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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 202 | Mayo 1998



Some Voices of the 55,000 Victims

On April 24th the auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Guatemala, Juan Gerardi, presented in the cathedral of the capital the final report of the Catholic Church’s project, “Recovery of Historical Memory”, which Gerardi coordinated. The report, entitled “Never Again”, recalls and recounts the horrible events that marked the prolonged armed conflict experienced by Guatemala from 1960 to 1996.

Edgar Gutiérrez

Exactly three years ago, on April 25, 1995, we publicly presented the REMHI Project; an interdiocesan pastoral work whose objective was to open consoling spaces for victims of the impunity of the armed conflict in our country. We were convinced that the political violence, in addition to its individual and collective impact, had taken from the people their right to speak.

We also hoped to move forward the work that the Historical Clarification Commission would have to develop later, helping to make its work more efficacious in a society still dominated by fear and with a multi-cultural component, which made it quite difficult to get close to victims.

Our work began from a different situation than that of other Truth Commission experiences, which were carried out in contexts where the political tensions and threats had diminished.

Shortly after initiating the preparatory activities, we came up against the limits of the habitual approaches to human rights work when dealing with populations affected by war. The concepts entered into crisis from the very first moment. In what category of violation does one put the obligation to kill one's brother? we were asked in Chiché, El Quiché. What concept can be applied to public ceremonies where all residents were forced to beat the victim in the head with a stick until he or she died? we were asked in Chichupac. This was only the beginning of the challenges. They demanded that we abandon the complex categories based on the human rights model in order to adopt a more open methodology.

The objectives were adapted to the community needs themselves. Many people we worked with were more interested in seeing how historical memory could be an instrument of social reconstruction. Community rhythms were also different. In some places people began coming from the very beginning, in others months went by before they would talk. In some the people came individually to tell their story, while in others entire groups gave collective testimony.

From the outset the 600 promoters who were involved— many of whom traveled long distances to be here today in this presentation of their work, the fruit of their labor—showed great clarity about the utility of this work and the sense that knowledge of the truth could have, the dignifying of the dead, the sense of recovering speech and the value of memory for future generations. The majority of them knew well or shared the experience of violence suffered by the people, they spoke the same language and understood the cultural context of each region. All of this gave them great abilities to listen and empathize. Of the 6,500 testimonies gathered, 61% were received in 15 Mayan languages, primarily Qekchí, Ixil and Quiché.

The involvement of key Church sectors was critical to the project's success because of its credibility, the people's confidence in it, its geographic coverage and the possibility of making it a protected space.

The great number of testimonies gathered and the relatively dispersed geographic regions and communities made it necessary to establish local and national coordination from the beginning. The testimonies were classified, the summaries analyzed and coded, and the useful data base adjusted for analysis in the Human Rights Office of the Archbishopric.

The 6,500 testimonies speak to us of over 55,000 victims, 75% of whom are adults and 75% Mayan. But not only those 55,000 victims suffered directly. Their families suffered as well. At least two out of three victims had family responsibilities.

We documented 86,318 children whose parents suffered some sort of violation, leaving half of them orphaned by their father and/or mother. At least three of every ten victims belonged to some organized group. Over half were catechists or Delegates of the Word and almost one of every five worked in social or community groups. This confirms that the violence preferentially affected social leaders. Over 90% of the victims were civilian leaders with only one of every ten belonging to a military group of some sort.

In a period of less than three years between 1980 and 1983, there were almost 44,000 victims, 80% of the total that REMHI documented. Almost 300 of the 422 massacres we documented occurred in 1981 and 1982. Of these, 116 massacres had more than 21 victims and another 40 over 100 victims.

The paramilitary groups are responsible for 3,424 victims. The army in combination with paramilitary groups like the Civil Self-Defense Patrols and the Commissioners are responsible for 10,600 victims. The guerrilla forces are responsible for 5,117 victims. And there are some 2,800 victims for whom we could not definitively establish the perpetrators. Over 57% of the victims came from El Quiché and some 23% from Las Verapaces.

Although this is an important sample, the testimonies gathered by REMHI do not come close to exhausting the totality of the massive human rights violations during the last 36 years. Our information reflects the greater part of the political violence in the early 1980s, especially in rural areas. Testimonies gathered about what happened in the 1960s in the eastern part of the country or in Guatemala City in the 1970s don't communicate the dimension of violence lived at those times.

