Mayan Genocide in Guatemala

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Mayan Genocide in Guatemala









Genocide is the physical destruction of an ethnic group and the most extreme expression of racism. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Mayan people of Guatemala experienced a brutal genocide, perpetrated mainly by the Guatemalan state under a racist and terrorist policy designed to protect and strengthen the political and economic power of an embattled social elite.

This episode of genocide was part of the “Silent Holocaust” in Guatemala, which grew out of thirty-six years of internal armed conflict between different guerrilla organizations and the Guatemalan Army. The Commission for Historical Clarification, set up in 1996 to investigate “human rights violations and acts of violence linked to the period of armed conflict,” has pointed out that this military confrontation had a high human cost for Guatemalan society as a whole. Nevertheless, 83 percent of the victims were Mayan civilians, predominantly older adults, children, and women.

The Guatemalan state forces were responsible for 91 percent of the total human rights violations and genocidal acts, while guerrilla organizations accounted for around 3 percent. A trilogy of genocidal campaigns—named “Scorched Earth,” “Model Villages,” and “CPR Persecution”—were introduced by the Guatemalan Army between 1981 and 1983. These campaigns clearly demonstrated the racism and cruelty inherent in the application of counter-insurgency forces.

In December 1996, a peace accord was signed by the government of Guatemala and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, or URNG), and a fragile peace process began, which at least stopped the prolongation of the conflict. The two sides committed to resolving the causes that triggered the conflict and initiating the painful process of reconstructing and understanding the recent historical events.


Guatemala is a small Central American country characterized by its extraordinary geography and great ethnic and linguistic diversity, reflected in its indigenous populations of Mayan, Xinca, and Garífuna people. This cultural mosaic comprises more than half of the population of Guatemala, estimated at 12 million inhabitants. The Ladino population (mixed Amerindian-Spanish heritage) constitutes the other half. The multicultural composition of Guatemalan society is the fruit of a millennial civilizing process, which had its beginnings with the splendor of the Mayan civilization that flowered about 1500 bce.The European invasion of America, beginning in the sixteenth century, began the first genocide in this region, destroying Mayan peoples and cultures and putting their societies under a colonial system.

Yet after three centuries of Spanish colonization, the indigenous peoples miraculously survived the genocide and ethnocide perpetrated by both the conservative and liberal states of the nation, which had excluded them from the national project and reduced them to laborers on the great plantations.

The triumph of the 1944 “October Revolution” in Guatemala began a democratic, national modernization process that implemented deep social reforms, such as the promulgation of a new constitution, labor legislation, and agrarian reform. However, agrarian reform adversely affected North American economic interests and invited retaliation, especially from the United Fruit Company.

The North American intervention in Guatemala in June 1954 marked the beginning of the first U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations in Latin America, which were in line with the general anticommunist policy adopted during the cold war. The Commission for Historical Clarification points out that following the counter revolutionary triumph of General Carlos Castillo Armas on July 8, 1954, Guatemala began a period of historical regression that provoked the causes of the genocidal violence of the late twentieth century.

The first guerrilla attacks in Guatemala began during the 1960s in the East, on the South Coast, and in Guatemala City, all nonindigenous regions. The first guerrilla organizations, such as the Movimiento Revolucionario 13 de Noviembre (November 13th Revolutionary Movement, or MR-13), Frente 12 de Octubre (October 20th Front), and later the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (Rebel Armed Forces, or FAR), implemented a guerrilla focus strategy, inspired by the Cuban revolution of 1959.

In 1965, the Guatemalan army initiated a ferocious counterinsurgency campaign that prevailed against the guerrillas. The new Doctrina de Seguridad Nacional (National Security Doctrine, or DSN) implemented a new and more modern counterinsurgency method that resulted in more than 8,000 victims, mostly civilians.


The Commission for Historical Clarification has concluded that the beginning of the violence in Guatemala was the result of racist and exclusionary national policies, which made it impossible for the state to achieve a social consensus in Guatemalan society.

During the 1970s, a number of guerrilla groups emerged in the Mayan region, including the Organización del Pueblo en Armas (Organization of the People in Arms, or ORPA), which appeared in 1971. The following year, the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (Guerrilla Army of the Poor, or EGP) arose in the Guatemalan Highlands. The FAR was decimated in the 1960s, but resumed its military actions in 1979. After suffering ferocious political persecution and kidnappings, the Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (Guatemalan Labor Party, or PGT) decided to participate in the armed warfare in 1979.

