A book bathed in tears
Below is the presentation of Ixcán: Masacres y sobrevivencia,
a book by Guatemalan Jesuit anthropologist Ricardo Falla,
delivered on June 27 by José Luis Rocha in Quetzaltenango.
It’s the fourth of a nine-volume series, Al atardecer de la vida…,
a collection of Falla’s dispersed unpublished writings.
He wrote what are now volumes 3, 4 and 5 in the mid-1980s
while accompanying Communities of Population in Resistance,
the survivors of massacres perpetrated by the Guatemalan Army.
José Luis Rocha
I first learned about Ixcan: Masacres y sobrevivencia (Ixcan: Massacres and survival) by Ricardo Falla in 1989. It was hidden in the catacombs of the Jesuit community in Nicaragua, where the Sandinista regime, by then on the edge of collapsie, had freed it from persecution. It remained there 10 or 15 years, as it wasn’t in danger of being seized or subject to police scrutiny or burned. It was part of five bulging folders of typed pages that its author, or some good friend, had disguised amongst other papers in a rickety old metal filing cabinet. It was unpublished research, written by a living legend who that year was still accompanying the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPR).
A clandestine book
Its author, less visible than his work, was nonetheless exposed to greater danger. Using a word that risks falling into disuse: both author and book were “clandestine.”
Those circumstances enshrouded the text in a halo of secrecy that gave its reading morbidity and vertigo. I was only allowed to borrow it for a few days so could only read just enough to want more and to know I was on to an indispensable piece of work for us Central Americans to discover who we are and where we come from. Perhaps this text will never recover that condition of a hidden amphora, of forbidden fruit, that marked its birth and decades of its life..
Appealing to this furtive origin, I invite its potential readers, especially young people who want to know their history and long for a Guatemala that’s better than the one described in its pages and the one that could emerge, to devour it with a sense of subversion. None of its pages will leave anyone indifferent.
Other notable books that analyze this same historical period present the massacres of which the Mayan people were victims as a mere fatality figure, perhaps a couple of phrases, a paragraph, a chapter at most. Here are 700 pages of it. Racism is felt in each of them as an enveloping and omnipresent force, though not always explicit. It is the efficient cause of the massacres. The Army was merely the material cause. The testimonies are extensive and often long-winded. Some are heartrending. “This book is bathed in tears,” warns the author in its final pages.
A book from 30 years ago that is still to be constructed
Ricardo Falla doesn’t hide the horror he had to hear and his informants endure. To the contrary, he repeats it in a spiraling path that resumes, adds and expands. The reiterations serve to validate the findings, comparing and opting for a more plausible version. They also take on a rhetorical effect so the core message—of which Falla is the bearer—can penetrate with a drilling effect.
However, that effect could be diluted if those who read it distance themselves from the facts and the spirit that drive the author. In a world where what’s new has substituted what’s good as the peak of its value system, a 30 year-old book could risk quickly turning into a museum piece, valuable like a Mayan codex, but as innocuous as a stela with incomprehensible hieroglyphs.
This book’s political status is in some way already given, but is also still to be constructed. Its topicality seems firmly established because the massacres it analyzes are so recent: thousands of survivors and close relatives of the victims are still alive and carry that horror and pain, and they are demanding justice and changes. However, there’s also a Guatemala that wants to turn the page and start towards an illusory “clean slate.” or even believes it already has Then there’s the Guatemala that always lived with a deaf ear towards the repression, immersed in “armored daydreams,” the title of a documentary in which Mikael Wahlforss captures that phenomenon of blind indifference. This fragmented audience sets the book’s coordinates.
I’ve ordered the meaning of the book within these coordinates according to the temporal categories of Augustine of Hippo, who in his Confessions extended the present as the gravitational center of time, divided into the present of the past, the present of the present and the present of the future. Or as present memory of things past, present intuition of things present and present expectation of things future.
“Should bring them justice”
The present of the past is the interpretation of the past Falla puts forth in the present. The division of the potential audience and of the interpreters places Falla’s book in the “struggles for history,” as Lucien Febvre would say.
Wars are first waged in the mountains with bullets and later in classrooms and congresses with books. First with blood and later with ink. The French Revolution and the Spanish Civil War have been extended by historians. The newness of the French Revolution was underlined by Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-Lai in 1953 when a journalist asked him what he thought about that happening and his expressionless response was, “Too early to say.” And Eric J. Hobsbawm detects in successive reviews and extremist statements about the French Revolution a symptom that shows we’re not dealing with mere academic emotions. The figure of Robespierre continues to be the muse of extreme polarizations. Historian François Furet complains that “the historian of the French Revolution, on the other hand, must produce more than proof of competence. He must show his colors. He must state from the outset where he comes from, what he thinks and what he is looking for; what he writes about the French Revolution is assigned a meaning and label before he starts working: the writing is taken as his opinion, a form of judgment that is not required when dealing with the Merovingians but indispensable when it comes to treating 1789 or 1793.”
