Massacre at Chisec: History Repeats Itself
Behind the massacre in Chisec lies the delicate state of the peace negotiations. Land, taxes, the future of the army – all were under discussion when a blood history was repeated in Chisec.
On October 5 the history of bloodletting was repeated for 255 refugee families who had returned to Guatemala from Mexico. They lived on a cooperative on the Xama'n farm in a community called Aurora October 8 in Alta Verapaz. An army patrol entered the cooperative lands at noon and, after brief words with the residents, opened fire, immediately killing ten people 2 women, 2 children and 6 men and injuring at least 13 others, one of whom died the following day. This is the biggest massacre in the country since that of 13 indigenous in Santiago Atitlán, Sololá, five years ago.
Who Gave the Order?Although versions of the massacre vary, everyone agrees on the most important elements: 26 soldiers entered land belonging to the cooperative and after an exchange of words, opened fire.
Defense Minister Mario René Enríquez resigned his post three days later "because it is convenient for the armed institution and for the country." President De León Carpio named in his place General Marco Antonio González Taracena, until now head of the National Defense High Command and the army's representative to the peace negotiations with the URNG over the last year.
In a press conference announcing the change, De León Carpio accepted "the responsibility corresponding to me as President and Commander of the Army," although he emphasized that the attack was not the product of a presidential order or of a decision by the army High Command.
The 26 members of the patrol that carried out the massacre have been sent to military courts. The commander of the military base in Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Colonel Samí Noé Vásquez, was removed "for being the jurisdictional commander of the military patrol that headed up the tragedy."
The Army's VersionOn the day of the massacre, which was just prior to a scheduled visit by United Nations human rights expert Monica Pinto, Defense Minister Enríquez warned that some groups could try to "take advantage of her visit" to carry out violent actions. That same day a headline in La Hora read: "Enríquez: Violence when Monica Pinto Arrives." By the time the afternoon newspaper hit the streets, General Enríquez's "clairvoyance" was already a bloody reality 300 kilometers north of the capital.
The initial army version came from Enríquez, who spoke on television hours after the massacre. According to him, the soldiers were patrolling outside the cooperative with orders from the High Command not to enter the refugee community, but the refugees called them and invited them to talk about preparations for celebrating the first anniversary of their community. Once inside the farm, the soldiers were surrounded by hundreds of hostile peasants who tried to disarm them. When three women managed to take Galil rifles away from three soldiers, the others began to shoot in self defense.
Contradictions abound in this version. The defense minister spoke of 3 wounded and 7 disappeared among the soldiers who made up the patrol. Seven days later it was proven that only 2 were injured, while the other 24 were consigned to the military tribunals. The army never explained how the "disappeared" returned to their unit or spoke again of the third injured soldier.
The army tried to strengthen its version with the local press: an officer showed a bloody shirt from a soldier, supposedly resulting from a bullet wound. But forensic doctors said there were no signs of burned material near the hole and indicated that the injury of one soldier was in the knee and of the other in the gluteus, areas of the body not covered by a shirt.
"They Shot Like Crazy People"The version given by community residents and some foreign doctors present during the attack differs notably from the army version and is considered more believable by international observers, human rights groups and the press.
The Permanent Commission of Representatives of Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico (CCPP), the organization that represents the returned refugee communities, prepared this summary of the events based on survivors' testimonies:
"The patrol penetrated the center of the community, where it found a group of sisters and brothers working on preparations for the first anniversary of the return to our country. In this group were children, women and men. The population asked the soldiers to wait there until the MINUGUA (United Nations Mission for Guatemala) authorities arrived.
"When the chief officer heard the community's request, he walked backwards a few steps and made a radio communication. Immediately afterward, the officer ordered the patrol to open fire on our returned brothers and sisters. According to testimonies, the soldiers shot like crazy people against the whole population for some minutes. Then they launched grenades. This can be corroborated by the shrapnel injuries.
"The soldiers left the center of the community running and continued shooting. As they retreated, they found eight year old Santiago Coc Pop some 100 meters from the original site, and shot him various times.
"The boy had been fishing and when he saw the soldiers leaving he tried to get out of the way, but the soldier killed him," recounted a cooperative member.
"Put Down the Guns"A third version was given by an international human rights observer, after interviewing various witnesses in Chisec. According to that one, the patrol, headed by Lieutenant Laca'n Chacla'n, requested permission of the community to participate in the celebration. Between 100 and 400 people met and responded with a categorical message: they did not want the presence of armed military either on that date or at on any future one. They reminded the soldiers that they were on private property and were violating the October 1992 accords between the government and the refugees.
