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Extermination in Guatemala

The following is from Creating a Desolation and Calling it Peace, the May 1983 supplement to the Americas Watch report on Guatemala.

On November 23, 1982, the Americas Watch published the report Human Rights in Guatemala: No Neutrals Allowed.1 The report was largely the result of a mission of inquiry to Guatemala and southern Mexico conducted by four representatives of the Americas Watch from October 17 to October 24, 1982. We concluded in that report that the government of President Efrain Ríos Montt had abandoned the rule of law and had imposed a rule that was both despotic and totalitarian. In particular, we reported that the Ríos Montt government recognizes no neutrals in its brutal counterinsurgency campaign against rural guerrillas. Instead, the government offers traditionally apolitical Indian peasants “fusiles y frijoles“—guns and beans—meaning that those who are with the government are fed; those who are not with it, as evidenced by failure to form civil patrols or to provide information on the whereabouts of guerrillas, may not be allowed to live.

Subsequent to the publication of our November 1982 report, newspaper accounts appeared claiming that the Ríos Montt government had succeeded in “pacifying” the Guatemalan countryside and in halting the killing. The US Department of State cited those newspaper accounts in support of its claim that human-rights abuses in Guatemala had been curtailed and that a resumption of US military assistance was therefore warranted. To investigate the accuracy of those claims, two members of the Executive Committee of the Americas Watch went to Mexico from March 4 to March 10, 1983, to determine whether refugees from Guatemala were continuing to cross the border and, if so, to find out why they had fled their homes.

The two members of the Americas Watch Executive Committee who conducted our March 1983 investigation in southern Mexico are Robert Kogod Goldman, professor of international law and director of the International Studies Program at the Washington College of Law of the American University in Washington, DC; and Stephen L. Kass, a partner in the New York City law firm of Berle, Butzel, Kass, and Case, a past chairman of the Committee on Inter-American Affairs of the Bar of the City of New York, and a former member of the Bar Association’s executive committee.

Aryeh Neier
Vice-Chairman, Americas Watch

Note: Variations in spellings of place names are possible. Many of these names are of Indian origin. In some instances we have provided phonetic spellings derived from our notes and tapes of interviews with refugees.

Summary and Findings

It is the view of the Americas Watch, based on direct testimony and other relevant information that we have gathered, that the human-rights situation in Guatemala has not improved, but, if anything, has deteriorated since November 1982. We arrive at this conclusion for the following reasons:

  1. The Guatemalan government’s counterinsurgency program, begun in early 1982, has been continued and expanded by the Ríos Montt government and remains in effect at this time.

  2. A principal feature of this campaign is the systematic murder of Indian noncombatants (men, women, and children) of any village, farm, or cooperative that the army regards as possibly supportive of the guerrilla insurgents or that otherwise resists army directives.

  3. Although civilian men of all ages have been shot in large numbers by the Guatemalan army, women and children are particular victims. Women are routinely raped before being killed; children are smashed against walls, choked, burned alive, or murdered by machete or bayonet.

  4. There is growing evidence that civilian males, including teen-agers, are being conscripted under threat of death into “civil patrols,” which are controlled by local army commanders. A principal function of the civil patrols is to kill other civilians suspected of being “subversive” or otherwise objectionable to local army commanders.

  5. Incidental to its murder of civilians, the army frequently destroys churches, schools, livestock, crops, food supplies, and seeds belonging to suspect villages, cooperatives, or private farms. An apparent purpose, and clear effect, is to deprive entire villages and farm communities of the food necessary for survival.

  6. Unable to live in their villages or on their farms, or to survive in the mountains to which they flee, an increasing number of Guatemalan Indians (estimated at between 70,000 and 100,000) have sought refuge in southern Mexico. The Guatemalan army has created a free-fire zone along its border with Mexico and routinely pursues and tries to kill many refugees to prevent them from reaching Mexico.

  7. Through the period of our visit to southern Mexico in March 1983, Guatemalan ground and air forces repeatedly crossed into Mexican territory to intimidate refugees and to carry out surveillance of refugee camps. During our delegation’s visit, one armed Guatemalan force crossed several kilometers over the border near the Chajul refugee camp and another force opened fire at refugees at the Puerto Rico refugee camp.

  8. The Guatemalan armed forces make extensive and conspicuous use of helicopters, mortars, and incendiary bombs in attacking rural villages, in destroying and burning crops, and in harassing refugees seeking to escape, and routinely use helicopters for surveillance of refugee camps in Mexico.

  9. The Guatemalan government continues to execute prisoners (eleven men since January 1, 1983) tried in secret by special courts whose procedures and composition prima facie violate its international treaty obligations.

  10. It is widely known within the refugee community, and among displaced Indians in Guatemala, that the principal supplier of such helicopters—and the principal supporter of the Ríos Montt government—is the United States.

