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Massacre in Guatemala: An Exchange

M.S. S., reply by Aryeh Neier

(name withheld at writer’s request)

To the Editors:

I have been visiting Guatemala annually for the past fourteen years, have spent much of the past four years in this country, and have been keeping a close eye on the political situation here for the past twelve months. I was therefore very interested to read your reprint of the Americas Watch report, “Extermination in Guatemala” (NYR, June 2, 1983).

I don’t wish to comment on the ten points in the Americas Watch “Summary and Findings,” other than to say that I find them remarkably naive and biased, and would disagree on the interpretation of events in almost every case. What really concerns me is the republication in a newspaper of The New York Review’s stature of Americas Watch’s report of “The Parraxtut Incident” (pages 15-16).

I note that Americas Watch very carefully states: “We stress that this is an allegation because our information on this incident is secondhand,” completely ignoring the fact that all their information is at least secondhand (interviews with refugees, not eye-witness reports by Americas Watch personnel), and that in this case the report was thirdhand. It does not seem to me, in any case, that this disclaimer can absolve them (or The New York Review) of the responsibility of publishing a completely untrue massacre story which they, and you, could very easily have checked out on the spot (i.e., in Parraxtut).

Americas Watch could have visited Parraxtut, or have asked someone in Guatemala to do so. One could drive from the Mexican border at Ciudad Cuauhtemoc—very close to where members of the Americas Watch Executive Committee were collecting their information in March of 1983—to the village center, and back to Mexico, in one day.

I arrived in Parraxtut, accompanied by two others, at 11 AM on Sunday, June 20, 1983, and spent two hours talking to the villagers. Much of our conversation was taped. We asked both discreetly, at first, and very directly later, about the supposed events of December 22, 1982, about their relationship with the people of Chiul, about the current situation, etc. Their answers were simple and direct: no incident of any kind occurred on 22nd December, they had normal friendly relations with Chiul, and the village had been “tranquilo” for the past twelve months.

The “Parraxtut Incident” never took place. The village lies less than twenty kilometers from the town of Sacapulas, and yet no one, it appears, bothered to check the accuracy of the report. The worst massacre story I have read has been published on at least five separate occasions in the US and Mexico to my knowledge (and undoubtedly has been, and will be, published on many other occasions), and no attempt at on-the-spot verification was made.

I leave it to yourselves, to the members of Americas Watch, and to your readers, to consider the implications of what I consider a scandalous lack of journalistic ethics.

M.S.S.
Guatemala

Aryeh Neier replies:

The Americas Watch report, “Creating a Desolation and Calling it Peace,” that was excerpted in the June 2, 1983 New York Review describes massacres in a number of rural Guatemalan villages: Kaibil Balam, the San Juan Ixcán Cooperative, Santo Tomás, Ilom, Chill, Xaxmoxán, Cagnixla, and Yabal, all in the municipality of Chajul, Department of El Quiché; and Mayalán, Centro la Esperanza, Ixcán Grande, and San Ildefonso Ixtlahuacán, Department of Huehuetenango. These descriptions were based on the accounts of refugees who had firsthand knowledge of those massacres. That is, they witnessed the slaughter, escaped, and made their way to refugee camps across the Mexican border where they were interviewed by two lawyers for the Americas Watch. We never suggested that the Guatemalan army massacred Guatemalan Indians while Americas Watch representatives themselves looked on. What was alleged to have happened to Parraxtut in the municipality of Sacapulas, Department of El Quiché in December 1982, as we made clear in our report and in the excerpt in The New York Review, is in a different category. Our representatives did not directly interview anyone who claimed to have witnessed events there. Rather, they interviewed Catholic Church officials who said they had interviewed a man from Chiul they had known for some years who claimed to have taken part in a massacre at Parraxtut. We characterized this information as “second-hand” because that is what it was as we obtained it and because that is the normal way it would be characterized. Our representatives did not have an opportunity to cross-examine the witness, as they were able to cross-examine those who told them about other massacres. Accordingly, our report repeatedly emphasized that what he published about Parraxtut was only an allegation that may or may not have been well founded. Nevertheless, we chose to publish it. Here are the reasons:

  1. No human rights organization is able to operate within Guatemala, placing it in the same category as Cuba and Uruguay (which recently banned the Catholic Church’s Peace and Justice Commission). By way of contrast, human rights groups are able to operate in such countries as Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Where a government does not allow such a group to operate, and therefore makes ongoing fact-checking impossible, it seems appropriate to us not to insist on conclusive evidence that abuses have taken place before publishing allegations. Any other approach would transform a government’s refusal to permit human rights monitoring into immunity from criticism.

  2. It is far less easy to get to Parraxtut than MSS suggests. The area was the scene at the time our report was published of much of the heaviest combat then taking place between guerrillas and the Guatemalan armed forces.

