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Slaughter in Guatemala

Crucifixion by Power: Essays on Guatemalan National Social Structure, 1944-1966

by Richard Newbold Adams
University of Texas, 533 pp., $10.00

One of the most gruesome slaughters of this century in Latin America has been taking place in Guatemala during the past four years, and it has increased radically in recent months. This nation of ancient Mayan highland culture and rain-soaked hills and savannas is suffering a reign of terror that has claimed several hundred lives in the past few months alone, and thousands since it began in 1967, with US support, as a counterinsurgency operation to destroy a rapidly expanding guerrilla movement. Only rarely have the victims been members of the guerrilla bands, which are based primarily in the capital and in the dry, hungry hillbilly country of the Guatemalan Oriente. More often the victims have been peasants, students, university professors, journalists, union leaders, and congressional deputies, who have been killed for vaguely leftist political associations or because of personal grudges.

The case of Guatemala is only the most lurid example of the kind of paramilitary violence that emerged in Latin America during the late 1960s as a recurrent method of managing intractable social and political problems. It is also prevalent in Brazil and Santo Domingo, for example. In Guatemala only a part of the killing of dissidents has been done by the government’s official forces. In 1967 more than twenty right-wing paramilitary terrorist groups went into action with weapons supplied to the Guatemalan army under the US military aid program. The groups used names like the White Hand, the Purple Rose, the New Anti-Communist Organization, etc. They first circulated leaflets carrying the names and sometimes the photographs of their announced victims, whose corpses—and those of many others—were later found grotesquely mutilated: dead men with their eyes gouged out, their testicles in their mouths, without hands or tongues, and female cadavers with their breasts cut off.

In early 1967 a Guatemalan army source gave me an estimate of some 2,000 persons killed by vigilante groups in the Oriente, while other estimates for the 1967-68 period have run between 3,000 and 6,000. In May, 1967, Guatemala’s Catholic bishops declared: “We cannot remain indifferent while entire towns are decimated, while each day leaves new widows and orphans who are victims of mysterious struggles and vendettas, while men are seized in their houses by unknown kidnappers and detained in unknown places or are vilely murdered, their bodies appearing later horribly disfigured and profaned.” But the killing continues.

Since last July the President of Guatemala has been Col. Carlos Arana Osorio, the slow thinking, slow speaking former commander of the Zacapa army base in the guerrilla zone and executor of the counterinsurgency operations during the terror of 1967. “If you want to have a real understanding of the international communist conspiracy,” Arana told me at that time, “you should read two books: The View from the Fourth Floor by Earl Smith (former US Ambassador to Cuba) and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”1 In a subsequent interview the US military attaché in Guatemala City called Arana “the best officer they’ve got in this man’s army. Indeed, he would be a credit to any army.”

Arana has been advised by US army officers returned from Vietnam who spent much of 1966 and 1967 in the Guatemalan Oriente ostensibly organizing “civic action” projects of social assistance to campesinos. During the terror Arana undertook a highly successful campaign of making secret contact with guerrilla collaborators, offering them amnesty in exchange for information and active participation in the vigilante groups. Soon former guerrillas donned black hoods and boarded trains and busses with army patrols to point out other members of the guerrilla organization. The most famous guerrilla collaborator who switched sides was a young Zacapa landowner, Oliverio Casteñeda, who, with support from Arana, became the leader of the White Hand and of a private army of between 200 and 400 men who used Casteñeda’s farm as their headquarters.

Arana remained in command of the counterinsurgency operations in the Oriente until two spectacular crimes were committed by the vigilante groups. In January, 1968, the naked and severely mutilated corpse of Miss Guatemala of 1963, a student named Rogelia Cruz Martinez who was a known guerrilla sympathizer, was found on a bridge near the town of Esquintla. She had been raped by several men. Two months later the White Hand shocked the country by kidnapping the Archbishop of Guatemala. These crimes led to the ouster, under pressure from the US Embassy, of the defense minister and the national police chief. Arana was appointed ambassador to Nicaragua, where Dictator Anastasio Somoza, Jr., had been protecting and supporting the operations of Guatemalan right-wing organizations.

The terror in Guatemala, while barbaric in some of its manifestations, is the product of a sophisticated political strategy. At the height of the 1967 terror I spoke with Mario Sandoval Alarcón, one of the organizers of the CIA sponsored invasion of Guatemala in 1954, later private secretary to President Carlos Castillo Armas until Castillo’s assassination in 1957, and since then secretary-general of the extreme right-wing Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (MLN). In 1966 and 1967 Sandoval had raised large sums from wealthy planters and merchants to combat the guerrillas.

We of the Liberación were the vanguard group that got this started,” he told me in an almost inaudible whisper; he has a throat tumor that has increasingly impaired his speech in recent years. “The army was demoralized by the guerrillas last year until we organized the White Hand. When our actions began in the guerrilla zone the army found itself with peasants willing to serve as guides, militiamen, and comisionados militares [military constables]. In the systematic elimination of the guerrillas a series of injustices apparently have been committed. Several hundred persons have been killed, but between January and March [1967] the guerrillas have almost been completely eliminated from the Guatemalan Oriente. The terrorism of the guerrillas, which has resulted in the death of many of our [MLN] people, has forced the government to adopt a plan of complete illegality, but this has brought results.”2 Today Sandoval is president of the Guatemalan Congress, where his party has a two-thirds majority.

