Guatemala's Killing Fields

new internationalist
issue 226 - December 1991

Guatemala's killing fields
The Indian majority in Guatemala is still being slaughtered five centuries after
the Spanish invasion. Bob Carty reports on the resistance that never stopped.

Twice a week the tourists arrive. They pour out of buses, cameras ready, and surge through the town of Chichicastenango ('Chichi' for short) in the highlands three hours west of Guatemala City. On market days, Chichi's plaza is crowded with 10,000 Mayan Indians wearing a riot of colour - purples, reds and blues - woven into dresses, pants, shawls and blouses.

Some tourists stride up the steps of Saint Thomas church, ignoring the signs asking non-Mayans to keep out. They snap pictures of native men who look away in silence. The men carry tin pots that smoke with the incense of tree resins burning on hot coals. Each Mayan watches how straight his smoke rises, to see if he is sincere enough to communicate from his heart on earth to the heart of the Mayan sky.

Inside the church a Catholic mass is said at the altar. Down the centre aisle are rows of candles on the floor and in the thick smoke Mayan women kneel on palm mats, leaving behind them bunches of flowers and herbs when they go.

For the tourists it's wonderfully quaint and exotic. Most have no idea that Chichi is the gateway to Guatemala's 'killing fields'. The hills around town are littered with mass graves which Guatemalan and Argentine forensic doctors began to exhume last July. There are reports of 233 such graves throughout the country. North from Chichi, the province of El Quiche stretches into mountains where soldiers rule with terror and bodies appear on road-sides showing horrible signs of torture and mutilation.

There's little enthusiasm for the Columbus Quincentennial celebrations in Chichicastenango. 'Here we will not celebrate the 500 years,' says a local Catholic priest, himself a Mayan who asked to be unnamed. 'It was a massacre and we will mourn it. And we will remember that the massacre, the conquest, continues to this day.'

Mass murders
The original massacre began in 1524. The conquistador Pedro Alvarado (alternatively described by historians as a 'terrorist gangster' and 'slave-hunter') arrived in Guatemala and found a politically and geographically decentralized Mayan civilization speaking at least 22 different dialects. Conquest was more than a matter of simply beheading the top indigenous leaders. Instead, Alvarado decided to exterminate the civilian population as well, a practice yet to be abandoned.

He directed eight major massacres, killing up to 3,000 Indians at a time. Mayan chiefs were incinerated alive as Catholic priests burned Mayan historical records. Alvarado rewarded his soldiers with the right to enslave the survivors. Mayan lands were appropriated, the people herded into towns and forced to work the Spanish estates.

Even now a Mayan commonly works three months as a migrant plantation worker in the sugar or cotton plantations of the Pacific coast (the other nine months are spent as a subsistence farmer).

Today 60 per cent of Guatemala's nine million people are Indian. And nearly two-thirds of Mayan children are malnourished. In the early 1980s, Dr Moises Beher, head of the UN's Institute for Nutrition in Central America, said the Mayan people were better fed before the arrival of Alvarado nearly 500 years ago than they are today.

Pagan beliefs
For the Maya, 1992 is a chance to expose the history of brutality which they've endured, and to correct the myth of the stoic native who is passive in the face of oppression. In fact, there were a dozen armed uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries. 'There was so much resistance that there were rivers of blood,' says Daniel' Matul, a leader of the International Maya League. Matul now lives in Costa Rica since his three brothers - teachers like himself - were assassinated by the Guatemalan army.

According to Matul, the Maya recognized they could not defeat the conquistadors in battle. So they hid their political leaders and elders in the mountains to preserve their way of life.

In Chichicastenango, church and military authorities worked together to erase what they considered to be pagan beliefs. They built Saint Thomas Church on top of a Mayan temple, but the Indians still came with incense and herbs to honour their ancestors' gods.

The temple buried beneath the church in Chichi was originally built for Hun Ahpu, one of the most important figures in Mayan history. Today, although many Christian beliefs have been absorbed by the Maya, in Chichicastenango they still worship the way their ancestors did. 'We refuse to be assimilated,' says Daniel Matul.

That determination is visible everywhere - from the traditional huipil blouses worn by Mayan women to the flourishing Mayan languages, many of which are now being recorded in writing. There are invisible forms of resistance too: clandestine political and religious structures at the village level, and secret training of Mayan priests. Matul says this adamant refusal to knuckle under is one reason for so much repression in Guatemala. 'They kill us because we are not assimilated,' says Matul. 'Because we have never been conquered.'

Among the ladino (people of mixed Spanish and Indian blood) and the Spanish elite, Mayan defiance generates a savage paranoia. The aristocracy is afraid of a Guatemala run by Mayans.

'They know our values are still alive,' says Daniel Matul. 'If we had political power these values would flower throughout the land. Spanish would not be the official language. We would seek economic development for everyone. The land would be a communal possession, not private property. That's why they see us as a danger.

The Guatemalan military and their wealthy supporters want to wipe out that threat forever. In 1982, former Defence Minister Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores declared: 'We must do away with the words "indigenous" or "Indian". Our mission requires the integration of all Guatemalans.'

Soldiers are so brutalized in their training (new recruits must kill small animals and drink the blood) that they obey orders to kill their own people as enemies. 'It is a totally racist state,' says Guatemalan anthropologist Carlos Sarti. 'The military operates as if this society is contaminated by foreigners that must be extirpated.'

In the early 1980s it was as if the conquistador Pedro Alvarado was back in power. All Mayans were seen as supporters of the guerrillas; the military set out to destroy the people as well as their culture. Mayans were burned alive, babies murdered and women raped. The dictator Rios Montt wiped 440 Mayan villages off the face of the earth.

The government forced hundreds of thousands of Indians into so-called 'model villages', a tactic learned from the Americans in Vietnam. The villages are designed to dilute Mayan identity. Instead of scattered huts on plots of family land, people were crowded into rows of houses hundreds of miles from their homes, beside Mayan neighbours who spoke different dialects. They were forced to speak Spanish and attend churches run by American fundamentalists.

Those who escaped the military went into exile: 200,000 fled to Mexico. Others stripped off their traditional dress, shed their Indian identity and melted into the cities.

Hidden holocaust
It is easier to understand the cycle of repression and resistance inside Guatemala than to understand why the outside world has paid so little attention to this outrage. Guatemala has experienced more death squad killings than El Salvador, more disappearances than Argentina or Chile, more systematic use of torture, more burning of villages and more massacres than any other country in Latin America. So why does the country receive so little attention from the international community and media?

One reason is that freedom of expression is stifled inside Guatemala. Death threats are commonplace for working journalists - and they are routinely killed to prove the point. As a result many atrocities go unreported. A recent fact-finding report by the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists says the media has 'become the messenger for state terrorism'.

Another explanation is the low-profile of the United States. Although the US installed the current military in a 1954 CIA coup and later trained them in their repressive craft, Guatemala has remained low on the White House agenda. Consequently, the country attracts little attention in either the US or international press.

Many Guatemalans can't help but wonder if part of the lack of attention is rooted in racism. Bluntly: the majority of people being killed today in Guatemala are indigenous, not educated middle class people with communications skills and backgrounds with which North Americans and Europeans can identify. Like the tourists in Chichicastenango, outsiders see the quaint and the exotic, but often miss what is beneath and within.

Bob Carty is a Canadian journalist and radio producer based in San José, Costa Rica.

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page