On December 2, 1990, the full moon was reflecting brightly off the lake around Santiago. Most people were sleeping, except for some army officers from the nearby base who were drinking and raising a commotion at a local bar. Two of these officers left the bar and attempted to break into someone's house and rape a woman inside. The woman's father heard the commotion and yelled to his neighbors for help. The neighbors came, grabbed the two officers, dragged them to the police station and demanded that they be arrested. An angry mob of residents formed around the police station, causing the army to send in an armed squad to "escort" the officers back to the base.
The demonstrators followed the men to the base and their numbers began to swell as more people arrived at the front gates to demand peacefully that something be done about the officers' conduct. Without warning, the guards opened fire on the crowd and killed thirteen people, including a nine-year-old child. The bodies were left in front of the base until morning, when the international press arrived to report on the carnage-filled scene. With photos of the bodies appearing on the covers of European and American magazines and newspapers, the Guatemalan government could not deny that the atrocity had taken place and was forced to take action. The death squads, which had been terrorizing Guatemalans ever since Carlos Castillo Aramar seized power in 1954, could no longer operate openly.
The war began when Castillo's reign of terror (with the help of his CIA-trained and funded army) was almost over, but it had taken over thirty years of torture and murder to get there. It had begun slowly, with an internal battle against the "communists," a label placed on anyone who spoke out against the government, or tried to organize labor or political parties. These efforts were strongly endorsed by the U.S. government, which wanted to protect the interests of American corporations such as United Fruit. These companies owned large tracts of land in Guatemala, and stood to lose millions of dollars in profits if either wages were increased or if indigenous people won land rights. This battle against communism was further escalated when the Cuban revolution succeeded in 1959. American fears of Russian aggression were used as arguments for increased military aid to the Guatemalan government.
The 1960s saw a dramatic increase in violence against organizers and workers, after a 1960 attempt to overthrow the government failed. The government started using more and more abusive tactics, including mass murder. In 1966, over sixty organizers and community leaders in Guatemala City were arrested by government troops, and were never seen again. When journalists and lawyers began to demand answers, they, too, disappeared. The government rapidly expanded military rule over its citizens throughout the 1960s and 70s.
In 1980 a group of K'iche Indians barricaded themselves inside the Spanish Embassy to protest the disappearance of some men of their village. The government reacted with swift and brute force and thirty people were burned to death inside, including the father of human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú. This episode sparked the most violent and horrible counter-insurgency campaign in the war. In 1982 over 18,000 people were killed. In the cities the government continued to use American-trained death squads to silence its opposition, while in the country more extreme approaches were adopted. Entire villages were razed and their populations massacred with impunity whether they were associated with guerillas or not.
By effectively murdering vocal members of the opposition and the media, and by segmenting and terrorizing rural populations, the government kept its campaign of terror well concealed throughout much of the 1980s. Because the victims did not have a medium through which they could voice their plight and because many of the indigenous populations lived so far from each other, people had no way of knowing that what was happening to them was happening everywhere in the country.
In the late 1980s, the level of violence in Guatemala began to drop. In 1989, Central American nations signed the Esquipulas II agreement, which required them to end all violent conflicts in their nations. Events like the Santiago massacre brought international attention (and U.N. intervention) to the country, limiting the military's authority in government. Finally, in 1996 an uneasy peace agreement was signed, officially ending the war after thirty years of brutality and suffering. Still, there is much unrest in Guatemala. As I look out over this tranquil lake and the gigantic volcanoes that sleep peacefully above it, I am reminded that this country is very much like them: quiet now but always threatening to explode without warning.
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