Repression in Guatemala: eyewitness account

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 16, February 1982

This eyewitness account of repression and revolution in Guatemala was given exclusively to FRFI by a journalist recently in Guatemala.

We flew into Guatemala City from San Salvador and our first impression of Guatemala City was very pleasant. Unlike San Salvador there's no curfew so you could wander freely at night. The restaurants are full, the bars are full, lots of traffic in the streets and an apparent surface air of complete normality. So we were very relieved. We thought we might be able to relax a bit.

The following morning we got the newspapers and parts of the countryside between the peasants and we began to read exactly the same things that we the had read in the papers in San Salvador. And it was clear immediately that the level of killing was just as high as it is in El Salvador. There is an amazing newspaper that comes out twice weekly which is devoted entirely to large full, half, quarter page photos of bodies, people who died in the last 2 or 3 days. Now some of those are just traffic accidents or ordinary fatalities, but probably about two thirds are people who have been killed by the army or the police. In the first edition we saw, there were photos of a number of peasants, men and women, probably 12, who had been killed in a village fairly near Guatemala City. We certainly realised that that was very much the same situation as that in El Salvador. The fact that this all occurred in an atmosphere of apparently greater freedom and liberty and relaxation in Guatemala City made this all the more threatening.

I think that was the horror of Guatemala — it was in the end a far more frightening place to be in than El Salvador. You begin to realise that literally on every street corner, there are innumerable grades of police both uniformed and non-uniformed, all of them heavily armed, and they walk around in ones or twos throughout Guatemala City. There are large numbers of American pick-up trucks rattle around with plain clothes police and army carrying sub-machine guns. When you start seeing a lot of those rattling around the city centre you begin to realise that really you could get shot on a street corner without warning and without repercussion.

Another thing that brought the reality home very quickly to us was something that happened in Guatemala City. We were trying to get in touch with a woman who was involved in human rights work. She was a Catholic, as most of the human rights workers are, and was qualified as a teacher. Her father had been a high ranking functionary in the government and had retired. They lived in a middle class area of Guatemala City and she and her father were driving into work one morning, two days after we arrived. As they got to a crossroads just round the corner from their house two unmarked pick-up trucks pulled up in front of them with a whole load of heavily armed men in plain clothes. She was shot where she sat in the back seat. Her father was taken away and tortured and shot. I don't think he's ever been seen again. And that's an example of the extent of the repression — its not just things that go on in distant parts of the country between the peasants and the army, it reaches into the heart of Guatemala City. The police and the army are very efficient and very ruthless as regards even the top people. Catholic bishops are scared silly of being killed.

Revolutionary priests and the Catholic church

I think the reasons why the bishops are scared silly is because they keep getting tarred with the brush

that is applied to the priests, the lay Catholic workers, the nuns and monks in the remote country areas.

In the last 2 years there have been probably about 1 or 2 dozen priests who have been murdered in the areas where they work by the Guatemalan military. We went to Quiche province which is a bit north-west of Guatemala. It's an area with a very dense indigenous population of Indians of Mayan descent and it's an area where the guerrillas have a very strong foothold particularly the EGP, that's the 'Guerrilla Army of the Poor' which is one of the strongest and more recent guerrilla movements. It does contain a large Catholic element although it has a socialist programme.

A lot of the mainly Jesuit priests who became involved in the land reform programmes and self-help and cooperative programmes in areas like the Quiche inevitably became sympathetic and came in touch with the guerrilla movements. And because of their declared policy toward popular movements against oppression, were seen as allies of these movements. They were the only public spokespeople for the peasants who could be quoted in newspapers and particularly have a link with the outside world. And that's why so many of the priests have been killed. The aim has been to kill the most active ones and to try and scare the others so that they all leave the country.

We went to the main town in Quiche province which is Chichicastenango, a large market town high up in the mountains and it has a large church that dominates the market square. There were 3 Jesuit priests who worked in villages surrounding Chichicastenango who would come in on Sundays to read the large mass, and they would make openly political speeches from the pulpit. They were heavily involved in helping the peasants organise themselves against the exploitation and the land seizures that were a feature of a lot of these larger areas - the military coming in and taking over the land that had belonged to the communities for centuries. They were all killed within a 6 month period, starting in late 1980 and finishing, not that it has finished, in the summer of 1981. We visited the graves of 2 of them in the cemetery — people still go and put flowers on the graves and light candles.

Guerrilla Army of the Poor

The town of Hoyabadj which is about 80km east of Chichicastenango in the province of Quiche, is in the heart of an area fiercely contested by guerrillas, mainly the EGP, and the army. It's a classic situation where the army holds the major towns and roads for periods of time and maintain a presence in the smaller towns and villages, but where the guerrillas are very numerous and mount road blocks quite often to stop and shoot up army vehicles. Also, they have a tactic where they come into a town, hold it for a day and hold public meetings, protected by their soldiers. They will also deal with people in the town who are known to be collaborating with the army and people who are part of the repressive apparatus.

The week before we arrived, the EGP had taken over Hoyabadj for the day and had shot the mayor and the chemist. It's worth knowing something about the mayors in these towns — it's probably wrong to call them mayors — they're not elected. Their full name is 'military commissioner'. The areas are run by military governors so it's not surprising that they are the targets for execution by the guerrilla groups. So this governor had been shot and the chemist who had been known to be a collaborator and had informed on a number of people, had also been shot. Several weeks after that, the army came into this town in force and rounded up about 30 of the villagers in the centre of the town and shot them all dead. That is the sort of thing that occurs in these heavily contested areas where the guerrillas have a major presence. The army is unable to control the area all the time so what they do is move in force from one village to another and carry out reprisals because it's known that the villagers support the guerrillas.

