1997: 836) criticized that Stoll did “not confront the problem of how to discern what Ixil people were thinking in 1978 on the basis of interviews in 1990”. Sanford (2001: 33) highlighted the variety of local experiences and concluded that “guerrilla organizing and guerrilla military operations were sometimes, but not always, present in Mayan communities prior to the massacres”. Arias described that indigenous communities were

“divided among three groups [by the mid-1970s]: the costumbristas, the commercial sector now clearly delineated as the Indian bourgeoisie, and the radicalized Indian campesinos who no longer recognized either of the two previous groups as their natural leaders” (Arias 1990: 251).

The author explored subsequent stages of radicalization, addressing the role of the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC), the 1977 miners march from Ixtahuacán (Huehuetenango) to Guatemala city, the May 1 demonstration in 1978, the growing incorporation of indigenous campesinos into the EGP, the burning of the Spanish embassy in 1980, and the 1980 declaration of Iximché – an indigenous declaration of war. Arias highlighted a sense of triumphalism as well as growing indigenous participation in violent acts of rebellion.

“For the Guatemalan army, the time had come to cut that movement to ribbons. They correctly saw danger not in the guerrillas´military capacity, but rather in the enormous mobilization of the Indians in the highlands. This was why a campaign of genocide was initiated against the insurgent Indian population in November 1981” (Arias, 1990: 255).

It is important to note, however, that indigenous participation in insurgent as well as counterinsurgent acts varied. “Santa María Tzejá is not a typical village – if there is a ‘typical’ village in Guatemala – but rather a place whose history embodies the forces and conflicts defining contemporary Guatemala”, writes Manz (2004: 3) in her introduction to Paradise in Ashes. Indeed, recent literature increasingly explores the pluralism and polyvocality of violent and non-violent actors (AVANCSO, 2002; Carmack, 1995; Grandin, 2004; Green, 1999; Remijnse, 2002; Wilson, 1995; Zur, 1998). Diversity is a key aspect of Mayan social action: diversity in community organizing, participation in acts of violence, and, finally, communication with guerrilla groups and the military.

6. Opting for Genocide?

That the scorched-earth campaigns were centrally planned is reasonably well established. In The Last Colonial Massacre, Grandin (2004) distinguished the Panzós massacre in May 1978 from the subsequent genocide campaign. Grandin demonstrates that the Panzós massacre marked a turn in the ‘armed confrontation’. While Panzós was a violent reaction to local indigenous protest, the scorched-earth campaign of the early 1980s was centrally planned. Grandin concluded that the “1981-83 genocidal campaign was designed to counter what strategists deemed the ‘closed’, caste-like isolation of indigenous communities, identified as the reason for the supposed collective susceptibility of Mayans to communism” (Grandin, 2004:13-14). Historians, social scientists and anthropologists who conduct research on Guatemala have underlined that the atrocities committed throughout the western highlands were a scientific means to eradicate communism and to establish national identity as well as national integration. According to Smith (1990: 271), the “1980s counterinsurgency campaign provided the military with the chance to deepen its control over both state and civil institutions in Guatemala, especially in the western highlands, where state presence had previously been weak”. High ranking military officers were utterly convinced that they were facing a permanent internal war, and a permanent struggle over hearts and minds. Their mission was the total extermination of subversion or communism. Surprisingly, there are few sources that discuss counterinsurgency strategies and the impact of the National Security Doctrine (Bastos, 2004; Black, 1984; CEH, 1999; García, 2005; ODHAG, 1998; Schirmer 1998). Schirmer, whose work is based on interviews with the principle architects of Guatemalan military strategy in the 1980s and early 1990s, provides the details on how and why the military generated its strategy referred to a as “Beans and Bullets”. Schirmer demonstrates that the organization of mass violence from above was a dynamic process, including shifts and lessons learned. One interviewee, military spokesman Major-Dr. Luis Sieckavizza, stated: “When [the United States] terminated our aid [in 1978], we were obligated to generate our own philosophy and our own invention of military science, and we created a military thesis known as the tesis desarrollista (development thesis)” (Schirmer, 1998: 38). Employing an ethnographic approach, Schirmer unmasks the “mentality of the military officer” (1998: 3). Schirmer pursued her effort with ingenuity and persistence, succeeding in interviewing more than fifty military officers, including three Heads of State. Most prominent among her interviewees is General Gramajo Morales, who provided the rough sketches of army strategies reproduced in the book. Schirmer demonstrates that the strategy by which the military sought to establish its power in the western highlands was the reorganization of indigenous communities by both undertaking development efforts (“Beans”) and establishing a long-term military presence and the civil patrol system (“Bullets”). Schirmer describes the Guatemalan Military Project from the inside, focusing on the role of the military in the transition to democracy. The book corroborates the hypothesis that the military crafted a transition that was based on continued military veto power. The book is an exceptional must-read. Nevertheless, the history of military decision-making remains fragmentary, and much more needs to be examined.

