"Massacres in the Jungle"--Never Again?
Jesuit priest Ricardo Falla has dedicated the last five years of his life to accompanying the Communities of Population in Resistance and has just finished writing a book that relates the horrors that this people went through in 1982. envio spoke with Fr Falla.
Emma G. Martínez
"A guerrilla at age 60!" was the incredulous response of Jesuit priest Ricardo Falla when the Guatemalan Defense Minister accused him of being an ideologue for the guerrillas. "I'm just a priest," he said.
But Falla is not just any priest. This Guatemalan anthropologist has dedicated the past five years of his life to accompanying the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPRs) in the jungles of Ixcán, El Quiché, a zone of combat between the army and the URNG guerrilla movement. He lived with the people of those communities, fleeing aerial bombardments by the air force, joining them in their constant migrations, complete with mobile church. And as a social scientist, he documented their methods of organization and production. He had the full approval of the Society of Jesus for this mission, though his work was not public, to protect both him and this population which the army considers part of the guerrilla forces.
In 1992, Ricardo Falla's book, Massacres de la Selva, was published in Guatemala. It uses first hand testimony to report on the military's counterinsurgency campaign in Ixcán ten years earlier. The book made him "public enemy, number one" of the Guatemalan army.
Since then he has been the target of a broad media campaign. And in December, Falla was forced "out into the clearing," as the people of the CPRs say, leaving behind the jungle, Ixcán and Guatemala to protect his life. Envío recently interviewed him in El Salvador.
envío: How did you come to be an anthropologist?
RF: When I was in Austria studying theology, I also began to study the Popol Vuh [the definitive text of Mayan philosophy]. And I began to read books comparing the psychology of "primitive" peoples with that of children and the ill. At the University of Innsbruck I asked a psychologist, "Where can I study this further?" It seemed suggestive, if quite removed from reality. "That's called anthropology," he told me, "but look for it in the United States, not in Europe." It was through the Popol Vuh in the context of theology that I came to anthropology.
envío: You weren't familiar with the Popol Vuh before?
RF: Yes, I was familiar with it and recognized its strength, but I didn't understand it. I wrote a lot about it, but I didn't understand its essence because I was seeing it as an outsider instead of from within. Because I simply didn't have the tools with which to enter. When I finished studying theology, I went to Texas to study anthropology and then came to El Salvador for field work. Once again in Central America I came to understand the Popol Vuh more fully, and I observed how today's society, based on its indigenous roots, had resisted for so many centuries, keeping intact the same social structure. With time the Popol Vuh was no longer just a marvelous text but something real, tangible. It was the root of an impoverished people who suffer and resist.
envío: Have you lived and studied anthropology in various countries?
RF: Before doing my Ph.D., I read Levi Strauss. In his book The Sad Tropics, he writes about the cultural clash that anthropological studies imply. I thought: I'm going to go live in a very different and very primitive place in order to feel that clash, something you don't experience reading a book. In 1968 I went to live with the Yaruros of Venezuela for three months. It was a very good experience. It's something that changes you, because it forces you to imagine the other side of the moon: this is how we humans were just a short time ago. It made a real impression on me.
I've also been in other parts of Central America. I went to Nicaragua before the revolution. "How can we help?" we'd ask after the September insurrection of 1978. A few people said, "Help us do a study on the factors that set off an urban insurrection." We did it, but with great difficulty since the majority of the people we interviewed were in hiding. I also worked in El Salvador in the late 1970s doing an evaluation of the peasant movement, which was quite strong then. After that I was in Nicaragua again during the first two years of the revolution doing a study of the first counterrevolutionary groups to emerge. We warned the Sandinistas that the contras had a social base that could grow, but at that time they didn't believe it.
envío: How did you write Masacres de la Selva?
RF: I was in the CPRs in 1983, in the beginning before they were called that. I was also among the refugees. I collected most of the data that appears in the book in the refugee camps. The field work lasted five months, and the analysis and writing took me two and a half years. When I left the zone, in February 1984, I had the idea of writing a trilogy. The first book would be the appearance of the peasant organization from the opening of the jungle in 1966 through the massacres in 1982. The second would be the massacres themselves, presented much more fully than they appear in the book that has now been published, with more testimonies and more analysis. The third part was going to be about the resistance, both of the CPRs and the refugees. I wrote the first two books, 700 pages each, and gave them to friends to read. They told me they couldn't be published because it would endanger the people I had written about, as I had described their methods of resisting and organizing in great detail. The book just published is excerpted from those two volumes.
envío: While I was reading your book I had nightmares every night. Although there is a message of hope at the end, there is much horror as well. Isn't it hard to write about such things?