The road to Santiago de Attilan, where the priest died, goes through a large market town called Solola which is the capital of the province of the same name. It's where the military governor of the province is based, with a barracks and a large police force. About a couple of months after we were there the EGP took over part of the town for several hours and executed the military governor and a couple of senior military personnel. That shows how effective they are they can actually enter the provincial capital where the military command is based and reach the governor in his office and execute him. While that may produce a reaction from the military in terms of more people getting killed, you can imagine on the other hand what it does for the morale of the peasants in the area, if they know that even the top military can't escape execution.

Junta genocide and land robbery

Earlier in 1980 in the same area in Quiche, in a remote village, the army rounded up all the 130 men from the village. It was only a short time previously that quite a large part of the land that belonged to the village community had been taken over by somebody connected to the army. This is a common occurrence: the army moves in, takes over the land, then distributes it to politicians, army people or even foreigners who will obviously pay them a considerable backhander. The men from the village were lined up in the village square and asked: which of you is going to denounce the patron, that's the landowner, the boss. Which of you is a communist and is going to denounce this man? They were taunted like this for a while and when none of them replied, the leader of the army patrol said: we know you're all communists so we're going to shoot you anyway. So they shot all of them with machine guns — 130 of the men on the spot. Some of their children were watching and when they began to cry as they saw their fathers falling on the ground, the army turned on them and a number of children were shot as well. And that is just one of the cases that were actually reported in areas controlled by the military.

The repressive apparatus is very well organised in Guatemala — it has been since 1954 when the American marines went in and overthrew the popular government, and it will take longer therefore to reach some kind of victory. The rate of killings shot up dramatically recently so you have to assume that it will carry on for a long time and that's a very frightening prospect. It is virtually a policy of genocide against the indigenous Indian population because they're the ones who most fiercely resist the military regime.

Tourism and revolution

The tourist industry, which is mainly for Americans, has dropped so dramatically in the last 2 years — it's dropped to about 20% of its former level. So the official tourist ministry, some time last year, paid for a group of American tour operators who thought they might want to operate in Guatemala to come down to Guatemala and put them up in the best hotels in Guatemala City. They sent them off in a bus to Chichicastenango which was a market town that the tourists used to frequent —just to show them that tourists could go there and there would be no problem. About half way there as they went through quite a hilly area, the coach was flagged down by this group of heavily armed men in civilian clothes. The tour operators were told: 'Don't worry, these are no doubt members of our security forces see how vigilant they are, they're here to check things are OK. Don't worry if they ask you to get out and search you — you'll see how efficient the Guatemalan armed forces are.' So they all were asked to get out of the bus. However suddenly one of the armed men flung a can of petrol over the bus and set the whole thing alight. It turned out that they were members of the EGP who were mounting one of their regular shows of strength. It's reported that although the tour operators were urged to continue their journey by alternative transport, a large straggle of very agitated American tour operators were to be seen hitching lifts from anything with two wheels that moved to get back to Guatemala City as fast as they could. And it has to be reported that the level of tourists in Guatemala continues to fall.

Latin America in Brief

El Salvador: Imperialist genocide and popular resistance

On 11 December, the US trained Atlacatl brigade entered the village of Mozote, separated the men, women and children and proceeded to shoot them down. 472 of the 500 villagers were killed. At the beginning of January 1,600 junta troops arrived in the USA to receive further training in murder, and on 28 January President Reagan announced that El Salvador satisfies the US Congress's human rights requirements and announced an increase in military aid.

The FMLN has responded to this policy of genocide by stepping up its revolutionary war. On New Year's Day revolutionary units dynamited power stations and electricity lines leaving the entire country in darkness. In the next four weeks the FMLN extended its war of economic sabotage by the destruction of trucks carrying sugar and the derailment of a train transporting agricultural machinery. Then on 27 January, in a spectacular military operation FMLN guerrillas raided the military airport in San Salvador and destroyed a number of aircraft. The revolutionary war against the barbarous fascist regime has, despite junta terror and genocide, grown stronger. The US ambassador to El Salvador stated on 13 January: ‘...the initiative of the war has passed to the guerrillas'.

Haiti: From horror of Haiti to concentration camps in USA

Over 2500 refugees from Haiti are now being held in concentration camps in the USA and US occupied Puerto Rico. Black and progressive organisations in the USA have organised massive demonstrations demanding that the Government grant political asylum to the refugees. The first of these demonstrations were on 19 December in Puerto Rico, Washington and New York. Then on Christmas Day 1981, 711 Haitian prisoners in Miami went on hunger strike demanding political asylum. Their supporters on the outside blocked the streets of Miami for three days and on 27 December 700 of them invaded the concentration camp and despite tear gas and club wielding police tore down the fences allowing 160 prisoners to escape. At huge public meetings which followed special attention was drawn to the hypocrisy of the US 'concern' for 'human rights' in Poland whilst denying basic rights to Haitian refugees.

Meanwhile, in spite of constant US Navy patrols, small groups of guerrillas are beginning to enter Haiti to commence armed struggle to overthrow the barbaric Duvalier regime.


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