Can Guatemala Change?

Marco Vinicio Cerezo
Marco Vinicio Cerezo; drawing by David Levine


Last December a schoolteacher who was to leave for asylum in Canada the next day was found by a roadside south of Guatemala City, with both her hands cut off and a sign on her chest bearing the inscription, “more to follow.” What distinguished the murder of Beatriz Barrios Marroquín from countless other atrocities against Guatemalan civilians was its timing. She was killed three days after Marco Vinicio Cerezo was elected President: the paramilitary death squadron believed responsible for the crime was sending a message to the new civilian government.

In the Guatemalan highlands, death squadrons work closely with the counter-insurgency army units, or kaibiles, which are accountable for most of the mass killings of Indians in “areas of conflict” that have been infiltrated by guerrillas. One of the chief questions facing Cerezo after he was elected was whether he would be able to bring the kaibiles under a unified command and curb their assaults on Indian communities. So far he has not done so. The kaibiles’ rank are largely composed of Indian conscripts whose ties with their communities have been systematically broken down by harsh training and indoctrination in army camps. They are then equipped with Galil automatic rifles and sent back to the countryside to prey on their former neighbors.

A typical kaibil operation was the July 1982 massacre at the estate and hamlet of San Francisco, in a remote highland district close to the Mexican border. Three hundred and fifty residents—men, women, and children—were slaughtered by Indian soldiers. The survivors said that the soldiers laughed at the sounds the older men made as their throats were cut with rusty machetes. The army’s justification for the killings was a local commander’s report that the settlement gave supplies to the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, which was active in the vicinity. But the killings also served the larger purpose of depopulating the countryside so that it could be brought under stricter military control. At least nine thousand residents fled their homes from nearby villages and towns and crossed into Mexico, adding to the tens of thousands of Guatemalans crowded into refugee camps along the border. (About half of them were later relocated inside Mexico.) The few campesinos who eventually made their way to the United States were denied asylum by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which claimed they were economic rather than political refugees. (Less than 2 percent of Guatemalan and Salvadoran applicants are granted asylum in the United States.)

The San Francisco massacre was not an isolated event, despite the high number of victims. Other mass murders include the army’s shooting of more than one hundred unarmed Kekchí Indians in the plaza of Panzós in 1978 after local farmers protested the seizure of their communal lands. In January 1980, five peasant leaders from Quiché and twenty-two supporters were burned alive during a peaceful demonstration inside the Spanish…

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