The policy that has been explored in considerable detail, is the policy of “genocidal ethnocide” (Chaumont, 2001: 186): Under the regime of Efraín Rios Montt, an influential faction of the military transformed the policy of annihilation into a policy, which combined murder and the destruction of the cultural identity of the enemy. Postmassacre counterinsurgency strategies focused on the militarization and transformation of indigenous life, being civil patrols, Polos de Desarollo (Poles of Development) and Aldeas Modelos (Model Villages) the principal institutions of control. Resettling the displaced in concentrating villages, the military attempted to change Indian identity and, thus, to destroy cohesion and collective action in indigenous villages. There is a wealth of writing on these mechanisms of repression. As indicated above, the texts of AVANCSO (2002), CEH (1999), Manz (2004), ODHAG (1998), Remijnse (2003) and Sanford (2003) provide a solid background. Schirmer has highlighted how the military aimed at re-educating the indigenous population. As part of the imagined nation, the “Sanctioned Mayan” was to be created as a Spanish-speaking citizen emptied of history (Schirmer, 1998: 113-117).

Since the 1980s, scholars writing on the brief regime of Efraín Rios Montt have included the role of El Verbo in their descriptions. Garrard-Burnett (1998: 141) highlighted Rios Montt’s plan to create a New Guatemala (La Nueva Guatemala), based on three fundamental principles: Morality, discipline and order, and national unity. Some work has been dedicated recently to the overlap between Protestantism and Guatemalan counterinsurgency (ODHAG, 1998; Schirmer, 1998; Casaus Arzú, 2002). The social engineering project La Nueva Guatemala was perceived of being part of a divinely sanctioned final battle. In general, some work has emerged on the interconnectedness of religious recomposition and Cold War. Annis (1987) and Stoll (1988) interpreted the explosive growth of Pentecostalism in the western highlands as a response to state terror.

The works of Aguilera Peralta (1980) and Black (1983) were among the first to examine the militarization of the state as a process of institutional and political change. The expansion of the military intelligence apparatus has been further explored by CEH (1999), ODHAG (1999), Rosada-Granados (1999) and Schirmer (1998). Davis/Hodson (1982) and Black (1982) examined the emergence of a dense network of high-ranking military officers engaged in extensive economic activities such as finance (e.g. Army Bank) and agro-exporting. This network was supported by a number of local politicians and landowners. In the 1970s, the government sold hundreds of land titles to high-ranking military officers in the Franja Transversal del Norte – the agrarian frontier in the northern lowlands. General Lucas García, who assumed presidency in 1978, purchased large estates in the northern frontier. Under his regime, massive repression mounted and expanded throughout the country. State-sponsored death squads started a frontal attack on the social movement, leaving dozens of bodies every day on the streets. Right-wing death squads targeted all opponents, and carried out acts of “social cleansing”. It is important to note that many killings had local origins (Carmack, 1988: 53-54), and that many local landowners, labor contractors or politicians were involved in death-squad activity (CEH, 1999: Vol. II: 112, § 1085; CEH, 1999: Vol. II: 120, § 1109). It is important to note that investment in the agrarian sector had been a strong motive. Thus, the growing peasant and cooperative movements may have been perceived more threatening than the guerilla movement (Davis/Hodson, 1982). As part of the government’s development plan for the Franja Transversal del Norte, the Instituto Nacional de Electrificación (INDE) intended to build the Chixoy dam in the Maya Achì region of Alta and Baja Verapaz. Following the community of Río Negro’s refusal to resettle, an intimidation campaign against the local population began (Witness for Peace, 1996; EAFG, 1997: chapter 1.3.). In March 1982, the military, together with 15 patrulleros of Xoxoc, carried out a massacre, killing 70 women and 117 children (CEH, 1999, caso ilustrativo N° 19). Between 1980 and 1982, an estimated 427 of the 700 inhabitants of the village were assassinated.