The vitality of the Spanish Civil War was obvious when historian Paul Preston warned about the bibliographical labyrinth created by the fact that “on paper at least, the war was still being fought.”
The historiographic revivification of wars is a task charged with meaning. It is about restoring a place in history and giving meaning to crushed lives and saving them from oblivion. Falla confesses this to justify the meticulous zeal with which he records names and surnames, relationships and ages. He does it out of respect for the victims and their descendants, because “each name is a person and a constellation of people.” He had already explained this in another book of his, Historia de un gran amor (History of a great love), where he says “I seemed like a judge before them [his witnesses], who would bring them justice by relaying their words.... I left with a responsibility upon my shoulders: to tell others what I heard.”
Overwhelming evidence of genocide
But history is not only an opportunity for redeeming individuals and groups. It also offers a synthesis of what has happened, a version of the facts in which a national or ethnic community may or may not recognize itself. In the case of this book, the vitality and polarization in which it moves is brilliant because it addresses the issue of the massacres and the judicial-political use this past—in concrete, its classification as genocide—could have in punishing the executors and in Guatemala’s present destiny.
Ricardo Falla was the first to request, in 1983, before the Permanent People’s Tribunal in Madrid, that Efrain Ríos Montt’s regime be condemned for genocide “in the strict sense of the word.” Even though this book doesn’t propose—as a fundamental purpose—to take a stand in this regard, it in fact surpasses this objective, as Sergio Palencia magnificently points out in the prologue.
All of its overwhelming evidence points in that direction. And that’s why it’s placed within a prickly debate among those who deny the genocide. David Stoll, vehemently refuted by Victoria Sanford, is probably the most renowned, but by no means the only one. The spectrum, at least among academics, ranges from those who limit themselves to denying that the massacres could be classified as genocide to those who liken them to the murders committed by the guerrillas and place them within the give-and-take of the Army and guerrillas, explaining them as one more element of the ubiquity within the bellicose situation, in an environment where nobody has the luxury of distinguishing between the saints and sinners, but where the guerrillas’ provoking actions were the original trigger.
An impossible neutrality
Carlos Sabino, Argentinian historian, leftist converted to capitalism, member of the Center for Global Prosperity led by Alvaro Vargas Llosa and author of Guatemala, la historia silenciada (Guatemala, the Silenced History), claims in that book that “impotence, ignorance and desire for revenge were the fuels that fed the massacres. Not the desire to disappear any ethnic group.” He questions Falla’s neutrality: “Father Falla only narrates the violent actions of the Army and explicitly leaves out those committed by the guerrillas, in a curious way of seeking ‘neutrality.’”
Neutrality wasn’t possible or desirable in the conditions in which this book was written and its material collected. “You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” said historian Howard Zinn. Falla could not be neutral in the funeral march of the massacres.
Nevertheless, lack of neutrality is not synonymous with lack of objectivity. Falla declares his partiality to explicitly state the departure point of his analysis: “The Army’s counterinsurgency war was a war against the people and the interests of the majority and therefore unjust. That’s where the roots of these violations are found. If this departure point is not accepted, then we fall in the casuistry that always excuses military actions as necessary for the purpose of the alleged pacification they intend.”
With respect to the departure point, Ricardo Falla details the effects of this wish to exterminate entire populations, the destruction of their livelihoods and above all, of their seed: “Why were the soldiers killing innocent children? This was a component included in the offensive operations... It couldn’t be accidental. It was done in Nueva Concepción de Cuarto Pueblo, in Cuarto Pueblo itself just to mention one of the most documented cases.... However, we do not have information from Ixcán to prove the Army’s genocidal intentions for killing children. From other places we do know that the Army, before the massacre, threatened to destroy the people, ‘even their seed’ if they didn’t stop supporting the guerrillas. The seed were the children, even if they were breast-feeding infants.”
Testimonies collected in the scenes of terror
Genocide is not the only issue in dispute. There are also others, albeit not as hot: The formation and role of the Civil Self-Defense Patrols; whether or not the scorched earth policy continued during the regime of Rios Montt, who tried to make himself out as a benefactor; the indiscriminate nature of the massacres and whether the strategic villages were imposed or not. There’s also debate about the validity and dimensions of the Communities of Population in Resistance, which according to Yvon Le Bot had no other role or meaning than to keep up “the appearance of a social base for the insurrection.” Ricardo Falla’s book offers firm facts and analysis about all these issues that continue being debated with something more than academic emotions.