The twin goals of Ríos Montt’s counterinsurgency strategy have been to eradicate the guerrillas quickly and to reassert the government’s control over—i.e., “pacify,”2—the Indian population. The principal tactics of this strategy are bombing, shelling, selective killings, and massacres in suspected “subversive” villages, combined with a scorched-earth policy3 of crop burning, confiscation of harvests, and slaughter of livestock, calculated not only to deny the guerrillas food but also to force peasants to near starvation. Unless they reach the relative safety of Mexico, civilian survivors of these army operations face a choice between surrendering and seeking the protection of the army or of living in hiding, on the edge of starvation. The army provides food to those who surrender in “strategic hamlets,”4 and in areas that the army “pacifies” through these tactics, all males over seventeen (in some cases, over fifteen) are required to join “civil defense” patrols. Those who refuse to join are regarded as “subversives” and may be killed. Although Americas Watch found that reports of violent abuses of human rights generally decline in “pacified” areas, we also found that when the army moves its counterinsurgency campaign to a new area, or resumes it in a previously targeted area, reports of massacres, disappearances, torture, and crop burnings increase dramatically.

Internal and External Refugees as of November 1982

We also concluded in the November report that the principal casualties of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign have been the lives, cultures, and traditions of Guatemala’s rural-based Indians, who comprise approximately 60 percent of the country’s population. Indeed, one of the twenty-three linguistic groups, the Ixil in the department of Quiché, has been all but eradicated as a cultural entity. Moreover, the Guatemalan Conference of Bishops estimated in April 1982 that one million people, mostly Indian campesinos—one in every seven Guatemalans—had been displaced by the ongoing conflict. That number has unquestionably increased since Ríos Montt intensified the counterinsurgency campaign last July. In addition, as a result of the ongoing conflict, and most of all as a result of the army’s counterinsurgency tactics, tens of thousands of Indian peasants have fled to Mexico.

Our November report indicated that the UN High Commission for Refugees estimated in June 1982 that 9,000 Guatemalan refugees were living in the state of Chiapas in southwestern Mexico. Between July and September 1982, when the Guatemalan army extended its operations throughout the country’s rural areas, that estimate rose to over 13,000. By mid-October 1982, Pierre Jambor, the UN High Commission for Refugees representative in Mexico, considered 25,000 a reasonable estimate of the number of refugees in Chiapas.

Findings of the Americas Watch March 1983 Mission to Chiapas, Mexico

Since the publication of the November report, which covered the human-rights situation in Guatemala from March to November, 1982, Americas Watch, and other human-rights groups such as Amnesty International, the Washington Office on Latin America, OXFAM-America, and Survival International, have continued to receive a steady stream of reports of new and widespread massacres of Indian peasants by the Guatemalan army.

At the same time that we were receiving these reports, the US State Department was asserting publicly that there was a notable overall improvement in the Guatemalan armed forces’ conduct toward rural civilians. Accordingly, we traveled to Chiapas principally to interview recently arrived refugees who, in the judgment of Americas Watch, are the most credible source of evidence to whom unbiased observers have access for resolving the clear discrepancy between the reports of continuing rural massacres and the State Department’s assertions that these have been curtailed.

During our visits to Tapachula, Motozintla, Paso Hondo, Comitán, and to two refugee camps in the jungle near the Guatemalan border, Chajul and Puerto Rico, we recorded direct testimony from many refugees who had fled Guatemala between late November 1982 up to March 6, 1983. These refugees were all Indian peasant farmers from rural villages, settlements, or cooperatives located in various municipalities of the departments of Quiché, Huehuetenango, Alta Verapaz, and Baja Verapaz. Although these interviews were conducted at different places with persons who had lived in different departments of Guatemala and thus could not have known each other, there was a common theme: they had fled to Mexico because the Guatemalan army had tried to kill them with bullets and by starvation. Further, many stated that they believed that the Ríos Montt government was trying “to exterminate” them (the Indians).

Though similar in content to the testimony heard by the Americas Watch delegation in October 1982 at Ejido Córdoba and Unión Juárez in Chiapas,5 the testimony taken in March indicates that the army’s operations intensified in late 1982 and that its attacks against the Indian population, their property, and their food supply had become virtually indiscriminate, particularly in the previously hard-hit areas of Huehuetenango and Quiché. Time and again, we listened to detailed eyewitness accounts of the use of planes and helicopters to bomb villages, settlements, and cooperatives, followed by ground assaults by soldiers who opened fire on men, women, and children. Other refugees told us that when the soldiers entered their village, rather than shoot randomly, they separated the men from the women and children; the men were taken into the local Catholic church and shot; the women and children were placed in separate buildings where they were burned alive or shot after first being raped by soldiers. Most of the testimony reveals that the army does not waste its bullets on women and children. We were repeatedly told of children being picked up by the feet and having their heads smashed against the walls, choked to death by hand or with ropes, or killed with machetes or bayonets.6

Another characteristic of the army’s operations that emerged from these horrifying accounts is that, incidental to its slaughter of civilian noncombatants, the army systematically destroys livestock, crops, food supplies, and seeds.