Our report is summarized in four volumes. In the first, which we have titled "Impacts of the Violence," we analyze the impact at the personal, family and community level and have special chapters to address violence against children and against mothers. In this volume we deal with people's different strategies to face the drastic situations they suffered, as well as current strategies so that the violence won't be repeated.

In the second volume, titled "The Mechanisms of Horror," we analyze how the massacres, tortures and forced disappearances were planned and implemented, how the terror apparatus of military intelligence services and of the special counterinsurgency forces functioned, and what training and methods were employed to convert men into killing machines.

The third volume is a broad historical framework of the war: the political and economic cycles and the main actors in the political process, among them the Church.

The fourth volume presents names and other minimal data identifying the victims, and gathers general statistics and an addendum of our recommendations to the state, the country's political forces, the Church and the international community. We have titled these recommendations "The Path to Social Reconstruction."
The covers of the four volumes represent, in a single serial photo, the people at four moments: when they are silenced and not allowed to talk, when they are blind and cannot see, when they are deafened and not allowed to hear, and when they break the silence. Copies of this report will be given to the promoters and pastoral agents in every diocese. They will be available to the public at the beginning of May. In June we will distribute a summarized version of the Report and immediately afterwards various versions adapted for popular distribution.

I can't fail to thank the people who, with such bravery and dignity, trusted their story to us. I thank the promoters for their work, the support of pastoral agents and bishops, of diocesan coordinators and their teams, of our advisers, codifiers, liaisons, analysts and volunteers. Also the decided financial support of the governments of Sweden and Norway throughout the whole process, of EZE and Miserior— German Protestant and Catholic church agencies—of the European Union, the Swiss and German governments, various agencies that have been friends and support: Médico Internacional, Inkota, Project Counselling Service, the Boll Foundation and Oxfam-UK. To all of them, many thanks. We remember those people who, like Myrna Mack, are no longer among us and who were the precursors and inspiration of this arduous task.

"The Army Surpassed All Predictions Of Horror"

Introduction to Volume II of the "Nunca Más" report titled, "The Mechanisms of Horror."
The victims' voices are gathered in the REMHI Report, but there are also revelations of victimizers which help us understand some of the logic of destruction. First, we analyze the dynamic of the massacres, especially in the 1980-83 period, the use of torture and the behavior of military intelligence agencies. We also analyze the ways of involving the civilian population in the war and of reorganizing the population's daily life under military control. Finally, we analyze the mechanisms of training and group-building that made the atrocities possible. This memory of horror can become a key element to help keep Guatemala's recent history from being repeated as tragedy.

The characteristics of the massive violence demonstrate that it not only included a dynamic of armed confrontation between two bands, but also derived from a war strategy in which the people became the main objective. In its desire to destroy the guerrillas and any support they might have, the army developed specific campaign plans and actions against the civilian population logically geared to keep control over both population and territory. In many cases that meant massacres and massive destruction of communities considered hostile. In others, the use of kidnappings, tortures and other forms of selective violence against opposition to the regime. The people's support was very important to the guerrilla's success in their struggle, but they also carried out selective actions against those who opposed their activity or collaborated directly with the army in repression.

The violence in Guatemala has been directly marked by the predominant role of the military intelligence apparatus, which carried out innumerable actions to eliminate political dissidence and promote absolute internal control within the security agencies. This meant a system of continuous vigilance, carried out especially by civilian informants ("ears"), Military Commissioners, or the counterintelligence structures themselves, commonly known as G2. Most times the repressive actions were carried out clandestinely, to avoid identification of the actors. Thus, the systematic violation of human rights and impunity constituted a central part of their activities.

Even though the development of violence was linked to numerous social and political events, the running of the war followed strategic planning carried out by the army. The typology of the violence is analyzed both based on the selective effects of the massive destruction it caused, which is expressed in the testimonies, and on the designing and planning that can be found in the manuals and counter-subversive war training procedures.

Socio-political violence has had an enormous impact on Guatemala's social fabric. To the community polarization induced by identification with a particular band, the army added the development of a whole control system that restructured the social and even family fabric, based on military objectives, to eliminate any sort of opposition. After an initial phase of destruction, the logic of territorial and population control included a forced social reorganization project, especially through the Civil Self-Defense Patrols and the Development Poles and Model Villages.