How was this data collected? At the foot of the gallows. In the scenes of terror. Blow by blow and death by death. Sometimes all it took was a spark to get to the core findings: “From just one case I understood how Guatemalan genocide worked. It consisted of killing a population all the way to its seed. It’s to say even the children, who couldn’t possibly be political enemies in a community.” But the spark itself is found only after patient seeking. Objectivity, Falla’s urge as a social scientist sought to distill it with the various resources of qualitative research: the common thread (the basic question), interviews with many informants, the construction of a day-to-day, even hour-to-hour chronology, maps and sketches of the scene so the account has spatial consistency, knowledge through osmosis (by insertion being able to put oneself in others’ shoes), what today is called ero-epic dialogue (free conversation for hours and over several encounters), confronting some testimonies with others.
This book starts from the trees (individual tragedies, the pain of some people described with all its crudeness), without losing sight of the forest (the patterns of the massacres) to decipher the systematicity and tendencies of their purpose and consequences, which don’t necessarily coincide with intention or motives. Even though Falla favors an emic approach (i.e. from the protagonists’ perspective), he doesn’t ignore the etic approach (checking against other documentary sources).
“I lack the perspective of the winner”
These resources allow the author to go deeper into the intermittencies of death, the discontinuity of the massacres, including the vacillation of the intermediate commands, all of which indicate that we are facing policies, not spontaneous actions of soldiers who acted on their own initiative in an outburst of lowly instincts, even though many did act in horrifying excesses—rapes, specific ways of killing—that were not in their orders, but served their purpose within that theater of terror.
Falla also tries to penetrate the objectives, motives and methods of the soldiers, but there are two big limitations. First, as he points out, “We cannot resolve it with solid data, as long as we don’t know the troops’ plans and the changes once in the field.” And second, as he admits in another book: “I lack the perspective of the other face, that which considers itself the winner: the Army.”
That limitation is in the book’s past and affects its aspirations for objectivity in aspects that could be repaired through future research. Taking into account the links between the Police and Army, the ant-like work currently being done may shed some light on the subject as one or several puzzles are put into order or put together with the 88 million documents, the 7,900 linear meters of paper in the National Police Historical Archives accidentally discovered in 2005.
A book fom the past that speaks to the present
Manuel Vela Castañeda has already done an enormous amount of work explaining the emergence and operational form of the repressive corps that committed the genocide, even though the specific aspects of his well-documented work concentrated most on the massacre in the village of Las Dos Erres.
Moving up a step in objectivity requires access to official documents and to the concatenation of the chain of command of the Ixcán massacres . Falla alludes several times to the kind of speculative nature of some of his assumptions. His provisional solution is to distinguish among motive, intention and consequences.
Finally, another element of “objectivity” is the rhetoric upon which the possibility to convince is founded. Falla noted that documenting, analyzing and writing are interwoven and that “the composition already has a more explicit element of communicability.” He chose a writing style that was straightforward, devoid of rhetorical distillations, perhaps being faithful to his pseudonym “Marcos” (Mark), whose Gspel was the most succinct of the four. Or like Saint Theresa, who would say “I am not so humble as to want to be considered so proud” and therefore, writes very direct prose. My perception after reading this book is that Falla’s simple prose, free of the academic jargon and ideological refrains of the time, endows this book of the past with a freshness that speaks to the present.
What wars leave behind
The intuition of the present is this book’s contribution to understanding the present. Carlos Figueroa Ibarra reaches this gloomy conclusion in El recurso del miedo (The Resource of Fear) when he writes that the political culture of terror is a lush reality in today’s Guatemala: certainly inherited from the past, but also a necessity of the present.
The “clean slate” Guatemala denies this assertion, but there are many indications that a lot of the sequels and prequels of the era of terror are present. For example, the two people-killers described by the witness Falla introduces as “Juan” are butchers, beheaders: “Who knows how the butchers do it./ They would only turn them upside down and ‘tas,’ the dagger!/ and they pull it out with blood and then lick it!/(the witness imitates the gesture)./’Tasty chicken,’ they say./ And they grab the next one and then the next.” They would throw the dismembered bodies into a hole, spray them with gasoline and set them on fire, reducing them to ashes.
They are the predecessors of the famous Pozolero. The long shadow of the Kaibiles (the Guatemalan military’s special ops force) extends in to today’s Mexican drug world. The sequels are many because wars have long-lasting waves against which the peace accords can’t put up a dike.