The community residents insisted that the soldiers keep their weapons at rest while awaiting the arrival of MINUGUA officials, to whom they had gone to denounce the presence of the soldiers in the community as a violation of previous accords. When the patrol attempted to leave the circle formed by the population, they resisted and, according to one hospitalized returnee, some residents managed to take away one of the guns. According to testimonies gathered by international observers, the residents heard the lieutenant say to his troops, "if they move, shoot them."
"They Killed a Child"A Spanish doctor who works in the community saw the soldiers begin shooting "vertically" to try to open a path among the people. Although the army insists that the soldiers were injured by community members, the confusion and panic produced during the patrol's retreat could explain how the two soldiers were injured by their own colleagues. Various witnesses saw one soldier retreat from the center and kill the unarmed boy.
Aurora October 8The Aurora October 8 community lies between the Chisec and Cantabal municipalities in Alta Verapaz. Exactly one year ago, 445 returning refugees from Quintana Roo, Mexico, and 558 from a refugee community north of Quiché called January 20 Victory arrived at the Xama'n farm, said to have belonged to former President General Kjell Laugerud. The majority of the refugees are from the Kekchí, Mam, Kajobal and Ixil peoples.
The refugees negotiated their arrival with the 40 families living on the farm and shared the land, which produces gum and cardamom, with them. According to the government's Special Commission for Attention to Repatriated (CEAR), the people who live on the farm today own the land and had every right to reject the soldiers' presence. "Soldiers or police cannot interrupt the privacy of the home unless they have a judicial order," noted a CEAR official.
Until the day of the massacre, Aurora October 8, with its 1,300 people, was considered one of the calmest refugee communities. There were no conflicts with neighboring communities, nor were there armed groups. Although there had been a report about shots against a nearby military outpost the week before the events, there were no guerrillas in the area. Residents said soldiers had only passed by the farm once in the last year, remaining far away, and there were no incidents.
Returning to the LandThe members of the Aurora October 8 cooperative had fled the political violence that scourged Guatemala in the 1980s. According to the army itself, the "scorched earth" counterinsurgency strategy of those years led to the destruction of 440 communities. That epoch left over a million displaced and 200,000 refugees. The great majority of them returned in a different political moment to their original homes, but 45,000 remained in refugee camps in Mexico. Thousands more lived dispersed throughout southern Mexico.
In the last two years, the rhythm of return has increased significantly due to worsening living conditions in Mexico and the refugees' desperation to return to their land after 15 years of absence. During the last 10 years, 28,000 refugees have returned to Guatemala, 8,000 so far in 1995.
The Aurora October 8 massacre has raised doubts about the scheduled return of 6,000 more refugees in January 1996. It is estimated that 22 25,000 Guatemalan refugees are still in Mexico. Although the members of the community where the massacre took place insist that they do not want to return to Mexico, officials working in refugee programs say that other groups are talking about the need to leave Guatemala once again.
Interests Affected By URNG Government TalksWhat happened in Chisec goes beyond the issue of who shot and why. While Rigoberta Menchú insists on the maximum sentence (30 years imprisonment) for the 26 soldiers involved and the High Command insists it gave no orders to shoot, much is still to be done in the search for the causes of this crime.
For some, the massacre was one more case of excessive use of force by soldiers under a low ranking officer, trained to "defend their guns with their lives." These people believe that the problem could be resolved by punishing the material authors and compensating the victims' families.
Others believe the massacre may have been provoked by the hardline sector of the army, seriously frustrated with current developments in the peace process. In considering this hypothesis, it must be recalled that the Accord on Socioeconomic Issues and the Land Situation currently being worked on differs fundamentally from previous accords the government and the URNG have signed since January 1994. Three of those accords are directly linked to the conflict uprooted peoples, human rights and a historic clarification commission. The fourth has to do with indigenous identity and rights, an issue that does not directly touch the interests of power groups. But when the government starts discussing tax reforms, taxes on idle lands, the role of the state and the concept of land's "social value" with URNG leaders, civilian and military power groups get quite upset.
In September the agroexport sector began to pressure the government to break off the peace negotiations. Arguing that the URNG has charged more than $48 million in "war taxes" to farmers in recent years, the large landowners announced that they will initiate legal actions against the guerrilla leaders. These businessmen consider it absurd to discuss models of society with insurgents who "want to win at the negotiating table what they lost on the battlefield."
Their arguments are echoed by many army officers, especially now that the next issue on the negotiating agenda will be the army's role in a democratic society.