To carry out its actions, the army developed a system of forming military entities based on forced recruitment, obedience training, strong group control and complicity in atrocities. That system explains to a great degree the incredibly destructive character of the political repression, which is still manifested today in numerous forms of post-war violence. Knowledge of those mechanisms of horror and a dismantling of the structures based on those values are needed changes for effective social demilitarization.

Historical memory plays a key role in dismantling the mechanisms that have made state terrorism possible and in showing evidence of its role as part of the exclusionary political and economic system. People's history of suffering cannot be treated as if it were a page from a book. The distortion of facts and responsibilities brings with it the risk of new forms of legitimacy by the instigators of war and seriously threatens Guatemala's future. The prevention of atrocities implies, in addition to the application of justice, the elimination of systems and ideologies that turn obedience into a virtue and horror into a means of winning social goals.

Despite the climate of trust, many people were afraid of possible negative consequences of giving testimonies: military pressure in the communities was important and at the time expectations about signing an end to the armed conflict were still uncertain. For the majority of people, giving their testimony had a positive effect of emotional unburdening, a sense of being able to do something with their suffering, vindicate their murdered or disappeared relatives and make patent their demands and needs. The testimonies gathered have the value of being the victim's words. Sometimes only a partial history was taken. In many other cases, the people's experiences were full of different episodes and violent incidents that got mixed up with each other.

This report is an attempt to reconstruct a multitude of complex and different experiences of the people affected by the war, in the people's own voices. One can read it as a book, can listen to it as a story, but above all one can learn from this collective memory that reclaims the dignity of the victims and hopes for change of the survivors. It is a memory that not only looks at past events, but sustains the demands for truth, respect, justice and reparations that should be part of Guatemala's social reconstruction process.

To understand many of the effects of the violence, the forms of resistance and demands of the people analyzed in this report, it is important to take into account some of the characteristics of socio-political violence in Guatemala. As with other peoples who have lived through situations of political repression and armed conflict, Guatemala's violence has caused a series of traumatic individual and collective experiences, which range from assassinations or disappearances to massacres, from threats to extreme living conditions in the mountains, from displacement to the city on to exile. The country's geography, like the people's memory, is crisscrossed with great displacements and ruptures.

The social conflict in Guatemala has had a historical basis in political exclusion, ethnic discrimination and social injustice rooted in the very configuration of the Guatemalan state. From 1954 to today, Guatemala's history has been characterized by continuous experiences of violence concentrated in different epochs and historical cycles, different areas and population groups. During the 1960s, in addition to confrontations between the guerrillas and the army, state violence was directed against the peasant population in the eastern part of the country. In the 1970s, political violence was particularly virulent in the city and was directed against leaders of social movements and sectors opposed to the successive military governments, as well as against the guerrilla infrastructure.

Faced with the threat of a population that seemed to be rising in rebellion in the rural areas in the early 1980s, the counterinsurgency policy turned into state terrorism, bringing with it a process of mass destruction, especially of indigenous communities and organized peasant groups. For their part, the guerrillas used violence as a way to eliminate people who collaborated with the army or on other occasions as a way to eliminate opposition among the civilian population. Beginning in the mid-1980s, political repression by the state was more selective, but it continued against opposition individuals, communities and social groups, all of whom suffered persecution, assassinations and forced separations under the accusation of collaborating with the guerrillas.

Especially in the 1980s, the period covered by the majority of testimony gathered by the REMHI Project, the scorched-earth policy carried out by the state adopted an unprecedented level of violence, exceeding all predictions by the guerrillas and the affected communities. Support for the insurgency in many communities, the expectation of consolidating their positions, the supposed military force of the insurgent organizations and the alliances of different social sectors in making demands of the government made many people think they were at the eve of an overall change in the political system that had maintained power in military hands since 1954. They also expected a solution to the land problem. The guerrillas' inability to deal with the military offensives and their progressive retreat from many zones left the population exposed to the army's repressive actions. The massive destruction produced by the massacres and the scorched- earth policy surpassed all predictions of horror and frustrated all hopes for change.