Many refugees told us that they had survived these army massacres by fleeing to the hills or nearby parcelas (land plots) and that they returned to their villages only after the army’s departure. Fearful of remaining in their villages, they would return to their parcelas or the mountains where they tried to raise crops from seeds that had not been destroyed by the army. Others, not so fortunate, fled to the mountains with no possessions other than the clothes on their backs. There, from periods ranging from several weeks to ten or eleven months, they remained in hiding, living off wild fruits, plant roots, and herbs. Despite the fact that the army had destroyed their villages, soldiers periodically would return to the area, destroy newly planted or harvested crops, and kill on sight any person or domestic animals they encountered.

In addition, we heard testimony about the use of helicopters, and occasionally planes, either alone or in conjunction with these mop-up operations. According to the testimony, incendiary bombs were used to destroy the makeshift settlements of displaced persons. Most of the refugees indicated that it was at this point—facing starvation and fearful of renewed army attacks—that they decided to flee to Mexico. Many, particularly the aged and young, never make it to the border. Direct testimony that we heard confirms previously published reports that the Guatemalan army has created a free-fire zone along the border with Chiapas, Mexico, in which it routinely pursues and tries to kill any person attempting to cross the border.

The Activities of Civil Patrols

We were particularly concerned to obtain from the refugees whom we interviewed fresh information about the activities of civil patrols. Americas Watch had noted in the November 1982 report that the Guatemalan army tended to view the willingness of a particular village to form a civil patrol as a test of “political sympathies.” Villages that form such patrols are considered by the army “white” villages, under its “protection”; those not doing so are considered “red” villages and are targets for military attack. The November report also found that the army employs these civil patrols not only as a front line of attack in its operations against the guerrillas, but also to control the civilian population.7

Based on the direct testimony and other information that we gathered before and during our mission, we believe that civilian men are now being conscripted, under threat of death, into these civil patrols and that a principal function of these patrols is to kill civilians who are considered “subversive,” or are otherwise objectionable to local army commanders. For example, a male member of a family from San Ildefonso Ixtlahuacán, department of Huehuetenango, who had arrived in Motozintla, Chiapas, on March 6, 1983, the day before we interviewed him, gave us the following information about the civil patrol in his village.

In early 1983, soldiers entered San Ildefonso, gathered its male inhabitants, and told them that they had to form and join a civil patrol because the guerrillas were in the area. The soldiers told them that their refusal to do so would prove they were guerrillas and that they would be executed. Consequently, the male villagers formed and joined the patrol.

This refugee also told us that males in all neighboring villages were similarly coerced into forming such patrols. He said that the army commander would order patrol members to kill civilians in the village, and occasionally, soldiers would kill members of the patrol. In January 1983, he said, soldiers publicly executed four persons in San Ildefonso. One, Marcos Felipe Salus Gómez, age thirty, was the leader of the village’s civil patrol.

Further, this refugee stated that the army had executed about 150 civilians in San Ildefonso since August 1982, sixty of whom were murdered in January and February, 1983.

A former member of the Guatemalan army, whom we interviewed in Tapachula, Chiapas, told us a similar story. He stated that local army commanders considered those males who hesitated or refused to join civil patrols as “enemies” and would have them killed. He also indicated that the local army commander would prepare and give to the civil patrols lists of persons to be killed. Patrol members were told that unless they killed these persons they would be killed. They were instructed to say that their victims had been murdered by the guerrillas.8

The Parraxtut Incident

Of all the horrors that we heard about on our mission, perhaps none equaled an incident that allegedly occurred in the village of Parraxtut, in the municipality of Sacapulas, Quiché. We stress that this is an allegation because our information on this incident is second-hand. We obtained this information from a Catholic priest and a church-woman who both work with the coordinating committee of the refugee services of the Catholic Church. We previously found this organization to be reliable on refugee matters. Our sources said they obtained their information from a senior member of the Chiul civil patrol whom they had known for some years and who said he had taken part in the massacre.

According to the account we heard, the Guatemalan army entered the village of Chiul, in the municipality of Cunen, Quiché, on Wednesday, December 22, 1982, and ordered all male members of the civil patrol to appear in the town as quickly as possible. Because of the village’s size, it required two hours for the nearly 350 men (ranging in age from fifteen to sixty-five) to assemble. The army captain allegedly ordered the men to march to the nearby village of Parraxtut, where, he told them, they must be prepared to demonstrate their masculinity to him.

