Violence and Genocide in Guatemala

Violence and Genocide in Guatemala[1]

By Victoria Sanford

Senior Research Fellow

Institute on Violence and Survival, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

Assistant Professor

Department of Anthropology, Lehman College, City University of New York

CHART 1 (Responsibility for Acts of Violence): In its final report, the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH- Guatemalan Truth Commission) concluded that army massacres had destroyed 626 villages, more than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, 1.5 million were displaced by the violence, and more than 150,000 were driven to seek refuge in Mexico.  Further, the Commission found the state responsible for ninety-three percent of the acts of violence and the guerrillas (URNG-Guatemalan Revolutionary Union) responsible for three percent. [2]

CHART 2 (Ethnicity of Victims):All told, eighty-three percent of the victims were Maya and seventeen percent were ladino. [3]

CHART 3 (Northern El Quiche; Total Number of Victims):Through an analysis of the pattern of massacres in El Quiche and Baja Verapaz during the last twelve months of General Lucas Garcia’s regime (March 1981-82) and the first twelve months of General Rios Montt’s reign (March 1982-83), I demonstrate that (1) massacres were not the result of rogue field commanders; (2) massacres were a systematic and strategic campaign of the army as an institution; (3) Rios Montt not only continued the campaign of massacres begun by Lucas Garcia, he actually further systematized the massacre campaign; and, (4) this sustained campaign of massacres was the army’s first genocidal campaign.

The Ixil and Ixcan areas are located in the northern part of El Quiche with the Ixcan jungle north of the Ixil mountains.  Between March 1981 and March 1983, the Guatemalan army carried out seventy-seven massacres in the Ixil/Ixcan region. There are 3,102 known victims of these massacres. If we locate the number of massacres and victims by date on the calendar of the regimes, Lucas Garcia is responsible for forty-five massacres with 1,678 victims from March 1981 to March 1982 and Rios Montt is responsible for thirty-two massacres with 1,424 victims from March 1982 to March 1983.[4]

CHART 4 (Number of Massacres-Northern El Quiche):If we focus only on comparing the number of massacres, we find a fifteen percent drop in the number of massacres and 200 less massacre victims in the Ixil/Ixcan area during the first year of Rios Montt.

CHART 5 (Average Number of Victims per Massacre):However, it would be misleading to simply conclude that the number of massacres and massacre victims decreased under Rios Montt because 1,424 Maya fell victim to thirty-two army massacres under his regime. Moreover, rather than a decrease in genocidal activities in the area, the number of victims per massacre actually increased under Rios Montt from an average of thirty-seven victims to forty-five, or an eighteen percent increase in number of victims per massacre. This increase indicates a more systematic genocidal policy which sought “efficiency” in killing ever larger numbers of people in each massacre. Furthermore, if we limit the time of study from the last three months under Lucas Garcia and the first three months under Rios Montt, we find 775 Maya victims of twenty-four massacres under Lucas Garcia and 1,057 victims of nineteen massacres under Rios Montt. Though there is a twenty-one percent drop in the number of known massacres, there is a twenty seven percent increase in the average number of victims in each massacre under Rios Montt. In the first three months of the Rios Montt regime, the average number of victims per massacre increases from thirty-two to fifty-six. Further, the qualitative difference between an average of thirty-two and fifty-six victims is not village size, it is the systematic inclusion of women, children, and elderly in the slaughter. Whereas it is during the last six months of the Lucas Garcia regime that the army began to include women, children, and elderly as targets in some massacres, it is under Rios Montt that their inclusion became a systematic practice.

CHART 6 (El Quiche Data):If we broaden our analysis to the entire department of El Quiche, our conclusions about the strategies and patterns of massacres in the Ixil/Ixcan areas during the regimes of Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt are systematically reaffirmed. [5]  Under Lucas Garcia, from March 1981 to March 1982, 2,495 Maya were victims of ninety-seven army massacres in the department of El Quiche. Under Rios Montt, between March 1982 and March 1983, 3,180 Maya were victims of eighty-five massacres in El Quiche. Here again, while there is a thirteen percent drop in the number of massacres under Rios Montt, there is a twenty-five percent increase in the number of massacre victims during the first year of his regime. Again, under Rios Montt, there is an increase in the efficiency of the massacres with thirty percent more victims per massacre, on average. And again, I want to emphasize that this thirty percent increase represents the systematic inclusion of women, children and elderly as massacre victims.