A large number of people were involved in the armed conflict. Faced with ever more indiscriminate repressive actions, many people saw the revolutionary project as a way to change their situation and achieve their demands for justice and liberty. According to military sources, the guerrillas ended up supported by some 250,000 people. The strategy of some guerrilla organizations to develop their bases and massively involve the people in their military support structures was an important factor in community dynamics. On the other hand, the army developed a strategy of militarizing the social fabric, which led to generalized forced recruitment, the creation of Civil Self- Defense Patrols and army participation together with the Military Commissioners in population control and the fight against the guerrillas. This meant forcibly involving the civilian population in the war. Daily life in every town or neighborhood was subjected to control by military structures, disturbing their values and culture.

The massification of violence in some moments, the arbitrariness of the repressive actions and the criminalization of any social protest all helped create a climate of fear and terror in large sectors of the population. That fear, which has formed part of Guatemala's social climate in recent decades, reached extremes of horror with the cruel ways that many people were murdered. A good portion of individual assassinations and massacres were public, with the terror meant to serve as an example to people. Many people witnessed rapes, murders and massacres of their families and communities.

The actions of the Civil Self-Defense Patrols and the Military Commissioners implicated neighbors or sectors of community power as directly responsible for numerous murders and massacres. This internal source of violence responded to a strategy carefully designed by the army to involve the civilian population as a way of maintaining control and diluting responsibility. People's lives thus became the battlefield and direct combats between the guerrillas and the army were more limited. All of this promoted confrontations between and within families and communities. The geographic centrality of the armed conflict—the fact that control of territory and of the population of the communities themselves were considered spheres of violence— led the army to develop its control strategies to an extreme.

The dominant economic, political and military sectors have historically been of ladino heritage—with the troops mostly indigenous—and have made ethnic discrimination into daily behavior. Indigenous communities have suffered numerous historical experiences of exclusion in their relations with the state. On a micro-social scale, the ancestral conflicts between the ladino and indigenous populations set the pattern that later characterized the violence in those zones. While the violence did affect the ladino population, sometimes massively if it was thought to be a guerrilla social base, later, with the growing incorporation of indigenous communities into the insurgent project, violence against the civilian population was especially directed against the indigenous population with evident discrimination against and contempt for their identity.

The absolute power of the military and police forces, their frequent clandestine actions and the replacement of civilian authorities with military or pro- military power has made impunity one of the key aspects of the conflict. No one has been investigated or convicted in all these years for crimes against humanity. On the contrary, those most responsible have remained in power or acquired comfortable jobs due to the impunity of their actions. For a long time impunity has been the constant in army, police, civil patrol and commissioner actions, and has been a factor that stimulated violence against people. Impunity has also been one of the consequences that victims and survivors have had to deal with, manifested in feelings of injustice and impotence. These consequences continue today with the questioning of the sense of justice, the fact that many communities must live alongside the perpetrators and the emergence of new forms of social violence also protected by impunity.

"May Those Abominable Acts Never Be Repeated"

Words of Bishop Juan Gerardi while presenting the "Nunca Más" Report in the Cathedral two days before he was murdered.

The REMHI Project has been an effort within the Human Rights Pastoral, which in turn is part of the Church's Social Pastoral; it is a service mission to man and to society.

Many people react to these economic and political issues by asking why the Church gets involved. They want us to dedicate ourselves only to the ministries. But the Church has a mission to fulfill in society that includes ethical, moral and evangelic values. What do the Commandments tell us? "Love thy neighbor as thyself." And it is precisely to that neighbor that the Church mission must direct itself. Pope John Paul II tells us when he speaks to lay people: "Rediscovering the dignity of the human person is an essential task of the Church." This was also part of Jesus' evangelizing work. The Lord put human dignity at the center of the Gospel.

The REMHI Project within the Church's pastoral work is a legitimate, painful accusation that we should listen to with profound respect and a spirit of solidarity. But it is also an announcement, an alternative for finding new paths of human coexistence.

When we began this task we were interested in knowing the truth in order to share it, to reconstruct the history of pain and death, to see the motives, to understand why and how, to demonstrate the human drama, to share the pain and anguish of the thousands of dead, disappeared and tortured, to see the roots of injustice and the absence of values.

This is a pastoral way of doing things. It is working in the light of faith, finding the face of God, the presence of the Lord. In all these events it is God who is talking to us. We are called to reconcile. Jesus' mission is reconciliatory. His presence calls us to be reconcilers in this ruptured society, trying to place victims and victimizers within justice. There are people who died for an ideal. And the executioners were often just instruments. Conversion is necessary, and it is our duty to open the spaces to stimulate it. This does not mean simply accepting the events. It means reflecting and recovering values.

