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Latin America Team Dispatch


Torture and Bloodshed:
Truths of the Guatemalan Civil War



Monica with poster of the
Caption
200,000 Guatemalans dead, 1,000,000 homeless and over 45,000 "disappeared." Civil war ravaged Guatemala for 36 years, coming to an end finally in 1996 after taking a devastating toll. The people who "disappeared", as Monica mentioned in her article about the Mutual Support Group (GAM) were abducted during the war and not seen or heard from since. Most of them were probably tortured, killed and disposed of. Most of the people who were tortured and killed by government forces were part of Guatemala's indigenous population. Discrimination against indigenous people has been deeply ingrained in Guatemalan society for five centuries and one of the most atrocious displays of this hatred was the civil war that lasted from 1960 until 1996. Violence, protest and repression defined this war.

Since the times of the Spanish Conquest of these lands once ruled by the Maya, there has been a huge disparity between the quality of life of the indigenous and the fairer skinned Spanish and mixed people (ladinos). The ladinos continued a tradition of discrimination and repression of the indigenous that led to great poverty among the indigenous, and often great wealth among the ladinos.

In 1954 the democratically-elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, was overthrown by the military in an effort designed by the United States. (We will be exploring the US role in Guatemala in the coming weeks.) President Castillo Armas was the first in a succession of military presidents. Violence quickly became the trademark of these military governments and opponents began turning up dead all over the country. Soon, only literate people were allowed to vote and this rule automatically took the vote away from about 75% of the Guatemalan population. The poor, mostly indigenous majority had no way to voice their concerns within the governmental system and in 1960, guerrilla groups began to form and war officially broke out. The mission of the guerrilla groups was to counter the intense government repression in rural and urban areas.

During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a total division of Guatemalan society. The primary conflict was between the poorer classes in the countryside and the power elite in the cities. In the mid-1960s, "death squads", comprised of off-duty police officers and soldiers, emerged as unofficial killing ambassadors for the right wing political factions.

Repression in Guatemala
Caption
Between 1978 and 1982, non-violent anti-government organizing increased. Organizations such as the Committee of Peasant Unity struggled for higher wages and better working conditions. The military continued to attack these organizations and during the presidency of General José Efraín Ríos Montt in 1982 and 1983 there were more than a thousand deaths per month (mostly Indian men). Montt adopted a "scorched earth" policy which was intended to "drain the sea and flush out the flesh" (Andrew Miller, Amnesty International). In regions of where he thought the rebels operated, entire populations were exterminated. Over 400 villages were wiped out. The inhabitants of these villages were tortured and most were massacred. Can you imagine a scene like this in your hometown? Those who managed to survive were herded into "model villages" which were built on or close to the destroyed villages. The government promised water, electricity, schools and churches for these villages but they were rarely provided. This allowed military personnel were able to keep a close eye on the inhabitants of the "model" villages.

Despite the risks, many people took actions that put them at risk from the government. About half a million citizens supported the guerrilla movement, which saw four different guerilla groups join forces in 1982 to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). Another response was that taken by the Mutual Support Group (GAM), which emerged as one of Guatemala's most visible human rights organizations in the 1980s. GAM, the group that Monica is working with in Concepción, grew in membership as repression continued. Another response was that of Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who in 1992 won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to help organize Guatemala's indigenous communities to defend themselves and protest. (You can see and hear her live from Guatemala and send her questions during the February 18th Odyssey webcast!). When she won the Nobel Prize, it helped draw worldwide attention to the atrocities in Guatemala.

In 1991, peace talks were initiated by President Serrano as he re-opened dialogue with the URNG and hoped to end the war. But the talks collapsed and no real progress emerged until President Irigoyen was elected to office in January, 1996. Negotiations continued between the government and the URNG. On December 29, 1996 the peace accords were finally signed at the National Palace in Guatemala City and this death-ridden civil war came to an official end, though the killing never completely stopped. Will this peace last? This depends, most importantly, on whether or not the government and people of Guatemala are able to equalize the enormous imbalances of social and economic power that still exist. Check our future dispatches about the Peace Process and the Constitutional Reforms now underway, as we share Guatemala's struggles in this post-civil war era.

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Kavitha - Todos Santos Part 2: Finding a Home Away from Home
Shawn - Uncovering the Riches of Todos Santos

 
 
 
 
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