Arana returned to Guatemala as the MLN presidential candidate in the March, 1970, elections. What was striking about those elections, apart from the killing and terror in rural areas which accompanied them, was that districts which had voted heavily for leftist candidates four years before this time voted even more heavily for the extreme right. The comisionados militares—the army’s civilian agents in each town and village who provided intelligence and recruited for the right-wing vigilante organizations—threatened to burn down villages that did not vote overwhelmingly for MLN candidates.

A month after Arana’s election, in which he gained 42 percent of the popular vote, the guerrillas kidnapped the West German ambassador, Count Karl von Spreti, in a desperate move to exchange him for some forty guerrilla prisoners before Arana was to take office; they feared, with good reason, that when Arana took power, these prisoners would be killed. Before the German ambassador was assassinated by the guerrillas, Arana pressured the outgoing president, Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro (1966-70), who had become a puppet of the military, not to give in to the guerrillas’ demands because it would set a bad precedent for Arana’s own government. Besides, several of the imprisoned guerrillas had already been killed.

The guerrillas; worst fears were fully justified. Today Oliverio Casteñeda, Arana’s chief lieutenant in the Oriente, is an MLN congressional deputy. Casteñeda still commands his followers in the White Hand and in other vigilante groups, who have been put on the government payroll as bodyguards and policemen. They have continued to act as death squads under a state of siege decree, which was declared November 13, 1970. In the following two months these squads, a high government source privately admitted, committed 700 “executions.”

Richard Adams’s valuable book, Crucifixion by Power, a history of Guatemala in the two decades following the 1944 revolution which overthrew the thirteen-year dictatorship of Jorge Ubico, gives us a coherent setting for understanding the violence and degradation of the past few years. The trappings of this study—the legion of graduate students with their questionnaires, the pageant of institutional sponsors,3 the inevitable power-flow charts in the opening theoretical chapter—tend to disguise what is in fact a personal and authoritative analysis by an anthropologist who has spent two decades studying Guatemalan society, and who attempts to expand the scope of anthropological study from that of the small community to that of a complex and strife-ridden nation of four million people.

Most of the book is about the politics of revolution and counterrevolution and the unsuccessful struggle of insurgent social classes for more power and wealth. It is better in many ways than any other general work on contemporary Guatemala I know of in English or Spanish. But it would have been an even better book if it had given more attention to highland Indian culture, which provides the ethnic base of Guatemalan society. In his earlier work Adams strikingly contrasted the patriarchal Indian family with the matriarchal ladinos, the Spanish-speaking people of the cities and lowlands. 4 It is unfortunate that he did not go on to show how the family instability and fragmentation in ladino areas such as the Oriente, along with nomadic, slash-and-burn agricultural methods, seem to rob people of the social allegiances and self-restraint that might have curtailed or prevented the hideous slaughter of recent years.

Of the revolutionary governments of the 1944-54 period Adams writes:

President Juan Jose Arevalo (1944-50) began a broad series of social reforms that included a social security program, a government office to foment production, the encouragement of syndicalism, the strengthening of the position of the military, the expansion of rural education, agricultural extension and public health, and the attempt to promote cooperatives. Of cardinal importance was the reintroduction of open elections, but with the difference that there were serious contenders. The university was granted autonomy, an industrial development law was passed, as well as a law…that prohibited share-cropping and profiteering on the rental of agricultural lands to peasants….

Under President Jacobo Arbenz (1950-54) further measures were taken, but unquestionably the most important was the agrarian reform decree and the dismissal of supreme court judges who contested its constitutionality. Others of relevance were the efforts to build a highway to the Atlantic and the utilization of the communists as political support.

These last two measures had a direct impact on the operations of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala. The work on the Atlantic highway was begun in order to break the stranglehold of the narrow-gauge railroad owned by United Fruit—the only transportation route between Guatemala City and the country’s main port. The communists in the agrarian reform organization encouraged strikes and invasions of the United Fruit plantations, which provoked a sharp reaction from Washington and weakened the Arbenz regime’s military support. “Realizing this,” Adams writes, “elements in the Arbenz government hoped to arm the [peasant] agrarian committees in order to neutralize the military, just as the work of the agrarian committees had been weakening the local landholders and upper class. Had this been successful, the agrarian committees would have taken over the major position of power in the revolution.”

  1. 1

    Some readers may not remember that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anti-Semitic tract from Czarist Russia in the form of a fake document prescribing alleged Jewish blood rituals such as the sacrifice of Christian children in order to use their blood to make matzohs and a plot to take over the world hatched by Jewish financiers.

  2. 2

    See my “Guatemala: Death in the Hills,” The Economist, June 10, 1967, and “Guatemala Guerrillas Slaughtered: Church Objects to Bloodbath,” in The National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 1967, and the exchange of letters, June 28, 1967. This anti-guerrilla strategy was more formally elaborated in a fourteen-page mimeographed MLN tract, “La Guerrilla y Anti-guerrilla en Guatemala,” which was given to me by one of Sandoval’s aides.

  3. 3

    The Ford Foundation, AID, the Institute of Latin American Studies of the University of Texas, the Guatemalan Government’s Economic Planning Council, and the Seminario de Integración Social Guatemalteca. Separate essays on campesino organizations and the urban poor were written by two of Adams’s younger colleagues, Brian Murphy and Brian Roberts respectively.

  4. 4

    See his Encuesta sobre los Ladinos de Guatemala (Guatemala, 1956) and his “An Inquiry into the Nature of the Family,” in Essays in the Science of Culture in Honor of Leslie A. White, edited by Gertrude E. Dole and Robert L. Carneiro (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1960).

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