The military-political strategy adopted by the new guerrilla groups sought to incorporate the indigenous masses into what was becoming a war of national liberation. They considered that the previous guerrilla experience had largely failed, partly because they had been forced to limit their operations to discrete geographic areas in eastern Guatemala, a region populated mostly by Ladinos.

A major earthquake struck Guatemala in 1976. This natural disaster caused a social cataclysm that demonstrated the corruption of the state, as well as its limited capacity to respond to a disaster and organize a response. In the following years, numerous social organizations arose in Guatemala, mainly cooperatives and unions that mobilized protests of various kinds against the violence and repression and that fought for better labor conditions, wages, and benefits.


In response to this emergent social movement, the state unfolded a counterinsurgency plan that intensified repression and violence. Beginning in 1980, state forces increased the practices of “kidnappings” and “disappearances” against union leaders, university students and faculty, and political candidates. Violence against the Mayan people took the form of “selective murders” of community leaders. The Commission for Historical Clarification has provided evidence that at least 100 Mayan community leaders were assassinated in Chajul, Cotzal, and Nebaj between February of 1976 and November of 1977.

As this repression increased, the first massacres of Mayan communities began. In 1980, in Panzós, a Q’eqchí community in the department of Baja Verapaz, 150 kaibiles, or military elites, assassinated more than 300 farmers in the town square. This action was in response to Q’eqchí peasants making claims to lands that had been alienated by military officials and plantations owners.

The Comité de Unidad Campesina (Campesino Unity Committee, or CUC) founded in the mid 1980s by Mayan farmer leaders and poor Ladinos, soon initiated a series of strikes, both as a strategy to gain better labor conditions and as a protest against the violence. By January 1981, CUC leaders had peacefully occupied the Spanish Embassy, enabling them to make their protests heard outside the country. This mobilization ended when state forces burned the embassy killing more than thirty people. That same year, CUC members organized a meeting in Tecpán, in the department of Chimaltenango, and wrote the Declaration of Iximche, which denounced the oppression, exclusion, racism, and cultural intolerance in Guatemala. At about this time, the Catholic Diocese of the El Quiche department was closed due to acts of repression against its members.

In 1980 the four guerrilla organizations, encouraged by the triumph of the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the apparently weak position of the Guatemalan Army, spread its military operations over a vast geographic area. This move has since been viewed as a serious military mistake, for the army was well prepared to confront the guerrilla organizations and had already planned its genocidal military campaigns in response. Previous to the military counteroffensive (between July and August 1981), the Guatemalan Army managed to capture all the “secure houses” of the ORPA and the EGP in Guatemala City. Although military aid from the United States had been suspended indefinitely due to increased human rights violations, the Guatemalan Army still managed to receive military aid approved years before.


In the middle of 1981, the government of President Lucas Garcia began a military counter-offensive plan designated “Ash 81.” This operation was in fact a well-planned genocide against the Mayan peoples, who were accused of being “communists” and supporting the rebel groups, thereby justifying the campaign called “Scorched Earth.”

The main objective of this genocidal campaign was to “drain the water to the fish”—that is, to isolate the guerrillas from the civil population, and thus from their base of support. The anthropologist Robert Carmack, in Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis (1988) points out that the military intelligence was used to draw a map demarcating the different communities with different colors. Each color designated the military actions to be made, depending on the political proximity of each community to the guerrillas. The “Green” communities were considered “free” of the “internal enemy.” Those communities where some persons or leaders were believed to be supporting the guerrillas were designated as “Pink” or “Yellow.” In these areas the army applied a selective repression, including “kidnappings,” “disappearances,” and “killings” of social leaders and “suspects.” “Red” communities were selected for total destruction because there was intelligence information that they were fully supporting the guerrillas.

The racism and code colors significantly helped the Guatemalan Army, mostly directed by Ladinos, in the conception and planning of this genocide. The “Scorched Earth” military campaign that followed began with the taking of the city of Chimaltenango and other strategic places in order to surround the “internal enemy.”

The guerrillas were not able to stop the bloody military counteroffensive of the Guatemalan Army, despite the fact that they had about 6,000 combatants and a base of support exceeding 250,000 people. Forty-five massacres were committed by the Guatemalan Army from March 1981 to March 1982, with 1,678 victims. The average number of victims per massacre was 37.29 people.