CHART 7 (Command Responsibility by Percentage of Massacre Victims):Of all the Achi Maya who fell victim to army massacres between January of 1980 and December of 1982, fully 43 percent of massacre victims died during the first nine months of the Rios Montt regime. [6] 

CHART 8 (Massacre Victims in Salama and Rabinal):If we combine the massacres in the municipality of Rabinal and the departmental capital of Salama, we find the ladino-dominated Salama suffered one percent of massacres while the predominantly Achi-Maya Rabinal suffered 99 percent of the massacres.

CHART 9 (Number of Massacre Victims-Rabinal):In 1981, 422 Rabinal Achi fell victim to massacres under Lucas Garcia - an average of 35 massacre victims per month. Another 95 Achi died in massacres during the last three months of the Lucas Garcia regime in 1982 - an average of 32 massacre victims per month. In just the first nine months of Rios Montt’s regime, 487 Rabinal Achi died in army massacres. Averaging 54 massacre victims per month in Rabinal alone, there was a 64 percent increase in the number of massacre victims in Rabinal under Rios Montt. [7]

Between 1980 and 1983, 25 percent of massacres were committed by the army alone. Another 21 percent were committed by army troops with judiciales - local ladinos from Salama and Rabinal vestido de civil con pañuelos rojos. Both Rabinal Achi and ladinos refer to these men interchangeably as judiciales and escuadrones. Moreover, 54 percent of all Rabinal massacres were committed by the army with army-controlled Civil Patrol (PAC) military commissioners and/or patrollers. Under the regime of Rios Montt, military commissioners and PACs were included in every army massacre in Rabinal.[8]

CHART 10 (Percentage of Massacre Victims By Gender):Genocide is a gendered atrocity because its intention is to destroy the cultural group. This means destruction of the community’s material culture as well as its reproductive capacity - thus, women and children are prime genocidal targets. One way to pinpoint the height of the genocide is to look at the ratio of male to female massacre victims. In 1981, females (including women and girls) comprised 14 percent of massacre victims in Rabinal. By 1982, they made up 42 percent of massacre victims. By charting the gender composition of massacre victims over time, we see that halfway through 1982 the increase in the number of women killed in massacres rises so rapidly that the comparative percentage of men killed actually drops. This point of intersection represents the successful implementation of a shift in army strategy from selective massacres to genocide and is located midway through 1982 about three months after Rios Montt seized power through military coup d’etat. [9]

No doubt, the ever-increasing number of Maya massacre victims and the pattern from the Lucas Garcia regime to the rule of Rios Montt indicates an ongoing army strategy that was consistent in its target population (the Maya) and one which became increasingly efficient. Moreover, this improved efficiency was no accident and certainly not the random and coincidental outcome of rogue commanders in the field. It was the field implementation of the Guatemalan army’s “Plan de Campana Victoria 82” (Victory Campaign Plan 82) which sought to “eliminate,” “annihilate,” and “exterminate” the “enemy.”[10]