RF: I didn't see the massacres that I write about. For this reason I say in the book that I'm like Mark the evangelist, because he merely wrote what people told him. The first time I heard shocking testimony about one of these massacres, the one in San Francisco*, it left me crushed and wondering how it was possible that the person who had lived through it had recounted it so calmly. It was an extremely sad experience, a dark night, but I felt that there was an invisible light that ran through it all. I decided to enter into that experience. It's like when you read a Greek tragedy, in which there is also a sense of tremendous greatness. I was moved and disturbed, and began reflecting on what I could do.
(* On July 17, 1982, 600 soldiers approached the farm hamlet of San Francisco Nentón, apparently frustrated at not having found a guerrilla encampment as they had hoped. They called all of the villagers to a meeting, then locked the men in the courthouse and the women and children in a small church. By the end of the day
they had killed more than 300 people. There was only one survivor, who told the story to Falla in a refugee camp in Mexico.)
envío: In your book, you ask why the guerrilla forces didn't defend the people, and the answer is that they didn't have the capacity to do so. You also describe how the army withdrew from the Ixcán area for several months in 1981 and 1982, and that there was a kind of popular insurrection. Did the guerrillas think they could really take power? Why did they encourage an insurrection knowing that it would provoke the army? Wasn't this irresponsible?
RF: I think that the guerrillas made a mistake then and that it was a huge political error. They thought they would take power before or at the beginning of 1982. And they burned all their bridges. In that insurrection, which wasn't exactly an insurrection but something similar, burning barracks and hanging flags in them only attracted the army attention's even more, although it was also the people's expression of victory. It was like an anticipation of the liberated zones, but at the time they didn't accurately calculate the army's strength.
Why didn't they? Where was the mistake? I don't know how they analyze it, but from outside, it seems to me there was a two fold error. The people felt that the guerrillas had sufficient arms and strength to take power. And so they let themselves go, though they weren't completely convinced. They trusted in the guerrillas' strength. And the guerrillas, at the same time, trusted in the people's strength. We don't have enough arms, but we have all the people, they said. They felt invincible. They mutually trusted each other, without a material base for that trust. The people didn't realize that the guerrillas didn't have enough arms, and the guerrillas didn't realize that the people would be massacred. A kind of messianic movement was the result. There were zones in which this movement wasn't political but religious, charismatic. It was the expression of a deep conviction common to the guerrillas and the people: a new world was coming.
envío: So, the guerrillas have some responsibility for the 1982 massacres?
RF: So do the people, because they fooled themselves. The guerrillas didn't act that way just for the sake of it, nor were they the ones who killed. It was the army. All of us, in some form, are responsible for what happened, but to different degrees. Responsible is the lion that eats, but responsible as well is the person who let the lion loose. The lion that ate and killed is the army. It also could be said that the guerrillas put the army in a sociologically or psychologically untenable situation and that, given the army's character, it wasn't going to choose any other solution. But the party responsible for the massacres is the army.
envío: Why didn't the people in the CPRs cross the border into Mexico to take refuge there, instead of living in Guatemala in a war zone for 10 years?
RF: They say, 'Here we know the streams, the trees and the trails, and if they come to attack us, we know where to run.' There is also an emotional tie: the love of the land, and not just their own little plots. Obviously if there hadn't been guerrillas there, they wouldn't have stayed. I don't mean to say that the guerrillas defend them, that's not their job. But the guerrillas control the army, though they weren't able to do so in 1982. Since 1982 the guerrillas have grown considerably, though to throw out figures seems somewhat obsolete. But that's the truth.
envío: They say that the guerrillas have been disappearing from that area and other zones...
RF: Though the URNG is far stronger today than in 1982, this isn't comparable to the strength the FMLN had in El Salvador. Another change is that the people in the CPRs now fight the army for their land. The army thus has two enemies. This doesn't mean that the population in the CPRs are guerrillas. They live in the same area as the guerrillas, some as a military population and others as civilians. The army says they're the same thing to justify their attacks. They say, 'If we attack the civilian population, we weaken the guerrillas.' And there is some truth to this, though they have no right to attack them.
envío: Could the violence in Ixcán return to 1982 levels?
RF: I don't think so. Because of the guerrillas' strength and the experience of the people in the CPRs. The people have a self defense system they didn't have in 1982. It's like someone who lives through an earthquake for the first time. Afterwards, they learn and build their homes with a different structure. When the second earthquake comes, a few houses are knocked down but not all. The psychology of disaster helps a lot in understanding this. Though it might like to, the army can't repeat massacres of that kind. It's possible that the army doesn't want to repeat them either. But if soldiers surprise a CPR community in Ixcán, the people have to assume that the army is going to kill them. To save your life, you have to imagine the worst. I think that if they captured some group now, they wouldn't massacre them, because of international pressure and because of the very experience of the past.
envío: What hopes do you have for the peace process?