Army: Pieces of PeaceThe possibility that the army's destiny could be negotiated with the guerrillas has generated two types of reactions within that institution. One is that, in the last two months, the army has announced that it will participate in various "civic action" fronts a campaign to fight dengue and an infrastructure project to improve the highway between the capital and Antigua and a "defense of sovereignty" by reinforcing its presence at the Belize border.
Soldiers have also gone to the streets in poor neighborhoods of the capital to fight crime and have offered assistance to communities affected by serious flooding this year. In September, during an electric company workers' strike, the army occupied the company installations to protect them from sabotage. It has also announced its concern about deforestation and contraband of lumber in the Petén department. All these actions and announcements are pieces "of peace" the military is putting on the negotiating table where its future will be debated.
But there also is another type of reaction. In the last month there has been an increase in complaints of provocation by army troops in different areas of the country.
Santiago AtitlánOn September 28, army officers entered Santiago Atitlán, in the Sololá department. The next day 50 uniformed soldiers arrived. After the 1990 massacre there, which had both national and international impact, the military detachment had been pulled out of Santiago Atitlán by presidential order and the municipality was demilitarized. Today, neighbors organized in "security rounds" patrol the community without soldier presence.
"Our town has enjoyed peace since 1990, when the military detachment withdrew," recalled community members in a letter to President De León Carpio. "During the 11 years the soldiers were here, more than 3,000 brothers were kidnapped, disappeared, assassinated and massacred. For us, the recent arrival of the soldiers was a provocation, to test our organizing capacity."
After five years of peace, the soldiers' arrival was justified as part of preparations for a presidential visit to the municipality, but the visit never took place. Three days after the soldiers came, the defense minister was quoted as saying that the army is considering reinstalling the detachment at Santiago, on the petition of "local authorities."
"Mr. President," says the community, "Santiago Atitlán does not need the army because we have created our own security bases. Our experience has been that, rather than guarantee our security, the soldiers have brought violence and great pain. We think the supposed visit is nothing but a strategy to reinstall the military in Santiago Atitlán."
Questions Without AnswersThe Chisec massacre took place a week after the Santiago incident. Why did the army enter Santiago after five years and why did they insist on participating in the Chisec community activities? A common denominator of the affected communities is that the residents of both communities had rejected the military. And how to link this policy with the army's new civic action, infrastructure and environmental protection projects? What can be hoped for from the peace negotiations? Too many important questions have elusive answers.
Official army sources assumed to be from the modernizing or "institutional" line consider the Chisec massacre to have been the result of an incorrect policy that comes from hardline army sectors. According to these sources, the commander of the military base in Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Colonel Samí Noé Vásquez, "belongs to a group of radical officers." The officers in that zone would not be in agreement with the peace process and would support the criticisms of the agroexport sector.
The moderate officers hope that the crisis provoked by the Chisec massacre will end up being an opportunity to clean out the army's most "radical" officers. Vásquez' removal could be a first step.
A Worried ArmyThe President's decision to accept his defense minister's resignation appears to obey his crude efforts to justify the behavior of the patrol involved in the massacre and the government's need today to demonstrate its willingness to make changes after the national and international commotion caused by the Chisec tragedy.
Although Enríquez is known as a member of the "institutionalist" sector, he has often sought to hide the differences within the army. He defended Colonel Julio Fernández Ligorria also from Cobán and considered a hardline officer when he was accused of heading a car theft ring. It is rumored that "institutionalist" officers from the Presidential High Command are behind the accusations against Fernández Ligorria. Two months ago the colonel was sent to study on scholarship in Washington. It is worth noting that Enríquez' successor, General González Teracena, is also considered to be from the institutionalist line.
The concern of the army's moderate sector is that the Military Prosecutor's Office, headed up by a hardline officer, will try to protect the massacre's intellectual authors. Although the order to enter the cooperative may not have come from a high ranking officer, soldiers clearly do not decide for themselves in Chisec or Santiago Atitlán or any other part of Guatemala.
The Future is UncertainOn October 8, Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú announced that the residents of the cooperative where the massacre occurred have named her as the formal accuser before the justice courts that will hear the case.
This spilled blood has moved the country so much that on the evening of October 9 rumors abounded of a possible military coup and radios reported tank movements in the capital and on the Atlantic highway. Few believe in a mid level officers' uprising, but no one rejects the risk of a violent reaction by hardline officers displaced by the new situation and allied with the conservative agro-exporters and businessmen, all of whom are frustrated with a peace process that is negotiating their future without their participation.