“Guatemala is more of a landscape than a nation,” a friend observed in 1996 when I returned to the country after thirty years of on-and-off absence. I knew as much as anyone could know about events in the country in the pre-Internet era: massacres, democracy, military groups, guerrillas, elections, and yet that particular remark lingered in my mind. Just before my plane landed in La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City, I glanced down at a tourist pamphlet and a novel by Miguel Angel Asturias I was holding. The pamphlet showed a beautiful reality transformed into commerce to attract foreigners, while the book evoked a fantasy built by Asturias’ words to reach another reality, the indigenous world. In the tourist pamphlet, Lake Atitlán looks glued by its green water to its three volcanos, Tolimán, Atitlán and San Pedro, all features that make it one of the most beautiful places in the world. And not far from Panajachel, in San Martín Chile Verde, on this very same lake, the novel describes the life of Celestino Yumi, a Quiché Indian who sold his wife to the Tazol devil, only to get caught up in the clutches of “that mulata woman.” Mulata de tal is perhaps our Miguel Angel’s finest novel. Then, shortly after my arrival, I learned that on these verdant shores of the lake and in San Martín, there had been many, many deaths, those of local peasants, guerrillas and soldiers.
"THE GUERRILLA MOVEMENT THAT DOES NOT LOSE, WINS"
That particular year of 1996 was a special one; “the internal armed conflict,” as officious history would keep calling it, was coming to an end. Some cite 1954 as the year it all started, when President Jacobo Arbenz was forced out of government through the betrayal of his fellow colonels and U.S. pressure; for others, the period of strife began in 1964, when Cuban influence stimulated the rise of the guerrilla movement, and hundreds of young people with more convictions than arms took to the mountains. I experienced this period myself, and I would place its beginning with the fratricidal urban riots in March and April 1962. The military police and the army killed more than fifty demonstrators in the streets of Guatemala City. Lieutenant Marco Antonio Yon Sosa made his appearance during this upheaval, and one has to remember that the first guerrillas were military men, young rangers who organized the Revolutionary Movement November 13 following an unsuccessful uprising against President Miguel Ydígoras.
Thus, in 1996, I waited with several friends in the Plaza of the Constitution. The ceremony for the signing of the Firm and Lasting Peace Accord was taking place in the National Palace, and we watched generals, politicians, guerrilla leaders, and a select public as they arrived. December 29, 1996, was a chilly night. We didn’t mind the cold: 34 years and two generations of Guatemalans wounded by terror were being left behind. The terror cannot even be conveyed by the statistics, some 150,000 dead. The startling figure makes me think of Stalin’s criminally cynical remark that the murder of one person is a crime, but the murder of many is just a statistic.
It is painful but certain that when one counts death in the hundreds of thousands, precision no longer matters. Perhaps percentages tell us more: 92% of the victims were non-combatant civilians; 54% were younger than 25 years old, and 12 % were women raped or physically attacked in various humiliating ways.
I believe that there was no civil war in Guatemala, and I’ve allowed myself to express this dissenting view both in writing and in oral debate. What happened here was a permanent repression by the state, punishing everyone who was considered as part of the political opposition in thought or deeds. This imbued military action with the logic of war-—a military campaign to destroy “subversive” opposition—and what resulted was the systematic destruction of hundreds of union leaders, peasants and students. This went on for three decades.
During this historic time, there were two moments of guerrilla insurgence. The first occurred between 1965 and 1968 and ended quickly in the middle of great confusion. This movement followed the foco theory developed by Che Guevara, calling for vanguard actions of guerrilla cadres leading to general insurrection. The other movement, ten years later (1980-83), advocated the strategy of “the prolonged popular war” in the style of Vietnam. The 1981 guerrilla offensive was smashed by the better organized and more heavily armed Guatemalan army.
The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) suffered a military defeat from which it never recovered, I believe. The military life of the guerrilla insurgency was quite brief, but its political life was long. Its polemical presence allowed it to survive until 1996, negotiate with three successive governments, and sign a substantive and wide-ranging peace agreement. How can one evaluate what happened between 1962 and 1996? It is fitting to remember U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s comment in the January 1969 issue of Foreign Affairs: “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win.”