The prequels to the massacres, the roots—racism—and the wounds are alive and have branched into unexpected manifestations. When the highest leader and founder of a mega-church in Guatemala, Harold Caballeros from El Shaddai, barges up to the podium dressed in military fatigues shouting, “We will be Kaibiles for Christ!,” it declares a sublime political-military option at the spiritual level and acts out a trivialization of the kaibiles’ actions that can only nurture itself from its disregard for those who were their victims. No religious leader would think of rallying his followers saying, “Let’s be the Gestapo, the KGB or the Ku Klux Klan for Christ” because the dreadful role those institutions played in Germany, the USSR and the United States are too widely known and condemned.
If these cutting remarks and certain phrases like “These Indians, ever since they believed themselves people...,” still haven’t set foot on the realm of what is socially condemnable, it’s essentially because the racism that motivated the massacres lives on. And that is why the indigenous people were subject to massive more than selective terror, a symptom of a society split between rural and urban, indigenous and ladino.
The original sin was to be Maya
I don’t believe Figueroa Ibarra’s thesis that the massive terror is typical of the rising revolutionary moments is always so. Ricardo Falla shows that there was no relationship between insurrectionary actions and state terrorism. In any case, this correlation isn’t so much demonstrated as a conclusion that comes from this book: massive terror was applied where it could be applied, where it couldn’t be seen, where those of no importance are, and where it was possible to invent what are now known as “false positives,” in this case civilian populations that once dead are counted as guerrilla casualties.
Falla’s book reveals that it’s not only the context of repression that is important, but also the conditions of impunity, of what is tolerable, striking without distinguishing economic or educational levels, age or party affiliation. No need to differentiate: they were all indigenous. That’s why many of those who died in some villages were harmless, charismatics, those affiliated to parties on the right, caught off guard as they were convinced the Army wouldn’t harm them because “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” as some of the victims say from beyond the grave through the witnesses who remember them. Each line of this book, however, uncovers the disturbing reality that they indeed did have a pending debt: the original sin of being Maya.
The Guatemala that presumes a “clean slate” revitalizes the racism and distancing that made it possible to live in a social apartheid with one’s back towards the massacres and the social segregation of those excluded by the works of urban cartography, now divided into savage, overcrowded zones with Maras (violent gangs) and civilized zones with enclosed self-sufficient condominiums. There’s a “dirty slate” here to which this book blurts out troubling truths.
A tribute to the resistance
The book not only contains the horror of the massacres. Also present is the determination that generated the “resistance,” a very polemic term that metamorphoses throughout the stories and the analysis. To resist is merely to survive when the objective is to eliminate an entire population. However, resistance is also concealment, dissembling to the soldiers, exaggerating the guerrillas’ numbers and amount of military supplies, doing night guard duty. Resistance also includes more aggressive actions such as putting up fence posts so Army planes can’t land or laying traps. This book pays tribute to all those forms of resistance. Perhaps to encourage other resistances in the present.
It’s possible that the Rios Montt regime was, in effect, a watershed in the counterinsurgent strategies, setting the first steps towards other mechanisms of domination, as even leftist analysts have argued. But this shift only changed the altar where the human sacrifices are consummated: the Mayan communities would no longer be immolated in honor of bourgeois control, but instead for the sake of stability and democracy, which in the end are the means for a type of bourgeois control apparently more in agreement with consensus-building. Resistance to this new altar could be the message this book communicates to the present.
“Across generations and borders”
The present of the future is the future of the book viewed from the present: the present expectation of its future. Falla doesn’t hide his desire to talk about the future: “We hope its waves travel across generations in Guatemala and across borders.”
We can’t know how long-lived this book will be. We have no idea whether it will survive the witnesses who speak in it and that way extend their words, or will disappear to surface decades or centuries later like the Annals of the Kaqchikeles. For now we only know that it is preaching like Jesus Christ at thirty years of age, after three decades of a hidden life. We can place it thousands of years later, like the books of the Histories of Herodotus, which are nine, like the nine volumes grouped under the title of Al atardecer de la vida (In the Twilight of Life... ), which is the collection of Ricardo Falla’s unpublished and dispersed writings of which this volume is a part.
My comparison with Herodotus is not so much that his nine history books narrate numerous genocides. Nor that those nine volumes are made up of passages that seem like they were taken out of Falla’s book: “But it seems that all the plans of the Eretrians were unsound....but their counsels were divided. Some of them planned to leave the city and make for the heights of Euboea; others plotted treason in hope of winning advantages from the Persians.” On the other hand, like Herodotus, who for millennia was the most anthropological of historians, Falla sprinkles his narration with existential reflections or with some generalized precept about the human condition: “It seems as though a law of war is that the vicinity of great successes entails the risks of great reversals.”