The “Scorched Earth” military campaign was directed by the High Guatemalan Commander using “kaibiles,” or elite forces, and Mayans that were forcibly recruited. Once military control had been gained over the populations that had not been destroyed, the Guatemalan Army organized the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (Civil Self-Defense Patrols, or PACs) in order to “take care of” the population and defend the community from the threat of communism.

The army intelligence apparatus and a mechanism of social control were increased, using military commissioners, the police, customs guards, and secret agents, who conducted a “witch hunt” against those who protested the violence. The G-2 (military intelligence) used paid informants, or “orejas,” to gain intelligence about the guerrilla groups.


In 1982 the government of Lucas Garcia was overthrown in acoupd’étatthatmadeGeneral Efraín Ríos Montt the new president. Ríos Montt then inaugurated a new military plan, “Victory 82,” with well-directed and improved military actions. This genocide campaign promised to “eliminate,” “annihilate,” and “exterminate” the “internal enemy” very quickly and “gain the hearts of the population.”

From March 1982 to March 1983, thirty-two selective massacres were carried out, killing 1,424 people. The massacre in Plan de Sánchez in Rabinal, Alta Verapaz, claimed the lives of children, women, and the elderly. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in its Report 31/99, Case 11.763 Plan de Sánchez, Guatemala, describes this massacre as follows:

. . . early on the morning of July 18, 1982, two grenades fell to the east and west of Plan de Sánchez. A group of approximately 60 men dressed in military uniforms and armed with assault rifles, and four “judiciales” allegedly arrived in Plan de Sánchez between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. Those four judiciales were identified by witnesses, and the two officials in charge were identified as Lieutenants Solares and Díaz. The petitioners report that soldiers monitored points of entry into the community, while others went house to house rounding up the population. Girls and young women were held in one location, while older women, men and children were gathered in another. Approximately 20 girls between 12 and 20 years of age were taken to one house where they were raped and then killed. The rest of the population was forced into another house and the adjoining patio. The petitioners allege that, at about 5:00 p.m., soldiers threw two hand grenades into that house, and then sprayed it and the patio with sustained gunfire. Small children were hit or kicked to death. Shots were reportedly heard in another location, where four bodies were later found. The petitioners describe the soldiers as having subsequently set fire to the house where the majority of the victims had been killed before leaving the community some hours later. (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 2007 Internet site)

The extreme cruelty of these military actions against a noncombatant population, as well as various atrocities, such as the extraction of the viscera of victims who were still alive or the opening of the wombs of pregnant women, demonstrate the genocide and racism of this period. Thousands of Maya fled from Guatemala seeking refuge in Mexico, while others fled from the army into the mountains to join the Comunidades y Pueblos en Resistencia (Communities of Populations in Resistance, or CPRs).

Ríos Montt’s military campaign was more selective than its predecessor, and the number of victims per massacre was increased. Victoria Sanford, in her book Buried Secrets (2003), has pointed out that the percentage of victims per massacre was increased from 37.29 during Lucas Garcia’s regime to fifty. Ríos Montt introduced new military projects for civilians, the “Model Villages.” These were very similar to the “Strategic Hamlets” program implemented by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Thousands of Mayans were forced to live in the model villages, which were under permanent military control by the Guatemalan Army.

The government of Ríos Montt also implemented the “Fusiles y Frijoles” (guns and beans), and “Techo, Trabajo y Tortillas” (roof work, and tortillas) policies as part of the counter-insurgency project. Through these policies, the Guatemalan Army offered protection and assistance to Mayan civilians in exchange of their incorporation to the PACs. In addition, the Special Privilege Tribunal was created to punish the political opponents in summary judgments. As a result of these policies, the guerrilla organizations, realizing their weakened condition, saw the urgent necessity to reorganize. In February of 1982, the four guerrilla organizations reunited to form Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, or URNG).


The genocidal atrocities committed during the Ríos Montt regime ended in August 1983, when Montt was deposed by another coup d’état. The new president, General Oscar Mejía Víctores, promised a transition to democracy and the end of armed conflict. Nevertheless, his government implemented another military plan, denominated “Firmness 83,” whose main objective was the removal of the last “resistance focus” of the guerrillas and the destruction of the CPRs, who still miraculously survived in the mountains and jungle. The Guatemalan Army succeeded by isolating the civilian population from the guerrillas and by “annihilating,” “exterminating,” and “destroying” several Mayan communities. The “Scorched Earth,” “Model Villages” and “Persecution of the CPRs” genocide campaigns helped the army dominate the military confrontation with the guerrillas.