THE AUTHORITARIAN TRANSITION TOWARD DEMOCRACY
And here’s another paradox, about which there is no agreement either, namely, that democracy was achieved before peace. I have argued that this transition was contradictory, for the construction of a democratic regime took place even when the repression was still fierce. In 1983, the illegitimate government of General Efraín Ríos Montt laid down electoral and political party laws. The following year, the equally illegitimate government of General Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores applied these laws, calling for a Constituent Assembly, which in 1985 signed a National Constitution into law. He also called a presidential election, which was won by civilian lawyer Vinicio Cerezo.
Both processes were free, without fraud, with limited pluralism, but in the overall context of terror. For the first time since 1951, there was uncertainty about who would win. All the candidates were civilians of varied ideologies. The rightist military government turned over power on March 15, 1986, to a civilian who espoused a center-left ideology. But the homicide continued.
It seems to make logical sense that the end of the war comes before free elections, as has happened in a number of African countries. There, faced with a dynamic of death, it was only after reaching the difficult moment of a “ceasefire” that peace agreements were reached, and only then did elections take place. In Guatemala, two democratic elections were held before the URNG announced a ceasefire in March 1996, which was then accepted by the government.
The explanation for why a return to democracy came before an end to the terror can be quite convoluted, but let us start with something basic. An electoral process can be categorized as democratic when several independent political parties, of diverse ideologies and histories of opposition to the military, compete against each other. The winning party, the Christian Democratic Party, situated on the timid left in Guatemala, garnered 38% of the total vote. This was the first election without fraud in more than thirty years.
It was not a transition that came about as a result of an agreement; rather, it was imposed from above. Elections under illegal and authoritarian governments do not usually result in democratic governments, so why was there an authoritarian transition to political democracy in Guatemala?
At least three different events took place simultaneously, which I evaluate with different degrees of importance. First, the elections formed part of a counterinsurgency strategy, conceived of and applied by U.S. policy; the objective was to legitimize the regime against which the armed insurgency was fighting. After the elections, the guerrillas would be taking up their arms against a freely elected civilian government and not against a military dictatorship.
Second, the army had destroyed the guerrillas’ headway, which it termed a strategic defeat for the insurgents. Finally, the military leadership suffered internal decomposition, with military coups in which generals were pitted against one another in March 1982 and August 1983. On both occasions, coup leaders offered, as a pretext for their taking power, a “plan for immediate democratization.” The military had lost prestige because of their well-known human rights violations and open corruption. Several officials had amassed wealth through common crime, particularly crime linked to drug trafficking.
TAKING THE "FISH OUT OF THE WATER"
Guatemala is a nation with an important indigenous population of Maya origin. Perhaps what most impressed me on my return to Guatemala were the crowds of indigenous people on the streets of the capital, their social participation and an abundant documentation that went much further than folklore. I worked for the Historical Clarification Commission and spent my days reading about the genocide that had been committed by the army. These were killings with racist roots and, some colleagues say, they were preceded by an indigenous rebellion. If that really did occur, it would be as a result of an awakening of indigenous consciousness, the mobilization of several communities and the decision of those communities to join the struggle alongside the guerrillas.
The guerrillas modified their program to recognize that indigenous people had their own cultural ways and their own struggles, that they weren’t just peasants. Class and ethnicity are not opposing categories, and cultural identity is compatible with class consciousness. The core of the Guatemalan revolution, according to a guerrilla document, is constituted by the indigenous and peasant masses since they are the majority and the most exploited.
It has been documented that many activists approached indigenous communities in the northwest region of the country and that tens of thousands of indigenous people expressed their “sympathy” towards the insurgents. Tales about this mutual rapprochement abound, full of examples of logistical support from the indigenous community and indoctrination on the part of the insurgents. This growing closeness took place in the national context of armed struggle in which the important thing was training and organization for war; the inherent dynamic of the moment was to arm for self-defense. But I have not been able to find any information about indigenous columns in battle or high-level indigenous commanders, or whether they were armed. Indigenous mobilization was easily detected by military intelligence, interpreted as a grave threat, and destroyed on a scale without parallel in Latin America. The guerrilla comandantes did not foresee the massacres, and therefore could not stop them.
