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The Truth About Rigoberta Menchú

REMHI, by contrast, was bound by no such restrictions. Although the REMHI report itself mentions only a few of the names of those responsible for the violence, its files are open. Indeed, one of the reasons proposed to explain the bishop’s murder is that he returned home to find someone seeking the project’s unpublished computer files. If so, the effort would have been to no avail. “We had already sent the sensitive material overseas,” Edgar Gutiérrez said to me. “But if people want to prosecute, REMHI will open its archives.”

Despite the government’s almost comically inept inquiry into the Bishop’s murder, most people in Guatemala believe the army was responsible. Gutiérrez agrees with this and feels that the message the army was conveying was that the truth commission, with all its restrictions on prosecution, was as far as the army was willing to go. “The army was saying the model on which the peace is based has been negotiated,” he said to me. “The truth commission was the limit. If you want to go beyond it, the punishment is death.”1

If so, the army was in for a shock. When the truth commission released its report in late February, it concluded that the “many massacres and other human-rights violations” against the Maya population between the years 1981 and 1983 constituted a deliberate state-driven policy of genocide as defined by a United Nations convention that the Guatemalan government had become party to in 1949. (It also concluded that the US had supported Guatemalan forces that had committed acts of genocide.) This essentially canceled the amnesty not just for ordinary soldiers but also for the Guatemala high command and its civilian collaborators and left them all open to future prosecution.

2.

It is not only the military that is being challenged, however. Accusations against Rigoberta herself have caused increasing consternation. In the late 1980s, the anthropologist David Stoll, who is now teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the author of a 1993 book on Guatemala, Between Two Armies: In the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, was collecting accounts of the violence in the town of Chajul, just over the mountains from the hamlet of Chimel, in which Rigoberta had been raised. Stoll asked one of his Chajul informants about Rigoberta’s account of how she and other members of her family were forced to stand silently by while her younger brother Petrocinio was tortured, doused with gasoline, and burned alive.

To his surprise, his informant—as well as several others from Chajul whom Stoll subsequently interviewed—told him that he did not remember any such event having taken place. Eventually, Stoll arrived at his own view of what he believed happened and he presents it in his recently published book Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. According to him, a group of prisoners from Rigoberta’s region (presumably including Petrocinio) were flown in by the army in a helicopter. The army dressed up the prisoners in olive-green so as to make them look like guerrilla soldiers, prodded them down a path toward Chajul, and shot them from an ambush. The soldiers then threw old shotguns next to their bodies and pointed the corpses out to residents of Chajul as an example of what would happen to guerrillas who dared defy the army. The corpses were left in the sun for several hours before one of them was burned, and they were then all buried in a common grave in the town cemetery.

Stoll went on to examine other aspects of Rigoberta’s book and soon found other claims that were not true. In her book, Rigoberta describes herself as an uneducated peasant girl. In interviews with Rigoberta’s relatives and former classmates, however, Stoll discovered that she’d spent several years at convent schools—first at the Colegio Belga in Guatemala City and then at the Colegio Básico Nuestro Señor de Candelaria in Chiantla, Huehuetenango, where she finished seventh grade—a remarkably high level of education for an Indian girl in Guatemala. Because she’d been in convent school, moreover, Stoll argues that Rigoberta can’t have been employed—as she claims to have been—as a maid for a rich family in Guatemala City, and can’t have worked in abusive conditions on coastal plantations—where she claims a younger brother Nicolás died of malnutrition. Stoll, in fact, found a living brother, Nicolás, who successfully resettled the family’s land long after the war had finished.

The central story of I, Rigoberta has to do with Rigoberta’s father’s life-long struggle to defend his community’s land against the claims of his greedy and corrupt non-Indian neighbors. In fact, by investigating petitions filed by Rigoberta’s father in the government land-claims office, Stoll discovered that Rigoberta’s father’s struggle had not been primarily against ladinos, as Guatemalans of mixed ancestries are known, but rather against another group of Maya led by his own in-laws. Stoll also discovered that, from what he could tell, the cycle of violence in Rigoberta’s region had been set off not by the army but by a guerrilla force that had assassinated two neighboring ladinos—one well-liked by his farm workers. The army then began retaliatory attacks against Rigoberta’s village because the guerrillas had visited there a few months before.

Stoll does not deny that Rigoberta’s village was destroyed and that half her family was killed, including her father, her mother, and her brother Petrocinio. But he points out that many of the other events in Rigoberta’s book are either distorted, fabricated, or claim to be eyewitness accounts of events which Rigoberta herself cannot actually have seen. The reason for all this, Stoll argues, is that after Rigoberta fled to Mexico in 1980, she allied herself with guerrilla groups there and “drastically revised the prewar experience of her village to suit the needs of the revolutionary organization she had joined.” In other words, when she wrote her book, Rigoberta was essentially serving as a propagandist.

