Chapter 4: The 1980s
In January 1980 a group of K’iche’ and Ixil Indians made their way to Guatemala City to denounce the kidnapping and murder of nine peasants from the municipality of Uspantán, El Quiché (Stoll 1999: 60). For the Lucas García government, the presence of indigenous people demanding that the government respect their human rights was a subversive act, even more so considering that the peasants involved were advised by members of CUC and a radical university student group, FERG ("Robin García" Revolutionary Student Front), organizations influenced by the EGP rebels. The government was far from receptive: protesters were denied a hearing in Congress and their legal adviser was assassinated outside of police headquarters.
In response, on the morning of January 31, 1980, protesters occupied the Spanish Embassy to alert the world to the growing violence in Guatemala. Upon hearing of the Embassy takeover, President Lucas García, police chief Germán Chupina Barahona, and Minister of the Interior Donaldo Alvarez Ruíz met in the National Palace and decided to use force to expel the occupiers rather than negotiating with them (Blanck and Miranda 1998).7
Minutes later, police charged the ambassador’s office where the protesters had barricaded themselves and their captives. The police hurled incendiary devices and apparently ignited Molotov cocktails that protesters had brought along, causing an explosive inferno. As the occupants screamed in agony, the police refused to unblock the door or let fireman control the blaze. Thirty-nine people were burned alive that day, including protesters and hostages (CIIDH database cmc000274; CIIDH and GAM 1999).
The massacre at the Spanish Embassy showed that the Guatemalan government would stop at nothing, not even destroying its standing in the international community, to defeat its foes, armed or unarmed. The entire history of the 1980s stands as testament to that willingness.
After such a tragic start, the violence in 1980 only got worse. As Figure 4.1 illustrates, the level of state killing continued to rise in 1981 and increased dramatically in 1982, a year of mass murder unequaled in Guatemalan history. The CIIDH database records nearly 18,000 state killings in 1982 alone. Though the intensity of killing declined in 1983, by then the country had become almost entirely militarized. Even with the return of a civilian president in 1986, selective killings continued through the end of the decade.
At the beginning of the 1980s, Guatemala City remained the principal scene of struggle. After killing key opposition leaders in 1978 and 1979, by 1980 the State mounted a major assault on unionists, students, intellectuals or anyone else who continued to participate in the mass opposition movement. Especially targeted were those who also belonged to the PGT and the other revolutionary groups.
People were kidnapped on the city’s streets with alarming frequency. Between March and August, hardly a day went by when the newspapers did not report on a political disappearance or the appearance of a mutilated corpse in the metropolitan area. Events climaxed at the annual May Day march. Masked protesters carried banners advocating revolution; later security forces swept through the city center, kidnapping 31 protesters. The tortured bodies of some of the protesters later turned up. Others simply joined the ranks of the disappeared (Guatemala 80 1980: 191; Witzel de Ciudad 1991: 618).
The capital, the national center of power and long the focus of opposition to the government, had become too repressive for members of the popular movement. As state violence escalated, many withdrew from political life. Others escaped into exile or went into hiding within the country. Many joined the armed guerrilla cause, both out of conviction and as a means of survival.
Even when urban guerrillas attempted to go underground and set up "safe houses," security forces used intelligence techniques provided by the Argentine and Israeli governments to detect and destroy them. Few rebels received any kind of trial. Instead they died in gun battles with security forces or were tortured and executed while in government detention (Payeras 1987). Captured guerrillas who were offered some kind of amnesty appeared in front of television cameras to denounce their former comrades, part of the State’s campaign of "psychological warfare."
The focus of the social conflict in Guatemala began to shift back to the countryside, this time to the Maya villages and towns of the western highlands, a region of the country long-ignored by the government and by Guatemala’s urban society.
At the beginning of the decade, the apparatus of state repression appeared less well-developed in the countryside. In February 1980, when the popular movement in the city was in retreat, CUC organized a labor strike of the plantation workforce along the country’s Pacific south coast. Organizing among permanent workers as well as migrant laborers, CUC successfully fought for an increase in the minimum wage. The strike showed the possibilities of rural mass organizing. In the following months many of the strike’s leaders were murdered or disappeared, showing the possibilities of rural repression (Menchú and CUC 1992).