Although many do not agree with me, I firmly believe that there was no indigenous rebellion; there was a slaughter of indigenous people. In the second half of 1981, the armed forces put into effect an operation they called “scorched earth.” It was a victory of the army over unarmed peasants. Again, it is difficult to calculate the number of victims. The UN Historical Clarification Commission counted some 80,000 dead, more than 600 villages destroyed; more than half a million refugees and displaced people.
Certainly the massacres of the 1980s were a continuation of colonial genocide. It is shocking that 51% of those killed were in groups of more than 50 persons and that 81% of these were identified as indigenous. General Héctor Alejandro Gramajo, Army Chief of Operations in 1982, explained the operation by saying: “We only wanted to take the fish out of the water...we think we were successful; we left the fish without water.”
SICK STATE, FAILED STATE?
All that I have described ever too briefly in the previous paragraphs has made it very difficult for Guatemala society to function. The legacy of violence is all too apparent. At the beginning of May 2010, there was a riot in Boquerón, a high-security prison in a southeast region of the country. The prison was seized by 200 gang members serving prison sentences. Interior Ministry authorities had to negotiate with the chief of the “maras,” as the gang members are known, giving in on several points and recognizing the maras’ power. More or less around the same time, the Finance Ministry negotiated a fiscal reform for the millionth time with the board of CACIF, a conglomerate of powerful businessmen. And at the end of the same month, the rector of the University of San Carlos and its Superior Council had to negotiate with a student faction that had impeded the operations of the state university for ten days.
There is heated discussion about whether present-day Guatemala can be considered a failed state. In the rhetoric of those who combat violence internationally, a state fails when it has lost control over the legitimate monopoly of violence, or when social relations are ruled by an anti-state logic.
In effect, in Guatemala, the forces of “narcobusiness” controlled several municipalities in regions sharing a border with Mexico, such as San Marcos and Huehuetenango, or sparsely populated regions such as Petén. Various forms of criminal power have emerged there, as well as in regions that have experienced recent agricultural modernization such as Alta Verapaz and Zacapa. Since 2001, criminal organizations with their own “legality” and peasant support have replaced the authority of the state. It seems inevitable that in the face of the current insecurity that plagues citizens, they would respond with another rationalization: to confront private crime, we need private security. There is now a free market of 140 security agencies, most of them legally registered, with at least 65,000 guards, bodyguards and watchmen, all of them armed and poorly trained. At present, the National Police have 20,000 police officers.
In Guatemala, the symptoms of collective anomie—normlessness—are emerging, predicting that this will become a sick society, with elementary sociability decomposing in an extreme form. It is not easy to explain why twenty people are killed every day when there is no civil war; that 750 cars are stolen every day—where are they all hidden? Some 8,000 extortions take place daily in the marginal neighborhoods, proving that the poor prey more on their equals than anyone else.
And yes, with urban robberies, highway assaults, kidnappings, the number of crimes increases, the number of delinquents increases, and no one imagines that there’s an end to it. Carlos Castresana, then director of CICIG, a UN agency that helps with criminal investigations, declared in a March conference in the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) that Guatemala had the greatest per capita concentration of firearms in the world, with the exception of the Middle East.
In the last five years, the dark figure of the hired hit man has appeared. These are people—often poor youngsters—who are contracted in the free market to kill for a price. On April 28, a 15-year-old boy killed a woman with a single shot. For this job, he was paid the equivalent of $13. Only 3% of crimes denounced to the Public Ministry ever get to trial. The serious thing about this rampant crime wave is the inability of the state to control it. In the last two years, two high-ranking officials of the National Police have been publicly dismissed and brought to trial for participation in drug trafficking rings. About a quarter of the police force has been dismissed for various types of corruption. One moves about in a very insecure society with a weakened public authority and a citizenry that is losing its confidence in the government and in the future.
Edelberto Torres-Rivas is presently a consultant in the area of Human Development in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and a professor in the Graduate Program in Social Sciences of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO); he was Secretary General of FLACSO from 1985-1993. He has published extensively on politics, violence and development in Central America. Torres-Rivas was a 1999-2000 Central American Visiting Scholar at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
Edelberto Torres-Rivas es actualmente consultor en el área de Desarrollo Humano del Programa de Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo y profesor en el Programa Centroamericano de Postgrado en Ciencias Sociales de la Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO); fue Secretario General de esa institución (1985-1974). Ha publicado sobre temas de la política, la violencia y el desarrollo en Centroamérica.