We want to contribute to the building of a different country. This is why we are recovering the people's memory. This path was and continues to be full of risks, but building the Kingdom of God has risks and only its builders have the strength to face them.
On June 23, 1994, the parties that negotiated the peace accords showed their conviction about the "the Guatemalan people's right to know the truth" of the events that took place during the armed conflict, "whose clarification will contribute to preventing a repetition of the sad and painful pages and to strengthening the country's democratization process"; they underscored that this is an indispensable condition to achieve peace. This is part of the preamble of the Accord created by the Historical Clarification Commission, which is now concluding its important labor.

The Church echoed this desire and pledged itself to the search to "know the truth," convinced that, as Pope John Paul II said, "the truth is the force of peace." As part of our Church, we responsibly and jointly accept this task of breaking the silence that thousands of war victims have maintained for many years and opening to them the opportunity to speak their own words, to tell their history of pain and suffering in order to feel freed from the weight that has worn them down for years. This was essentially the proposal that energized the work the REMHI Project has been doing for three years; to know the truth so it will make us free.

We, as people of faith, discover in the historical clarification accord a call from God to our mission as Church: truth as the vocation of all humanity. We cannot hide or cover up reality from the word of God; we cannot distort history nor should we silence truth. Twenty centuries ago Saint Paul made a statement that our recent history has confirmed convincingly: "The heavens are revealing God's reproach of all impiety and human injustice, of those who repress the truth with injustice." The truth in our country has been twisted and silenced.

God inflexibly opposes evil in any form it takes. The root of ruin, of the misfortunes of humanity, is born of deliberate opposition to truth, which is the radical reality of God and of man. And this reality has been intentionally deformed in our country through 36 years of war against the people. Thus "historical clarification," as we bishops stated in the pastoral letter titled "True Peace is Urgently Needed," "is not only necessary, but truly indispensable so that the past not be repeated with its grave consequences. As long as the truth is not known, the injuries of the past will remain open and unhealed."
As Church, we have no doubt that the work we have done in these years has been a story of grace and salvation, a true step towards peace as the fruit of justice, which has been gently sowing seeds of life and dignity throughout the country, with the suffering people both participants and negotiators. It has been a beautiful service of veneration to the martyrs and of dignification to the victims who were the targets of plans of destruction and death.

To open up to the truth, to face our personal and collective reality, is not an option that can be accepted or rejected; it is an unavoidable demand on every human being, on every society that claims to be humane and free. It places us in our most radical condition as people: we are sons and daughters of God, called to participate in the liberty of the Father.

Years of terror and death have displaced the majority of Guatemalans and reduced them to fear and silence. Truth is the first word, the serious and mature action that allows us to break that cycle of violence and death, and opens us to a future of hope and light for all. REMHI's work has been an amazing enterprise of knowledge, deepening and appropriating our personal and collective history. It has been an open door that lets people breathe and speak in liberty, for the creation of communities with hope.

This Project's commitment to the people who gave their testimony has been to gather their experiences in this report and globally support the victims' demands. But among the expectations and among our commitments is also found the recovery of memory. The work to seek out truth does not end here, it must go back to where it was born and, through the production of materials, ceremonies and monuments, support the role of memory as an instrument of social reconstruction.

On the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, Pope John Paul II told us, "It is critical to keep alive the memory of what happened: it is a concrete duty. What World War II signified for Europeans and for the world has been understood during these 50 years thanks to the acquisition of new data that have maintained a better knowledge of the suffering it caused." This is what the REMHI Project has done in Guatemala.

Knowing the truth hurts, but is, without question, a highly healthy and liberating action. The thousands of testimonies of victims, the stories of horrific crimes, are the presence of the figure of the suffering servant of Jehovah made flesh in the Guatemalan people. "Many were appalled at him," says Isaiah, "his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man.... Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." Bringing up the memory of these painful actions confronts us with an original word of our faith: "'Cain, where is your brother Abel?' 'I don't know,' he answered. 'Am I my brother's keeper?' The Lord said, 'What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.'"
Peace is possible, a peace born from the truth of each and every one. Painful truth, memory of the country's profound and bloody wounds. Personified and liberating truth that makes it possible for men and women to find themselves and take on their history. Truth that challenges all of us to recognize individual and collective responsibility and commits us to make sure that those abominable events are never repeated.

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