RF: Most people don't understand where it's leading. I sent a tape to the CPRs in which I explained by use of a comparison. When I had to leave the CPRs, I said, two witnesses went with me. We traveled very muddy trails with mires where you sink in, up to the waist. I went into one of those mires and couldn't get out. That's what the peace process is like: it's in a mire. Both parties are sub merged the government and the guerrillas. The process wants to get out, wants to walk, but the more it tries, the more it sinks. When it tries to get one leg out, the other sinks deeper. It's stubborn. How did I get out? Because two people were with me. If they hadn't gotten me out, I would have spent the night there. Between the two of them they got me out, I couldn't get out alone. And that's how it is with the peace process. On the one hand, civil society has to move it along someone who is neither the government nor the guerrillas. But a civil society controlled by the army doesn't work. Nor does a civil society that's only a facade for the guerrillas.
This doesn't mean that civil society doesn't lean to one side. It has to lean toward where there is greater justice, toward where the poor are more represented, and that happens on the side of the guerrillas. But civil society must act independently.
The others who can get us out of the mud are international forces. The two can move the peace process forward. The guerrillas lose nothing with the process' stagnation; they can endure another five or ten years in the mountains, and even continue growing. But although they grow in absolute terms, in relative terms they lose stature, because it doesn't make sense to wear the army down just for the sake of it. But neither will they turn in their arms so that the army can do whatever it likes.
envío: In February, you went to Geneva to testify before the United Nations Human Rights Commission; the Commission decided in favor of the Guatemalan government and did not name a relator to observe the situation. What happened there with international pressure?
RF: The countries that played a decisive role in the Geneva decision to support the Guatemalan government were Mexico and Spain. The US was not key. Maybe Washington's interests were behind Mexico, but Mexico was there, leading the rest of Latin America. The Mexican government argued that it supported the democratic process and thus had to support Serrano, who guarantees that process. The arguments were political and not humanitarian as they should have been. At the same time that the Human Rights Commission was in session in Geneva, the Guatemalan army was launching an operative against the CPRs along the whole border with Mexico. We said this in Geneva and later in the Interamerican Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States. It's precisely during a peace process when respect for human rights should be more closely monitored, because the parties become more aggressive. And the ones who suffer most are the civilians.
envío: What dreams do you have left now? The three books you couldn't publish?
RF: I'm already writing a book about the experience of the CPRs. Then I dream of returning to Guatemala. And soon. I would also like to transmit the message of what I've lived through to more and more people, through radio and television. And if anyone were interested, there's enough material to make a movie. A deeper dream? Let's see... One doesn't tell the dreams one holds dearest.
"They burned everyone"
"The soldiers collect firewood, because there's firewood
cut and stacked there. They throw the people into the hole.
The people go into the hole and on top of them they toss in more and more firewood. They splash gasoline on top. The wood is soaked. They move away and throw the match. When it falls it's like a bomb. Boom!...a huge fire. The whole mouth of the hole
fills up with flames. It burns for about 20 minutes.
The firewood is still moving because the dead are still kicking. The spirit is alive. But when they see that the fire is dying down, more gasoline! And in half an hour the fire dies.
And the bodies are pure ash. The hands crumble. In the body, what a lot of fat! The fire catches the fat, and, soon,
the poor ones are finished.... They took me there to see and so that I'd give more information, but thank God I never said more." The witness was at this site in 1982. The crematorium was located in a camp half a kilometer from the Río Chixoy, in Playa Grande, Ixcán, department of Quiché, Guatemala, Central
(Masacres de la Selva, Introduction)
"I lived in a hole"The witness was held in a very narrow cell, dug out of a hillside in Playa Grande. He lived there, incommunicado, for five months. They took him out only once every two weeks, to plunge him into the river. "They locked me into a hole. Many times they told me it was a cell, but what I saw is a hole.... They held me there, and I was there for five months without food. They gave me breakfast half a tortilla. Sometimes they gave me a whole one. The good soldiers gave me a whole one. And when the purely evil soldiers came, they barely gave me half. And other soldiers pitied me. What kept me alive was water, and since I had a gallon jug, that jug helped me in that hole. I asked them... I knocked on the door and when he came I said, 'Excuse me soldier,' I said, 'Could I have water?' 'You want
water? Are you thirsty?' he said. 'Yes.' 'Then drink your urine,' he said, 'and if you're hungry, eat your shit.' And then I was silent again. They didn't give me water. And when the door of that hole was cracked open like that I sucked in air. I saw a tiny bit of light. You could barely see anything, just cracked open an inch and a half like that. That cracking open of the door gave me life."
The witness was taken out of the hole by the army in the hope that he would help them patrol the jungle, pointing out guerrilla encampments. On one of those walks, he was able to escape yelling exclamations of joy and insults at the soldiers, who, in vain, showered him with gunfire and grenades.
(Masacres de la Selva)