Reduced in number, without their support base, and crowded into a reduced geographic area, the guerrillas also suffered a “surgical attack” from the Guatemalan Army. Though they still maintained a considerable number of members, there was no real possibility that they could challenge the army.

The control of the population through the Civil Self-Defense Patrols (PACs), the Model Villages program, military commissioners, and military intelligence was also crucial in this process. The Commission for Historical Clarification points out that at least a million Mayan people were forced to belong to PACs by 1983. In 1984, under the military plan known as “Re-Encounter 84,” a new Constitutional Assembly was created that initiated the work of elaborating a new constitution.

In 1985, the plan “National Stability 1985” was implemented, allowing a new presidential election to be held. The victor was Vinicio Cerezo, the Christian Democratic Party candidate. The Guatemalan leftist organizations did not participate in this election, however, and the URNG actively boycotted it. In an effort to end military hostilities, Cerezo initiated a dialogue with the guerrillas in Madrid in October 1987. The Esquipulas I and II meetings, held under the mediation of the Mexican government, gave an impulse to the peace process. During the dialogue process, numerous nongovernmental organizations arose and began to demand land, respect for human rights, a search for “disappeared,” the return of refugees, and indigenous peoples’ rights. They formed the Coordinadora Nacional de las Viudas de Guatemala (National Coordination of Guatemalan Widows, or CONAVIGUA), the Grupo de Ayuda Mutua (Mutual Support Group, or GAM), the Vicente Menchú and Myrna Mack foundations, and the Academia de Lenguas Mayas (Mayan Languages Academy, or ALM), among other groups.

Peace accords between the government of Guatemala and the URNG were finally signed in December of 1996 after years of negotiation. Since then, advances in the peace agenda have been minimal, despite efforts by the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) and the Secretaría de la Paz (Secretariat for Peace, or SEPAZ), creating conditions for new social conflicts, particularly in the matters of land, human rights, and labor.


The Commission for Historical Clarification has provided evidence that the human cost of this tragedy includes the 626 Mayan communities destroyed by fire, 200,000 people assassinated or “disappeared,” 1.5 million people displaced, 150,000 refugees who fled to Mexico, and several hundred people exiled into other countries.

There is evidence that 91 percent of the violations to the human rights and genocidal acts were committed by the state forces and that 83 percent of the victims were Mayan people. This evidence comes from first-hand accounts, such as that of Rigoberta Menchú, a survivor of the massacres and a Nobel Prize winner in 1992; from the human rights report Guatemala: Nunca Más (Guatemala: Never More, 1998); from the Interdiocesan Project for the Recuperation of Historical Memory (1998); and from the Commission for Historical Clarification, with the support of the United Nations.

The Guatemalan state participated in genocide, a crime against humanity forbidden by the UN Convention for the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide. The massacres perpetrated against noncombatant populations demonstrates the barbarity and racism of the state during this period. The state also participated in ethnocide, the destruction of Mayan culture in the form of ceremonial centers, language, dress, systems of authority, and exercise of spirituality.

Lamentably, public knowledge of this truth has provoked more victims. For example, Monsignor Juan Gerardi, a Catholic archbishop and the main force behind the report Guatemala: Never More, was assassinated two days after the publication of the report. In addition, as of 2007, none of those responsible for these acts has yet faced justice, despite the judgments that have been made against them.

SEE ALSO Genocide; Zapatista Rebellion.


Carmack, Robert M., ed.1988. Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Centro de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo. 1988. Guatemala, polos de desarrollo: El caso de la desestructuración de las comunidades indígenas. México City: Editorial Praxis.

Commission for Historical Clarification. 1999. Guatemala: Memory of Silence, Vols. 1–2. Guatemala City: Commission for Historical Clarification.

Le Bot, Yvon. 1995. La guerra en tierras maya. México City: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Manz, Beatriz. 2003. Paradise in Ashes: A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala. 1998. Guatemala: Nunca Más, 4 Vols. Guatemala City: ODHAG.

Ordóñez, José Emilio. 1996. Rostros de las prácticas etnocidas en Guatemala. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

“Report Number 31/99, Case 11.763, Plan de Sánchez Massacre.” Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Available from

Sanford, Victoria. 2003. Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schirmer, Jennifer. 1998. The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Carlos Salvador Ordóñez