While the 350 civil patrol members were marching the hour and a half to Parraxtut, a similar number of soldiers drove by truck to that village and rounded up all available men, women, and children (with the patrol members helping in the final stages of the roundup from outlying homes). Once collected, the Parraxtut residents were (as appears often in accounts of events in other Guatemalan villages) divided into separate groups of men, women, and children. According to the accounts we heard, the captain then ordered the members of the Chiul civil patrol to prove their masculinity by killing all the men from Parraxtut (a community with close cultural ties to Chiul), using guns given them by the soldiers who surrounded the patrol members.

After the men had been murdered the women were allegedly separated into two subgroups: the young and the old. The civil patrol was then directed, under threat of death, to kill the older women, while the younger women were divided among the soldiers to be raped that night. The following morning, the Chiul civil patrol, we were told, was directed to murder the surviving younger women, except for two who were particularly attractive. One was carted off on the captain’s instructions; the other was shot by the captain after she begged him to end her life.

We were told that many of the children managed to escape during the night, which they spent in hiding in the nearby mountains. Some had been wounded in the escape, and others suffered from exposure. Many died.

The Chiul patrol returned to its village (where the men were greeted with astonishment that they were still alive). The following day, many patrol members joined in a search for surviving children from Parraxtut and at least some were rescued to return to Chiul for protection from the mountains. In the meantime, the army apparently disposed of the bodies of their parents.

We emphasize again that we have only a secondhand account of this alleged massacre. The underlying account, as we have said, comes from a member of the Chiul civil patrol who had been known and trusted by our sources for some years. The events described conform to army practices described to us by eyewitnesses from other villages. The alleged use of a civil patrol from one village to carry out a massacre in another village differs in scale rather than in kind from practices elsewhere in Guatemala.

The Americas Watch calls upon the government of Guatemala to investigate the allegations concerning Parraxtut and at the same time calls for an independent investigation by a body such as the Organization of American States. If the allegations should prove to be well founded, we call on the government of Guatemala to take all necessary steps to prosecute the army officers responsible.

Conclusion

We believe the conclusion is inescapable that the government of Guatemala is engaged in the most profound violations of fundamental human rights—above all the right to life—and that these violations are occurring on a scale and with a degree of brutality that amount, for all practical purposes, to a policy of extermination of a significant portion of Guatemala’s Indian population. For the United States to be associated with this policy is a repudiation of every principle of law and human decency.

Since US law prohibits military assistance to governments that engage in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, Americas Watch calls for the immediate suspension of all existing military sales, and the withholding of requested military assistance, to the Guatemalan government. Continued US military and diplomatic support for the Ríos Montt government will lead, and in fact is already leading, the Guatemalan people to view the United States as an accomplice to the widespread and unspeakable human-rights violations that are being committed by the Ríos Montt government.

We call upon the Ríos Montt government to cease its practice of murdering its Indian citizens and plead with the United States to sever its ties with a government engaged in a level of barbarism that shames human society.

  1. 1

    Available from the Americas Watch, 36 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036, $5.00.

  2. 2

    Writing about this word in 1946, George Orwell said: “Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called ‘pacification.”’ In “Politics and the English Language,” The Collected Essays, volume 4 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971).

  3. 3

    Following his meeting with President Reagan in Honduras on December 5, 1982, President Ríos Montt told reporters: “We have no scorched-earth policy. We have a policy of scorched Communists” (“Guatemalan Vows to Aid Democracy,” The New York Times, December 6, 1982).

  4. 4

    How the army obtains this food is of some interest. Many refugees told us that when the army did not destroy their crops, it harvested them and carted them off in trucks. No compensation was paid for these crops.

  5. 5

    These refugees had fled the villages of Ballaj and Montecristo, both of which are located in the municipality of Tajumulco in the department of San Marcos, Guatemala. See the Americas Watch November 1982 report, p. 15. From November 20, 1982, until February 22, 1983, villages and settlement throughout the municipality of Tajumulco have been periodically bombed and attacked by the Guatemalan army.

  6. 6

    Subsequently we have learned that civil patrol members are severely punished if they are unable to account for all the weapons and bullets provided to them by the army, apparently for fear that these might be turned over to guerrillas. This may have something to do with the preference for methods of slaughter that do not use bullets.

  7. 7

    On December 4, 1982, at the time of his meeting with President Reagan, President Ríos Montt declared that “300,000 Indians have now been organized into civilian self-defense units” (Press Release no. 01, Embassy of Guatemala, Washington, DC, December 3, 1982).

  8. 8

    Additional information on the use of duress in the formation of the civil patrols, and of the devastating consequences of their formation is to be found in “The Forced Migration of Mayan Peoples: A Report on the Situation of Kanjobal Refugees in Southern Florida,” by the Indigenous Peoples Network Documentation Group. This group is associated with Akwesasne Notes, the official publication of the Mohawk Nation, and the report is reproduced in the spring 1983 issue of that publication.

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