In another report MSS himself writes about the difficulties in visiting such places in rural Guatemala. He points out that he had to obtain a pass from the Zona Militar. For MSS, who had close ties to the now deposed Ríos Montt government, that might have been easy; for the Americas Watch, it would have been a far different matter. A pass would have had to be presented at every one of the many military check points in the area; not to have a pass would be to invite disaster. At that, part of the journey would have had to be made on foot.

That is the way MSS got to Parraxtut, as he notes in a longer version of the letter he sent to The New York Review. The difficulties of getting around rural Guatemala—quite aside from the danger—are illustrated by his comment in another report that Harris Whitbeck, a top aide to former president Ríos Montt, “spent three days trying to get into Finca San Francisco and Yalombojoch [site of a very well documented massacre] by helicopter.”

  1. Getting to Parraxtut would not have guaranteed that we would have been able to verify or disprove the allegations about what took place there. At least a dozen representatives of the Americas Watch have spent time in Guatemala in the last two years. We have talked to many displaced persons in the countryside, but found that unless we were able to develop relationships of trust over long periods, we were unable to get those to whom we spoke to tell us why they had fled their homes. The most people say, ordinarily, is that “the bad men” came to their villages, but they do not say who the “bad men” were.

On the other hand, when we have met with Guatemalan refugees in Mexico, they talk freely. The difference, plainly, is that those within the country are afraid of reprisals. They have no reason to have confidence in gringos who come to see them in the company of the armed forces, or travel about the country with the permission of the armed forces. Accordingly, we concluded that, under those conditions, interviewing refugees in Mexico was an appropriate way to gather human rights information on Guatemala.

  1. At about the time that our representatives heard the allegations about Parraxtut in Mexico, an anthropologist who has worked with Guatemalan Indians for a good many years did manage to reach Chiul. According to the allegation we published, it was the civil patrol at Chiul that was forced by the army to conduct the massacre at Parraxtut. The anthropologist had also heard that something had happened at Parraxtut and spoke about Parraxtut to several members of the Chiul civil patrol. They refused to answer the anthropologist’s questions but conveyed the impression that something terrible had happened at Parraxtut. On returning to the US, the anthropologist informed us of this experience, without having any way of knowing about the information our representatives had obtained in Mexico. Though hardly sufficing as proof, this report helped to persuade us to publish the allegations we heard about Parraxtut.

  2. The allegation we heard about what took place at Parraxtut was consistent in its details with much else that has recently happened in Guatemala.

MSS leaves out of his letter to The New York Review an important bit of information that appears in a longer version of his report that I have seen. In the longer version, though he continues to dispute the allegation of a massacre in December 1982, he notes that some 180 people were massacred as a result of military action in Parraxtut in March 1982. MSS’s letter to The New York Review avoids reference to this by saying “the village had been ‘tranquilo’ for the past twelve months”; the date he fixes in the longer report for the killing of some 180 people was just before that twelve-month period. We have now acquired additional information on Parraxtut that is more or less consistent with MSS’s findings.

Over the past seven months, the Americas Watch has been engaged in a more systematic investigation of the human rights situation in Guatemala than previously. Our investigation included a week-long visit to Guatemala by a four-member delegation, primarily for meetings with government officials; an eight-day tour of the refugee camps in Mexico by two investigators; and several months of field research in Guatemala by a number of people who are knowledgeable about the country and who have extensive contacts there. (We have published the results of this investigation in Guatemala: A Nation of Prisoners, 260 pages, available from the Americas Watch, 36 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036 at $10 a copy.)

In connection with that investigation, one of the persons conducting research for us managed to get to Parraxtut in October. It was a harrowing experience because, in a nearby town in the same Department, she was taken into custody by two plainclothesmen who refused to identify themselves and who took her to the local army base and interrogated her at length. Apparently, she had aroused suspicion just by walking around a town observing what was going on. The interrogation focused on whether she was gathering information for a human rights organization. Fortunately, she was eventually released without suffering physical harm.

Our researcher came away from Parraxtut believing that, though we do not yet know the full story of what took place there, the town had clearly suffered greatly from political violence. As far as she could determine, there was no massacre in that town in December 1982 and, therefore, the allegation we published in “Creating a Desolation and Calling it Peace” was incorrect. On the other hand, our researcher found that Parraxtut had suffered a number of smaller-scale massacres earlier in 1982. She was not able to establish the number of people who died in Parraxtut, but does not dispute MSS’s longer report in which he says that 180 people died there.

The point that seems to me striking about this dispute over what may have taken place at Parraxtut is that the political violence in that country has been so pervasive that even when an incorrect allegation of a massacre is published, it turns out that one or more actual massacres occurred at that very place. Perhaps that is the reason that even the Kissinger Commission was forced to conclude about Guatemala that the security forces have engaged in “brutal behavior.” The commission found—unanimously—that, “In the cities they have murdered those even suspected of dissent. In the countryside, they have at times killed indiscriminately to repress any sign of support for the guerrillas. Such actions are morally unacceptable.”

(Vice-Chairman, Americas Watch, New York City)

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