Chapter 3: The 1970s
In November 1970, shortly after taking office, President Arana suspended constitutional guarantees by declaring a state of siege that would last through February 1972. In the countryside, the siege transferred authority from elected officials to the military commissioners. This siege undermined civilian authority and contributed to political tensions that would erupt in the early 1980s (Brintnall 1979: 160).
Arana used a series of kidnappings by armed insurgents as a pretext for declaring the siege. Yet another concern for the President was the mass legal organizing against his rule, especially the movement to block a proposed government contract with EXMIBAL, a subsidiary of a Canadian nickel-mining concern. Many intellectuals and opposition politicians felt that the contract was a corrupt deal to give away the nation’s mineral reserves and that the military-political ruling alliance was trying to profit (to an unprecedented degree) from its control of the government.
Figure 3.1. Number of killings and disappearances by year, 1970-1979
To quell public protest, Arana ordered mass arrests and suspended the constitutional right to assembly. When protests against the EXMIBAL contract continued, the army occupied the University of San Carlos, the center of opposition. Hours after the occupation ended, death squads killed law professor Julio Camey Herrera as the State began a systematic attack against leading university intellectuals in a committee studying the contract. Other victims included law professor and congressional deputy Adolfo Mijangos López, who was shot dead in his wheelchair on a crowded street in the center of Guatemala City (Fuentes Mohr 1971: 202-203; Toriello Garrido 1979).
Under the state of siege, the level of political violence rose to levels comparable to the 1966 to 1968 period.6 Guatemalan sociologist Gabriel Aguilera Peralta, author of a key study of political violence in the 1960s and 70s, felt that this new wave of state terror was limited by the appearance of the National Front Against the Violence, a mass movement that courageously battled for human rights and constitutional rule. The Front brought together opposition political parties, Church groups, labor organizations and representatives of Guatemala’s private universities. It was led by students and professors from the public University of San Carlos. The University’s constitutional autonomy enabled it to maintain resistance to the military government, despite the history of violence against its members and repeated occupations of its campus (Aguilera and Imery 1981: 133; CIIDH and GAM 1999).
By the end of 1972 the siege had ended. In September of that year, the government had succeeded in capturing the top leadership of the outlawed PGT. After torturing their victims, they reportedly threw the bodies into the Pacific Ocean (Menton, Goodson and Jonas 1973; Alvarado 1975). With less armed opposition activity, the military government gained confidence in its control and allowed a slight political opening. However, despite a period of sustained economic growth in the 1970s, the government undertook few measures to alleviate the extreme poverty, political exclusion and inequality between rich and poor that made revolutionary change an attractive goal for many (Jonas 1991).
Death squad killings continued in 1973 and 1974, the last two years of Arana’s reign, but at lower levels than earlier in the decade. In 1974, Arana’s hand-picked successor and Minister of Defense General Kjell Laugerud García became President in another fraudulent election. This time the defrauded opposition was led by fellow general Efraín Ríos Montt, who would himself later become associated with the most extreme levels of state terror in Guatemalan history.
Laugerud’s lack of political legitimacy compelled him to begin his regime not with a wave of repression, as had become standard practice in Guatemala (Chapter 12), but rather with a program of political and social reforms to co-opt the opposition. He permitted a level of labor and popular organizing not seen since before the 1954 invasion. The government even allowed some labor disputes to be resolved through negotiation, rather than the usual recourse to violence against union organizers (Levenson-Estrada 1994: 105).
The Laugerud-era political opening was associated with low levels of state violence, as illustrated in Figure 3.1. The democratic opening allowed the opposition to build a well-organized if not always unified popular movement, centered in Guatemala City. The clandestine PGT continued to act as a revolutionary organization. But one of the main factions, the Central Committee, placed its immediate hopes in a legal, electoral challenge to rule by the military and national economic elite (CIIDH and GAM 1999).
In February 1976, a massive earthquake brought organized students and union members in closer contact with both urban slum-dwellers and peasant villagers, those most affected by the destruction. The mass opposition movement began to grow and become more militant. State repression, as Figure 3.1 shows, was also on the increase.
In 1977, at a time of rapid economic expansion in Guatemala, more workers went on strike than in any other year in the nation’s history. That year ended with "The Glorious March of the Miners of Ixtahuacán," a workers’ protest that originated in an isolated Mam-speaking region of Huehuetenango and attracted thousands of sympathizers on its way to Guatemala City. The march represented for many the potential union of city and country, Indian and Ladino, in the struggle against an unpopular government. State forces also took notice: in 1978 three student labor organizers from Huehuetenango who worked with the strikers were killed or disappeared (Amnesty International 1979: 8; Levenson-Estrada 1994: 127-29; CIIDH and GAM 1999).
