Guatemala: The Unfinished Peace

Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala's Peace Process

Susanne Jonas
Westview, 299 pp., $25.00 (paper)

Los Difíciles Senderos de la Paz en Guatemala

Gudrun Molkentin
Guatemala City: Flacso, 206 pp. (paper)

Memoria Verdad y Esperanza: Version Popular del Informe Guatemala: Nunca Más

a report by the Archbishopric of Guatemala
304 pp. (paper)

El Guerrillero y el General: Rodrigo Asturias y Julio Balconi Sobre la Guerra y la Paz en Guatemala

Dirk Kruijt and Rudie Van Meurs
Guatemala City: Flacso, 234 pp. (paper)

El Drama de la Pobreza en Guatemala: Sus Rasgos y Efectos Sobre la Sociedad

a report by the government of the Republic of Guatemala
43 pp. (paper)


A Mayan woman named Petronila doesn’t know how old she is, but she knows how long it has been since her life was shattered in the Guatemalan war: nineteen years. The story she told me when I was in the highland province of Quiché is typical of what happened to many thousands of others. In 1982, before her eyes, her sister was raped by soldiers and then carried off, never to be seen again. That same year an army patrol showed up and ate the dinner she had cooked for her father and brother, both of whom the patrol had just killed not far from her house.

Guatemala is now at peace, and it is almost unimaginably changed from what it was when those acts were committed. After more than three decades of war and a few years of recovery from the worst effects of the cataclysm, the country seems ready to begin its climb back toward normality. Before it can do so, however, it must decide whether to punish those responsible for the countless outrages like those that destroyed Petronila’s family. Guatemala is a country whose rulers have for half a century suppressed historical memory as if it were a poison. Now, for the first time, there are serious demands to examine the past.

“I want it to be remembered that this happened,” Petronila, who like many indigenous Guatemalans cannot speak Spanish, told me through an interpreter. “I don’t hate anyone. Maybe they were forced to do it. But when I see soldiers, I’m still afraid. I know what people like that did to my family. We have to do everything to make sure this never happens again.”

A great many Guatemalans share that determination, but how can they best realize it? This question is slowly but inevitably seeping into Guatemala’s political life. Many countries that have emerged from repressive dictatorship have had to decide how to confront the horrors of their past and how to deal with people who committed terrible crimes. Yet there is still something astonishing about the fact that it is happening in Guatemala, where soldiers slaughtered their fellow citizens with unparalleled savagery over a period of more than thirty years, where the number of dead—more than 200,000—exceeds the toll in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Argentina combined, and where ethnic cleansing was practiced on a scale beyond even that of Bosnia. For more than a generation Guatemala lived under a ghastly form of state terrorism; now, almost unbelievably, it is something like an ordinary country, impoverished and devastated to be sure but no longer in the grip of homicidal fiends.

Guerrillas have turned in their weapons, and some now serve as mayors and members of Congress. Teams of forensic pathologists are digging up mass graves. In front of the National Palace, where not long ago presidents and cabinet ministers met to draw up lists of people to be assassinated, there is an eternal flame to commemorate “the anonymous heroes of peace.” Near…

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