As the various guerrilla armies—the EGP, FAR, ORPA, and even the urban working-class-based PGT—expanded their presence in the interior, the army followed them there, building military bases in every area of the country, and occupying churches and public buildings in hundreds of rural communities with their troops (Krueger and Enge 1985: 21). Once established in the countryside, government forces showed even less regard for civilians’ rights than they had in the city.
To rural villagers, rebels presented themselves as bands of guerrillas fighters that could slip in and out of isolated communities, organizing residents for the coming conflict. In a few rural zones, the guerrillas had built their revolutionary movement slowly and carefully. But in 1980, encouraged by guerrilla advances elsewhere in Central America, Guatemala’s rebels, especially the EGP, tried to quickly expand their influence through a wide geographic area and across many different ethnic groups.
In early 1981, the guerrillas launched their biggest offensive ever. Towards the end of the year another guerrilla offensive in the highlands was aided by civilian supporters who sabotaged roads on rebel orders (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres 1983).
The government increasingly viewed unarmed villagers as participants in the insurgency. But the EGP overestimated the military strength it had relative to the force of the counterinsurgency. Once the army attacked, the guerrillas would prove incapable of defending these communities (Payeras 1991).
Meanwhile, the army under Lucas García mobilized for rural combat, building up its ranks through mass forced recruitment. In addition to troops stationed at the various departmental military bases, the army developed a system of strategic mobile forces operating out of larger military brigades.
Using this "task force" model, in mid-1981 the army launched offensives against the guerrillas in the economically important coffee regions along the coastal mountains and in San Martín Jilotepeque in Chimaltenango, a department close to the capital that provided the urban population with much of its food. Army violence forced thousands of area residents to flee from their homes and into the mountains (Chapter 20).
Soon army troops moved to isolated areas with a more extensive guerrilla presence and with less agro-industrial investment. The government’s greater destructiveness would reflect these different conditions. What followed was a series of well-planned military campaigns, part of an army strategy calculated to defeat the insurgency by terrorizing the civilian population.
The army began Operación Ceniza in November 1981 and continued in 1982. The name "Operation Ashes" clearly stated the campaign’s intent, suggesting how the army planned to deal with villages in the guerrilla zone of activity. The army first committed mass killings and burned villages to take control of the Pan-American Highway running through Chimaltenango and southern Quiché. Then some 15,000 troops participated in a slow sweep through the department of El Quiché, into Huehuetenango, and all the way to the border with Mexico (Aguilera 1982; Fried et al. 1983).
Armed guerrillas typically harassed army troops and then slipped back into the mountains. The army, frustrated by these attacks yet undeterred by any moral consideration for their civilian victims, responded by attacking entire villages. By the early 1982 peak of terror, troops regularly burned villagers’ houses and crops and killed their farm animals in a "scorched earth" policy designed to depopulate the zones of guerrilla operations (Americas Watch 1982). What had been a selective campaign against guerrilla sympathizers turned into a mass slaughter designed to eliminate any support or potential support for the rebels, and included widespread killing of children, women and the elderly. It was a strategy that Ríos Montt called "draining the sea that the fish swim in."
The large number of civilian dead and displaced during the army’s campaigns in western Guatemala was a product of the lack of any limits on the military’s behavior, either moral or organizational. Faced with an unlimited army assault, guerrillas could do little to defend the villages that they were organizing. Mass civilian killings were deliberately committed by the state, and responsibility rests with them.8
In March 1982, at the height of the state violence, an army coup replaced the Lucas García regime with a dictatorship headed by General Ríos Montt. Under Ríos Montt, the State took on a clearer counterinsurgency character. He suspended constitutional guarantees and set up secret courts to try suspected subversives (Comisión de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala 1983; Schirmer 1997).
The government of Ríos Montt pacified nearly the entire Guatemalan countryside in less than six months. It did not stop the massacres in the countryside but combined them with highly effective forms of population control, such as food for work programs, militarized "model villages" to process refugees displaced by state violence, and the civil patrol system in which the army forced rural villagers to purge their own communities of government opponents. In the words of one human rights group, Guatemala’s military government "created a desolation and called it peace" (Americas Watch 1983).
The four guerrilla armies, unified since 1982 in the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG), continued to exist, though largely in exile or retreat, cut off from the population except in the most isolated parts of the country.