Rigoberta herself has made it clear that she had joined popular front organizations close to the guerrillas. In 1980, after the army had killed her father, her mother, and Petrocinio (the army killed still another brother a few years later after he surrendered to prevent his three children’s starving to death), her village was attacked and destroyed and she fled to Mexico with the help of nuns. There she was eventually reunited with two of her younger sisters who had since joined the guerrillas. In early 1981, she became a member of FP-31, a guerrilla popular front organization named for the day on which her father was killed in the Spanish embassy fire.

What troubles Stoll about Rigoberta is not that she joined the guerrillas—at one point he suggests that she may have been “responding to the loss of her family by taking refuge in a new system of coherence”—but that the invented history in her book made her into what he refers to as a “composite Maya,” a propagandistic guerrilla stereotype intended to illustrate what he considers a simplistic and self-serving explanation of the violence. For the purposes of the guerrillas, he argues, all ladinos had to be evil, all the Maya had to be oppressed, and the army had to have initiated the violence. Rigoberta’s actual story—in which her father quarreled with other Maya, the guerrillas initiated the killing, and Rigoberta was safely in a convent school—would not have demonstrated any of these points and therefore wouldn’t have been useful.

It was essential to the guerrillas, Stoll argues, that they portray themselves as responding to the local needs of Indians and their desire to resist oppression; they wanted to be seen as representing popular aspirations during a time of steadily worsening economic circumstances. Stoll, however, is not at all impressed by this self-portrait. He maintains that before the violence things were getting better for the highland Maya and that what set off the killing was the very presence of the guerrillas, a presence that provoked a brutal, oppressive, and racist reaction from Guatemala’s armed forces. Stoll claims the guerrillas followed a disastrous strategy of forcing peasants to choose sides by infiltrating their movements, mobilizing them against the army, and creating the conditions for ferocious army retaliation. “Their guerrilla columns grew temporarily from village survivors who had nowhere else to turn,” Stoll writes, “but the ‘popular base’ from which they expected a steady flow of maize and youth was shattered.”

This argument presents some difficulties. Stoll doesn’t support his assertion that things were getting better for the Maya before the arrival of the guerrillas with either statistics or even anecdotal information. His view is contradicted by carefully documented studies by such historians as Susanne Jonas, who convincingly describes worsening land shortages among the Maya and an increasing dependence on underpaid seasonal Maya laborers by coastal agribusiness plantations.2 Stoll, moreover, seems to believe that because he has found evidence that the guerrillas started the violence in Rigoberta’s region, it follows that they must have started the violence everywhere. This might or might not be the case. In his book the issue is entirely unexplored.

Stoll is right, of course, to insist that the guerrillas accept their share of the responsibility for initiating the killing. But establishing who exactly started the violence is not as simple as he makes it seem. While the truth commission, for example, acknowledges the guerrilla tactic of armed provocation, it concludes that the government’s response was “totally disproportionate to the military force of the insurgency.” More important, the commission argues that the government lumped “all opponents under one banner, democratic or otherwise, pacifist or guerrilla, legal or illegal, communist or non-communist,” and knowingly exaggerated the threat posed by the guerrillas in order to justify the “physical annihilation or absolute intimidation of this opposition.”

During the dictatorship of General Fernando Romeo Lucas García between 1978 and 1982, for instance, government-sponsored death squads killed a great many trade unionists, peasant organizers, and Catholic “catechists,” or activists. For their own protection, some of the opponents of the government joined what had been, until that time, an insignificant guerrilla force. It seems clear, however, that an army that had already been assassinating its political opponents for well over a decade would not have hesitated to attack members of such opposition groups even if the guerrillas had never emerged in the countryside. Other than his account of Rigoberta’s region, Stoll presents no evidence to the contrary.

In Guatemala City I met with Frank LaRue, a prominent human rights lawyer and former labor union activist who narrowly escaped being killed in 1980 when he was late for a meeting from which twenty-seven of his colleagues were kidnapped and disappeared. “Under Lucas García,” LaRue said to me, “three hundred catechists, fourteen priests, one nun, eighty journalists, and five professors from my own law school alone were murdered. How can you say the guerrillas were responsible for this? How do you explain the army murdering them? What did they have to do with the guerrillas? The army just couldn’t abide any independent thought, that was all. They had to stamp it out.”

  1. 1

    For more on the inquiry into the Bishop’s murder, see Francisco Goldman, “Murder Comes for the Bishop,” The New Yorker, March 15, 1999.

  2. 2

    Susanne Jonas, The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and US Power (Westview, 1991).

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