Blood sows what others will harvest
My comparison to Herodotus is not an exercise in erudition. Its objective is to unravel the model of history inscribed in this book. The German historian Reinhart Koselleck characterizes Herodotus’ historic model in contrast with that of Thucydides, for whom history is above all the history of power and how it is imposed, without dealing with rights or justice. Conversely, history for Herodotus puts into practice a justice that is inherent and the historian must proceed as a judge who interrogates the best witnesses and compares their testimonies and who is thus also interested in the version of the opposing party to achieve better knowledge of the facts.
Herodotus believed—as Falla shows—in the legitimacy of having a judgment about his object and of enabling the reader to issue that judgment. Faithful transmission of facts is not dissociated from making a judgment, starting with classifying the war the Army waged against the people as unjust, a judgment that is the cornerstone of Koselleck’s study.
Falla practices Herodotus’ double meaning of justice. The first meaning concerns the procedures by which the facts are collected (compare, verify, opt for the most plausible). The second refers to the justice that must prevail. Falla inscribes one of his conclusive sentences in the second meaning: “The blood sows a plant that other generations will harvest.”
Was the people’s war just?
He also contributes to this second meaning a reflection about the purpose of history: “Even though not enough years have gone by to have a long-term perspective, it is hard at this time to affirm that the people’s war was just, given the price in blood it implied and the poor results achieved from so much sacrifice. But this does not deny the utopia that was spread and the enormous collective imagination that came into play to be able to survive and resist the repression.”
This musing could be troubling and even disturbing because it assumes that justice comes from the results of a process and not from its intrinsic value. If the statement is taken in a political sense, it could lead to thinking that the only struggle to take on is the one in which success is predicted beforehand, a type of nonsense Marx commented on sarcastically in a letter defending the Paris Commune to his friend Dr. Ludwig Kugelmann: “World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favorable chances. It would, on the other hand, be a very mystical nature, if ‘accidents’ played no part.”
Hannah Arendt also observed that human plurality introduces an element of contingency and indeterminacy: the actions of some influence those of others with the consequence that while the actors can know their own intentions, the meaning of their actions escapes them. As do their consequences. Based on this, Arendt very emphatically pointed out that the purpose of theoretical reflection is not to inspire action. Her solution was to differentiate between politics and history: politics is contingent and plagued with uncertainty. Not so history, which is the long-term vision.
Revolutionaries at the wrong time
As Falla presents his reflection saying that “not enough years have gone by to have a long-term perspective,” I take his statement to be situated in a historical dimension, but only a short-term history. Whether the war was just or not is a verdict reserved for the long-term perspective we don’t yet have.
Analyzing history from a present not too far from that past, Falla seems to coincide with Mario Payeras who in 1987, a year after Falla finished this book, censured the armed struggle to which he himself had contributed by concluding that “violence is only justified when all the people resort to it as an extreme way out.”
Falla’s assessment also comes close to that of Edelberto Torres-Rivas: “Faced with the facts, our will unknowingly set us against history’s grain. We were revolutionaries at the wrong time. Reformist objectives with armed actors and radical spirit, swimming against the current’s predictable flow, the direction in which world history was moving.” Perhaps we could have done differently, keeping an eye on the flow to play with dice loaded in our favor. We don’t know and the three authors can’t tell us why the flow changes course with each action and why we enter into the realm of causalities along the reflexive path.
The three judgments are made by kneading the materials that history has bequeathed us with the limited vision of the present. The three seem to agree with Arendt that revolutions, far from putting an end to disgrace, only accelerate frightfully the rhythm of its spread.
A book bathed in tears
Nonetheless, as those causalities are part of history—without them, it would be totally mystical—Ricardo Falla is open to a long-term perspective that will fit the causalities into an explanatory and deliberate account. He has placed the first stone of this explanation by dealing with the reverse of the massacres—the actions of survival—because justice in Falla’s book doesn’t spring from an inevitable destiny nor is it guaranteed by an oracle, as in Herodotus. It sprouts from the will to resist and is guaranteed by the harvest collected by other generations. The judgment about the version of history that will prevail is reserved for them.
This book will be a fundamental piece in forming this judgment or those formed in successive presents of the future because “it is bathed in tears”: those of the witnesses who lived that past, those of the author who had the courage to narrate them in the present and those of the ones who will read it in the future.
Jose Luis Rocha is a member of the envío editorial board. The book Ixcan: Masacres y sobrevivencia is Volume 4 of the series En el atardecer de la vida…, published by Avancso, the San Carlos University press, Guatemala, 2016.