In Guatemala City, government terror continued in 1982, though the level of killing remained far below that in the countryside (see Chapter 8). By the second half of 1983 and into 1984, the military intelligence apparatus again turned its focus to the city, wiping out remaining expressions of support for the revolutionary movement as well as attempts to recreate a militant popular movement (Albizures 1985; Amnesty International 1987).
In August 1983 yet another coup put another army general in the National Palace, Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, who promised to return the country to civilian rule. By 1986 Guatemala had a new constitution and a civilian President, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo. This process of democratization did not signify an end to disappearances and death squad killings. Extra-judicial state violence had become part of the political culture (Americas Watch and British Parliamentary Human Rights Group: 1987).
Even before the end of Guatemala’s formal military rule, new human rights groups began to emerge. These new groups directly represented the victims and survivors of state violence. In June of 1984, in the midst of a wave of death squad killings of trade unionists and university students, distraught family members met at the residence of Archbishop Próspero Penados del Barrio to form the Mutual Support Group for the Appearance Alive of Our Relatives (GAM). GAM soon brought together urban and rural survivors and began to challenge the government’s practice of forced disappearance by demanding to know what had become of their family members who had neither been released nor whose bodies had ever been identified. In the coming years other human rights groups appeared, part of a "survivor-based" movement (Billings 1995), and an activist popular movement returned to the city.
State violence was much lower in the mid-1980s than it had been a few years earlier. As in the early 1970s, the drop in violence was accompanied by the emergence of a movement for human rights. Similar to the earlier period, it is not clear how much of the reduction was the result of social movement pressure and how much due to the lesser activity of the armed insurgency.
In the mid-1980s, the new human rights movement itself became a target for state violence. Soon after GAM’s formation, for example, death squads tortured and murdered its founders Hector Gómez Calito and María del Rosario Godoy de Cuevas. Unlike in the late 1970s, however, the social movements of the mid-1980s survived the repression (Americas Watch 1985c; Simon 1987: 159-61, 197-98).
Figure 4.1 shows a slight drop in killings and disappearances for 1986, the first year of nominally civilian rule. For a while, the new civilian government lived up to expectations. Many exiles returned to Guatemala and political participation increased. But the level of violence would rise again in the final years of the decade.
Figure 4.1. Number of killings and disappearances by year, 1980-1989
In 1987 the army unleashed its "Year-End Offensive" on remaining areas of resistance to its control on both the south coast and in northern Quiché. As in 1982, the latter campaign caused many casualties in the civilian populations living in proximity to EGP guerrilla forces, though in lesser number than the earlier offensives (Chapter 20).
The next year, a faction of the army attempted to overthrow the civilian government. Though President Cerezo was allowed to remain in office, he reportedly had to concede to most of the demands of hard-line officers, including the cancellation of a dialogue with the URNG guerrillas. In the wake of the coup attempt, the level of state violence increased in both rural and urban areas. Popular organizations returned to the city’s streets to criticize military control and the government’s economic policies. Urban death squads increased as the State attempted to crush opposition activity, in a repeat of the pattern of political organizing and reactionary violence ten years before (Americas Watch 1988: 1-5).
The decade ended, in August and September of 1989, with a wave of kidnappings of leaders of the University Students’ Association (AEU), an organization that at the time supported much of the URNG’s political strategy. Victims included students who had taken a leading role calling for a negotiated end to the armed conflict (the URNG position) and activists in that year’s schoolteachers’ strike. The corpses of some of the victims later appeared in the weeds near the University. For example, after twenty days in detention, the body of psychology student Silvia Azurdia Utrera was marked with needle tracks and cigarette burns, her fingernails doubled over and semen from various men found in her vagina, indicating multiple rape (Americas Watch 1989b; Amnesty International 1989c; El Periódico 1997; CIIDH and GAM 1999).
At the end of the 1980s, as at the beginning, the Guatemalan State regularly employed violence against the opposition, attempting to close down any political space that it did not fully control.
7 In Nicaragua, only a few months before the Spanish Embassy occupation, Sandinista rebels had, prior to their victory, gained enormous credibility internationally and within the country by forcing the Somoza regime to negotiate a hostage release at the national Congress.