CHART 11 (Responsibility Under Last Year of Lucas Garcia):In her extensive study of the Guatemalan military based on interviews with high-ranking officers, Jennifer Schirmer concluded:  The concentration of energies and forces [of Plan Victoria] resulted in the most closely coordinated, intensive massacre campaign in Guatemalan history. [11]   General Hector Gramajo, Rios Montt’s Deputy Chief of Staff, told Schirmer ”proudly” that “one of the first things we did was draw up a document for the campaign with annexes and appendices.” It was a complete job with planning down to the last detail. [12]  Gramajo also told Schirmer that he was “coordinator and supervisor of the military commanders of operations for the western zone (Alta and Baja Verapaces, El Quiche, Huerhuetenango and Chimaltenango);” he also referred to the campaign of massacres as his “baby.” [13]  Less than one month after the Rios Montt coup, Plan Victoria was signed by the junta on April 10, 1982 and officially began 10 days later. Throughout the campaign, Gramajo and the army General Staff received hourly and daily intelligence reports about all the details of the campaign via radio transmissions. [14]  A critical component of Plan Victoria was the systematic organization of civil patrols that was begun, perhaps as a pilot campaign, under Lucas Garcia but brought to fruition under Rios Montt. Fully sixty-four percent of army massacres during the thirty-four year conflict occurred between June 1981 and December 1982. [15]  According to a statistical analysis of the truth commission findings, 14.5 percent of Ixil Maya and 16 percent of Achi Maya were killed during La Violencia. [16]

 Given that PACs were an integral component of the 1982 Victory Campaign, I want to again look at the massacres, but this time analyzing the composition of the perpetrators. My questions here are: (1) Who carried out the massacres? (2) Does this reveal a pattern? (3) If there is a pattern, what are its implications?

 In the department of El Quiche during the last year of the Lucas Garcia regime, army platoons carried out ninety-seven massacres but sixteen of these massacres were different from the rest because, for the first time, army platoons carried out massacres with local PAC participation under army command.[17 Under Lucas Garcia, nineteen percent of massacres were carried out by army platoons with PAC participation (under army command) and eighty-one percent of massacres were carried out by army platoons alone. Reviewing the number of victims of each massacre, one finds that eighty-seven percent of the victims were killed in army platoon massacres and thirteen percent of the victims were killed in joint army/PAC massacres.

Each massacre was representative of a wide-scale military strategy that did not distinguish between civilians and combatants;[18] a strategy that first used terror and psychological cruelty to force communities to accede to army control. Massacres should not be seen as discrete and one-time-only incidents of state violence but rather as integral strategic operations which in their sum form the army’s first genocide campaign. Nonetheless, each massacre is still significant in that it embodies the moment in which violence explodes into the lives of civilian villagers and forever changes the lives of citizens in Guatemalan society both locally and nationally. It is within the tension of this local and comparative national analysis of the massacres that we can best understand the meaning of the Guatemalan genocide.

 In the Ixil Area, in the last six months of 1980, eighty-three Maya lost their lives in army massacres in five Ixil communities. By 1981, PACs were systematically incorporated into the army’s massacre campaign. Indeed, of seventy-nine army massacres carried out by the army in El Quiche during 1981, local PACs participated in twelve of these massacres (or fifteen percent).[19] By 1982, the army had committed 131 massacres in El Quiche and local PACs participated in forty-one of these massacres,  doubling PAC participation in army massacres to thirty-one percent.[20] No doubt, this increase in PAC execution of army strategy represents both the expansion of the army’s scorched earth campaign as well as the growth of army-controlled civil patrols throughout the region.

 In its comprehensive investigation, the CEH found that 18 percent of human rights violations were committed by civil patrols. Further, it noted that 85 percent of those violations committed by patrollers were carried out under army order.[21]  It is not insignificant that the CEH found that one out of every ten human rights violations was carried out by a military commissioner and that while these commissioners often led patrollers in acts of violence, eighty-seven percent of the violations committed by commissioners were in collusion with the army.[22]

 Less than one month after the army organized all the men of San Jose and San Antonio Sinache, Zacualpa, into a PAC, army-ordered PAC violence began within the community. On May 24, 1982 (exactly two months after the coup), the army called all the 800 patrollers to gather in front of the church in San Antonio Sinache. After chastising them for failing to turn in any guerrillas in the preceding weeks, the army lieutenant sent them on a fruitless march through the mountains searching for guerrillas. When they returned empty-handed, the army and patrollers who had remained showed them the dead bodies of four PAC members and two local women. After ordering the patrollers to relinquish their palos (sticks) and machetes, the lieutenant accused Manuel Tol Canil, one of the local PAC chiefs of being a guerrilla. Two other patrollers protested that Canil was not a guerrilla and had committed no crime. The lieutenant then accused those two patrollers of also being guerrillas.[23]