This violence formed part of the government response to the growing popular movement: an intensifying campaign of selective killing of labor activists and other militants. In one month, August 1977, Amnesty International registered 61 murders that appeared to be the work of paramilitary death squads. The majority of the victims were peasants, workers and residents of poor urban neighborhoods (Amnesty International 1978: 123).
Nevertheless, popular militancy increased throughout 1978. The conflict grew sharper when General Romeo Lucas García became President in July 1978 and immediately raised prices of many basic goods. Events led to the August-October transit strikes, where a broad-based urban movement fought for a repeal of a bus fare increase from five to ten cents (at the time the Quetzal was on par with the U.S. dollar). The movement did not limit its goals to immediate economic issues. Protesters’ rhetoric, both in street graffiti and in the speeches of leaders, increasingly spoke of "revolution," though its precise meaning remained elusive (Coordinadora de Organizaciones Sindicales y Populares 1979; Levenson-Estrada 1994).
After weeks of street clashes, the government capitulated and the bus fare was returned to five cents. While the popular movement celebrated its victory, the Secret Anticommunist Army (ESA), a major government-controlled death squad in the late 1970s, published a death list of 38 key opposition figures. The first victim was the dynamic secretary general of the University Student Association, Oliverio Castañeda de León. He was machine-gunned to death immediately after speaking at a rally in the city’s central park, in full view of hundreds of bystanders. Although scores of police witnessed the shooting, none moved to pursue the assassins (Aguilera and Imery 1981: 137; CIIDH and GAM 1999).
Oliverio’s death typified state terror in the early years of the Lucas García government: a selective assassination by heavily-armed, non-uniformed men, often performed in broad daylight in a crowded urban location, for which the government would then deny any responsibility. But the government’s message was clear: it would silence anyone who dared speak against it and do so with complete impunity.
A series of murders of key figures in the well-organized political opposition followed. Many of the victims had been condemned in the ESA death list of October 1978. In 1979 they included respected politicians like Alberto Fuentes Mohr (leader of the Social Democratic Party), and Manuel Colom Argueta (populist former mayor of Guatemala City and pre-candidate for President for the FUR, United Front of the Revolution). In the case of Colom Argueta, assassins used a helicopter to chase down their victim in zone 9 of the capital, leaving little doubt that security forces were responsible (CIIDH case ca0000182).
In retrospect, Lucas García appeared determined not to let happen in Guatemala what was then occurring in Nicaragua, where a broad urban popular movement had allied with a rural-based insurgency to bring down the Somoza dictatorship.
Indeed, Guatemala’s rebel movement, after a period of quiet, had begun to reestablish its presence in the countryside. This time guerrilla organizers avoided eastern Guatemala, a region which had become disillusioned with rebellion by the counterinsurgency experience of the 1960s. Instead, they moved their operations to the isolated mountains and Maya communities of the western highlands.
In the early 1970s, two new groups had emerged from the weakened FAR, which by now had split from the PGT. In 1972 the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) began to organize in the jungles of northern El Quiché. A few years later, FAR dissidents who would come to be known as the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA) began to operate cautiously on the mountain slopes above the coastal plain in south-west Guatemala.
In the mid-1970s, the western part of the country got its first taste of the state repression to come. The army and paramilitary groups selectively disappeared or murdered community activists and guerrilla collaborators, especially in areas of EGP organizing: first, in 1975, in the isolated producer cooperatives of the northern Ixcán jungle (Falla 1992); then through the rest of the decade in the Ixil region just to the south (Davis 1988; Stoll 1993). This violence is reflected in the late-1970s rise in Figure 3.1.
But there was also a new popular organization in the western
highlands, the Committee for Peasant Unity (CUC), a multi-
6 In 1971, the Guatemalan daily newspaper, El Gráfico, registered 959 political assassinations, 194 disappearances and 171 kidnappings (Menton, Goodsell and Jonas 1973: 2). These numbers reflect only cases covered in the press; actual totals are likely far higher. The Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared, one of the first human rights groups to operate in the Guatemala, estimated that 7,000 Guatemalans were disappeared or found dead in 1970 and 1971. However, this number includes state violence of a less political nature directed at petty criminals, another population targeted in the government’s recourse to rule through extra-judicial terror (Amnesty International 1976: 5, 11).