However, there is a need to continue reworking our understanding of the complex patterns of counterinsurgent fervor. It is important to note that the CEH could not prove a genocidal intent directly from military orders. Even though there is evidence to suggest genocidal intentions, the CEH concluded that military plans and manuals (Plan Nacional de Seguridad y Desarrollo, 1982 [Army], Manual de guerra contrasubvesiva, 1982 [Centro de Estudios Militares], Plan de campaña Victoria 1982 [Army]) do not provide sufficient evidence of genocidal policy. Through an analysis of the pattern of mass atrocities in the four regions mentioned above, the CEH corroborated that a campaign of massacres was carried out during the regimes of Lucas García and Rios Montt. While it is proven that the policy of annihilation was begun by Lucas García and further systematized by Rios Montt (Sanford, 2003: 54), the military command and control structure has not yet been fully explored. And further research is needed to demonstrate the linkages between local conflicts, state institutions, and international actors. It is crucial to recognize that many massacres and killings had local origins (Carmack, 1988: 53-54). According to Bastos (2004: 123), private interests increasingly shaped state institutions, and high-ranking military officers focused on achieving their own goals. The network of power created by land-owners, politicians and military entrepreneurs requires further analysis.

In Guatemala, the blood fell drop by drop until it poured in sheets in the early 1980s. In an attempt to summarize the complex interrelationship of strategic and economic motives, first of all, we should note that the decision to kill was made in military headquarters. In accordance with the Doctrine of National Security, the Guatemalan military sought to annihilate the “internal enemy”, or: to eliminate the “cancer of communism”. In contrast to the 1960s, counterinsurgency operations in the early 1980s targeted the indigenous population in the western highlands4. The discourse of the enemy to be destroyed was now fed by racist prejudices and the fear of Indian retaliation. The question if the carnage committed by military units and paramilitary organizations was based on a genocidal or ethnocidal intention (Oettler, 2006b), remains open to debate.

_ Second, the discourse of the subversive enemy to be destroyed was fed by evangelistic fervor, unbridled ambition for power, and greed of gain. While General Lucas García (1978-1982) was perceived as a “psychotic tyrant” (Black, 1984:26) by the population, General Rios Montt (1982-1983) envisioned a new society, La Nueva Guatemala, based on morality, discipline, and national unity.

_ Third, a group of military officers established a long-term politico-military strategy (Schirmer, 1998). Both repressive strategies and development programs were directed by military science. It is, therefore, crucial to note that many high-ranking military officers had studied counterinsurgency strategies at military academies such as the School of the Americas, the Inter-American Defense College and the United States Army Infantry School. Genocidal strategies and ethnic engineering (psychological warfare, re-education) reflected the state of the art in scientific counterinsurgency.

_ Fourth, the organization of Guatemalan mass violence requires two analytical perspectives, the top-down as well as the bottom-up approach. The systematic implementation of terror was centrally planned and caused the closing of political spaces. Although options and room for maneuver were restricted and the social fabric destroyed, collective (re-)action differed from community to community, from municipio to municipio, and from region to region. As examined above, much has been written about local, national and regional dimensions of the Guatemalan carnage and its origins. Nevertheless, there are numerous gaps that still need to be addressed.

As we consume life's quota,

_ how many truths elude us?

_ Augusto Monterroso, Movimiento perpetuo

(Prologue quote from Memory of Silence, CEH, 1999)


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  • 1. Valuable studies on the colonial period include Lovell 1985, Lutz 1994, MacLead 1973, Martínez Paláez 1994, Pinto Soria 1993, Sherman 1979, Wortman 1982.
  • 2. (cited in Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), “Report on the Situation of Human Rights in the Republic of Guatemala [report on-line]” (Washington: IACHR, 5 October 1983), accessed 25 May 2007, available from [>]).
  • 3. Collections of CIA documents and U.S. government reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act can be accessed through the National Security Archive, George Washington University, ([>]); the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), [>]; and the U.S. State Department (Holly Susan (ed.): Guatemala 1952-1954, Washington, United States Government Printing Office, [>]). See also Grandin 2001.
  • 4. The international humanitarian law stipulates that attacks on civilians are prohibited (Article 13 of additional Protocoll to the Geneva Conventions). The military accused indigenous communities of being part of the insurgent movement, thereby defining them as legitimate military targets. However, it is important to note that victims of massacres were in a state of defenselessness when they were killed.

Cite this item

Oettler Anika, Guatemala: The State of Research, Mass Violence & Résistance, [online], published on: 28 March, 2008, accessed 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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