The hands of the three men were bound behind their backs and they were tied to a tree in front of the church. The lieutenant ordered the patrollers to form a line in front of the tree. He picked up one of the machetes, gave it to the first man in line, and ordered him to “Kill him with this.”If you don’t kill him, I’ll kill you.” Taking turns, the men were ordered to not hit the men with lethal blows because their deaths should be slow to extend their suffering. When the first victim died after three machete blows, the lieutenant said, “Too bad he couldn’t tolerate more, he died with just three machete blows.” [24]  After all three men had been killed, the patrollers were ordered to bury them. One patroller recalled returning home after killings, “We came home very cold, very frightened. Some of the older men were crying the entire walk, the thing is we were all crying.” [25] Another former patroller explained the impact of this army-ordered violence in his community, “We began to drink more aguardiente here, to calm our hearts, to help rid ourselves of the pain of these things we suffered.” [26]

CHART 12 (Responsibility Under Rios Montt):Plan Victoria, developed under Rios Montt, increases the centrality of the PACs to army strategy. [27]  Less than one month after Rios Montt’s coup, the army began an intensified and systematic forced recruitment of Maya into the PACs. It wasn’t long before one million men were forcibly recruited into the PACs. [28]  This further systematized the inclusion of civil patrols in the counterinsurgency begun under Lucas Garcia. Thus, it should not be surprising that army massacres with PAC participation more than doubled to account for forty-one percent of army massacres under Rios Montt and that the number of victims of army/PAC massacres more than tripled to account for forty-seven percent of army massacre victims. This systematic pattern of incorporation of army-controlled civil patrols participating in army massacres at the same time that the army’s official Plan Victoria campaign calls for increased organization of these PACs indicates “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that (1) massacres were carried out by army platoons and army platoons with PAC participation; (2) the pattern of army and army/PAC massacres from Lucas Garcia to Rios Montt indicates massacres as a result of widespread army strategy and command responsibility; (3) this pattern reveals a highly coordinated army campaign which increasingly and systematically included PACs in massacre operations under army command; (4) this pattern could only have existed as the result of a widespread army strategy with incorporation of PACs as a strategic component of the 1982 Plan Victoria; and, (5) both Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt, as well as Gramajo and other army officials in the High Command, had command responsibility and are the intellectual authors of army and army/PAC massacres of the Maya during their military regimes. This sustained campaign of massacres was the army’s first genocidal campaign against the Maya.

IMAGE in CHART 13 (Chapel in memory of victims of the 1982 Plan de Sanchez massacre in Baja Verapaz):  In July, 2004, the Inter-American Court made public its condemnation of  the Guatemalan government for the July 18, 1982 massacre of 188 Achi-Maya in the village of Plan de Sanchez in the mountains above Rabinal, Baja Verapaz.  In this judgment, and for the first time in its history, the Court ruled that a genocide had taken place.   The Inter-American Court attributed the 1982 massacre and the genocide to Guatemalan army troops.   This is the first ruling by the Inter-American Court against the Guatemalan state for any of the 626 massacres carried out by the army in its scorched earth campaign in the early 1980s.

Beyond the importance of this judgment for the people of Plan de Sanchez, the Court’s ruling is particularly significant because the following key points were included in the judgment:

  • There was a genocide in Guatemala;
  • This genocide was part of the framework of the internal armed conflict when the armed forces of the Guatemalan government applied their National Security Doctrine in their counterinsurgency actions; and,
  • These counterinsurgency actions carried out within the Guatemalan government’s National Security Doctrine took place during the the regime of General Efrain Rios Montt who came to power through military coup in March of 1982.

Further, regarding the massacre in Plan de Sanchez, the Court indicated that the armed forces of the Guatemalan government had violated the following rights, each of which is enshrined in the Human Rights Convention of the Organization of American States:

  • The right to personal integrity
  • The right to judicial protection
  • The right to judicial guarantees of equality before the law
  • The right to freedom of conscience
  • The right to freedom of religion
  • The right to private property.

The Plan de Sanchez case was considered by the Inter-American Court at the request of the Inter-American Commission which received the original petition from relatives of the massacres victims.  These survivors requested consideration within the Inter-American Court because of the lack of justice in the Guatemalan legal system.   Since the Plan de Sanchez case was initiated in 1995, there have been more than 200 exhumations of other clandestine cemeteries of massacre victims in Guatemala.  Each of these exhumations has included the filing of a criminal case with forensic evidence against the Guatemalan army and its agents.   To date, only the Rio Negro case has been heard in a Guatemalan court (in 1999) and no army officials were included in the case which found three low-ranking civil patrollers guilty.

The Guatemalan government is currently seeking military aid from the United States.  Sadly, most Guatemalan political parties include former military officials implicated in the genocide - the most prominent being the powerful FRG party headed by Rios Montt.   Moreover, the government has yet to fully purge the armed forces of the intellectual and material authors of genocide.  Before sending guns or money to the Guatemalan army, the US government should consider the Guatemalan legal system’s failure to address these army massacre cases as well as its failure to bring Efrain Rios Montt and other intellectual authors of genocide to justice.

[1] This draws from Violencia y Genocidio en Guatemala (Guatemala City: FyG Editores, 2003) and Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). The author thanks Allison Downey for her assistance in developing the massacre databases, Raul Figueroa Sarti for publishing this critical material in Guatemala, and Ben Kiernan for making it available on this website.

[2] CEH, Guatemala Memoria del Silencio, vols.1-12 (Guatemala City: CEH, 1999), vol.5:42.

[3] CEH, Guatemala Memoria del Silencio, vols.1-12 (Guatemala City: CEH, 1999), vol.5:42.

[4] Analysis on massacres in El Quiche in this section is based on massacre data presented in CEH, Memoria, vol. 10.

[5] CEH, Memoria, vol. 10.

[6] Analysis on massacres in Baja Verapaz in this section id based on massacre data presented in CEH, Memoria, vol. 8.

[7] Analysis on massacres in Baja Verapaz in this section id based on massacre data presented in CEH, Memoria, vol. 8.

[8] Analysis on massacres in Baja Verapaz in this section id based on massacre data presented in CEH, Memoria, vol. 8.

[9] Analysis on massacres in Baja Verapaz in this section id based on massacre data presented in CEH, Memoria, vol. 8.

[10] For more on Plan Victoria, see Schirmer, Guatemala Military Project; Tom Barry, Guatemala: The Politics of Counterinsurgency (Albuquerque: Inter-Hemispheric Education Center, 1986); Guatemalan Church in Exile, Guatemala: Security, Development and Democracy (location not identified: Guatemalan Church in Exile, 1989); Hector Gramajo, De la guerra … A la guerra (Guatemala City: Fondo de Cultura Editorial, S.A., 1995).

[11] Schirmer, 44.

[12] Schirmer, 44.

[13] Schirmer, 45.

[14] Schirmer, 46-47.

[15] Perlin, The Guatemalan Commission Finds Genocide, 407.

[16] Perlin, The Guatemalan Commission Finds Genocide, 411.

[17] CEH, Memoria, vol. 10: 1012-1213; vol. 11:1384-1388.

[18] Jennifer Schirmer writes: “No distinction is made between combatant and noncombatant…” See The Guatemalan Military Project, 45.

[19] CEH, Memoria, vol. VII, 10.

[20] CEH, 10.

[21] CEH, II, 226-7.

[22] CEH, II, 181.

[23] CEH, VII, 164.

[24] CEH, 165.

[25] CEH, 166.

[26] CEH, 164.

[27] For excellent analysis on the history and systematic incorporation of PACs into military strategy, see CEH, Memoria, vol. 2:158-234; ODHA, Nunca Mas, vol. 2:113-158.

[28] Ejercito de Guatemala. 1984. Las patrullas de autodefensa civil: La respuesta popular al proceso de integracian socio-economico-politico en la Guatemala actual. (Guatemala City: Editorial del Ejercito, 16).